Sure, the team was fine, but in September they are set to fight the dreaded New York Yankees 10 times. If they didn’t store enough wins before the teams met, there was a good chance the Bronx Bombers would interrupt their courageous postseason run.
Now the situation is a little different.
The Yankees have won just five of their last 16 games and have lost a number of crucial contributors to injury, including Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Gio Urshela, James Paxton and Jonathan Loaisiga. They no longer look remotely like world drummers destined to derail the Blue Jays season.
New York’s misfortune added a significant wrinkle to the 10 times they’ll dance with Toronto this month. It was once fair to assume that the Blue Jays were just fighting to retain the eighth seed in the AHL. Considering the condition of the Yankees and their fall in the standings, these games now look like the AL East battle for second place – and a more favorable game in October.
With that in mind, it’s worth considering which Blue Jays have the best chance of helping decide their fate in this match:
Even with Judge and Stanton on the sidelines with vague return dates, the Yankees’ most dangerous hitters are hitting from the right side. Gleyber Torres, DJ LeMahieu, Luke Voit, and even the meltdown Gary Sanchez, are right-handed. This means the pitchers that are the death of righties will be essential for the Blue Jays.
This season – with a revamped game plan focused on the high usage of knives and dividers – Walker has answered that description. So far in 2020, the righties are hitting .169 / .247 / .229 against him. The cutter is really the key pitch here, and with its 27.1% odor rate, it’s been the best swing-and-miss weapon the 28-year-old has against same-hand hitters.
He can either throw it a bit slower and with depth, to the point where it’s basically a slider …
… Or give it a little more juice and get into the hands of its opponents.
Either way, the terrain can be devastating.
If he’s able to continue the right-handed success he’s had all season, that will make guys like Brett Gardner and Mike Ford the biggest threats for him. It’s a pretty good situation.
For one of the few times in their history, the Yankees just don’t have an intimidating left-handed presence in their roster, and Walker is about to take advantage of that.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
While the Yankees pitching staff have been compromised by injuries, one thing the squad can still do on a regular basis is bring the heat. The New York pitchers have collectively averaged 94.0 mph on their fastballs this season – the fifth-best speed in the majors. In order to put points on the board, the Blue Jays are going to have to rely on their guys who are the best to handle tough things.
Guerrero Jr. has been the club’s best hitter on the high-speed courts since his debut last year. Since the start of 2019, he’s been far more successful on the courts at 94 mph or more (35) than anyone on the team. Next on the list is Justin Smoak at 26 and Teoscar Hernandez at 25. One of these guys is long gone. The other is in limbo with injuries.
For all the flak Guerrero Jr. takes for a swing that has produced a disappointing pitch angle in his MLB career, there’s no denying his bat speed. The way he combines the speed of elite bats with impressive brute strength is what made him such a singular prospect in the first place.
A perfect example of this came last year against one of the Yankees’ bullpen aces, Zack Britton. Watch how effortless that 434-foot home run is despite fighting a 95.3 mph fastball exactly where Britton wants it.
Guerrero Jr. could be the Blue Jays ‘best chance against a number of the Yankees’ top pitchers, from Gerrit Cole to their high leverage relievers.
Lourdes Gurriel Jr.
While Guerrero Jr. will be vital in countering one of the Yankees’ greatest strengths, Gurriel Jr. could be the man to exploit one of their main weaknesses – namely their left defense.
The left side of the Yankees’ infield is in disarray following Urshela’s elbow injury. Gleyber Torres is error prone on the shortstop and ranks below average in the distance department. Meanwhile, Urshela’s place is now mostly occupied by Miguel Andujar, who posted a -21 DRS and -16.0 UZR in his only full season in the Hot Corner.
New York left defender’s situation is a bit better as Brett Gardner remains a solid defender at the age of 37. He also plays his fair share of games in center field, and other left field options range from relatively unknown amounts defensively (Mike Tauchman), to known passives (Clint Frazier) to total experiences (Andujar). Whenever Gardner isn’t playing on the left, that side of the pitch projects like an adventure.
Gurriel Jr. is the guy most likely to benefit, as he’s the biggest shooter (47.6%) in the Blue Jays right-handed team, and he tends to shoot the ball over the line, as its Basic Emissions 2020 spray chart:
AJ Cole (and friends)
Another weakness the Blue Jays can take advantage of is the Yankees’ aversion to the cursor. The FanGraphs’ pitch value statistics give the club a contribution of -12.2 points against Sliders, the second-worst total in the league. Particularly bad offenders are Gardner (-4.2 points), Torres (-2.3) and Sanchez (-2.2).
This opens the door for Blue Jays pitchers who rely on this field, and Cole comes to mind as someone who throws 48% cursors. Not only is the right-hander relying on the offer, the results have been spectacular. The batters posted an expected batting average of .147 against the field with an expected slugging percentage of .190. He also represented 11 of Cole’s 13 strikeouts. Cole had some huge outs for this team, and he’s in a good position to do so against the Yankees.
It’s also worth mentioning that the Blue Jays’ top two dogs in the paddock – Jordan Romano and Ken Giles – are heavy slider users as well. Romano throws his breaking ball 59.9% of the time and Giles was 66.7% before falling. That number was inflated by a weird sample and issues he was having with his heater, but even last season the veteran threw 49.4% sliders.
The timeline for these guys is a bit hazy at the moment, so we’ll be sticking Cole there, but if Romano or Giles wraps up games against the Yankees later this month, they’ll be in a good position to succeed.
Although the Blue Jays only play three games at Yankee Stadium, the discussion about who can take advantage of the baseball field’s comically short porch on the right field is an institution. Because the Yankees have little left-handed power themselves, it could be the Blue Jays who find themselves exhausting this stadium quirk.
Rowdy Tellez is the team’s best southpaw power threat right now, but he’s typically hitting home runs long enough that he doesn’t need help. Biggio is an interesting candidate to achieve something special as he has a high flyball rate (42%) without great raw power which results in many mid-depth flyouts.
Here’s a spray chart of his in-game flyballs and online training towards the good ground of his career against an overlay from Yankee Stadium:
Lots of balls that have proven harmless to him, or doubles, would be over the fence at Yankee Stadium. Even though the Blue Jays only play three games in New York City, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Biggio drop a few long flies in the seats.