With about 20 games remaining on most teams’ regular season schedules, the American League playoff race is warming to a boil.
Seven teams not leading a division have at least 74 wins, with the American League East’s Toronto Blue Jays and Baltimore Orioles occupying the two wild-card spots. Five teams trail them by fewer than five games.
The AL story lines are overflowing:
*The Kansas City Royals were left for dead in June and August, only to watch Ned Yost take a defibrillator to his lineup and resurrect them.
*The Houston Astros went 7-17 in April, then hopped aboard a Jose Altuve train back to relevancy.
*The New York Yankees have a new crop of Baby Bombers ready to contribute historically notable numbers.
Like Houston, Toronto largely underachieved early in the season, yet it has found a way back to the thick of the playoff picture. As of mid-May, John Gibbons’s group had around a 25 percent chance of qualifying for the postseason. That number had spiked nearly 50 points Sunday.
Baseball Prospectus gives the Blue Jays a 62.8 percent chance of earning one of the two wild cards, the best odds of any American League team. FiveThirtyEight’s projection model assigns Toronto a 72 percent likelihood of sticking around come playoff time, also the best odds of any non-division-leading AL club.
While Toronto has better than coin-flip probability of earning a coveted seat at the playoff table, there are three things the team needs to do to get back to the postseason for the second straight season —something the Blue Jays haven’t accomplished since 1993.
Start making contact at the plate
Jose Bautista hit the most significant home run Toronto had seen since the early 1990s.
That the go-ahead hit came as a home run was hardly shocking: Toronto has ranked in the top six in home runs each season since 2008, leading the league twice over that stretch. While a surplus of long balls is important for run production, it often yields an undesirable byproduct: enough strikeouts to fill Lake Ontario. There’s a reason why long-ball maestros Reggie Jackson, Sammy Sosa and Jim Thome can be found in both the 500-home run club and the list of most career strikeouts in league history. And why Baltimore’s Chris Davis ranks in the top six in both home runs and strikeout rate this year.
That wasn’t the case last season for Toronto, who, despite leading the league in home runs, had the fifth-lowest strikeout rate (18.5 percent) of any team. This season, though, that figure has risen 3.5 percentage points; only seven teams strikeout more frequently than Toronto. This has been made no more apparent than this month — Toronto’s 23.9 percent strikeout rate ranks sixth.
The influx of strikeouts has led a decrease in run production in September. This is problematic for a team that ranks third in the American League in scoring (4.84 runs per contest).
Something is different about Toronto’s bats this season. The Blue Jays ranked outside the top eight in hard-contact rate each of the last four seasons, but currently sit in fifth. When Gibbons’s lineup makes contact, it pays dividends. When it doesn’t, the team flounders.
The starting rotation must find its groove
Behind Aaron Sanchez, Marcus Stroman and J.A. Happ, Toronto has its best starting rotation since 2008. But untimely injuries, including the re-emergence of a blister on Sanchez’s middle finger, and recent shaky performances have changed the team’s outlook considerably.
Since the calendar flipped to September, Toronto’s starting pitchers rank 22nd in starting pitcher Wins Above Replacement, 21st in xFIP and 28th in ERA. This is a starting rotation that ranks fifth, ninth and fifth, respectively, in the aforementioned metrics overall this season.
|Toronto starting pitchers|
“We’ve hit a little bump as far as the starters go, but we really haven’t had that all year,” Gibbons told the Toronto Star. “I think that’ll correct.”
What separates Toronto from Baltimore, for many analysts, is starting pitching. After all, the Orioles rank in the bottom 10 in a number of pivotal pitching metrics. But if Toronto’s starting rotation can’t deliver the way it has throughout this season — picking up the slack when the bats go quiet — the team loses a critical advantage over the wild-card contenders.
Take advantage of the remaining schedule
Toronto may have fewer remaining home games than Baltimore — and seven more West Coast games, but it will play easier competition than the Orioles, Yankees and Red Sox.
The Blue Jays host the hapless Tampa Bay Rays this week, one of the league’s worst road teams (25-43), and play a four-game set against the Angels, one of four American League teams with fewer than 65 wins.
Boston, meanwhile, plays an arduous stretch of AL East opponents.
New York has a date with Clayton Kershaw, one of the best pitchers in baseball, and has road trips left against Boston, Tampa Bay and Toronto, before wrapping up the season with home games against Boston and Baltimore.
Toronto is expected to win 11 of its remaining 19 games, fewer than Boston but more than Baltimore, Detroit, New York, Seattle and Houston.
|2016 Projected Rest of Season, according to Fangraphs||W%|
Josh Planos has been published at the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, the Guardian, the Pacific Standard and VICE, among other publications. He has been heard on CBS Sports Radio, Fox Sports Radio and ESPN Radio. Planos is currently a Digital Editor at KETV NewsWatch 7 and a freelance writer.