The preseason predictions for Toronto were spot on but that was just the Blue Jays living up to the performance of 2021 (91-71) and not making the 2022 leap forward that fans hoped for.
Record: 92-70 (2nd AL East)
Preseason Projected Wins: PECOTA 91.1 & FanGraphs 92.6
Playoffs: Reached Wild Card Series
FanGraphs projected win totals for the Blue Jays never went above 95 wins or below 87. At a team level, they were the height of consistency throughout the season; it’s just that some of the outstanding performances with the bat came from areas we didn’t really expect.
It should give Blue Jays fans hope for the future, but the unceremonious dumping out of the postseason by the Mariners might have dampened some of it.
Two steps back, three steps forward
The Blue Jays had some big gaps to fill going into the 2022 season, with losing AL Cy Young winner Robbie Ray and third in the AL MVP Marcus Seimen. They attempted to fill the hole on the pitching side with the addition of Kevin Gausman, and on the hitting side, they traded for Matt Chapman. So, a Toronto retrospective should probably start with these gents.
Gausman was great for the Blue Jays with over 170 innings of a 3.35 ERA and peripherals suggesting that ERA number was potentially a bit harsh on him. His chase rate was phenomenal, but he does give up a bit of hard contact. File this one under ‘awesome’ first year for big multi-year free-agent deals from recent years.
Matt Chapman gets a ‘good’ rating from me. It may seem harsh to give someone who had a 4.0 WAR season just a ‘good’ rating especially given he had improved on the little slump he had with the bat in 2021. He posted a 117 wRC+ which is good but not great when it comes to top third basemen in baseball, and if the 29-year-old had done that along with his usual defensive brilliance, then I would be singing all the praises of Chapman, but he didn’t.
Chapman regressed to a league-average defensive third baseman in 2022 with just one outs-above-average (OAA) and two defensive-runs-saved (DRS) for a full season compared to 17 OAA and 28 DRS in 2021, and 15 OAA and 10 DRS in 2019. That is a pretty steep drop-off and something I will probably look to deep dive into in the future.
Outside of these two, what went really well was the catchers. Danny Jansen led the team with 140 wRC+ and Alejandro Kirk also provided 129 wRC+ with the bat. Along with this superior offensive production (the league average for catchers was just 88 wRC+), they were both above-average defensively. Kirk looked good on the wide range of framing metrics, so played the majority of the time behind the plate.
What was truly remarkable about this Blue Jays lineup was that it was good across the board but didn’t have anyone with an outstanding season. They had five hitters with wRC+ between 129 and 132, and their worst hitters (min. 200 PA) were Santiago Espinal, Cavan Biggio and Raimel Tapia, who had a 99, 97, and 90 wRC+, respectively.
To make that point statistically, the 90 wRC+ from the Blue Jays’ worst hitter (min. 200 PA) was the highest of any team last season. The 140 wRC+ from the Blue Jays’ best hitter (min. 200 PA) only ranked 15th best.
The only down mark I would give the Blue Jays on the hitting side is that they spent some time on reclamation projects like Jackie Bradley Jr. and Bradley Zimmer, which surely everyone knows aren’t worth it anymore.
So, let’s switch to pitching. I’ve already mentioned Gausman was tremendous, but he wasn’t even the brightest spark for Toronto. That fell to the 11th overall pick of the 2019 draft, Alek Manoah, who showed a finger to the concept of the sophomore slump.
Manoah was brought up in 2021 after just nine starts in the minors, mainly due to the lack of a 2020 minor league season. He was great with 111.2 innings over 20 starts and a 3.22 ERA. This season he was just four innings shy of 200 with a stellar 2.24 ERA which earned him third place in the AL Cy Young voting.
He bettered his peripherals, with his FIP and xERA being 3.35 and 3.31, respectively. If he can continue to pitch this volume of innings with an ERA close to those numbers, then the Blue Jays will be very happy.
Outside of these two, the Blue Jays only got good starts from Ross Stripling. Jose Berrios and Yusei Kikuchi both posted an ERA above 5.0 and combined for over 270 innings. This meant that the Blue Jays had to score lots of runs to win some games, but fortunately, their hitters were up to it, scoring half a run more per game than the league average.
The relief corps also helped out with stellar performances from Adam Cimber and David Phelps, as well as Jordan Romano establishing himself as one of the best closers in the game. The 60% success rate of their one-run games (30-20) is usually the sign of a good bullpen.
Hopefully, you have read my 2022 Retrospective on the New York Yankees, so for the second team in a row, we need to end on the sad note of a team being swept in the postseason. Simplistically, the Blue Jays’ best three pitchers got smashed about. Manoah, Gausman and Romano all got beaten, and it’s never going to be easy to win games when your star pitchers get shelled.
Being three runs behind before you’ve even taken a swing turns a 50-50 game into a 75-25 game, and in Game one, the Blue Jays struggled to get anything but the odd single against Luis Castillo.
Game two looked to be theirs when they were 8-1 up going into the sixth inning. Teams that are seven runs up after the five innings win 98.8% of the time, but what we saw was the remaining 1.2%. There have been plenty of words written about this game, and I won’t add too many more, just the timing of replacing Gausman for Tim Mayza seemed off. This comes from the 20-20 hindsight of a Guardians fan who watched this game on replay the day after, but Mayza should have come in two or three batters sooner or not all.
All in all, they were the third-best team in the AL last season that got bumped in the first round of the new Wild Card Series. Fans should be content that this season was built on solid foundations, which they hope the Blue Jays will grow from in the next season.
Estimated 2022 Payroll: $175M
Estimated 2023 Payroll: $176M
Looking purely at the current squads (at the time of writing,) my models have the Blue Jays as the fifth-best team in the league, near the bottom of Tier one (ranks 1-6) teams. They would be a good team in 2023 if they just stand pat but my rankings suggest three AL would pass them with a good free agent signing and a couple more if they opened the chequebook. Ergo, the Blue Jays have to get some guys in if they want to stay near the top.
The most obvious gap in the lineup is self-made in right field. They recently traded away Teoscar Hernandez to the Mariners for Erik Swanson, so that would be the best hole to fill. The other offensive hole they could look at is the second base slot, but I think Espinal should be a league-average hitter with some plus defence.
But given I still rank them to have the second-best offence in MLB – my model loves Jansen and Kirk – they might be better suited to engage with the pitching side of the free agent pool.
On that pitching side, they need arms to back up Manoah and Gausman. They can hope for some innings to be eaten up by Berrios and Kikuchi at the league average, but they really need at least an SP3 or better for them to push for a good season in 2023.
Obviously, if they could get one of the big three of Carlos Rodón, Justin Verlander or Jacob deGrom, they would be laughing, but a couple of solid better-than-average guys and the Blue Jays will have a robust pitching core to work from in 2023. If his 2022 is anything close to what is to be expected in 2023, then I think bringing back Ross Stripling should be an easy win for them here.
They also need to add a couple of better bullpen arms, but the pool is thin this offseason, so picking up one or two RP-reclamation projects might prove useful. They could also wait until the trade deadline and pick up someone once they know who is performing well in-season.
For those ready to nitpick me ranking the Blue Jays as having the best catchers, that’s because both Jansen and Kirk are good. I don’t think either of them will be better than Adley Rutschman or J.T. Realmuto, but most teams with a great catcher have a mediocre second catcher. The Blue Jays catcher that doesn’t start is frequently their DH.
That being said, I could envision them trading one (probably Jansen) away as I think Gabriel Moreno is more than good enough to be a second catcher and that a good hitting catcher is always wanted. Someone will trade handsomely for Jansen; I’ll predict a trade with Cleveland for one of their exciting infield prospects.
Bad offseason: Mike Clevinger & Michael Fulmer
Ok offseason: Chris Bassitt, Ross Stripling & Adam Ottavino
Good offseason: Cody Bellinger, Carlos Rodon, Ross Stripling & Chad Green
Best offseason: Brandon Nimmo, Carlos Rodon, Ross Stripling & Taylor Rogers
Featured image of Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Gabriel Moreno, and Cavan Biggio by Greg Fiume/Getty Images
This is part of a series of articles by Russell Eassom. Make sure you check out the others. Russell is Bat Flips and Nerds’ resident analytical genius, and arguably Europe’s finest sabermetrician. If you’re not following Russell on Twitter @REassom, then you’re doing baseball wrong.