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PSA Plays the Show: The Blue Jays arrive a year early

A new rival in the AL East — but how are they doing it?

Minnesota Twins v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

In the real world, the 2020 AL East race was set to be a battle between two teams — the Yankees and the Rays. Maybe Boston would squeeze into a wild card spot, but the division itself was pretty stratified. Even the race at the top wasn’t as exciting as you’d think, with the Yankees projected to be about five wins better than Tampa.

The Toronto Blue Jays, despite a young, talented lineup and making one of their biggest free agent acquisitions in team history, were largely seen as a year or so away from being a real threat in the AL East. In our MLB The Show sim, however, the Jays are tied with Boston for second place, just two back of New York.

If I told you that blindly, you’d expect that the young bats must be carrying the team — Bo Bichette, Vlad Guerrero Jr. and the rest of the hitters we’ve been growing ever more wary of over the last couple years. In fact, the Jays have a .737 OPS as a team — about the same mark as their full season 2019 — and have scored the second-fewest runs in the division, ahead of only the lowly Baltimore Orioles.

Cavan Biggio and Billy McKinney are the only every day players with an OPS over .800, and those two young stars, Bichette and Guerrero Jr., have looked overmatched in the team’s first 80 games, with a .677 and .690 OPS respectively. It’s not uncommon for young players to struggle early in their careers, and there’s no shame in nonlinear development, but it would be a cause for any fanbase’s concern if two top prospects like this were so unimpressive.

So then how have the Jays managed to keep pace in a competitive division race? The team boasts the second-best pitching staff in the AL East, and so far Hyun-Jin Ryu has been worth the money. He has the best walk rate in the rotation, and is posting a 3.50 ERA and 3.84 FIP, justifying the 4/$80mm contract given to him in the winter, for now anyway.

But the pitching strength goes beyond Ryu, and in fact, you could argue he’s outpaced by both Chase Anderson and Julio Teheran — the latter of whom wasn’t even on the Jays until being DFA’d by the Angels. Both pitchers have better strikeout and home run rates, their FIPS ten and twelve points lower than Ryu’s. Even Tanner Roark, who’s been largely a disappointment on the run prevention side, has a FIP almost a half-run lower than his ERA, indicating that he’s been better than you might imagine on first glance.

In the bullpen, Ken Giles is one of the three or four best relievers in baseball, striking out half the men he faces. In the real world, Giles was perhaps the Jays’ best trade chip — an elite reliever on an expiring contract. In our simulated world, he’s the shutdown closer for a team with a real playoff shot.

One of the fun things about this simulated season has been the surprises and randomness that echoes what we might have seen had the real 2020 been underway. There are always teams that play better or worse than you’d expect, and The Show is no different. The big subversion when it comes to the Jays has been the strength of the pitching, something that probably won’t happen whenever baseball restarts.