The Washington Post Sunday

Surging Blue Jays should strike fear

Team’s monster offense, tough pitching make it a scary postseason threat

- BY NEIL GREENBERG neil.greenberg@washpost.com

The Toronto Blue Jays are the majors’ hottest team, winners of 11 of their last 13 games after having their eight-game winning streak snapped Friday night, reversing a mid-August slump that almost torpedoed their playoff hopes. With three weeks and 22 games left on the schedule entering Saturday, there is still plenty of time for the Blue Jays to qualify for the playoffs, especially now that they’ve pulled even with the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox in the loss column. And if they do reach the postseason, every other team should be terrified to face them.

Toronto leads the majors in home runs (217) and slugging percentage (.457), plus it has the fourth-highest on-base percentage (.330). The Blue Jays are third in the majors in hard-hit rate — 41.9 percent of balls in play are hit 95 mph or harder — behind the Yankees and Red Sox (tied at 42.0), but no one gets a higher rate of hits on the sweet spot of the bat, known as barrels, than the Jays. Toronto’s pitching staff also has a combined 3.83 ERA, the 10th best in baseball this season, with the eighth-highest strikeout rate (24.7 percent).

Put it all together, and that’s a fearsome package for the postseason. And on an individual basis, it’s equally impressive.

You can’t talk about the Blue Jays without first mentioning their slugger, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. The 22-year-old star is batting .318 with the major league lead in runs (107), hits (166) and total bases (315), and he is second in on-base-plus-slugging percentage (1.011). He hit his 40th home run of the season Monday during an 8-0 rout of the Yankees, making him the youngest Blue Jays hitter to reach 40 homers and one of just 10 in franchise history to reach the mark. Guerrero brought his Hall of Fame dad into a more exclusive club with Cecil and Prince Fielder as the only father-son duos to hit 40 home runs in a single season.

Second baseman Marcus Semien is also having a productive year. The nine-year veteran has 38 home runs, a career high, in 140 games, positionin­g himself to be only the fifth second baseman in MLB history to reach the 40home run plateau. He’s also been the best defensive second baseman in the majors, per FanGraphs Ultimate Zone Rating, a metric that puts a run value to defense, attempting to quantify how many runs a player saved or gave up because of his fielding. On the other side of the bag is shortstop Bo Bichette. Bichette is batting .290 with 22 home runs and trails only two players — Guerrero and Trea Turner — in hits.

Not only that, Guerrero, Semien and Bichette are the top three run scorers in the American League and could become the first set of teammates to finish in the top three in this category since Larry Doby, Bobby Avila and Al Rosen did it for the Cleveland Indians in 1952, per the Elias Sports Bureau.

With teammates like that, it is understand­able outfielder Teoscar Hernandez is flying under the radar. Yet the 28-year-old is batting .293 with 25 home runs and 94 RBI, giving him a chance to earn a second consecutiv­e Silver Slugger trophy.

Toronto’s pitching is not short on talent, either. Robbie Ray is an ace and the front-runner for the American League’s Cy Young Award. Ray was named the AL pitcher of the month in August after posting a 1.88 ERA with 52 strikeouts and eight walks in 41 innings across six starts. Overall this season, Ray leads the majors in strikeouts with 220 in 170 innings, and no AL pitcher has a lower ERA (2.69). He’s also the first pitcher in franchise history with four straight starts with double-digit strikeouts.

Other starters in the rotation include Hyun Jin Ryu, Steven Matz and Alek Manoah. Ryu is 13-8 with a 3.77 ERA and is using his curveball to perfection, making batters miss more than a third of the time against the pitch (36 percent). Matz posted the lowest ERA (1.30) of any pitcher throwing at least 20 innings in August. Manoah, 5-2 with a 3.71 ERA, has struck out 92 batters in 85 innings, putting him in the conversati­on for rookie of the year. Reliever Jordan Romano shouldn’t be forgotten. He has held opposing batters to a .157 average using his fastball. Since the all-star break, no team’s starting rotation has a better collective ERA than Toronto’s.

The schedule also works in Toronto’s favor in its push for the playoffs. The Blue Jays are coming off a four-game sweep against the New York Yankees, the team directly in front of them in the wildcard standings. Toronto’s remaining opponents entering the weekend have a combined .470 win percentage, the fifth-easiest remaining schedule in the majors, per Tankathon. The Yankees’ remaining schedule meanwhile is more difficult, with an average win rate of .489 for their upcoming opponents.

Heading into the weekend, Toronto had a 56 percent chance to reach the postseason, but that could continue improve in the coming days (it was less than 10 percent at the end of August). And if it does, it will be a frightenin­g sight for any American League team that stands in its way in the postseason.

 ?? JIM MCISAAC/GETTY IMAGES ?? Bo Bichette and Marcus Semien helped lead Toronto into Yankee Stadium last week, where the Blue Jays never trailed in four games.
JIM MCISAAC/GETTY IMAGES Bo Bichette and Marcus Semien helped lead Toronto into Yankee Stadium last week, where the Blue Jays never trailed in four games.

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