Blue Jays fall out of first place in AL East and into horrid slump
The past week was a costly one for the Blue Jays. Swept in a four-game series in Oakland, they fell out of first place in the AL East, then dropped the first game of their three-game set in Anaheim. Worse, Edwin Encarnacion left Saturday's contest with a right quad strain, and on Monday was placed on the disabled list. After spending the past month looking like the team to beat in a disheveled division, suddenly, the 47-44 Jays look very vulnerable.
In truth, Toronto’s fall from first has been weeks in the making. The Jays claimed the catbird seat of the underwhelming AL East back on May 22, amid a nine-game winning streak. Thanks to a 20-4 run, they ran their record to 38-24 through June 6, building a six-game lead on the rest of the pack and coming within half a game of the Athletics for the best record in the league. Since then, however, they're just 9-20, for the league's second-worst record — worse than the Astros (10-19) and better only than the Rangers (7-21). Meanwhile, the Orioles have gone 19-11 in that span, gaining 9 1/2 games on the Blue Jays; they're now first in the East by three games.
The Jays’ fall from first has been almost entirely attributable to the decline of their offense:
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The team’s run prevention has been fairly stable, but they've hit just .234/.298/.364 over the past 29 games, and their scoring has fallen by a whopping 1.78 runs per game. Just three of their regulars produced an OPS above .700 in that span, and the gap between Encarnacion (.289/.384/.557) and the other two — Melky Cabrera (.292/.347/.398) and Adam Lind (.284/.324/.388) — is massive. Jose Bautista, neck-and-neck with Encarnacion for the title of the team's most productive hitter overall, has hit just .221/.322/.377 with two homers in the past 29 games; those came in his first two starts after missing six games in late June due to a right hamstring strain, and not coincidentally, they're the only ones the Jays have won out of their past 10. His hamstring isn’t fully healed; since Encarnacion went down, he’s shifted to first base, a position where he last started in 2010, and where he had just nine innings of playing time over the past three seasons.
The 31-year-old Encarnacion earned All-Star honors by hitting .277/.368/.591 overall, ranks fourth in the league in slugging percentage and OPS+ (158), and third with 26 homers. But he'll miss the next two to four weeks due to his quad strain, and without him, the already-struggling offense looks particularly threadbare. That's especially true given that he's one of just three Toronto full-timers providing above-average production, joined by Bautista (.293/.414/.517, 154 OPS+) and the resurgent Cabrera (.301/.346/.462, 120 OPS+).
Lefties Lind (.320/.389/.489, 139 OPS+) and Juan Francisco (.237/.311/.521, 124 OPS+) have been productive, but both sit against southpaws, against whom they're a combined 4-for-56 this year. Righty Steve Tolleson, who in the absence of the injured Brett Lawrie has become Francisco's platoon partner at third base, has produced a 109 OPS+ through 106 plate appearances, but he's a career .234/.296/.393 hitter who's likely to fall off given enough exposure. That said, he and Encarnacion are the only Jays who have done any kind of damage against lefties during the month-long slide; the team has "hit" a pathetic .151/.233/.228 against southpaws over that span, with Francisco and Lind a combined 0-for-17 and Bautista just 1-for-13.
Lawrie, who has been out since June 23 due to a broken right index finger, may not be back until August given the 3-to-6 week timeline of his injury, but he was hitting just .244/.299/.419 before he went down, one of three regulars with an on-base percentage below .300. Colby Rasmus (.267) and Dioner Navarro (.297) are the others, and leadoff hitter Jose Reyes — who has hit .258/.313/.394 overall — hasn't been a whole lot better. While the Blue Jays rank fourth in the league with a .325 on-base percentage, that figure is propped up by Bautista and Encarnacion; the rest of the roster is at .305, a figure that would rank second-to-last in the AL.
As it was before their slump, the Blue Jays' starting pitching has been uneven, but rookie Marcus Stroman has been a godsend. Since entering the rotation on May 31, he's delivered a 2.08 ERA with six quality starts out of seven, offsetting the struggles of J.A. Happ and the inevitable regression of Mark Buehrle. Including Stroman, the team has four starters preventing runs at a better-than-average clip, though Buehrle (160 ERA+, 2.60 ERA, 3.74 FIP) and R.A. Dickey (101 ERA+, 4.10 ERA, 4.68 FIP) have outperformed their peripherals by a wide margin. Drew Hutchison (108 ERA+, 3.86 ERA, 3.73 FIP) has been a pleasant surprise, with Happ (88 ERA+, 4.72 ERA, 4.29 FIP) the laggard.
A replacement for Happ by the trading deadline would appear to be one item on the agenda, particularly with Aaron Sanchez — the team's other top pitching prospect besides Stroman coming into the year — walking 5.4 per nine at Double-A and Triple-A due to inconsistent fastball command borne of significant mechanical woes that need addressing if he's to approach his ceiling. Help for the bullpen — which ranks second-to-last in the AL in strikeout-to-walk ratio (2.0), 12th in ERA (4.30) and 10th in rate of allowing inherited runners to score (28 percent) — is also in order. So is a right-handed bat, particularly one that can provide an upgrade at either second or third, though they wouldn't turn their noses up at switch-hitting Ben Zobrist if the Rays made him available and were willing to make an intradivision deal.
Even amid their recent woes, the Blue Jays are just three games out of both the division lead and a Wild Card spot. The Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds Report estimates their shot at the postseason at 36.2 percent. They'll need to arrest this slide, though, which won't be easy. Not only are they 0-5 with six runs scored to start their 10-game road trip, but their next five games — two against the Angels, three against the streaking Rays — also feature a trio of lefties in Tyler Skaggs, C.J. Wilson and David Price. Overcoming them would be a whole lot easier with Encarnacion than without, but at the moment, they’ll have to make do.