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Red-hot Blue Jays ascending AL East behind offensive turnaround

After an unanticipated slow start to 2016, the Blue Jays’ offense has rounded into form as Toronto has climbed the AL East standings.

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The Blue Jays beat the Orioles at Camden Yards Friday night by a score of 13–3. If that score sounds familiar, it’s because the Blue Jays beat the Phillies Thursday night 13–2. The Jays have now scored 10 or more runs in five of their last seven games and have won seven of their last eight games, four of them against the Orioles, to climb from 5 1/2 games behind Baltimore in the American League East to just one game back and tied with the Red Sox for second place in the division. I’d say watch out, here come the Blue Jays, but they’re already here.

Having snapped a 21-year playoff drought last year by winning 93 games, winning the AL East by six games and advancing to the league championship series, the Blue Jays were expected to be back in the playoff hunt this year. One big reason for that was the fact that they were bringing a historically great offense back largely intact. The Blue Jays scored 17% more runs than any other team in baseball last year, and the only notable turnover in their lineup was the departure of deadline acquisition Ben Revere in favor of the return of intended leftfielder Michael Saunders. However, both the offense and the team as a whole staggered out of the gate this year.

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After winning the first two games of the season, the Jays quickly fell to 2–4 and struggled to get and stay above .500 thereafter. After being swept at home by the Rays on May 18, they were 19–23 and in fourth place, seven games behind Baltimore and just a half-game out of last place. To that point in the season, the lineup that had scored a major league-best 5.5 runs per game last year had averaged just four runs per game.

Since then, however, the Jays have gone 20–8 (.714) and their offense has scored 5.8 runs per game. Only the Rangers have been hotter over that span, improving to 21–6 since May 19 with their 1–0 victory over the Cardinals Friday night, and only Seattle has scored as many runs, matching Toronto exactly with 161 runs over 28 games after lighting up former Mariner Roenis Elias in Boston Friday night.

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If that sounds familiar, it’s because that’s precisely how quickly the Blue Jays turned things around last year. A game below .500 on the morning of July 29, the Blue Jays went 43–18 (.705) over the remainder of the season, scoring 5.9 runs per game over those final 61 contests, and surging from fourth place in the AL East to a permanent residence atop the division in the first 23 of those games.

The impetus for that turnaround last year was believed to be the team’s cadre of deadline additions—shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, rotation ace David Price, leftfielder Revere and relievers Mark Lowe and LaTroy Hawkins, who combined with repurposed rookie starter Aaron Sanchez to fortify the bullpen. This year’s turnaround has had no such obvious prompting and has, in fact, largely coincided with the loss of Tulowitzki to a strained quad muscle suffered on May 24.

Rather, the Blue Jays are experiencing what was very much an expected course correction. It just so happens that I took a look at the Blue Jays’ poor start on May 20 in a piece looking at the most surprising teams of the first quarter of the season. What I found when I looked at Toronto was a team that had been playing in bad luck—as indicated by a low team batting average on balls in play and a poor record in one-run games, two indicators which are generally considered self-correcting—but nonetheless had a third-order winning percentage of .521. Based on that information, I wrote, “that offense will find its groove, possibly in short order, and the Blue Jays should be right back in the thick of the AL East race.” Little did I realize how quickly that would happen.

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The Jays were 3–10 in one-run games through May 18. They are 5–2 in one-run games since. As a team, the Blue Jays’ luck on balls in play hasn’t changed dramatically, but the hits have started falling in for two key members of their lineup. Catcher Russell Martin was a black hole in the lineup through the first 42 games, hitting .170/.237/.179 on May 18. Since then, he has hit .275/.380/.500. That’s not all on balls in play, Martin is drawing more walks and hitting for more power, as well, but his BABIP did increase from .269 in the former sample to .304 in the latter. Josh Donaldson hit .277 on balls in play through the first 42 games, resulting in a somewhat muted .253/.355/.500 line. Since then he has hit .319 on balls in play and .315/.443/.652 overall.

In addition to those two, Edwin Encarnacion has also gotten red-hot, though, curiously, his already poor luck on balls in play (.272 through May 18) has actually gotten worse (.260 since). Encarnacion has compensated for this by hitting more balls out of play. He homered eight times in the first 42 games, or once every 22.5 plate appearances. Since then he has homered 10 more times in 28 games at a rate of once every 12.1 PA, with six of those home runs coming in Toronto’s last seven games.

These are not fluke performances, these are star players rounding into form. Donaldson’s line is now a near-match for his final 2015 numbers (152 OPS+ last year, 151 this year). Encarnacion, who has hit .290/.397/.650 over the last 28 games, still has a ways to go before bringing his 2016 performance in line with his last four seasons. The same goes for Martin, who still has a mere 66 OPS+ on the season. True, none of the three will maintain their lines from the last 28 games for the remainder of the season, but the Blue Jays don’t need to play .714 ball the rest of the way to win the division now that they’ve pulled even with the Red Sox and to within one game of the Orioles.

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Besides which, there is more improvement coming. Second baseman Devon Travis, who returned from the disabled list the day after Tulowitzki’s injury, hit .145 in his first 15 games back, but has gone 8 for 20 with a pair of doubles over his last five games. Tulowitzki, meanwhile, started a rehab assignment Friday night and could be activated as soon as this weekend. Those gains in the middle infield could help offset the recent loss of Jose Bautista, who was placed on the disabled list on Friday after having hyperextended the big toe on his left foot in a collision with the outfield wall in Philadelphia on Thursday. Bautista was among the established stars on the team who were underperforming in the first quarter of the season, but unlike Donaldson, Encarnacion and Martin, Bautista had yet to experience a turn-around, continuing to struggle with bad luck on balls in play (.239 BABIP on the season) while his teammates powered the Jays’ resurgence.

In the meantime, the 29-year-old Saunders, healthy for the first time since early 2014, continues to pick up Bautista’s slack, adding three home runs and eight RBIs in Friday night’s game alone. Saunders is now hitting .314/.389/.610 on the season with 15 home runs, that last total just four shy of his career high. He’ll surely cool off as the season progresses, and the injuries which have begun to rear their head and have undermined other Blue Jays teams of recent vintage may yet have their say. However, given the way they have been playing, not just over the last week, but the last month, and the way they have roughhoused the Orioles, winning four in a row against Baltimore in the last week and scoring 34 runs against them in their last three games, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see the Blue Jays finish the weekend in first place. Either way, they should indeed remain in the thick of this increasingly compelling AL East race.