Led by MVP candidate Donaldson, white-hot Blue Jays take flight

MVP candidate Josh Donaldson and the red-hot Blue Jays have woken up in a scorching month of June. But is Toronto finally ready and able to put years of frustration behind it?
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On the afternoon of June 2, the Blue Jays lost to the Nationals, 2–0, in Washington and fell to 23–30 on the season. Things were not exactly at DEFCON 1 for Toronto, but for a franchise with as much at stake this season as any in baseball, it sure felt like it was getting close to panic time for Canada’s Team. It didn’t look like it was going to get better anytime soon: That evening, in the second game of a doubleheader, the Jays had a date with Max Scherzer.

A floundering team may bring in a motivational speaker to ignite a turnaround, maybe even a Seminole medicine man. The Blue Jays did something more drastic: They took a team nap.

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Shortly after the media cleared out after the first game of the doubleheader, the clubhouse lights were turned off, and the room went as dark and silent as nap time at a nursery. Players slept at their lockers. Others snoozed on couches or laid down on the floor. The lights were out for over an hour; less than two hours before first pitch, they were back on, and soon enough, the room hummed with the usual pregame energy. Then the Jays went out and knocked Scherzer around to beat the Nats, 7–3.

They haven’t lost since. Suddenly, this team—powered by a legit MVP candidate (watch your back, Mike Trout) and a fire-breathing lineup that may be the most potent we’ve seen in quite some time—looks like the most dangerous in that inscrutable AL East.

“We’re winning, we’re having fun,” says Josh Donaldson, the man standing between Trout and his second straight MVP award. On Wednesday night, the third baseman made two barehanded plays in the field and mashed his 17th ome run of the season as Toronto won its eighth straight game and climbed over .500 for the first time since May 9. The Jays have been the hottest team on the planet since their power nap, but it was only a matter of time before the team awoke from its early-season slumber. Even when Toronto was seven games below .500, it had the second-best run differential in the league, a sign that this was a good team with better days ahead.

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Entering the weekend, the Blue Jays not only lead the majors in runs (325), but also have scored 50 more runs than the next closest team, the Yankees. They are, in fact, on pace to score more runs than any team since 2011, and they lead the American League in run differential (+59). Look closer, and there’s even more reason to buy Blue Jays stock. FanGraphs’ BaseRuns predicts the number of runs a club should have scored based on their component offensive statistics. Toronto's projected record based on BaseRuns was 35–26, which is better than the team with the best actual record in baseball, the Cardinals. In fact, only one team—the Dodgers—had a better BaseRuns-projected record.

There’s reason to believe Toronto’s surge will continue. They have put up big numbers even though Edwin Encarnacion, who has 13 home runs but is hitting .228 with a .313 OBP, has yet to catch fire. Jose Reyes has played in just 31 of the team’s 61 games. Rookie stud Devon Travis (remember him?) and Michael Saunders are coming back from the disabled list soon. Dalton Pompey, the team’s Opening Day centerfielder who was demoted to the minors a month ago, is starting to turn things around at Triple A Buffalo.

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But the key player, of course, is Donaldson, who was always lost in the shuffle on the West Coast in Oakland; now that he’s north of the border, he remains criminally overlooked. Donaldson has simply been the AL’s best player this season. His 17 home runs are one behind AL leader Nelson Cruz, and his 3.8 Wins Above Replacement, as measured by FanGraphs, is second only to Bryce Harper. His .317 batting average and .963 OPS are both career highs, and he's on pace for 45 home runs, 133 runs scored and 117 RBIs. He might seem like a prime regression candidate, but look closer at the numbers—or, better yet, pull up a chair and talk to the man from Mobile, and you’ll see that there’s reason to believe that he could keep this up.

On Monday in Toronto, a day after he mashed a home run over the centerfield wall at the Rogers Centre, Donaldson took a moment to talk about how his mindset as a hitter has changed moving from an extreme pitcher’s park in Oakland to the launching pad in Toronto. I told Donaldson that his 438-foot shot off Miami’s Andre Rienzo—his third longest homer of the season, his 11th in the Rogers Centre—looked like it would be a home run anywhere.

“Maybe,” he said. “But I’ve hit that ball in some parks, and it gets knocked down.” He added, “The difference between me this year and me last year: In Oakland, either you’re going to hit for power or you’re going to hit for average. The majority of the time, you’re not going to do both in that ballpark. If you hit a line drive, it’s an out, unless you hit it in a perfect trajectory.”

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Donaldson hit a career high 29 home runs last year, though he says that there were “15 balls that I counted last year that I hit at home that I thought had a chance, or I thought they were going, and they didn’t go out. When you hit 15 balls like that, you start questioning what’s going on. One of the toughest things to deal with as a hitter, especially if you’re a guy who drives the ball out of the ballpark, is when you feel like you hit one on the screws and it has a chance to go out and it doesn’t go out. When it happens more times than it should, then you start talking about confidence and start talking about start changing things, and without a doubt, depending on the score of the game and what you wanted to do, you start changing things. There are just a lot of factors that go into it. Here, you take a lot of those factors out because I know for the most part that if I hit a ball well, it’s going to go out.”

To hear Donaldson tell it, hitting at the Rogers Centre, where he’s put up a .372/.391/.729 slash line this year, has cleared his mind. “When the roof’s open, it’s bright in there and makes it a little difficult, but especially when the roof’s closed, you can see the ball pretty well," he said. "The fact of the matter is when you hit the ball and hit the ball well, with a trajectory that’s higher, the ball’s going to carry out. This is one place where you get a truer flight of the ball. Here, I don’t have to worry about hitting balls with the perfect trajectory, I can just be a good hitter and let a baseball’s flight take its own shape. Here, I can just focus on being a good hitter.”

Donaldson was already one of the best players in the game in Oakland; in Toronto, hitting at the Rogers Centre, he has become a superstar. He is the best hitter in a star-studded lineup that, when firing on all cylinders, calls to mind the great Rockies lineups that terrorized pitchers at Coors Field in the late 1990s.

But of course, it’s going to take a lot more than a great offense for Toronto to end the longest playoff drought in baseball. The rotation has been better lately, but still needs another front-line starter, and the bullpen, which is ranked 12th in the AL with a 3.70 ERA, will need to perform at a higher level. But we all can see that this is a very winnable AL East—you might not need 90 wins to get into the October dance—and general manager Alex Anthopoulos, despite financial restrictions, probably has one big move in him, maybe two (Jonathan Papelbon? Johnny Cueto?) as the Jays try to take control of a division up for grabs.

The maddening AL East may have a decent team after all. The Blue Jays have woken up.