Jays vs. Yankees: An unfortunate series opener of events, and a difficult game two on its way

On Ryu's night, Pearson & Merryweather, Cavan Biggio, bad breaks, Judge and Stanton, woeful hitting, Vlad's struggles, the wave and Moorcroft, Cole vs. Berríos, scoreboard watching, and more!

It’s all to play for after the Jays stumbled in their series opener with the Yankees at Rogers Centre on Tuesday night. And now Gerrit Cole vs. José Berríos awaits. *GULP*.

So let’s talk about it!

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Tuesday (Blue Jays 2 - Yankees 7)

That score doesn’t tell you how close this one felt for much of it, but it’s absolutely an accurate reflection of the happiness factor of each fan base coming out of Tuesday night’s game. Woof. Here’s a rarity: six up, six down!

▲ A flying start

The building was buzzing with the biggest crowd the Rogers Centre has hosted since a camp day game against the Texas Rangers on Wednesday, August 14, 2019. This one was slightly more meaningful than that affair, and the Jays got things going in a hurry, as George Springer walked on four pitches from Jameson Taillon, then stole second. And while Marcus Semien (strikeout) and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (fly out) couldn't cash him in, Bo Bichette could. After hacking at a pitch way inside, the free-swinging Bichette was graciously given a hanging slider to hit for pitch number two of his at-bat and poked it up the middle for the game's first RBI.

It doesn’t get much better than that! Unfortunately, in this one, it basically wouldn’t. Ugh.

▲ Hyun Jin Ryu, sort of

Hyun Jin Ryu was far from perfect in this one, lasting just 4 1/3 innings and giving up six hits and three runs over that span while striking out just three. But it was a step up from what we had seen from him prior to his recent stint on the injured list, not just in terms of results, but in terms of stuff. Everything he threw was harder than his average on the year, with his four-seamer up 1.6 mph to 91.5 on the night. His pitches seemed livelier, and indeed Statcast tells us that he had 3+ inches of additional horizontal break on his cutter, four-seamer, and changeup.

There were jams he got into, yes. Like in the first inning, when Anthony Rizzo and Aaron Judge managed back-to-back one-out singles. But only Judge's was anything like a decent hit — a liner to right with a .630 xBA despite coming off the bat at just 90.1 mph. Rizzo chopped a four-seamer just a couple feet in front of home plate and it managed to sneak through the Jays' infield. After that, Ryu reasserted control like the "old days" (i.e. three months ago) and escaped without damage.

He allowed a Sánchez single in the second and a Judge homer in the third, then a couple more knocks in the fifth, including a particularly bullshit Rizzo one to tie the game, which we’ll talk about a little more below. It was far from perfect, but he wasn’t getting clobbered. Only three of 16 balls in play came off Yankees bats at 95 mph or above. A few too many of them just happened to land where Ryu’s fielders weren’t positioned. (Compare that to his last start, in Minnesota, where he lasted just two innings and six of nine balls in play were at 95+ mph.)

It was an improvement. He was mostly fine. Bringing him back out to face the top of the order a third time was the right move, even though it ultimately didn’t go well. It was just one of those nights, unfortunately, and the Jays’ bats — despite plenty of opportunity — didn’t give him much margin for error.

▲ Nate Pearson and Julian Merryweather

Nate Pearson and Julian Merryweather haven't exactly been godawful since their returns from the injured list earlier in the month, but they haven't exactly been helpful, either. I don't just mean this in the sense that that Merryweather was on the hill in Baltimore and Minnesota when a tie game and a one-run game that both ended up losses got out of hand— games the Jays would sure like to have back now! They just haven't pitched well enough to earn the high leverage spots that were earmarked for them a month ago. Had they it would have spared the bullpen and the starters a bunch of extra usage they were forced into because of the fact that there are only four reasonably reliable guys back there. It might have even allowed the team to stay in some games and pick up some crucial extra wins along the way.

We can't know any of that now, obviously. But we can certainly notice that both were impressively effective in this one, with Pearson striking out two and allowing a walk in his lone inning of work, while Merryweather also struck out two and allowed only a hit in his 1 1/3. Hopefully there's more of that to come — and incredibly soon.

▲ The manager

People love blaming the manager for things, and I love telling them reasons why they’re wrong, but there wasn’t a whole lot of need for that in this one. As mentioned above, I think the decision to try to get a little extra length out of Ryu was a sound one, even though it didn’t work out. I also thought using Adam Cimber only briefly — to finish off the fifth inning, which Ryu had started, which he did on just three pitches — was the right call given that he may be called upon again here on Wednesday and potentially Thursday as well. Trevor Richards got burned in his inning of work, but that was the right place to use him. And letting Anthony Castro throw 28 pitches in the ninth was the thing to do as well.

Beyond the bullpen, I very much liked the lineup the Jays ran out there, getting Lourdes Gurriel Jr. back into the lineup at DH, Danny Jansen behind the plate (as one would expect with Ryu on the hill), and using the delightful Santiago Espinal at third.

The last one I was particularly pleased with, as it came on a day when Cavan Biggio returned to the fold.

Now, I'll admit that I'm one of those internet types who has been down on Biggio for a while because I just don’t think there’s reason enough for big league pitchers to walk him nearly as often as they have so far in his career. *COUGH*

I will also admit that I can appreciate that some of his lack of success this season was due to the fact that he was banged up basically from the get-go. I’m not ready to say he’s not a big leaguer, and I think it would be foolish to count out a guy with his track record of proving doubters wrong.

That said, his recent stint in the minors hasn’t exactly proved the doubters wrong.

Biggio got 90 plate appearances in Buffalo and slashed .182/.289/.325 (68 wRC+). His walk rate (12.2%) was still good, but down even from the rate he produced earlier this year in the big leagues, and well off his major league career rate of 15.1%. His strikeout rate (28.9%) was above where it was in the majors this year, too. And all of these numbers pale in comparison to his last crack at Triple-A, when over 174 PA he slashed .312/.448/.514 with a 19.5% walk rate and a 16.1% strikeout rate before getting called up to the big leagues in mid-2019.

Was he working on something down there maybe? Was he more hurt than he let on and just trying to get back to Toronto before the conclusion of the season? I don’t know, but it’s been a lost year for a guy that a lot of people see some pretty severe flaws on, and that’s never a great sign.

He’s also, let’s be honest, not much of a third baseman. (And he told reporters on Tuesday that he expects to mostly play in the outfield.)

Which is to say, uh, good job to CharlieCorp (TM) for choosing not to put him in the lineup. (I reserve the right to take this back if he plays against Gerrit Cole though!)

▲ The Baltimore Orioles (somehow)

Bruce Zimmerman allowed just one run on two hits over four innings against the Boston Red Sox on Tuesday night, outduelling the great Chris Sale as Baltimore beat the Red Sox by a score of 4-2. This is a thing worth remembering for anyone starting to get certain that the Blue Jays season is over, or will be with a loss to the Yankees here on Wednesday. It would be very bad to lose, for sure! But it's a funny game sometimes, isn’t it?

Thank you, trash birds!

▲ Five games still left

The most tepid of up arrows here, because five games sure as hell isn’t a lot. But, again, plenty of weirdness can still happen and it’s not at all out of the realm of possibility that the Jays can sneak into the playoffs — or into a game 163. They’ll have to actually win some of them, if not all of them, but they’re certainly capable of that. Just as the Yankees and Red Sox are certainly capable of screwing it all up. It ain’t over until it’s mathematically impossible. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

▼ Getting burned on quality pitches

Sometimes you’ve just got to tip your cap to your opponent. And sometimes you have to do that while internally screaming “COME ON, ARE YOU KIDDING ME WITH THAT?!!? HOWWWWW??!?!?”

Here’s the location of the pitch that Anthony Rizzo dunked softly into left field for an RBI single to end Ryu’s night in the fifth. HOW??????

And here’s Giancarlo Stanton’s utterly absurd game-breaking two-out, three-run home run off of Trevor Richards in the seventh.

Sometimes you get a guy to swing at a terrible pitch, and sometimes the literal worst possible outcome happens. How can you not be romantic about baseball? 🤮

▼ Not taking advantage of Taillon’s exit

As tough some of the breaks the Jays’ pitchers caught in this one were, their hitters got a huge one and couldn’t take advantage. More than one, really, as Yankees starter Jameson Taillon came into this one fresh off the injured list due to a partially torn tendon in his right ankle. He wasn't exactly bad, but he wasn't exactly dominant either. Yet the Jays could only tag him for that one run in his 2 1/3 innings of work.

Jays fans were smacking their lips when he had to exit early and the Yankees were forced to go to their bullpen. Unfortunately, reliever Michael King proved a tough nut for Blue Jays hitters to crack. He lasted 2 2/3 innings, allowing just one run on two hits and a walk. It was not the kind of dominance that he showed in his first appearance of the season against the Jays — way back on opening weekend, when he pitched six scoreless one-hit innings in relief of Domingo German (in a game the Jays won 3-1 behind T.J. Zeuch and a parade of relievers: Trent Thornton, Ryan Borucki, David Phelps, Jordan Romano, and Merryweather) — but it was good enough to keep his team in the game long enough to take the lead, at which point they were able to turn it over to the AL's best bullpen by ERA (and MLB's top bullpen by fWAR).

Three hits in a must-win game simply isn't going to get the job done, so even though they manufactured a couple runs, and their pitchers allowed the Yankees to put up a seven-spot, for me the blame for this one falls squarely on the offence.

About that, though…

▼ Narratives

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is in a bit of a slump, with just one hit since the start of the Twins series last Thursday. He's gone hitless in four straight games for the first time this season. This is a bad time for that to be happening.

These are simple statements of fact.

The Blue Jays need Vlad and company to be doing what Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton are doing for the Yankees right now.

This, too, is a simple statement of fact.

Judge and Stanton are hot right now, the Blue Jays’ hitters are not. Since September 14, Stanton has a 227 wRC+, Judge checks in at 134, Vlad at 121, Teoscar at 97, and Bo at 86.

So why do I put this all under the heading “narratives”? Because it’s once we get beyond these simple statements of fact that we need to be careful about the conclusions we draw from what we’re seeing.

Here’s an example. We can see below that lately Bo has been swinging much more frequently at pitches outside of the zone.

That’s something I think it would be best to see come back down a bit, though I think it’s worth noting that those numbers started trending up during his strong start to September (158 wRC+ between the first and the 13th of the month), and that they were more or less “normal” during August, which was his worst month of the season (71 wRC+).

In other words, I’m not sure what exactly it really tells us. Especially considering that the narrative about how Bo has been struggling lately — at least to my mind — is that he’s hacking way too much early on, getting behind in counts, and getting himself out too often in that manner.

But have a look at at the rate at which Bichette has seen pitches outside the zone this year when the count is 0-0.

In September, Bichette has seen a lower rate of 0-0 pitches outside the zone than he has all season. It is therefore unsurprising that, according to Baseball Savant, he has his highest first-pitch swing rate of the season this month, at 53.6%. That’s still a lot, but I bet that rate is lower than a lot of people perceive. It feels like he swings at every first pitch sometimes! And while he is swinging early, it’s at least because he’s seeing a lot of first pitch strikes. (Worth noting: his swing-and-miss rate at 0-0 is 22% in September — also high, and yet his second lowest mark of the year.)

Interestingly, we see above that in August, when he struggled, he was getting a lot of 0-0 pitches out of the zone. Might this be a strategy that teams have started copying recently? Might that be the reason behind the sudden struggles?

Unfortunately Savant doesn’t provide the kind of rolling data that FanGraphs does, but it really seems to me like it’s not quite as simple as that. As the rate of 0-0 pitches he saw outside the zone went up in August, Bichette’s rate of swinging at the first pitch also dipped. His 0-0 swing rate that month was 37.9%, the lowest of any month this season. He’s not simply chasing any first pitch that gets thrown his way. If you throw him fewer strikes, he swings less often.

So what gives?

I think it would be a bit too glib of me to say that sometimes all that’s really going on in these situations is baseball, but sometimes all that’s really going on in these situations is baseball. Vlad, for example, doesn’t seem to have anything especially abnormal in the peripherals I’ve been looking through. He’s hitting the ball as hard as ever, he’s maybe pulling it a little bit more lately, but his plate discipline rates and ground ball rate are where you’d like them to be. Nothing seems especially amiss except the results.

This isn’t a very satisfying thought at a time when things for the Blue Jays are so urgent, but I feel confident that better results will come in time. Or they would come in time if there were more time left in the season.

Baseball just isn’t a sport that’s built for easy narratives like the ones I sometimes feel fans getting pulled — or pushed! — into. If, for example, Stanton and Judge were nobly getting it done when it counts, while Vlad, et al., are wilting in the heat of the playoff race, the implication would seem to be that the veterans can pick and choose when to be at their best. If that were true they probably shouldn’t have waited so long. Vlad has nine more homers, 30 more hits, 33 more runs scored, 11 more RBIs, 12 more walks, and 48 fewer strikeouts this year than Judge, and Stanton is even farther behind than that. The Yankees could have cruised to the top of the wild card standings — if not better — if those guys could have just picked it up and willed themselves to play better throughout the summer. But obviously it doesn’t work that way.

So be wary of narratives this time of year! There absolutely could be something about the way that the Rays, Twins, and now Yankees have approached this lineup in order to snuff out its firepower of late, and the “it’s between their ears” stuff can’t be entirely ruled out either, but let’s not forget about the big ol’ bag of randomness this sport really is at its core, eh?

▼ Moorcroft 96 and the wave

I can appreciate the fact that somewhere along the lines Jays fans seem to have picked up the misguided notion that the wave is supposed to be a manifestation of joy and unity and spirit. You go to a couple Jays games as a kid, you remember the wave, you don’t think very much of it. That’s all fair enough.

But the thing is, it’s distracting. And while I’m not a historian of the subject, my understanding was that distraction was, in fact, always its purpose. A “fun” thing for fans to do to entertain themselves when there’s a lull or they’re not otherwise being entertained by the game in front of them.

Meanings of things like that can change, and based on the Wikipedia article on the phenomenon, it seems that in this case it maybe has. But it never in my memory has been a way to fire up your team, nor should it be. It’s distracting to the people behind you trying to watch the game — mildly so, I’ll admit, and maybe not necessarily to everybody, but to many. I don’t think it’s not distracting to the players on the field either. And it’s certainly distracting and rude as hell to be the attention-seeking asshole who stands up, turns around, and shouts at his whole section to try to get the thing going. Especially when you’re not abiding the “only during a lull” rule!

People are there to watch the baseball, man. Not you.

Hey, and speaking of attention-seeking assholes, how about Mr. Moorcroft 96 holding up his custom Leafs jersey in view of the TV cameras last night for literally the entire game? Congratulations on being worse than those fake umpire guys, my dude!

Down arrow!

▼ The stupid, fraudulent Seattle Mariners

Don’t even get me started with this absurd franchise right now.

The Mariners beat the A’s again on Tuesday. They are now 9-1 in their last 10 games and, somehow, a half game ahead of the Jays, and a half game back of Boston for the second AL wild card spot. They are also bad.

▼ Cole coming up

You didn’t think it would be easy, did you? Ughhhhhh.

More on tonight’s matchup below.

The day ahead

We probably don’t need a whole lot of setup for this, do we? The Jays don’t have to win against Gerrit Cole and the Yankees tonight, but they’re going to need even more help than they do right now if they don’t. And seeing as that help would have to come from the Orioles and Nationals (who play Boston for two and three respectively) and the A’s and Angels (who play the Mariners for one and three respectively), losing tonight would put them in a pretty rough position.

That said, the standings as they are here before the start of play on Wednesday don’t look quite as bad as everything feels at the moment. Have a look:

Just win, baby.

Pitching matchup

• Wednesday, 7:07 PM ET vs. New York (AL): RHP José Berríos (12-9, 3.48 ERA, 197 K/45 BB/186 IP) vs. Gerrit Cole (16-8, 3.08 ERA, 237 K/41 BB/175 1/3 IP)

Worth noting

• It sure would be nice if the Jays could do Robbie Ray a solid and pump Cole for a few runs to cement the AL Cy Young award for their ace, wouldn’t it?

• Cole's second half hasn't been nearly as good as his first, as he sports a 3.82 ERA since the All-Star break. Though he has a 4.61 ERA this month, that makes it only his third worst month of the season. In June his ERA was 4.65, and in July he had a 4.71 ERA. April, May, and (especially) August, however, were pretty spectacular for him.

• For just the third time this season, Cole is coming off back-to-back starts in which he allowed at least nine earned runs. (Don't ask how well he bounced back in those other ones.)

• His disastrous seven-run outing against Cleveland 10 days ago was the first time all season he gave up more than eight hits (he allowed 10). He followed that by allowing three runs on five hits and three walks over six innings against the Red Sox back on Friday.

• Cole has been especially good against right-handed batters this season, limiting them to a slash line of just .217/.255/.321 for the year. Bad news for the Jays' righty-heavy lineup. Better news, however, is that over his last five starts right-handers have slashed .292/.347/.446 against him.

• The Jays counter with José Berríos who has been going quite well lately. After the mechanical adjustment he made following a three inning start against the White Sox on August 24, Berríos has pitched to a 2.70 ERA over six starts (40 innings), with 46 strikeouts and just five walks.

• The Yankees' lineup is more balanced than the Jays' lineup is, but the right-handed hitting Stanton and Judge loom exceptionally large. Fortunately, Berríos has been even better than Cole against right-handers this year, limiting them to a .192/.251/.288 line. He's faced 387 right-handed batters this season and allowed just 20 extra base hits (seven home runs, 13 doubles). Fingers crossed!

• It goes without saying that this should be an outstanding pitching duel. At least for as long as the starters remain in the game.

• The Jays' are going to be hoping for at least six innings out of Berríos, which would set them up to then turn to Adam Cimber (who only threw three pitches on Tuesday), then Tim Mayza and Jordan Romano (who are both fresh). Beyond that, as has been the case all year, things dicey, as Nate Pearson, Julian Merryweather, and Trevor Richards all pitched on Tuesday night. Richards' inning was long, so it may be Pearson who gets a look — if necessary, and we're all hoping and praying it's not.

Scoreboard watching

The Rogers Centre will once again be the centre of the baseball universe tonight, but that doesn't mean there aren't games with big AL playoff implications going on elsewhere. In Baltimore, the Orioles will throw another lefty against the Red Sox, this time Zac Lowther (7.66 ERA over 24 2/3 innings). He'll take on Boston's Nate Eovaldi, who has been a FIP darling this year (2.83, 5.3 fWAR), but only sports a 3.88 ERA (and is coming off getting blown up for seven runs by the Yankees last Friday). Then, in the late game, the Athletics send a very good right-hander in Frankie Montas to the hill in Seattle where he'll take on righty Logan Gilbert. Gilbert has a 4.83 ERA on the season, and a 5.70 ERA over his last seven starts, so I'm sure he'll spin a gem and win the game for the stupid Mariners.

OK, let’s do this! Buckle up!

(Update: 5:10 PM ET): Aaaand we have a lineup…

No Cavan Biggio, thankfully, but Reese McGuire gets the start behind the plate in this one, which certainly seems to have caused some consternation based on my Twitter feed in the minutes after the announcement.

There’s good reason for people to want to see Alejandro Kirk. The last time the Jays faced Gerrit Cole, Kirk went 3-for-4 with a pair of home runs on the day, including 2-for-2 against Cole himself, including an opposite field home run on a 99.4 mph fastball which was the sixth pitch of a second inning at-bat that saw Kirk take a couple fastballs outside, foul off two more, then lay off a slider to run the count 3-2.

Very impressive stuff from the youngster. And before you ask, that ball would have been a homer in 18 big league parks — including the Rogers Centre. Kirk can seemingly hit velocity like few guys on the Jays and he’s had some success with Cole. A Jays team that could use whatever offence it can get should have him in the lineup instead of McGuire, right?

Not necessarily. There are good reasons for Kirk to not be in there, too.

For starters Kirk has only gone deep once since that two homer outburst. Since September 8, he is 4-for-38 with six walks. His slash line over that span is a putrid .105/.227/.184.

The light-hitting McGuire has barely played over that span, and has picked up just a single hit. But if we're splitting hairs here, he's been better over his last 45 PA than Kirk has over his last 44, slashing a still-awful .195/.244/.244 since August 12.

Is Kirk a better hitter than McGuire? Yes, absolutely. Is he better at hitting the kind of velocity that a guy like Cole brings? For sure. But let’s not go nuts about all this. There is another aspect of the catching position that it’s kind of important to consider, and that one isn’t working in Kirk’s favour.

José Berríos has only thrown once to Kirk this season, and it didn't go well. Against the White Sox on August 24th, Berríos threw to Kirk and lasted just three innings — his shortest outing of the year — allowing four runs on nine hits.

McGuire, meanwhile, has caught Berríos 13 times, and the pair have been rather successful, with Berríos pitching to a 2.83 ERA with McGuire behind the plate (his overall ERA since joining the Blue Jays is 3.50).

Now, some caveats here. For one, we're talking about a sample of one when it comes to the Kirk-Berríos combo, and when it comes to McGuire we're using catcher ERA — a metric that's definitely subject to a lot of noise.

I don't think having Kirk catch Berríos will be a problem long-term, but it's entirely understandable to go with the catcher he's been throwing to so well, I think. Especially when there's the added bonus that Cole has been less great this season when facing left-handed hitters (.292 wOBA) as compared to right-handed ones (.251 wOBA). McGuire, as I'm sure you're aware, hits from the left side.

But fear not Charlie haters! There is still a way for you to get mad at the manager for the choices here. Earlier in this piece I wrote about Cavan Biggio and cited some tweets that highlighted his problems hitting velocity.

A dirty little secret about these Blue Jays is the fact that Lourdes Gurriel Jr. — the DH here on Wednesday night, despite still recovering from having his finger sliced open by Randal Grichuk's cleat last week — isn't a whole lot better than Biggio when it comes to hitting fastballs.

Against four-seamers this season Biggio has a .276 wOBA. Gurriel's mark is .286. And against fastballs over 95 mph, Biggio's wOBA is an "atrocious" .138, while Gurriel's is a not-a-whole-lot-better .200. Kirk, on the other hand, is at .291 — a far cry from Vladimir Guerrero Jr.'s ridiculous .521 rate bu—

WAIT A SECOND, HOLD ON. WHAT'S THIS??? Reese McGuire's wOBA against fastballs over 95 mph is .317! Better that Kirk's!

Well that’s certainly interesting, isn’t it?

Digging deeper, I’m seeing that in the second half that has no longer been so. McGuire has a .284 wOBA against four-seamers of 95 mph+, while Kirk’s mark is at .299. And Gurriel? He’s at .160.

Which is to say: if you want to be mad about something, maybe be mad that Gurriel is starting over Kirk at DH, not that McGuire is starting over Kirk!

Better still — I know this probably sounds crazy but just go with me here — maybe just try to enjoy the damn ballgame!