For red-hot Blue Jays, first place and long win streak is no fluke
On Thursday night, the Blue Jays downed the Athletics, 4–2, for their 11th straight victory, putting them in a three-way tie for the longest winning streak in the majors this year with the Mets, who won 11 straight from April 12 to 23, and themselves. Yes, the Blue Jays, who previously won 11 straight in early June, have assembled two 11-game winning streaks, becoming the first major league team to do so since the 1954 Indians, a team that won 111 games and posted the highest winning percentage (.721) in American League history. What’s most remarkable about Toronto's current streak, however, is that seven of those 11 wins game against the very teams the Jays needed to beat to move into a playoff position.
Before their streak started, on the morning of Aug. 2, the Jays were two games out of a wild-card spot in the AL and five games out of first place in the AL East. With the help of a four-game sweep of the Twins and a three-game sweep of the Yankees last week, however, they climbed over both teams and now boast a record five games better than the third-place team in the wild card and a half-game better than New York, which arrived in Toronto on Friday for a three-game rematch against the first-place Jays.
Toronto's current hot streak actually stretches back over its last 15 games, with the start coinciding exactly with the arrival of All-Star shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, the first of several key acquisitions the team made before the non-waiver trading deadline. The Jays are 14–1 since Tulowitzki’s arrival on July 29 and undefeated in the 13 games he has started for them since his acquisition. That’s hardly all his doing, however. Though he got off on the right foot as a Blue Jay, going 3-for-5 with two doubles and a homer in his debut and homering three times in his first ten starts with the team, his aggregate line with the Jays is an underwhelming .231/.355/.442.
Still, that line represents a significant upgrade over what the Jays had been getting from the man Tulowitzki replaced, Jose Reyes, who had hit .285/.322/.385 prior to being traded. Still, the biggest change in the Jays over their last 15 games hasn’t been their run scoring ability—they had the most productive offense in baseball even before Tulowitzki arrived. It has been their run preventing ability.
Prior to their last 15 games, the Blue Jays had scored a major league-best 5.3 runs per game on the season. Over the last 15 games, they have scored 5.7 runs per game—an increase to be sure, but not a dramatic one given that we’re talking about a 14–1 run. Before these last 15 games, they had allowed 4.3 runs per game, but over the last 15, they have allowed just 2.6 runs per game. Put another way: Their run scoring over the last 15 games has been 8% better than their previous season average, but their run prevention has been 40% better.
David Price, who dominated the Twins and Yankees in his first two starts as a Blue Jay and will start against New York again on Friday night, has certainly played a part in that improved run prevention, but he has impacted just two of those 15 games. Arguably as significant as Price have been the additions to the bullpen of 42-year-old LaTroy Hawkins, acquired in the Tulowitzki deal, and 23-year-old rookie Aaron Sanchez, re-purposed as a reliever upon returning from the disabled list on July 25. Here is how Hawkins and Sanchez measure up to Price over the last 15 games. (Note: The games total for Hawkins and Sanchez reflects how many of Toronto’s last 15 games have featured either pitcher, not the total of their individual appearances.)
|Hawkins + Sanchez||12||13 1/3||6||1||1||12|
Indeed, for all of the attention given the Tulowitzki and Price acquisitions, the Jays also did an impressive job of improving both their bullpen and their defense at the break. With regards to the latter, Tulowitzki and leftfielder Ben Revere are both significant upgrades in the field over the men they replaced (Reyes and Danny Valencia, since claimed off waivers by the A’s, and Chris Colabello, now properly a designated hitter and first baseman). Also, while losing Rookie of the Year candidate Devon Travis to the disabled list yet again is certainly frustrating, his injury forced the Jays into yet another defensive upgrade at second base, as Ryan Goins is an exceptional fielder there.
Meanwhile, the bullpen has gone from being arguably the team’s biggest weaknesses to a strength. Sanchez, Hawkins and fellow deadline acquisition Mark Lowe—who has thrown 2 1/3 perfect innings since taking Toronto's only loss in the last 15 games in his Jays debut—are setting up rookie closer Roberto Osuna, who has converted all ten of his save opportunities since ascending to that role. That's taken the pressure off former All-Star lefty Brett Cecil, who has excelled since losing the closer job for the second time in mid June, and 26-year-old righty Liam Hendriks, a converted starter who has dominated in relief this season,
Meanwhile, the veterans in the rotation have been doing their part. Mark Buehrle hasn’t allowed more than three earned runs in a game since the end of May, going 7–1 with a 2.16 ERA in his last 13 turns and falling one out shy of every one of those starts being quality. R.A. Dickey has turned in seven consecutive quality starts of his own, his longest such streak in a single season since he won the Cy Young in 2012, posting a 2.35 ERA over that span. Marco Estrada has been less consistent, but still has a 2.24 ERA over his last ten starts, with just two of those outings being significantly sub-par. All three have benefited from significant luck on balls in play over those respective hot streaks, but with the improvements to the Jays’ defense, the coming correction might not be as dramatic as it otherwise would have been.
No team can sustain a 14–1 pace, but the post-deadline Blue Jays are legitimately one of baseball’s best teams. Even taking the entire season into account, they have the best run differential in baseball (+140), the second-best Pythagorean winning percentage (.620, behind only the Cardinals’ .630) and the third-best third-order winning percentage (.582, behind the Dodgers’ .597 and right behind the Astros’ .583). They’ve ranked near the top in all of those categories all season, but were undermined by a brutal record in one-run games (10–22 prior to the last 15 games), something the improvement in their bullpen should help correct (they’re 2–1 in one-run games since).
Three weeks ago, I wrote that the Blue Jays were the one team in the American League East that had a chance to catch the Yankees, who at that point had built a 5 1/2-game lead, but that they’d need to make improvements to their pitching staff to do it. They made those improvements, plus significant others, and caught New York much faster than anyone could have expected. This weekend, they have a chance to build up a lead in the division by extending their streak. With home-field advantage and Price on the mound on Friday night, I fully expect they’ll do just that.