The book on the 2020 Toronto Blue Jays went like this – mercurial, prone to gaffes, will surprise you.
They managed all three on Wednesday, especially the last one. Because even the greatest Jays cynic (raises hand) could not have seen this collapse coming.
Toronto is one of those teams that puts a great deal of faith in the big-numbers theory of baseball. Make this little move or that little change and you increase your odds incrementally over time, which may result in 0.15 more wins.
We saw this approach in Tuesday’s Game 1 when cruising starter Matt Shoemaker was pulled early because a computer somewhere said so.
That loss set up for a more mundane approach in Game 2 – roll out your best pitcher, Hyun-Jin Ryu, and pray.
When the Jays spent US$80-million last summer on Ryu, it was a statement of intent. After several years of giving up, they were going to start trying again.
For the most part, Ryu performed as advertised. You could say of him the best thing you can say about any superstar free agent – he earned his money.
But on Wednesday, when it actually mattered, Ryu wasn’t bad. He was much, much worse than that.
Throwing a fastball that drifted toward the plate like a spiked beachball, Ryu could not consistently get north of 90 miles an hour. Without that effective deterrent, Tampa ran wild on all his offerings.
Ryu’s resultant boxscore read like a pitching coroner’s report – seven runs on eight hits in less than two innings, including two home runs.
That was that. All that remained was for the rest of us to spend two hours listening to the homers on the Sportsnet broadcast trying to convince themselves that a seven-run disadvantage against the best team in the American League isn’t that bad. It ended 8-2.
“That’s what happens in the playoffs,” Jays manager Charlie Montoyo said afterward. “Not always the good players hit.”
Amazingly, Ryu was not the worst Blue Jay in this game. Because while he was ineffective (which will occur), Bo Bichette was careless (which shouldn’t).
Bichette made two terrible errors in the early going. The second of them killed the Jays – extending an inning that should have been over and setting up a Tampa grand slam.
“It happens,” Montoyo said.
Bichette is the future of the Blue Jays, but on the evidence of Wednesday afternoon, he isn’t the present. That’s a tidy way of summing up where the Jays are right now.
Is this team good? Yes.
Is it good enough? Not even close.
The risk now is letting one weird season obscure that reality.
The main thing the Jays did this year was changing their fundamental question.
For most of the Mark Shapiro/Ross Atkins era, the question was, ‘When will this team be good?’
Management devoted most of their effort to obscuring the answer. They loved talking about their processes and talent-acquisition stratagems and performance maximization. Anything to avoid giving a deadline.
This year, the question became, “How good can we be?”
During their run at the Yankees in early September, they looked very good indeed. But baseball isn’t about the streaks. What matters is aggregate performance over the longest season in sports.
At what point this year did the Jays seem like a team that could regularly dominate the opposition? That point never arrived.
The team is young, and it plays that way. The players don’t know what they don’t know. They win games they shouldn’t and lose others they should.
In the midst of all this to’ing and fro’ing, Montoyo carries himself like a guy who still can’t believe he’s got the top job. Perhaps because it often feels as though he hasn’t. You think it was Montoyo’s idea to pull Shoemaker in Game 1? Because no fully empowered manager does that.
Do you work well when you feel micromanaged? People who are pressed on too hard are erratic. They may perform in spurts, but they have a tendency to crack when it matters.
How else would you describe what happened on Wednesday? The Jays didn’t lose. They imploded.
“Sky’s the limit,” Montoyo said, sounding far too happy for a manager who’d just lost the way he’d lost. “We’re just kids.”
“Days like today happen,” Bichette said.
There’s no point in self-flagellation, but a few light lashes might’ve suited the result better. It’s great they have all this perspective, but they did just get wiped out.
In the long run, it can be a good thing. That learning experience so-so teams always talk about when they’ve been run over by a much better team. But some things have to change.
For one, this club needs room to breathe. A good first move in that regard would be letting Montoyo do his job without a bunch of baseball-ops wonks sitting in his lap as he does it.
Second, investment. The expansion of the playoffs has widened the contention window for every team in baseball. But it does not follow that every team will do well in this new free-for-all.
The Jays have an opportunity this off-season to marry some experience to their surfeit of innocence. A few steadying hands on the roster might eliminate all the late-game collapses and post-season detonations.
Third and most important, the Jays oughtn’t kid themselves into feeling satisfied. If coming in third in the AL East is cause for celebration, the club should give former managers such as Jim Fregosi, Carlos Tosca and Tim Johnson a call. Someone in Toronto owes them a Champagne shower.
The only way this Jays season can be considered a success if it’s the beginning of actual success in the seasons to come. Not theoretical seasons years from now. Next season.
The short-term goal should be turning that institutional question into a statement: “We’re good.”
How will we know when that’s happened? When this team stops talking as though there’s nothing wrong with losing as long as you’ve won a little bit more than everyone expected.