Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo put it very matter-of-factly during his pre-game meeting with the media on Friday.
“We’re second, I think, in baseball in high bullpen leverage, the most important innings for the bullpen,” the Toronto manager said.
He didn’t specify which metric he was quoting, but using Baseball-Reference plays entered with high leverage – which is defined as when the first plate appearance of the pitcher’s exit has a leverage rating of 1.5 or more, 1.0 being the average – the Blue Jays indeed ranked second in baseball with 55 games. That total did not include Friday’s game, which the Blue Jays won 2-1 over the shocked Cincinnati Reds. After the game, Montoyo joked that they probably just took the lead in high leverage games. And, indeed, on Saturday, they were at the top of that category with 58 games.
As you might guess, the Blue Jays also lead the majors in another related category: one-inning games. They’ve faced 17, tied with the Miami Marlins. They played well in all close affairs, posting a league-best 11-6 record in games decided by a run. In one and two point games, they are 13-8. This kind of record instills confidence in pitching and defense, in particular. But it’s generally accepted that one-round matches also depend on luck, so relying on those draw wins to inflate their all-season record would be a risky game.
“I think they’re getting used to it,” Montoyo said ahead of Saturday’s game of his side’s handling of close games. “It’s a daily grind. So I think it’s asking more of you because they’re all close – not just coaches, everyone. Because whoever comes out of the bullpen, he “There’s no room for error. The guy on the mound, there’s no room for error. I feel like the offense is trying a little too hard.
Wins are wins, and there are advantages to the Blue Jays becoming well-versed in winning close games. Come October, when games generally get tighter — assuming the Jays hit their targets and make the playoffs — they can capitalize on that experience.
But, in general, good teams also win a lot of explosive games, especially against inferior teams who are, in theory, supposed to be fodder for driving up the score. The visiting Reds, who have played better but remain a bottom-feeding club, were meant to present a prime opportunity for a struggling Toronto offense to come out of a funk.
The Blue Jays have beaten the Reds twice, including in Saturday’s 3-1 victory thanks to a two-home run performance from Bo Bichette. The Blue Jays will gladly pick up the wins, but they’ve only scored five points between games as the offense continues to struggle to match the production that made them a league-leading offense last year. Toronto’s 2 1/2 ppg average has been good enough to beat the Reds twice, but sooner or later this offense will have to post some high-scoring innings. Not just to get their minus point differential — it’s at minus-9, indicating the Blue Jays are playing above their expected record — but because, generally, the sign of a good team is that they won a significant number of matches by a wide margin.
In 40 games, the Blue Jays have won just two blowout wins, which Baseball-Reference defines as games in which the margin of victory is at least five points. (They’re 2-4 in such contests this season.) With two blowout wins, the Blue Jays are tied for second in majors with the Oakland Athletics, Arizona Diamondbacks and Detroit Tigers. The only team with fewer blowout wins is the Chicago White Sox, who have one and, like the Blue Jays, haven’t seen their offense live up to high preseason expectations. On the other end of the spectrum, the Los Angeles Dodgers already have 11 blowout wins; the Houston Astros and San Francisco Giants each have 10.
Last season, the Blue Jays had a resounding 31 wins, sixth in the majors. Unsurprisingly, they were in good company. Every team ahead of them on this list — the Rays, Astros, Giants, Dodgers and White Sox — have qualified for the playoffs. And while a high differential doesn’t guarantee a playoff berth — ask the 2021 Jays — it’s still a good indicator of a top team.
But to win by five points, a team must score at least five points. The Blue Jays offense hasn’t done that consistently this season. Their average points per game coming into play Saturday was 3.64, which ranked them 10th in the American League. They’ve scored five or more points in just 14 games this season. Their biggest offensive outburst — 10 points — came on Opening Day in a 10-8 win over the Texas Rangers.
The problem? An offense isn’t going to shine when many of its regulars aren’t at their best. The Blue Jays still have Teoscar Hernández, Matt Chapman and Bichette below career standards this season and below average based on wRC+. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. had 129 wRC+, but he’s not producing the same kind of power as last season and hasn’t had an extra hit since May 5.
Of course, the Blue Jays aren’t bad, so they don’t get blown up often either. Their four blowout losses are tied for fourth. It’s a credit to their pitcher, especially the starters who have consistently kept them in games, creating a scenario where they are regularly locked in close battles.
That was the case again Saturday, when Alek Manoah was brilliant in eight innings, allowing just one run on seven hits with four strikeouts. At 83 pitches after eight innings, Manoah tried to make his case to come back for the ninth, but he was unsuccessful. Instead, Montoyo opted to go to his closest, Jordan Romano, to seal the win. He did, knocking out the team — including fellow Canadian Joey Votto — for his 14th stoppage of the season at the top of the AL.
When asked if he was considering letting Manoah finish the game, Montoyo explained his reasoning, saying, “I got close to the best in baseball.”
“He understands how competitive I am,” Manoah said when asked about Montoyo’s decision. “I think he told you guys. I think he knows it. Me, as a competitor, I’m just doing my job. It’s not every day that we’re going to do something like this. But we have the best closer to baseball. And he’s doing his job, he’s protecting me, and we’ll keep moving forward.
Meanwhile, on offense, Bichette hit his first home run in the fourth inning, a solo no doubt to left field, on a first-pitch slider by rookie Hunter Greene. His second – a two-run left homer – came in the seventh inning against reliever Luis Cessa and broke the tie 1-1.
“Every day the goal is to come here and try to get the win,” Bichette said. “If it’s me (or) it’s someone else. There’s a lot of things guys do too that aren’t recognized in games that help us win. I think every day I just try to come on the pitch ready to give everything we have and try to help the team win.
Bichette has been in every race in Toronto, and against a team like the Reds, her performance alone was enough to carry the team. The good news is that the Blue Jays always win; they are 22-18 and still in the heart of the AL East race. This is also where we will say the obligatory “it’s still early in the season, and this team has a record of good performances offensively. Programming can break out at any time.
That said, we’re about a quarter into the season and these tight games can be trying. The Blue Jays need to perform twisted innings – not only to advance their roster, but also to give themselves a break. Explosive games conserve energy, which can be useful later. Big leads allow regular guys to rest late in games. They’re also giving high-leverage pitchers a day off, and after a busy six weeks, Toronto’s relievers could take advantage.
The Blue Jays have done a great job managing close games and winning more often than not. It will surely be useful. But until then, a few low-stress blowouts might also help things.
“I think it helps with the winning streaks and stuff,” Montoyo said of the big wins. “Because it’s hard to win 2-1 every day or by a single point. So usually winning streaks, this team scores seven (points) in one day, so it’s a 7-2 game. It’s much easier, but it’s hard to have a winning streak by (playing) close matches all the time.
(Photo by Bo Bichette: Rick Madonik/Toronto Star via Getty Images)