Stop me if you’ve heard this before: solid preseason favourite gets off to tough start, fans panic.
If it sounds familiar it’s because it should. Every year, in every sport, at least one of the supposed contenders seems to hit the skids immediately. Last season, preseason darlings Houston, Arizona, and the Mets combined for a 9-19 start, with each club sitting in last place in mid-April. In 2015 the same thing happened to the Yankees, National, Pirates, and Giants, as they combined for a 12-25 record.
The only difference this season is that it’s the Blue Jays who are stinking up the league. At 1-7 they are off to the worst start in franchise history. But this is a team that isn’t far removed from having solid World Series odds by bookmakers, and being a trendy playoff pick by sports sites. So what happened?
The easy answer is that the team is simply not hitting. And that’s true. The Jays are dead last in the AL in runs scored with only 23 in 8 games. They sit dead last with a .190 average, second last with a .272 OBP, and dead last with a .276 slugging percentage. A team that seemingly lives and dies with the long ball has hit only 4 HR so far, or less than the Orioles hit in the first two innings alone last night. Toronto is averaging just over 6 hits per game, and has only tallied 15 extra base hits all season. They also have 0 stolen bases and are hitting a dismal .143 with runners in scoring position.
In short, the bats are cold. Ice cold.
But trust me: things aren’t as bad as they seem. It struck me yesterday how unlucky the team has been. We have seen Tulo hit ropes that find gloves. We have seen Morales crush line drives that are knocked down by diving infielders. Bautista has hit the ball very hard only to have it travel directly at an outfielder. Meanwhile we watched Ray and Brewer hitters find holes with little dribblers, and hit flares that just drop in. In fact, an inch or two here and there and it’s not inconceivable that the Jays could be 7-1 instead of 1-7.
The data backs this up as well. According Fangraphs, the Jays are in the middle of the pack in both line drive percentage (9th at 19.9%) and hard hit ball percentage (8th at 30.5%). They also rank in the middle of the pack in both strikeout and walk percentage. This tells us that aren’t striking out a ton, still reaching base, and aren’t simply hitting weak ground balls and pop-ups. In fact, the two teams with profiles most similar to Toronto’s are the A’s and Yankees, each of whom are .500 or better. This simply isn’t the profile of a 1-7 squad.
There’s always the possibility that every single one of Toronto’s veterans (Bautista, Tulowitzki, Morales, Martin, Pearce) have started to suddenly and sharply decline at exactly the same time. But more likely is that players are battling both bad luck and bad starts. With track records like these guys have, it should only be a matter of time until balls start finding holes.
And as a Jays fan if it makes you feel any better, they are asking the same questions in Boston, Cleveland, Kansas City, Seattle, Texas, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis, where those preseason contenders are a combined 21-38.
Look, with 4.9% of the schedule played, Jays have played the equivalent of 0.79 games of an NFL schedule and 4 games of an NHL schedule. Nobody wrote off the Falcons or Cowboys when they started 0-1, or the Ducks (0-3-1) or Flames (1-2-1) for their slow starts.
If the Blue Jays are still sporting a sub-.200 winning percentage in mid-May, then we can worry.
But on April 13th?
Forget about it.