The Blue Jays Rotation Isn’t Off to a Flying Start

Chris Bassitt
Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

The Blue Jays were our staff pick to win the AL East, moreso due to the strength of their lineup than their pitching, though I think it’s safe to say that nobody thought their run prevention would be this bad, this early. Indeed, the team gave up nine runs to the Cardinals in an Opening Day victory, then lost three straight, surrendering nine runs in two of those games. Whether in Canada or the United States, that’s not a good exchange rate.

It’s not often that a team gives up nine or more runs in three of its first four games, and as you might guess, it’s rarely an indicator of quality. It’s happened just 12 times in the Wild Card era (1995 onward), including twice this year:

Most Time Giving Up 9 or More Runs in First 4 Games
Team Season Count W L W–L%
MIN 1995 3 56 88 .389
CHW 1995 3 68 76 .472
OAK 1996 3 78 84 .481
MIN 1999 3 63 97 .394
TBD 2001 3 62 100 .383
STL 2001 3 93 69 .574
DET 2002 3 55 106 .342
COL 2005 3 67 95 .414
CLE 2009 3 65 97 .401
OAK 2021 3 86 76 .531
TOR 2023 3
BAL 2023 3
Total 693 888 .438
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

The 10 previous teams to get beat up with such frequency to start the season combined for a winning percentage that equates to a 71–91 record. Five of those teams went on to lose 95 or more games, and only two finished at .500 or better, with the 2001 Cardinals the only ones to make the playoffs, and that as a Wild Card team.

That’s not great company to be in, and yet the Blue Jays aren’t alone even among teams in their division; the Orioles gave up exactly nine runs in each of their first three games, making them the fourth Wild Card-era team to allow at least nine in all three and the first since the 2005 Rockies. Yet neither of them came close to allowing as many runs as the Phillies did over their first four games: 37, as compared to Toronto’s 31 and Baltimore’s 27. The reigning NL champions entered Tuesday night with a staff ERA of 9.28 as the team went 0–4; at least the Blue Jays won one game and the Orioles two. Funny enough, the three teams combined to allow four runs in their victories as I was writing this, as if you needed a reminder that such ugliness was unsustainable.

Admittedly, it wasn’t pretty for the Blue Jays’ starters in those four games, as they were rocked for a 10.80 ERA and 6.49 FIP in 18.1 innings. While one turn through the front four of the rotation is just that — a mere 2.5% of the season — the lack of surrounding data feeds into anxieties about what could go wrong. As a matter of due diligence for those who might consider riding the Blue Jays’ bandwagon as well as those who are already hyperventilating, let’s take a closer look.

Alek Manoah had the honor of the Opening Day start after a season in which he made his first All-Star team and finished third in ERA (2.24) as well as the Cy Young voting. Facing the Cardinals, he was staked to a 3–0 first-inning lead but quickly gave back a run via an infield single, an error, a walk, and a single by Nolan Arenado in a laborious 29-pitch frame. After a scoreless second, he served up a two-run homer to Tyler O’Neill in the third, then gave up a two-run homer to Brendan Donovan in the fourth before getting the hook with two outs. Final line: 3.2 innings, nine hits, five runs, two walks, three strikeouts.

Obviously that’s not what you want, but his performance didn’t offer any major red flags. Manoah’s fastball velocity was slightly up from last year (94.1 mph versus 93.8), and while the results on his slider weren’t good (the Cardinals went 4-for-5 with a homer), its velocity and movement were in line with last year (it scored a 117 in Stuff+). Manoah said afterwards he wasn’t aggressive enough. “One thing I’ve got to remember is I’m really good myself,” he told reporters. “Sometimes you might go in there and face a good lineup and the act of giving them a lot of credit makes them even better.”

The Blue Jays did come back to win that one despite Manoah’s struggles. On Saturday, however, they squandered a good effort by Kevin Gausman (six innings, three unearned runs, one walk, seven strikeouts), as starter Jack Flaherty and relievers Drew VerHagen and Andre Pallante kept them hitless through 6.1 frames (albeit with seven walks from Flaherty) before Kevin Kiermaier singled. The unearned runs came with two outs and two on in the third inning, when Matt Chapman’s bobble and throwing error on an Arenado grounder brought in one run and Nolan Gorman followed with a two-run single.

Gausman’s average four-seam velocity was down 1.1 mph relative to last year (93.9 versus 95.0) but off by only 0.5 mph relative to his monthly averages for April and May of that season; he averaged 93.6 mph in his first outing of 2022. Again, probably nothing to worry about.

Far more troubling were the performances of Chris Bassitt on Sunday and José Berríos on Monday. Signed to a three-year, $63 million deal in December, Bassitt had a brutal debut, serving up four homers and allowing nine runs in 3.1 innings. His first official pitch as a Blue Jay, a high changeup to Donovan, ended up going over the right centerfield wall for a 397-foot solo homer. Two pitches later, Alec Burleson hit a high fastball 363 feet over the left field wall. With two outs and one on later in the frame, Gorman destroyed a hanging curveball, sending it to right-center for a projected distance of 446 feet. He hit another two-run homer, 395 feet to right-center off a cutter in the middle of the zone, in the third inning.

By the time manager John Schneider came out to get Bassitt in the fourth, he had secured the worst outing of his career in terms of hits (10), runs, homers, and Game Score v2 (-8). He didn’t walk or strike out a single hitter and induced just four swings and misses and six called strikes from among his 57 pitches, for a CSW% of 17.5%.

As Dan Szymborski noted in his 2023 Bust Candidates rundown, the 34-year-old righty’s velocity was down all spring. “Bassitt’s fastest pitch this spring was 93.5 mph, below his average in more than half of his starts last year,” he wrote. “If he were averaging 90–92 but still hitting 95–96, I’d be less worried, but I’m skeptical that he simply chose to go through a whole month without ever throwing his fastest fastball.”

That trend continued on Sunday, with the velocity on Bassitt’s sinker (his primary fastball) off 1.7 mph relative to last year (91.1 mph versus 92.8), and most of his other pitches were similarly off as well; he reached 93 mph just twice. Afterward, Bassitt found himself “at a loss for words a little bit” because he’d “never had a game” where so many types of pitches from his broad arsenal (he threw eight different pitch types according to Statcast) were hit so hard. Twelve of his 19 batted ball events reached or exceeded 95 mph; among pitchers with at least 10 batted ball events this season, only Chris Sale had a higher hard-hit rate than Bassitt’s 63.2% (Germán Márquez tied him).

“I think it was just mis-executed pitches,” Schneider said. “He just didn’t really hit his spots. A team like that, you can’t make mistakes. I know he focused on the middle of their order, and it was the guys before and after those guys who did damage. I think it just came down to poor execution.”

Absent any reports of injury or discomfort, this should be something Bassitt and the Jays can fix. But if his underperformance ends up being an aberration, Berríos’ struggles against the Royals on Monday had a more familiar ring. He gave up four hits and three runs in the first inning, settled down for a couple of frames, then was tagged for five more hits — four of them with exit velocities of 98.3 mph or higher — in a four-run fourth. He also walked one batter, who scored when MJ Melendez greeted reliever Zach Pop with a sixth-inning homer. The eight runs allowed matched last year’s high and marked the seventh time in his last 28 starts in which he allowed six or more runs.

Berríos’ 93.9-mph average four-seamer velocity was just 0.1 mph off last year, and he did strike out seven with 11 swings and misses (seven on his slurve) and a 30.3% CSW%; his 33.3% chase rate matched his career average. But when he was hit, he was hit hard, with an average exit velo of 94.1 mph and a hard-hit rate of 61.1%. His performance wasn’t as extreme last year — we are talking about one start compared to 32 — but those contact stats were dreadful. His 9.5% barrel rate placed in the 15th percentile, which was at least higher than his 90.0 mph average exit velo (13th), 43.8% hard-hit rate (11th), or 5.11 xERA (ninth); meanwhile, his 5.23 ERA was the highest of the majors’ 45 qualifiers, and his 4.55 FIP was the AL’s second highest. In the context of his being in the first year of a seven-year, $131 million extension, the performance was an unsettling one, to say the least.

Last August, Ben Clemens noted that where Berríos had previously gotten away with leaving a lot of four-seamers in the middle of the strike zone, last year those were getting demolished. More recently, old friend Travis Sawchik added that Berríos threw a career-low 7.1% of fastballs (four-seamers and sinkers) on the edges of the plate against lefties. More:

Berríos allowed a career-worst batting average of .447 to lefties on fastballs in the “heart” of the strike zone, according to MLB’s Statcast data – which was more than .100 worse than his next worst season.

He allowed 29 home runs last year, sixth most in the majors, and left-handed hitters crushed 20 of them; 12 came via Berrios’ fastball. Only Josiah Gray of the Nationals allowed more home runs to lefties.

On the whole, the Statcast value of 17 runs above average on Berríos’ four-seamer made it the majors’ sixth-least valuable heater and the eighth-least valuable pitch of any stripe. Repeating a table from my Madison Bumgarner piece:

Least Valuable Pitches of 2022
Player Team Pitch Pitches % Run Value PA BA SLG wOBA
Chad Kuhl COL Sinker 1002 42.2 26 236 .367 .599 .459
Madison Bumgarner ARI 4-Seam 902 33.2 24 202 .326 .606 .449
Patrick Corbin WSN Slider 771 29.4 23 191 .309 .571 .412
Josiah Gray WSN 4-Seam 1018 39.2 22 233 .305 .742 .487
Austin Gomber COL 4-Seam 838 40.7 21 195 .376 .618 .453
Kris Bubic KCR 4-Seam 1143 50.5 20 277 .348 .587 .441
Kyle Bradish BAL 4-Seam 886 44.5 19 229 .321 .539 .420
José Berríos TOR 4-Seam 758 27.9 17 206 .349 .618 .442
Joan Adon WSN 4-Seam 789 65.5 17 208 .288 .529 .414
Dallas Keuchel 3 Tms Cutter 178 15.3 16 48 .455 1.000 .616
Nick Pivetta BOS Curve 834 27.1 16 209 .299 .442 .344
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

While Berrios did throw 9% of his fastballs on the edges of the zone against lefties on Monday, 14.6% of such pitches wound up in the heart of the zone, nearly double last year’s rate of 7.7%. Three of the hits he allowed, including a Nicky Lopez triple, came on such pitches, and the six batted balls those pitches produced averaged 102.2 mph with a .957 xSLG. His 13 pitches in that location to lefties had a .559 wOBA, even higher than last year’s .511. All of which is to say that Berríos still has work to do, particularly against lefties.

Thankfully for the Blue Jays, on Tuesday night, Yusei Kikuchi stopped the bleeding with a five-inning, three-hit, one-run performance in a 4–1 victory over the Royals, with a 455-foot Franmil Reyes homer the only blemish. It was only one victory, and that against a team that lost 97 games in 2022, but the winning has to start somewhere.

If you compare our staff predictions for the season to our preseason Playoff Odds, for five of the six divisions our staff picks line up with the crunched numbers, with the Braves, Cardinals, Padres, and Astros all favored to win, and the Twins and Guardians a tossup. Only in the AL East did our staff go against the odds, picking the Blue Jays over the Yankees by a margin of 19–6 despite the latter’s 42.7%–29.4% edge.

I was one of those 19, my own pick influenced — perhaps overly so — by the mounting casualties within the Yankees’ rotation. First it was Nestor Cortes‘ hamstring and Frankie Montas‘ shoulder, then Carlos Rodón‘s forearm and Luis Severino’s latisimuss dorsi. Of those, Cortes’ injury was minor enough that he still took his first regular-season turn on schedule, and only that of Montas — a shoulder issue that required arthroscopic surgery that could keep him out until late in the season — is serious. Even so, it’s not hard to look at the track records of Rodón and Severino and imagine much longer outages than initially projected.

The Jays’ rotation, though it ranked “only” 11th in our preseason Positional Power Rankings (where the Yankees were first even with their injuries) entered the year seemingly healthy, with the projections for Manoah (2.9 WAR) and Gausman (3.7) feeling a bit light compared to what they’d shown last year (4.1 WAR and 5.7, respectively), suggesting some possible upside. Combine that with a stronger lineup that carried fewer question marks — only at second base did the Blue Jays rank below 11th among the non-pitchers, where the Yankees had three such spots — and you can understand why Toronto was a trendy pick.

The Blue Jays may indeed come out on top, but at the very least, their starters will have to pitch up to their capabilities if that’s to happen. As the first week of their season has shown, it’s not all going to happen simply based on hype.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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1 year ago

Neither the Jays or Yanks will win the ALE. Once again theyre the trendy pick that loses to the Rays who still do not get the respect they deserve. How many times do the Rays have to show the prognosticators up before yall change your tune?

1 year ago
Reply to  Wegandi727

“The trendy pick that loses to the Rays” like last year?

Come on, any of the teams can win.

1 year ago
Reply to  JustinPBG

Last year the Rays had one of the worst injury luck of any team in MLB. This year theyre pretty healthy with 3 top 50 prospects in AAA. No one picked the Rays to win the ALE when they’ve shown that they’re the favorites when healthy (see since 2020) and when they arguably have the best rotation this year in franchise history.

Hell, even experts said they’d be a .500 team with them not even getting a HM on top 10 rotation list. FG were low on them this year. Everyone picks the teams who spend the most $$$ or have the flashiest trades. That ends up being wrong the vast majority of the time. The Jays are as bad as the Padres, yet people keep picking them every year as heavy favorites.

Plus, the way writers pigeonhole the Rays, acting like its all FO shenanigans and we have no stars. Its silly. So, once again when FG picks the Yanks or Jays or Red Sox to win the ALE like they do every year theyll also be wrong again.

1 year ago
Reply to  Wegandi727

They could be wrong. But your certainty is also misplaced. This is not the Dodgers winning 7 in a row or whatever.

1 year ago
Reply to  Wegandi727

1- The Rays are a low payroll team that changes the roster practically daily.
2- Predictions favor “known quantity” veterans and the Rays hardly hang on to anybody long enough for them to become team veterans.
3- Prospects are by definition players without a track record and without a record predictions have little to go on. And with so many top prospect thuddinb on their arrival sketicism is usually warrnted. There are more Kelenics than Julios or Kwans. And even know, predictors keep waiting for Kwan to “come back to earth”.

It is what it is.
Enjoy what really matters: their play.

1 year ago
Reply to  Wegandi727

What are smoking? The Rays won the division in 2021 and a shortened 2020. After that, you have to go back to 2010. The Rays are good, perhaps even good enough to be co-favorites (and especially after their start–those banked wins make a difference) but there’s absolutely no reason to say they’re going to win it “like they win it every year”.

1 year ago
Reply to  Wegandi727

Rays will always be dumpster trash no matter what happens until they depart the cursed St. P-Clearwater region forever.

Roger McDowell Hot Foot
1 year ago
Reply to  Wegandi727

I guess you’re really mad at the sports media in general or something like that, but Fangraphs is a weird target to work it out on, being the most rational place in sports media. It’s a week into the season and the FG playoff odds have the Rays in a dead heat with the Yankees for the division title. Even if the writers’ picks are the subject of your complaint, this article specifically owns up to how weird and obviously wrong they were in aggregate. I don’t know what more you could really want.

1 year ago
Reply to  Wegandi727

The Ray’s have played the Tigers and Nationals so far. Don’t read too much based on their games versus bottom 3 teams to start the season.