Behind Enemy Lines: Talking tough divisions and MVP candidates with Bluebird Banter

Bless You Boys

The Detroit Tigers will head north to Canada for the first time since 2019, and will play on the Jays home turf this weekend. While every team was impacted by COVID restrictions and the shortened season, things were uniquely difficult for the Blue Jays, as they were unable to play in their home country for the full 2020 season and half of the 2021 season.

Now that they’re home again, we wanted to get some insider perspective on the season, how hard it is to be a good team in the AL East, and what we can expect from the Jays in this coming series. So we asked Tom Dakers, the managing editor of Bluebird Banter, what the Jays have been doing well (and not so well) this season.

If you’re interested, he had a few questions for us, as well, and that chat is live over on their site now.

BYB: The Jays are in a tough division, and the standings don’t really tell the story of how good 2021 has been for them. What do you think is working so well for the club this season?

BBB: The offense has been terrific, barring the odd game against some no-name starter who will shut them down for 7 innings. Vlad, Bo, Marcus Semien, and Teoscar Hernandez have all had unbelievable hot stretches. In between injuries, George Springer was terrific with the bat, getting AL Player of the Week two weeks in a row.

And the starting pitching, for the most part, has been great. Hyun Jin Ryu, Robbie Ray, Jose Berrios, and Alek Manoah have taken turns looking like the team Ace. Steven Matz has been acceptable in the fifth starter role, and after a poor start, and before going on the IL, had several good outings.

The less said about our bullpen, the better, but, trust me, your Tigers will never be out of a game. Need seven guys walked to make your comeback? We have just the bullpen to do it for you. [Editor’s note: that sounds ominously familiar.]

BYB: Vlad Jr, you know we have to ask. Off the top of the year people were saying it might be a tight chase between him and Ohtani for MVP, how do you like his chances at this stage in the season? He’s got a massive 171 wRC+ but I feel like not a lot of people are talking about him right now.

BBB: Vladito has been in a bit of a slump this past month. He’s only had 2 home runs in August. However, there are signs he’s coming out of it, he’s had a couple of balls caught at the wall in the last week and has had many hits, but all of them singles lately. I’m sure the slump will end soon, hopefully during this homestand.

If he can get on a hot streak and if the Jays can make a run at a playoff spot, I’d imagine there will be more talk about him getting the award. But Ohtani is such an exciting story that it will be hard to beat him out.

BYB: Which player do you think has been the biggest surprise for you, for better or worse this season?

BBB: Robbie Ray has been an enormous surprise. Last year he walked 17.9% of batters he faced, this year 6.7%, while he has kept his strikeout rate up. If he keeps this up, he’ll be getting some Cy Young votes.

Though I suppose another big surprise is Reese McGuire. Reese was DFAed before the season, and most of us figured someone would take him off waivers, but he cleared waivers. Then, with an injury to Danny Jansen, he ended up back on the active roster (though I wish they would have shown some patience with Riley Adams, who is doing a lovely job for the Nationals now). As well, I’d rather they give Alejandro Kirk the lion’s share of the playing time behind the plate, but the Jays seem to be running a straight platoon, so the lefty-hitting McGuire is playing a lot.

BYB: How are you feeling about the George Springer signing after almost a full season? Did much of the Astros scandal discourse follow him to the Jays?

BBB: For the 49 games in between IL stints, I was thrilled with him. 16 home runs in 49 games is a pretty good pace. Unfortunately, he made an awkward jump at the wall, attempted a catch, and came up lame. It looked like he had an ankle injury. They told us his ankle wasn’t too bad the next day, and he’d be back in the lineup soon, but they did an MRI showing a grade 1 knee strain. I guess with the pain in his ankle, he ignored the pain in his knee. He could be out a few weeks.

When the Jays were in Anaheim and Seattle, the fans got on his case, which might have gotten to him somewhat. Coming off consecutive player of the week awards, he didn’t hit much in either series. As well, he seemed a little testier with umpires than usual (though I’ve been pretty cranky with umpires too, and I only have my immediate family booing me).

BYB: The team wasn’t able to play at home for over a year, how do you think a return to Toronto has impacted them? How about the fans?

BBB: The players looked very happy to be back. Playing in Dunedin and Buffalo had the unfortunate problem of Rays (Dunedin) and Yankees and Red Sox (Buffalo) fans far outnumbering Jays fans at “home” games. And, as much as they tried to fix up the parks in the two towns, Rogers Centre is a more comfortable place for players, and, I’d imagine, Toronto has better choices for living arrangements.

And, even with COVID limiting the number of people allowed in, the players are playing in front of several times as many fans (and, of course, fans who are actual Blue Jays fans) as they did in either of those two cities.

For people from Toronto, getting to go to a baseball game gives a little bit of normal back. After the last year and a half, any little bit of normal feels so good.

BYB: Which Tiger do you think will be the biggest problem for the Jays this weekend?

BBB: Likely it will be kind of an average starting pitcher. Someone without an amazing fastball, or any other pitch that makes you stand up and take notice (if it turns out to be Drew Hutchison, they may have to take me away in a straitjacket). Maybe someone with an ERA in the mid-5s? It has been a trend this year. A guy that Jays fans haven’t even heard of will keep the big bats of the Jays off the scoreboard for 6 or 7 innings.

Yes, it sounds like something that would drive fans crazy, but no, we don’t let it get to us. I mean, I haven’t screamed at the tv (please don’t ask my neighbors to verify this) or thrown objects across the room in frustration hardly at all. Nor have I offered up my children to the Baseball Gods, if only they would give us a run against a pitcher throwing 92 MPH down the middle of the plate.

Many thanks to Tom for taking the time to chat with us, and you can read more of his work on the Blue Jays over at Bluebird Banter.

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