Right now the Yankees sit three and a half games ahead of the Blue Jays, but that was just two games a week ago. Unfortunately for the Jays they ran into the first place Rays this week while the Yankees beat up on the Orioles (though Toronto did sweep Baltimore themselves last weekend). This is the second straight tough series for the Jays, and the first time they’ll face the Yanks this season.
I don’t think anyone expected the Jays to be playing this well at this point in the season. Yet looking at their numbers, it appears they’re at least somewhat legit. They rank near the top of the league in hitting and pitching, but just can’t back that up with defense. Imagine what this would look like if they had adequate players in the field? The AL East might be an even tighter race.
On the offensive side, the Jays have impressed with their power. They lead the AL in SLG by a decent margin, 12 points. That will create an interesting matchup on Sunday, when Javy Vazquez, homer prone even on his best day, takes the mound. Beyond power, their offense doesn’t have much of which to speak. Their .248 BA ranks 10th in the AL, and their .312 team OBP ranks 13th, a point below the Mariners.
The real surprise this season has been Jose Bautista. He did reach a career high last year with a .339 wOBA, but that’s just a tick above league average. This year he has destroyed the ball, a .404 wOBA that includes 16 home runs and 12 doubles. He even has a .370 OBP to go with it, thanks to his 15.2 percent walk rate. He’s a huge reason that they’ve been able to cover for one of the worst No. 2 hitters in the league, as well as a disappointing No. 3 hitter.
In terms of their arms, the Jays rank near the top of the league, which is a scary prospect for the future of the AL East. Shaun Marcum has come back stronger than ever after Tommy John surgery, Ricky Romero has made vast strides in his second year, as has Brett Cecil. If Brandon Morrow ever learns to throw strikes that rotation could be one of the strongest in baseball, and they still have a number of high profile guys on the farm.
The deficiency, as the table shows, comes from the fielding. As the table shows, the Jays pitchers have done a good job in terms of strikeouts, walks, and home runs, but on balls in play they’re not quite as strong. That shows up not just in their UZR, but also in their defensive rank vs. their pitching rank. If they had better fielders, perhaps they’d be even higher in the AL East right now.
I was afraid this was going to happen. When the Jays drafted Cecil he was a college closer. They decided to see if he could stretch out and provide some more value, and that’s exactly what he’s done. It was a rough transition last year, and if not for injuries and a little ineffectiveness in the rotation he would have spent more time at AAA. One bad start has marred his stats, a two-inning, eight-run performance against Texas on May 14. Since then he has started three games, pitching 21.2 innings and allowing just four runs. He’s not a groundball guy per se but can get one when he needs one. e also has excellent control, a BB/9 of just 2.17.
Cecil throws fastball, changeup, slider, with an occasional curveball. The fastball clocks low 90s but he has thrown it only 52.3 percent of the time. He goes to the changeup often, and he’s used it as an effective out pitch this year.
We know the story with Burnett this year: more groundballs, fewer walks. That has led to fewer strikeouts, but that could be more because of his there-today-gone-tomorrow curveball. Even with the lower strikeout total he’s been a far more effective pitcher this year, mainly because he has used at two-seam fastball to play off his four-seamer, especially when his big curveball isn’t working.
Saturday: Andy Pettitte (2.48 ERA, 3.71 FIP) vs. Ricky Romero (3.14 ERA, 2.77 FIP)
This is going to be a tough one for the Yankees. Pettitte has done a great job of keeping the ball in the ballpark this year, which should play to his advantage against the powerful Blue Jays. If he can get them to keep pounding the ball into the ground he should stay in good shape. He’ll need to be at his best, because the Yankees will face one of the hottest, if not best, pitchers they’ve seen all year.
Romero profiles much like Cecil, in that he throws a low 90s fastball. Also like Cecil, he doesn’t rely on it, throwing it just 40.5 percent of the time. He mixes that with a cut fastball at nearly the same speed, and throws that 12.7 percent, so right there he’s around Cecil’s fastball percentage. Furthering the similarity, Romero uses his changeup more than any other secondary pitch. He’ll throw the curveball sometimes, and the slider the least frequently, though when he does throw it he sees results.
As if that weren’t enough, Romero also combines two excellent traits for a pitcher: strikeouts and ground balls. He has struck out more than a batter per inning this year while keeping 56.9 percent of balls in play on the ground. That helps him keep the ball in the park and prevent the other team from getting the big hit. It has worked wonderfully for him so far.
Sunday: Javier Vazquez (6.06 ERA, 5.53 FIP) vs. Brandon Morrow (6.00 ERA, 3.93 FIP)
Someone’s defense apparently doesn’t like him. Then again, maybe it’s just that his walks have come back to bite him far worse than other pitchers. Brandon Morrow came to the Jays from the Mariners in the post Halladay-Lee deals. Picked ahead of Tim Lincecum in the 2006 draft, Morrow was something of a disappointment for the Mariners. For the Jays it looks like he could become yet another excellent cog in the rotation.
Yes, part of Morrow’s inflated ERA is his .350 BABIP. That comes from a 23.6 line drive rate, so clearly some of that is his fault. His fielders apparently aren’t helping out either. Morrow also suffers from a low strand rate, 64.4 percent, meaning that his walks, 5.37 per nine, haunt him more than other pitchers. Really, the walks are his biggest problem. That should play well with the Yanks, but if Morrow can improve on that one aspect of his game, well, I’d like to not think about that.
Morrow has more heat than Cecil and Romero, so he uses the fastball more frequently, 63.3 percent. That’s actually less frequently than in seasons past. He has started using his curveball more frequently, and it has proven an effective out pitch. He also throws a good slider, and mixes in the occasional changeup.