Three up, three down: The 2021 Toronto Blue Jays

On Vlad's magnificence, free agent wins, Alek Manoah, bullpen blow-ups, Dunedin, Buffalo, heartbreak, and more!

The Toronto Blue Jays season ended in heartbreaking fashion over the weekend, leading to the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees playing in the AL wild card game on Tuesday night. Who won? Who cares! You can’t get a worse outcome than either of those teams going on to face the Rays in the ALDS if you’re the Blue Jays or one of their fans, but there’s not anything that can be done about it now. We can only be resigned to the disappointment and start looking forward.

That was precisely the message team president and CEO Mark Shapiro sent to fans via Twitter on Monday morning.

GM Ross Atkins had his season-end session with the media via Zoom here on Wednesday afternoon, and I’ll be writing all about that as soon as this piece goes up. The Blue Jays’ off-season is indeed underway. And while I’m looking forward to going back to talking about trades, free agents, prospects, roster-building, the business of the sport, and all of that good stuff, it’s still too soon. It’s just too soon.

So let’s talk about it.

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2021: Blue Jays 91-71, 4th place AL East

There will be more to be said about the ups and downs of this season in the weeks ahead. I haven’t decided on the format that will all take just yet, so I figure for the last time for a while, I’ll go to what’s be come the staple around here. This is three up, three down on your 2021 Blue Jays…

▲ Vlad’s breakout

Every season will have its share of good stories and bad stories, it’s rare when a story emerges from a season that’s unequivocally franchise altering. And while, yes, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. was about as universally acclaimed a prospect as there could be — a kid at 19 who guys with skin in the public-facing prospect game were calling a potential Hall of Famer — the 2020 weight gain and some underwhelming results compared to his peers did a very good job of putting fear into more than a few Jays fans.

Vlad entered 2021 with a 107 wRC+ over his first two seasons combined. Among 226 batters with at least 500 plate appearances over those two seasons Vlad ranked 112th, just ahead of Jason Heyward, Eddie Rosario, Willy Adames, and David Peralta. One year later and only Bryce Harper’s 170 wRC+ topped Vlad’s 167 mark in 2021, and no position player in the American League was more valuable according to FanGraphs’ version of WAR.

The Vlad we were waiting for showed up fully formed at age-22, and it’s not difficult to see why. The work he put in during the off-season to get his weight back down allowed him to stay stronger for longer, to stay balanced within his mechanics better, and ultimately to simply put his best swing on the ball more often.

When Vlad hits the ball on the ground, his productivity craters. When he puts the ball in the air more, it soars.

Of course, as anybody who watched the Jays all year knows, the trick wasn’t simply about adding an uppercut to his swing to keep the ball off the ground. Vlad is still a line drive hitter who hits the ball with as much authority as anybody this side of Giancarlo Stanton, and to all fields, a lot of those just so happen to go over the fence — like this one off the Rays’ Adam Conley in a game this September, which with a launch angle of 15° was one of the two lowest hit home runs of the season, per Statcast.

In fact, among the 19 players with at least 35 home runs this season, Vlad’s average launch angle of 9.4° was the lowest, despite the fact that he was tied with Royals catcher/DH Sal Pérez for the MLB lead in home runs at 48 — the second most ever by a Blue Jays player, topping George Bell’s 47 in his 1987 MVP season by one after going deep on each of the last two days of the season.

That 9.4° average launch angle was nearly twice as high as the concerning 4.6° mark he put up in 2020. He did the thing. He really, really did the thing.

An added bonus to the youngster’s renewed athleticism was a newfound aptitude at first base, where it appears he’ll have a long-term home. Not only was Vlad clearly more comfortable there than in his first pass at the job last season, he was able to really show off some great glove work all season long — as well as an affability and chattiness with opponents on first that will make him one of the game’s great ambassadors for years to come (especially when mic’d up).

It was great, it seems durable, and another great off-season of work might even just give him another gear. Scary to think of — unless you’re the Blue Jays, who have exactly the cornerstone they’d hoped for on their hands now and going forward.

▲ The free agent signings

It's incredible that the Blue Jays could have handed out their biggest free agent contract in history at $150 million, had that player play fewer than half of the team's games in the first year of the deal and turn 32 years old before his first season with the club was over, and still be viewed as the biggest winners in baseball when it came to last year's free agent crop. That's what happens, though, when you end up spending just $26 million on players who should fare no worse than top two in AL Cy Young voting, and top four in AL MVP voting.

Don’t get me wrong, George Springer was great when he was healthy, producing a 140 wRC+ over 78 games despite spending many of those in a knee brace. His contract may ultimately end in worrisome territory, but we’re long way from that just yet. There were some swings and misses on the free agent market too, some of which we’ll get to below. But Robbie Ray and Marcus Semien were such incredible wins for the 2021 Jays that they erase whatever other mistakes may have been made.

If you use the Baseball Reference version of wins above replacement, Ray (6.7 WAR) and Semien (7.1 WAR) were worth nearly 14 wins. According to FanGraphs, the pair was worth 10.5 WAR. Even that lower total is remarkable, given that back in 2020, Craig Edwards of FanGraphs worked out that the average cost of one win on the free agent market over the three winters from 2017-18 to 2019-20 was $8.6. So that’s $90 million worth of value for just $26 million. Pretty good!

Both players did it by being the epitome of power at their positions. Semien set an all-time MLB record for home runs by a second baseman, while Ray led the major leagues in strikeouts at 248 in just 193 1/3, beating Philadelphia's Zack Wheeler by one K despite throwing 20 fewer innings.

Unfortunately, a huge part of what also made both Ray and Semien such great free agent signings is the fact that there’s no chance for their deals to age poorly. Both contracts will expire after the World Series, giving the Jays an exclusive window to renegotiate, but at terms that certainly won’t be nearly as favourable.

This will be the central question of the Jays’ off-season. Do they pay big money to lock in two fan favourite players, or do they preserve their long-term financial flexibility while taking the risk that they can reproduce a facsimile of the lost production elsewhere? Complicating matters is the fact that both players are now into their 30s, and maybe have some warts fans weren’t as willing to appreciate during the season as they are now.

For example, Semien produced somewhat similar numbers to his breakout 2019 in Oakland on the surface, but was much less of a well-rounded hitter. He appears to have sold out for maximum power, trading what was a 13.7% strikeout rate in 2019 for this year's 20.2% rate. And while his home run totals jumped from 33 to 45, his walk rate dipped from 11.6% to 9.1% too. Could that simply be a conscious response to being in a stronger lineup and a park where power plays up? It absolutely could. Could his .334 OBP be largely a product of his lower-than-usual BABIP (.276, which is low even for Semien, who's career mark is .291)? I definitely think so. But these are the questions we’re forced to grapple with now that we’re beyond the “holy crap Semien is incredible!” portion of the calendar — and more importantly, that the Jays will be forced to grapple with. The durability is certainly there for a guy you’d be OK with giving a Springer-like contract, and the fit and the “teammate” are there too, I think. As a fan, there’s nothing not to love about Marcus Semien. But are the underlying skills really as strong as they look? He was more reliant than ever on home runs in 2021. And according to Statcast he hit five more actual home runs than expected home runs, tying him for the fifth highest difference among the 102 batters with at least 20 bombs.

And Ray? As brilliant as his year was, and as much as he deserves better than to have his whole season nitpicked based on a couple of games near the end, he is still a max-effort 30-year-old noticeably throwing a couple mph harder than when he was 27, and relying almost entirely on just two pitches — a recipe that led to his having a 5.52 ERA in the third time through the order this season, while being Cy Young brilliant the first (1.88 ERA) and second (2.05 ERA) time through.

These are great players coming off a couple of the greatest seasons in Blue Jays history. Ray seems to tick all the same boxes that Semien does in terms of durability and “teammate” and everything else. I don’t think these are one-year wonders by any stretch. But should the Jays hand them the nine-figure deals they’ve both definitely earned? Is this really the roster they ought to run back for the next several years in the hope that it can get better results? It’s awfully tempting to say yes, but there are clear reasons to say no, I think. That only underlines what a missed opportunity 2021 actually was, and how special Semien and Ray’s seasons really were.

▲ Alek Manoah

When Alek Manoah made his major league debut on May 27th, the following pitchers had already started games — either as true starters or as "openers" — for the 2021 Toronto Blue Jays: Hyun Jin Ryu, Steven Matz, Robbie Ray, Ross Stripling, Anthony Kay, Trent Thornton, T.J. Zeuch, Tommy Milone, David Phelps, Travis Bergen, Nate Pearson, and Tanner Roark.

Manoah started three times in Triple-A earlier in the year. He started six times in Low-A back in 2019 — the year he was taken with the 11th overall pick in the draft by the Jays. His pro career amounted to 35 innings when he stepped onto the mound in Yankee Stadium that day. And yet, he'd go on to make 20 starts for the club this year, posting a 3.22 ERA that ranked 29th in baseball among 129 starters with at least 100 innings. His 10.24 K/9 rate ranked 27th among that same group. His 3.1 RA9-WAR ranked in the top 45 among that group. His 3.80 FIP ranked 46th, just ahead of Blake Snell and just behind Lucas Giolito.

Alek Manoah absolutely pitched his ass off for this team.

We’ve seen with Nate Pearson how long the process of getting a starter from top prospect status to the big leagues can take. Thomas Hatch, Anthony Kay, Sean Reid-Foley, Ryan Borucki, Eric Pardinho. None of these guys ever had quite the same pedigree as Manoah or Pearson, but they too show the difficulty — and attrition rate — often inherent in developing starting pitching.

And yet there was Manoah with a Blue Jays rookie season for the ages. Second only to Juan Guzman among Jays rookie starters by ERA (min. 100 IP), third behind Marcus Stroman and Guzman in FIP, easily tops in strikeout rate, fifth in fWAR (thanks to the heavy workloads handed to Gustavo Chacin and Ricky Romero). And pitching like a trusted veteran down the stretch in the heat of a playoff race — earning AL Rookie of the Month honours in September in the process, thanks to his 4-0 record over 37 1/3 innings of 3.38 ERA, 41 strikeout baseball.

He also seemed to fit in delightfully well with the older guys, too.

Not only was he vital to these 2021 Jays, but he’s already made an enormous impact on the 2022 Jays as well. Robbie Ray may be a question mark, but with Manoah, Ryu, and José Berríos in place, the rotation has a strong foundation regardless of what happens with free-agents-to-be Ray and Steven Matz, and question marks like Pearson, Hatch, Ross Stripling, etc.

▼ The bullpen

The problem area of the roster from where most of the season’s negatives flowed, the Jays’ bullpen wasn’t a total wreck — especially by the end — but it cost them dearly throughout the season.

There were, of course, positives here too. Jordan Romano’s year was great, especially considering the way he became a more and more fastball-dependent pitcher as the year went on, likely due to the loss of spin rate on his slider following the sticky stuff crackdown in June. Tim Mayza’s transformation from a post-Tommy John guy who had to pitch his way past Francisco Liriano in camp and onto the opening day roster into a guy who was crucial to a 91-win team’s success was an incredible story. Adam Cimber was a huge mid-season acquisition who pitched to a 1.89 ERA during his stint with the Jays and managed to allow just two home runs all season. Trevor Richards was a very useful pickup, too.

Those guys were enough to prevent the club’s overall surface bullpen numbers from looking too ugly, but the problems obviously went deeper. The Jays were constantly trying to work around the fact that their reliable bullpen option were so limited. Early in the season this meant watching them turn to guys nobody wanted to see with the ball at crucial moments in games. Later on it meant leaving their starters for longer than they might have otherwise, which not only occasionally cost them in specific games, but may have also helped lead to guys struggling a bit to the get to the finish line.

Contributing to all that, of course, was some questionable decision-making along the way. I’m sympathetic with the fact that for much of the season there were likely workload limits being strongly recommended from above, and I’m especially sympathetic to manager Charlie Montoyo, who because of his title takes 99.9% of the criticism for decisions the Jays themselves and the pictures on our TV sets could not make more clear are collaborative, but too often there seemed to be rigidity to the way relievers were deployed that didn’t seem to reflect the circumstances of the game at hand. Games lost because when one guy got into trouble the help available was inadequate or not there at all.

There was Tyler Chatwood and Tayler Saucedo blowing a 5-1 eighth inning lead against Baltimore in June, and the team having to turn to Jordan Romano anyway. There was Trent Thornton still being called upon over and over until mid-September despite allowing a run in 15 of 25 appearances beginning in the middle of May. There was Rafael Dolis getting 11 batters in the ninth inning at Fenway despite quickly having turned a 7-5 lead into an 8-7 deficit. There was Saucedo getting the eighth inning of an 8-6 game in Washington mid-August, then loading the bases before turning it over to Dolis, despite the fact that Dolis was literally one more bad outing — which it turned out he definitely had in him! — from being designated for assignment.

But, of course, it’s much harder to navigate those kinds of situations when just about everybody sucks and the ones that don’t you’re either hoping to spare or aren’t necessarily available anyway. And too often for the 2021 Jays, the options in the bullpen were simply not good enough. It wasn’t for lack of trying, though.

Kirby Yates was supposed to be the closer for this team — an ill-fated signing who was ruled out for the season at the start of camp, not long after a concern about his arm caused the Atlanta Braves to back out of a contract offer. David Phelps was going to be a big part of the bullpen. Signing Chatwood was a fine idea that worked out for a bit, but he lingered too long on the roster after everything went sideways on him because the Jays simply had no one else. Ditto for Dolis, who struggled to recapture the success he had in 2020, pitched terribly through an injury because the Jays had no other options, and then simply couldn’t get anywhere close to back on track. As good as the mid-season pickups of Cimber and Richards were, the Jays were too timid with other deals, taking low-cost fliers on Brad Hand and Joakim Soria — pitchers who didn’t just not help, but who actively harmed their chances (Hand in particular).

The front office at least admitted their mistake with Hand rather quickly, much as they did in 2016 when they flipped Drew Storen for Joaquin Benoit. The difference there was, that was a season in which their preferred method of bullpen construction ultimately got them through. Benoit was great. Jason Grilli was an excellent low-risk, high-reward pickup. Rule 5 pick Joe Biagini thrived. They Jays badly needed what they got from those guys. The trick worked. This year it didn’t — and it helped cost them a season where so much else went absolutely perfect.

Obviously finding a whole bunch of homegrown flamethrowers is easier said than done, but clearly there ought to be a lesson in how this all fell so badly apart.

▼ The longest road trip

We obviously can’t just extrapolate the record that the Blue Jays had when playing at the Rogers Centre this season and suggest that it's anywhere near what their home record would have looked like if not for their long sojourn to Dunedin and Buffalo. But it's pretty remarkable to see that they were 25-11 at their real home, 10-11 in TD Ballpark, and 12-11 at Sahlen Field.

The 2021 Blue Jays were 44-38 on the road. They had a better road winning percentage than they did in their first two "homes," and based on the comments from the team itself, and the noise from the stands during some of those "home" games, that absolutely tracks.

This is, of course, a less tangible criticism than, say, failing to find more than a couple adequate relievers despite taking ten stabs at doing so, and the team could only play the games that were there in front of them, but it's impossible not to believe it had an effect. And, if you ask me, it was probably a pretty big one.

The fifth best team in baseball by run differential finishes sixth in the American League and out of the playoffs? There has to be more to the story than just too much Dolis and Chatwood and "Stupid Montoya!"

Oof.

▼ The little things

The 2021 Blue Jays did a lot of little things right. They were a stronger defensive team by the end of the season than at the start. They ultimately got the bullpen to a point where they weren’t being killed by it. The lineup eventually started to all but write itself every day. The starting pitching was great in the second half, and while many of the relievers were lost causes, it seemed like every little adjustment Pete Walker and company would help a starter with unlocked a new level of dominance. It was a good season in a hell of a lot of ways.

But man alive, there are just so many moments from this year that will haunt every Jays fan for a long, long time. Moments big and small, indelible and subtle. From Marcus Semien muffing that routine throw to potentially end a game against Detroit, to… uh…. ugh, OK, that one maybe hurts more than most!

But the thing is, that’s unfair to Semien. Especially considering the way he gave this team so much life otherwise — in the broad sense because of his overall play, but more specifically because of the home run he hit against his former team, the Oakland A’s, back on September 3rd, turning on its ear what would become the second of eight straight victories that vaulted the Blue Jays back into the playoff race.

It was as miraculous as the play in Detroit was tragic. And that’s just the thing. In a season where you lost by the thinnest of margins, literally anything could have been the difference between success and failure — the playoffs or not. Choosing someone else over Hand, not rushing Springer back so quickly, ditching Chatwood or Dolis sooner, not pinch hitting Valera for Kirk so he could bunt, etc. etc. etc. etc.

It’s cruel, and yet it’s almost comforting. People naturally love to point fingers over bad outcomes, often when it doesn’t make much sense to do so, but here there just isn’t a single thing anyone can call the definitive reason this team is no longer playing baseball games while other, worse teams go on.

It was what it was. A great season, a collection of great individual talents, a team that danced and inspired and felt unstoppable when they returned to Toronto in July and then again in as they stormed through September, but that at other times felt ordinary. It was a rollercoaster ride like few seasons I can ever remember watching. And it won’t be easily forgotten. Not so much because of the triumphs and the individual greatness, but because of all the little negative things that, added up, meant that it had to end too soon.

It was just too soon.