Historically, Yankees-Blue Jays hasn't been what you'd call the fiercest rivalry the American League East has to offer. The Jays aren't the Yankees' closest geographic division opponent the way the Orioles are. They don't share a media market with the Yankees' spring training facility as the Rays do. They certainly don't bring a century of bitter loathing to the table like the Red Sox. Despite sharing the same column in the standings for 38 seasons, the Yankees and Toronto have placed first and second in the same year only four times - 1985, 1993, 2006 and 2015. The Blue Jays finished on top in three of those races.
For the second consecutive year, though, the Jays look like the team to beat in the AL East, which is why the three-game set that begins tonight feels a bit bigger than typical for games six, seven and eight of the season. Toronto is the reason why the Yankees wound up in an unfortunate matchup against Dallas Keuchel in the 2015 AL Wild Card game. They gained 13 games in the standings July 29th on, turning a seven-game deficit into a six-game cushion. The Yankees went 6-13 against the Blue Jays last year. If that record had been reversed, the do-or-die showdown against Houston wouldn't have been necessary.
The Jays' bread and butter is their offense, but Yankee pitchers actually did a nice job keeping that monster in check a year ago. As a group, they held Toronto to a .242/.311/.405 slash line and an OPS .081 below their season total. The Jays scored four runs or fewer in 12 of 19 meetings with New York.
On some level, that doesn't come as a surprise. The Jays' lineup is righty-dominated and the Yankees feature a righty-heavy starting staff, and a hard-throwing one at that. It's not that Toronto actually struggled against righties - guys like Josh Donaldson, Troy Tulowitzki, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion don't really struggle against anyone - but they were a bit more muted, slashing .266/.335/.455 instead of the .278/.354/.463 they managed against lefties. They also struck out more when facing right-handers - 18.7% of the time instead of 17.6%.
There is still a lot that Yankee pitchers need to do better against the Blue Jays. The Yankees have built their staff around arms that get strikeouts without allowing a lot of free bases via walks. The three starters expected to face the Jays this week - Masahiro Tanaka, Michael Pineda and Nathan Eovaldi - combined for a strikeout to walk ratio better than 4:1 a year ago. The problem is that this is not a formula Toronto cooperates with willingly. Their 18.5% team K-rate last year was well below the 19.9% AL average and their walk rate was well above, 9.2% to 7.7% league wide. The Yankees didn't do well at striking Jays hitters out in 2015, averaging only 7.1 strikeouts per nine innings against them, compared to an 8.5 K/9 overall.
When the Jays put balls in play, bad things tend to happen. Their homer-to-fly ball rate of 11.6% in 2015 dwarfed the league mark of 8.6% and against the Yankees in particular they hit 1.13 dingers per nine innings. That's not good news when the long ball has been a particular area of concern for the Yankee starters. The three who'll pitch this series have allowed six of them on the young season. In their meetings with Toronto this week and all year, they need to be more successful in avoiding contact, and when they can't do that, they need to keep balls on the ground.
The real culprit behind last year's 6-13 was that the Yankee offense was mostly non-existent in those games, hitting .221/.284/.358. Yes, there are some built-in excuses there. 13 of the 19 meetings came in August and September after the Jays brought in David Price, who managed to appear in all four late-season series. Those games were also played as the Yankees were losing Mark Teixeira to a leg fracture and while Jacoby Ellsbury, Brett Gardner and to a lesser extent Alex Rodriguez and Brian McCann were all slumping.
Still, of the 19 games, 15 were not started by Price. The Yankees struggled against Toronto's other pitchers, too, even in April and May when they went 2-4. R. A. Dickey posted a 2.48 ERA in his four starts vs. New York and held them to a .575 OPS. Marco Estrada was pretty solid as well with an ERA of 3.77 and a WHIP of 1.26 in five games.
This year the Yankees really need to take advantage of Toronto's pitching, particularly their rotation, which is not their strength. The knuckleballing Dickey has always given them fits and Marcus Stroman has looked dominant at times, but the remaining three-fifths are guys New York should handle. Estrada and the newly acquired J.A. Happ, who will start Wednesday night, won't often throw it by you. They allow a lot of hard contact and a good number of fly balls, which should be a boon for the Yankees' power-driven lineup in games taking place at Rogers Centre and later on at Yankee Stadium.
Tonight's starter, Aaron Sanchez, has battled control problems, especially while he was in the rotation last year averaging over five walks per nine. That's a flaw the patient veteran bats the Yankee lineup is built around have to feast on.