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Steve Phillips

TSN Baseball Insider

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As we approach the All-Star break, each team has to take stock of where they are.

At this point in the 2021 Major League Baseball season, clubs are mostly defined as either contenders or pretenders. Sure, there are a few teams that are on the bubble as we’re now slightly past the midway point and still need to determine what they are, but for the most part teams now know whether they are in the playoff hunt or on the outside looking in. 

The Toronto Blue Jays are in third place (44-40) in the American League East, eight games behind the division-leading Boston Red Sox and only 3.5 games behind the second wild-card team, the Oakland A’s (50-39).

The Blue Jays are second in the American League in runs/game (5.21 rpg) and OPS (.784). Toronto leads the AL in home runs. They are sixth in ERA (3.97 ERA). The starting pitchers are 27-21 with a 4.01ERA (5th) while the bullpen is 17-19 with a 3.93 ERA (5th).  Defensively, the Jays are slightly better than average with four defensive runs saved (0 DRS is average.). 

The Jays have a +79 run differential, meaning they have scored 79 more runs than their opponents. The +79 run differential calculates to an expected record of 50-34 record, not their actual 44-40 record. 

So, what does this tell us?

The timing of when the Jays have scored their runs has skewed their record. They have played the fewest games decided by one run and they have not fared all that well (6-10) in those games. Interestingly, Toronto has the fewest saves (15) in the AL as well as the fewest save opportunities (25).

The Jays’ margin of victory this season is by +4.39 runs while their margin of defeat in losses is -2.9 runs. In other words, when the Jays lose, they lose close games and when they win, they win big. Statistical trends have shown that the more games that a team plays accumulating this rate of run differential, the closer they will get to their expected record. 

This is all a complicated way of saying that the Jays are better than their record indicates. If they can improve their bullpen’s performance, they will win more of the close games, while still winning the lopsided games. The Jays are still in the race to win the AL East. They have a larger win differential than the Red Sox (+61) even though Boston leads the division. 

The Jays were in a very similar position in 2015 when on the Friday before the All-Star break they sat in fourth place (44-45) with a +79 run differential. It was at that trade deadline that general manager Alex Anthopolous added ace David Price and Troy Tulowitzki. He did it because he believed his team was better than their record indicated based upon their run differential. He was right. The numbers don’t lie. 

The division is won by winning games, not by run differential, but it shows that if the Jays improve their pitching the rest of the team is playoff-worthy. 

The Jays’ front office deserves a tip of the cap for improving their bullpen lately. They have added two quality relievers via trades. Right-handed reliever Adam Cimber came over from the Miami Marlins along with left-hand hitting outfielder Corey Dickerson late last month, and just this week the Jays added righty Trevor Richards from the Milwaukee Brewers. 

The deal with the Brewers was a pure baseball trade. It wasn’t about money, just talent. It was each team reconfiguring the talent on their roster.

First baseman/DH Rowdy Tellez became expendable with the depth the Jays have in the outfield and the production they have gotten from Randall Grichuk. The addition of Dickerson gave the Jays a veteran left-handed bat and it made Tellez strictly depth at this point. So, the Jays traded from an area of surplus and found a match in Milwaukee. The Brewers desperately needed an upgrade at first base and had depth in their bullpen, which is one of the best in the game. 

Toronto general manager Ross Atkins has been able to make deals when nobody else is doing anything. He has gained an extra months-worth of performance rather than waiting until the July 31 trade deadline to make deals. By preemptively addressing his bullpen needs, it allows him to focus on the starting rotation market now. 

Some names of the starters the Jays will consider in the trade market include: Matthew Boyd (Detroit Tigers), Tyler Anderson (Pittsburgh Pirates), Kyle Gibson (Texas Rangers), Jon Gray (Colorado Rockies), Kyle Freeland (Rockies), Zach Davies (Chicago Cubs), JA Happ (Minnesota Twins) and Danny Duffy (Kansas City Royals).  

Rest assured, the Jays will be analyzing how any potential acquisition has been affected by the enforcement of the foreign substance rules. We have seen spin rates in the majors plummet after the league announced last month it would prohibit pitchers from applying foreign substances to baseballs and enforce regular checks on all pitchers.

Teams need to make sure they know who they are getting in any trade and how that pitcher may or may not have been affected by the enforcement of the rules. Every team is having to reassess their own staffs, too. The pitchers they thought they had may not perform in the same way now since they can no longer doctor baseballs in a bid to increase spin of the ball, which made hitting pitches much more difficult.

Cole finds himself in a sticky situation

I am sure that New York Yankees general manager Brian Cashman is very concerned about his ace Gerrit Cole. The Yankees gave Cole a nine-year, $324 million contract before the 2020 season. The 30-year-old pitched to a 4.65 ERA in June and has allowed 9 earned runs in his last 8.1 innings pitched. His spin rates have dropped significantly, adding anecdotal evidence to the non-admission admission he gave during a press conference in early June about whether he used Spider Tack. 

Cole started his career with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He was a good pitcher for them. He went 59-42 with a 3.50 ERA. He was then traded to the Astros where he went 35-10 with a 2.68 ERA. His strikeout rate jumped from 8.4/9IP to 13.1/9IP in Houston. 

If we are to believe Trevor Bauer, the Astros as a team were allegedly using foreign substances which added spin rate and made pitches more effective. There certainly does seem to be some evidence that points in that direction when evaluating Cole’s performance which spiked significantly in Houston. 

In 2020, his first season with the Yankees, he went 7-3 with a 2.84 ERA and struck out 11.6/9IP. Since the beginning of June, Cole’s strikeout rate is 9.96/9IP. It appears that he is slipping back to the pitcher he was in Pittsburgh from 2013-17. He was certainly good then, but not an elite performer. It is still too soon to formulate a definitive opinion about what Cole will be moving forward, but it is certainly a cause for concern. Cole is an extreme example but it highlights what every team now faces to some degree.  

Spitting Seeds

-Monday night’s Home Run Derby contestants have been finalized and it is going to be a terrific event at Coors Field in Denver. Los Angeles Angels two-way superstar Shohei Ohtani is the No. 1 seed as he leads MLB in home runs (32). The competitors are Joey Gallo (No. 2 seed), Matt Olson (third seed), Salvador Perez (fourth), Pete Alonso (fifth), Trey Mancini (sixth), Trevor Story (seventh) and Juan Soto (No. 8 seed). I am picking Ohtani to win it all. He has hit the longest home run among the contestants as well as the hardest-hit home run. Seems like a good combination to me. 

-The best pitcher in baseball, New York Mets starter Jacob deGrom, has said that he’s not going to Denver to be part of the All-Star Game festivities. He has had a number of nagging injuries in the first half of the 2021 season and wants to take the time to heal his body and rest for the second half. I understand that he has been an All-Star before and has pitched in an All-Star game and that he is very important to the Mets. But I still wish he would go to Denver as his presence reinforces the importance of this showcase event. 

-The All-Star Futures Game will be played on Sunday and is worthy of viewing. Every year the best prospects in baseball play in this showcase event: Fernando Tatis Jr., Ronald Acuna Jr., Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Wander Franco have all appeared in the game at one point. The next wave of premium talent will be on full display. I am anxious to see Baltimore Orioles catching prospect Adley Rutschman, Tigers 3B/1B Spencer Torkelson, Yankees outfielder Jasson Dominguez, Seattle Mariners outfield prospect Julio Rodriguez,  Blue Jays shortstop Austin Martin and St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Matthew Liberatore. These guys will all be playing in the MLB All-Star Game at some point in their careers, I believe.

First Half Awards

AL Rookie of the Year:  Adolis Garcia, Texas Rangers

NL Rookie of the Year:  Trevor Rogers, Miami Marlins

 

AL Comeback Player:  Trey Mancini, Baltimore Orioles

NL Comeback Player:  Kris Bryant, Chicago Cubs

 

AL Manager of the Year:  Alex Cora, Boston Red Sox

NL Manager of the Year:  Gabe Kapler, San Francisco Giants

 

AL Cy Young:  Lance Lynn, Chicago White Sox

NL Cy Young:  Jacob deGrom, New York Mets

 

AL MVP:  Shohei Ohtani, Los Angeles Angels

NL MVP:  Fernando Tatis Jr., San Diego Padres