Is Toronto the real deal?
That was a popular refrain among analysts this spring, myself included. One fifth of the way through the 2009 season, two of the three best records in baseball belong to teams from the AL East, but the Yankees and defending AL champion Rays are not among them. Instead, the team with the best record in the American League is the Toronto Blue Jays, a club that almost no one picked to finish better than fourth in its division.
What's most impressive about what the Blue Jays have accomplished is that they've done it despite the fact that their starting rotation, which was the best in baseball a year ago, has been decimated by injuries and the high-profile departure of 18-game winner
The Jays have shown organizational depth by replacing their injured and departed starters entirely from within, but they received just three impressive starts from 2005 first-round pick
So how are the Jays 10 games over .500 at 23-13? A 7-1 performance from Halladay has certainly helped, as has the teams' 4-1 record in starts made by Romero and Cecil, but luck has played a role, as well. The Jays won Richmond's first five starts as the 29-year-old Canadian posted a 2.67 ERA, but that mark was built on an unsustainably low .247 opponents' batting average on balls in play. Richmond's luck has already begun to wear out, as he's allowed five runs in each of his last two starts, both Toronto losses, and failed to make it out of the second inning against the Yankees on Wednesday night. Similarly, the Jays have gone 3-2 in Tallet's five starts, but Tallet's BABIP in those outings has been an even flukier .227.
Luck has also played a part in the Jays' leading the majors in runs scored. While injuries have decimated the starting rotation, the Jays' starting nine has been uncharacteristically healthy.
Still, there are reasons to believe that some of the performance spikes that the Jays have enjoyed in the early going might be sustainable. Hill is 27, which is the typical peak age for a player and often the age at which hitters experience career years (though it's worth noting that Hill also got off to a hot start in 2007, hitting .313/.356/.563 in April but just .287/.329/.439 the rest of a way). The left-handed Overbay has benefited from a platoon with righty-hitting
And let's not overlook the
Scutaro has also been a key part of the teams' most overlooked unit, its defense. Team defense played a large part in the surprising pennant runs of the Rockies in 2007 and the Rays in 2008. Last year the Jays were second only to the Rays in defensive efficiency. This year they're turning balls in play into outs at an even higher rate, thanks in large part to the fine glove work of Rolen, Overbay, Hill and especially Scutaro. It's often the case that much of what we see as good (or bad) pitching is actually the work of the defense. This helps explain the Jays' ability to survive what otherwise should have been a devastating run of injuries to their rotation.
The continued excellence of the bullpen has to be partially attributed to the stellar defense, too. A year ago Toronto had the lowest bullpen ERA in baseball (2.94). This year, despite closer
The Blue Jays are clearly overachieving right now, but it's worth noting that
The real test for the Jays, however, will be how they handle their division rivals. Prior to this week's series against the Yankees, the only AL East opponent the Jays had faced was Baltimore, whom they swept in a three-game series to open May. Otherwise the Jays have been fattening up on the AL West (7-4) and Central (12-8). They've also been winning more than their share of one-run games, going 7-2 in such contests, a mark that is as likely to regress to .500 as their pitchers' BABIPs trend toward the typical league average of .300. Thus far the Jays have split their first two games against the struggling Yankees. Their one win came behind Halladay, but their loss on Wednesday night saw Richmond and Murphy get their BABIP comeuppance, Hill leave the game after fouling a ball of his shin and the offense manage just two runs despite receiving four free passes from
The Jays play two-thirds of their games against the AL East in the second half, but they have six games against the second-place Red Sox over the remainder of May, three games against the defending NL champion Phillies in June and a run of 13 games against the Phillies, Rays, Yankees and Rays again leading up to the All-Star break. We'll have a much better idea of how good Toronto is by the end of that stretch, and it seems fair to suggest that, while the Jays probably are a better team than many thought, they won't have one of the best records in baseball by the time July rolls around.