How a season is perceived is often heavily skewed by divisional opponents. A decent team in a weak division can put together a fairly unimpressive season, and still feel untroubled as they waltz past their feeble foes. Meanwhile, a team like the 2021 Yankees, which won 92 games, can feel like a disaster, in large part because a tough divisional draw left them staring up at even better teams in the standings.
The AL East didn’t have an overwhelming favorite coming into this year. The expectation was that it would be a strong division, possibly the strongest in all of baseball, and so far that has materialized.
The Toronto Blue Jays were categorized as the hot pick to win the AL East coming into the season, and many experts had them coming out of the whole American League for their first World Series trip since their back-to-back titles in 1991 and 1992. 64 games into the season, though, the AL East crown seems like a distant goal for Toronto. There’s plenty of baseball left to be played, approximately 100 games. But the reality is that the Yankees hold a 12-game lead on their rivals to the north, and that’s not the type of lead that goes away in a couple of weeks.
All that said, while the Jays, with a 37-27 record entering Saturday’s games, may not seem like a team to get too hyped about, they’re still a team to be wary of. They’re still a dangerous club, which has just been overshadowed by the otherworldly pace that the Yankees are playing at.
A 37-27 record, in context
A .578 winning percentage may not be thrilling when your team had all the expectations in the world coming into the season, but through 64 games, it is nothing to be easily dismissed. That winning percentage would lead two of the other five divisions (AL & NL Central), and be perfectly within striking distance of the other three divisions. The Mets hold the second-best record in baseball at the moment (43-23) and would only be four ahead of the Jays in the loss column in a theoretical exercise.
The only scenario in which the Jays truly face a massive task is their current one, in the AL East.
No Robbie Ray, no problem
One of, if not the, biggest question mark regarding the Blue Jays heading into the year was how this team would cope with the loss of the reigning AL Cy Young winner who left town for the Seattle Mariners. The Jays signed Kevin Gausman to a similar contract to replace Ray as the ace of the staff. Despite a superb performance from Gausman in San Francisco last year, it remained to be seen how he would respond back in the AL East.
So far, so good. Gausman’s 3.21 ERA may not be truly overwhelming, but it’s in part a product of an absurdly high BABIP (.369). Gausman’s FIP stands a stellar 1.75. The former Oriole has a 26.1 K% and 3.6 BB%, and has allowed just two homers.
Alek Manoah has also impressed in his sophomore year. The West Virginia first-rounder has established himself as a potential Cy Young candidate for the 2022 season, ahead of schedule for his development. At the age of 24, Manoah carried a sparkling 1.67 ERA into yesterday’s start in Toronto.
A still deep lineup
All nine primary hitters of the Toronto Blue Jays lineup have an OPS+ of at least 100. Their lineup one through nine has essentially all been above average.
Alejandro Kirk is having a phenomenal season slashing .310/.400/.480, and Santiago Espinal has been a pleasant surprise with a 120 OPS+. Yet two of the Jays' primary hitters coming into the season have yet to produce at the level was expected of them coming.
Teoscar Hernandez suffered an oblique injury at Yankee Stadium earlier in the year, and had a .428 OPS in 77 plate appearances in May. A hot June has leveled off his total numbers, but overall he's still a ways behind the .524 slugging percentage he posted in 2021.
Bo Bichette also got off to a pretty poor first month of the season, and his current.735 OPS is far off his career mark. It’s pretty realistic to expect improvements from these two stars, and for that improvement to bolster an already impressive lineup.
In all, the Jays may not look like a big threat right now, but that has more to do with the pace of the Yankees rather than any serious problems with Toronto’s 2022 season. The Yankees have built a large enough lead in the East to feel fairly comfortable, but they must not ease off the gas until they have the division clinched. Even then, Toronto has a scary lineup and a terrific combo at the front of their rotation. They would pose a stiff challenge in any potential playoff series.