Blue Jays keeping pace despite Matt Chapman, Vlad Jr. struggles
By Pedro Moura
FOX Sports MLB Writer
ANAHEIM, Calif. — Projected to be one of baseball’s best this season, the Toronto Blue Jays' offense has been closer to one of the sport’s worst through nearly two months.
The rest of the roster has helped compensate for the offense’s failings, keeping the team on a respectable pace as June approaches. But the roster expected more.
"We’ve thrown the ball really well, and we’ve defended the ball really well," said ace Kevin Gausman, one of the team’s top performers so far. "We just haven’t had timely hitting."
In fact, Toronto has been the worst team in the league at hitting with runners in scoring position. Through May 26, the Blue Jays’ OPS in those situations was 135 points worse than with the bases empty — a remarkable, unsustainable gap.
The underlying numbers do not support such statistics. The Jays’ run differential has hovered around even, but they are hitting the ball significantly harder than the average team.
"There’s untapped room for improvement," third baseman Matt Chapman said. "I think everybody knows we’re much more capable than we’ve been doing. But we’re still in a good spot. It’s nothing that we need to dwell on."
In some cases, bad luck is to blame. In others, it’s excessive aggressiveness. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. admitted last week, upon his arrival to Angel Stadium, that he has expanded his strike zone more this season than during his MVP-caliber 2021. That was the main difference between the two years, he said, not any adjustments pitchers have made against him.
"But I’m working on being more selective," Guerrero said through interpreter Hector Lebron.
Lebron, a longtime friend of manager Charlie Montoyo, came up with the idea for the jacket the Blue Jays don after home runs, simply called "The Blue Jacket." Since last season, it has been adorned with the names of the many countries players and staffers count as part of their heritage: Brazil, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Japan, South Korea and more.
It’s a diverse clubhouse. "Probably more so than any team in the big leagues," Chapman said proudly.
Players treasure their time with the jacket, dancing and running through the dugout. Overall, the team seems to dance and joke more than most. Center fielder George Springer, their boisterous leader and the one hitter excelling this season, could be found dancing to 2Pac in the clubhouse before a recent game. Star second-year right-hander Alek Manoah is in constant conversation with anyone around him.
"This team we have here," Cavan Biggio said, "it’s a lot of fun."
Almost too fun. Gausman noted, correctly, that the Jays had played the most one-run games in the sport and performed well in those games. They’ve made many nights interesting.
"That’s a good thing for us, when we do get to September, and we have meaningful games that are gonna come down to one run," Gausman said. "Our relievers know how to pitch in one-run games. It benefits us. But at the same time, it just doesn’t give you any leeway, having one-run games all the time. It adds more pressure on every pitch."
Gausman spent last season with the 107-win San Francisco Giants. He understands the role luck plays in a successful season. He calls the good bounces "B.S. hits," an essential part of any hot streak. The Jays, he said, have not benefited from any of those.
"You’ve gotta think that, at some point, the tide is gonna shift," Gausman said.
The turn cannot come soon enough for Chapman, who is eager to contribute in his first season with Toronto.
"I’m not getting the results that I want, but I’ve also been very unlucky this season," he said. "I think I’m in the top 10% in the major leagues in barrel percentage and exit velocity. I’m hitting balls hard. I’m hitting the ball on the barrel a lot. I’m just not getting hits."
He was about right on all his claims. As he spoke, Chapman’s average exit velocity ranked in the 95th percentile league-wide, his barrel rate in the 84th, according to Statcast. For good measure, his chase rate was in the 90th percentile, meaning he has also been exceptionally patient. Yet his batting average stood at only .187.
Five hours later, Chapman appeared as a pinch-hitter late in a close game against the Angels. With his first swing of the night, he smashed a low liner up the middle at 107 mph. Baseballs hit at that speed and that angle land as hits 58% of the time.
But Chapman’s liner found the glove of Angels infielder Luis Rengifo. It looked like his hard luck would continue. Then Rengifo fumbled it, Chapman reached base, and the tying run scored. The Blue Jays would soon win another one-run game. They won another one-run game the next night, when another Chapman drive dropped inches from an outfielder, and the go-ahead runs scored.
Perhaps the tide has shifted.
"We’re trending in the right direction, and it’s one of those things that’s gonna develop as the season goes on," Chapman said. "It’s better to finish strong than start strong."
Toronto’s unspectacular start should not erase the preseason expectations placed on the Blue Jays. The talent and excitement remain.
Pedro Moura is the national baseball writer for FOX Sports. He previously covered the Dodgers for three seasons for The Athletic and, before that, the Angels and Dodgers for five seasons for the Orange County Register and L.A. Times. More previously, he covered his alma mater, USC, for ESPNLosAngeles.com. The son of Brazilian immigrants, he grew up in the Southern California suburbs. His first book, "How to Beat a Broken Game," came out this spring. Follow him on Twitter @pedromoura.