The Blue Jays are the winners of the 2016 AL Wild Card Playoffs and it sets up the stage for a Toronto V. Texas rematch for the century. After eliminating the Rangers last season it didn't seem like the blood could get any worse between the two teams; until of course it did. It has turned into one of baseball's more unlikely rivalries and an explosive one at that. So without farther ado, let's take an in depth look at the Toronto Blue Jays as objectively as possible.
The most important thing first; the Blue Jay's record is not a good way of looking at what this team is capable of. The Jays had two subpar months in a row in April and May, but since then this has been in the upper echelon of production. Since the beginning of June, Toronto has gone 61-47 with a +85 run differential. The team had noticeable weaknesses before the trade deadline in late July, but added a few pieces that helped close up the big holes and solidify them as one of the best teams in the AL.
Toronto sports one of the better lineups in baseball with 7 out of their 9 starters sporting a wRC+ at or above average and of course one of the semi-regulars who isn't , Justin Smoak, has a penchant for hitting against Texas. Josh Donaldson tops the group as one of the best players in baseball and he is joined by Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion to create one of the toughest lineups in baseball. This season they also have Devon Travis back from injury, a much improved Troy Tulowitzki, and a surprisingly good Michael Saunders. Kevin Pillar and Ezequiel Carrera shore up the bottom of the order, but what they don't supply with the bats, they more than make up for with their outfield gloves. Both of those players will be stealing a hit or two from their CF/LF positions. Now for the most part the team is below average defensively and they won't steal wins on the bases, but they do one thing very well; they hit the ball hard consistently.
Say what you want about the Jays, but their team's offensive philosophy is top notch. They go up to the plate looking to hit the ball hard somewhere, but they don't get anxious or over-aggressive and are perfectly willing to sit back and wait if you won't pitch to them as their team walk rate is near 11%. A good pitcher has every opportunity to get them out as every hitter on their team is somewhat strikeout prone, but a mistake is often capitalized on to the highest degree. I will say that even through the intense emotions last season I couldn't bring myself to hate these swings:
Donaldson, Bautista, and Encarnacion are some of the most comfortable hitters in baseball. Their swings feel natural, powerful, loose, and athletic. Something Donaldson talks about when he describes his swing is "flow" and his swing seems to reflect that. Sometimes he leg kicks, sometimes he doesn't, sometimes something feels wrong and he adjusts to swing naturally. So it's no surprise that even with as much emotion as the Jays play with, you never see it enter into their swings and they stay locked in at the task at hand.
The starting rotation is another solid strength to this team. In fact they are having the opposite problem as the Rangers; they have 6 solid pitchers who you would feel good about going out and pitching in a high leverage game. It looks like the 4 will be Aaron Sanchez, Marcus Stroman, J.A. Happ, and Marco Estrada.
Sanchez and Estrada specifically have been very tough on the Rangers in the past. Sanchez is one of the most talented young pitchers in baseball who throws a top of the line ~95 mph fastball with some running life along with a plus, if sometimes firm, changeup. Sanchez will also mix in a solid slurvy curve for a change of pace. Estrada started off the year extremely hot, but has experienced some command issues later in the season. Estrada lives and dies with command of his high 80's fastball and the devastating changeup. If he's consistently leaving pitches up in the zone he is very hittable and home run prone. When he's locating down in the zone he can generate a lot of swings and misses and weak contact.
J.A. Happ has been a good surprise for the Jays. The 33 year old received a nice $36 million contact after a good season in 2015 and so far he's been worth a lot more than that. Happ won't kill you with any overpowering stuff, but has been one of the best at mixing 5-6 different speeds and locations to generate some whiffs and balls in play off the hands or towards the end of the bat. Happ sits around 93 with the fastball, but will mix in a sinker to generate some ground balls. Happ has three other close to average offerings in his changeup, a firm slider, and a slow curve. Happ has a tendency to get in and out of trouble and he's been good at leaving men on, but if the Rangers can kill that tendency he isn't someone who should have shut down stuff.
Lastly the wild card, Marcus Stroman is excellent when he's at his best. After coming off of a lost season due to injury Stroman hasn't returned to his top form. His fastball is no longer being pumped in the mid to upper 90's and now sits comfortably around 93 with little movement. He's increased his usage of the sinker and it seems to be working as he has a 60.1% ground ball rate. Stroman hasn't been able to get the feel for the changeup back and it still tends to be a little firm with a ~5 mph velocity difference between it and his fastballs. His Curve is a below average offering that he uses mostly as a change of pace and the slider is consistent, but solid when on. Something Stroman has failed to do this season is keep hitters from making solid contact; over 32 games he only gives up soft contact 18.3% of the time. As a result he's seeing balls leave the yard at a very high rate with a HR/FB at 16.5%.
It's also very possible Francisco Liriano gets a start and it's well deserved. He's been very good since coming to the Blue Jays and his old reliable FB/SL combo is as deadly as it's ever been when he's throwing consistently.
The Blue Jays don't have a very good bullpen. It's not terrible, but once you get through Osuna, Biagini, sometimes Cecil, and whatever is left of Joaquin Benoit it's a pretty uninspiring group. It's likely that the pen will be fortified with R.A. Dickey and possibly Francisco Liriano as well if a starter gets in trouble early. Jason Grilli could be a problem too as he's been much better since being traded to Toronto. Still there are a lot of fairly average peripherals in this group and quite a few are home run prone as well. Even if they go out and lock down a team in a game or two, the bullpen depth is lacking and it might be troublesome come games three and four.
The Toronto Blue Jays absolutely deserve a playoff spot and unfortunately they will be a tough opponent for the Rangers. Thankfully the Rangers have added some fantastic pieces this year and their offense has been bolstered since the last time they had to face off against some of the Jay's solid starting pitching. There are three main concerns I have with this series; Cole Hamels has been struggling with command issues all season and the Blue Jays are exactly the kind of team you don't want to face when that's been the case. Second, a few members of the Blue Jay's starting rotation have been excellent against the Rangers and it's possible the crafty changeup artists get to them again. Finally the two big question marks in the rotation in Colby Lewis and Martin Perez both struggle against teams like the Jays; Lewis is already homer prone and Perez has given up a .786 OPS against right handed hitters.
All in all I fully expect this to be a clash of two very strong teams and if there is one thing the Rangers have been good at this season it's been putting strong teams in their place.