Columnist image

TSN Baseball Insider


The Toronto Blue Jays are 16-11 even though they are just eighth in runs scored in the American League and have been outscored by their opponents by eight runs. The key to their success has been a strong record (10-4) in one-run games.

Toronto’s offence is not producing at the level that most people expected. The Jays are 20th in runs per game this season after ranking third in all of baseball last year.

The biggest difference so far this season is the team’s inability to deliver with runners in scoring position. In 2021, the Jays hit .270/.342/.469 with runners in scoring position. This season they are hitting a measly .168/.241/.292. They are ranked dead last. It’s true that offence is down across the board, but that is not an explanation for the Jays’ struggles. They still have a much better offensive lineup than just about every other club.

If I was running the Jays, I would have meetings with manager Charlie Montoyo and the entire coaching staff to discuss the struggles. I would want their perspective on what the issues might be. Then we would put together a strategy to speak to the players.

When an entire lineup is scuffling, it is almost always about the hitters trying too hard. When hitters feel like they have to get a hit or else, it compounds the problem. Making the struggle a big deal in meetings and around the batting cage can make it feel even bigger. The more players feel the pressures of the coaches, the more uptight they can get. When hitters don’t hit, it isn’t because they are not trying. Trying harder makes things worse.

Hitting slumps are often contagious, just like hot streaks can be. The energy a hitter gives off after an at-bat can affect the rest of the lineup. Anger and frustration from one hitter can make another hitter feel more pressure to deliver. If he fails, the next guy feels the negativity of his two predecessors in the lineup.

When a hitter is struggling, he needs to relax. He need to be intense without being tense, almost a relaxed concentration, which is so much easier said than done. It may take a bloop base hit to turn things around. One hitter getting hot and changing his energy can help the guys in the lineup around him.

The Blue Jays are going to hit. They are going to score more when Teoscar Hernandez returns to the lineup from his oblique injury. His return may be exactly what the lineup needs. There is a rhythm and flow to an offence ­– hitters feed off the others in the lineup. With Hernandez back, the rest of the lineup can return to their normal spots where they don’t feel like they have to do more to make up for his absence. 

Manoah and Gausman a dynamic one-two punch

Alek Manoah continues to dominate lineups. He hasn’t pitched a full MLB season yet, as he was called up on May 27, 2021. Manoah has started 25 games and is 13-2 with a 2.84 ERA. He has only allowed 95 hits over 142.2 innings while striking out 159. Fourteen of his 25 starts have come against playoff teams from last season. He has delivered 16 quality starts (six or more innings allowing three or fewer runs). He is making it look easy and his numbers scream ace. Manoah is pitching like a No. 1 starter.

There is no sophomore jinx for Manoah and there is a good reason why. Young players often struggle in their second season because opponents have scouting reports and adjust to their success. Manoah and pitching coach Pete Walker anticipated that, and have done an excellent job developing his changeup, tightening his slider, refining his delivery, and adjusting his pitch sequencing so that he looks and feels different than last season. Manoah is staying ahead of the curve and improving under the tutelage of Walker.

Kevin Gausman has also emerged as a legitimate No. 1 starter. He has done things that no one else has done since Cy Young in 1906. Gausman is the first pitcher since Young to not have walked a batter or given up a homer in his first five starts in a season. In fact, Gausman has struck out 41 batters without a single base on balls.

He pounds the strike zone with his pitches, throwing 74 per cent first-pitch strikes. The major league average is 60.7 per cent. He continuously works ahead in the count, which allows him to expand the strike zone later in the at-bat. That is where his splitter comes into play. When opposing batters swing at Gausman’s splitter they miss an incredible 51 per cent of the time.

There were reports that Gausman was tipping pitches in the second half of last season. I watched Gausman throw a bullpen session this spring and could tell when he was throwing his fastball and his split. If I could see it, I’m sure hitters would be able to as well. I asked Walker about it, and he said that was the exact thing they were working on and discussing during the session. They’ve cleaned it up and there is no longer any difference in Gausman’s delivery, regardless of the pitch. His fastball is explosive and his split looks like the fastball out of his hand before it drops off a table. At times the pitch is unhittable. The league is hitting only .125 on his split.

Manoah and Gausman make a dynamic one-two punch in the rotation. Jose Berrios has had some good outings and a couple not so good, but he will settle in. Yusei Kikuchi has shown progress, particularly in his last start against the Yankees. I loved to hear how supported he has felt by the Jays coaching staff and his teammates while he struggled. One of the challenges Kikuchi had in Seattle is that he didn’t feel supported by the coaching staff. Adjustments sometimes take time to sink in. It looks like the lefty is figuring things out. 

Spitting Seeds

- The Commissioner’s Office needs to suspend umpire Dan Bellino. He was the first base umpire in the Diamondbacks-Marlins game on Wednesday afternoon. After the top of the first inning, he was charged with checking the pitching hand of Arizona starter Madison Bumgarner for a foreign substance. Bellino took his time during the check, continually touching the lefty starter’s hand but never looking at it. Instead, he stared down Bumgarner, daring him to look up and say something. Bellino was provoking Bumgarner because he didn’t like how the veteran pitcher treated the rookie home plate umpire when Bumgarner thought he missed a pitch on the outside corner of the plate. Bellino’s tactic worked as Bumgarner couldn’t help but say something. Bellino ejected him from the game. It was a complete provocation by the umpire. It was entrapment.

Amazingly, Arizona won the game 8-7 despite their ace being ejected after the first inning.  The umpire was inappropriate and needs to be disciplined – and that penalty needs to be announced. When players and managers are suspended and fined there is a press release. There needs to be the same transparency and accountability for umpires.

- The Cincinnati  Reds are 3-22. They are on pace for a 19-143 record, and things will likely get worse. They just placed first baseman Joey Votto and outfielders Tyler Naquin and Nick Senzel on the COVID-19 injured list. Ace pitcher Luis Castillo is due back soon, but I expect he will be traded to further the rebuilding process. The Reds could go down in history as the worst team ever. 

- I have hope in humanity after watching the gentleman in outfield in Toronto on Tuesday night hand an Aaron Judge home run ball to a young man in a Yankees’ Judge jersey. It was a sweet and genuine gesture. The tears from the boy spoke volumes about the gratitude he felt. The video of the moment has gone viral, and the subsequent attention has been even better. The fact that the young boy got to meet Judge the next day was so cool.

The humility of the Blue Jays fan, Mike Lanzillotta, who gave the ball to the young man is inspiring.  In a world where everyone seems to focus on what is different between people here was man who loves baseball who found a boy and a dad with a similar love. Lanzillotta focused on that love of the game and not the fact that they were rooting for different teams. Because of that, we all got to share an amazing moment with them.