When Mike Babcock decided to forgo a return to the Detroit Red Wings in favor of taking over the head coaching job for the tumultuous Toronto Maple Leafs, the Canadian city was probably fairly enthralled. Here was one of the best coaches in the National Hockey League choosing—choosing!—one of the most mocked teams in the league. Toronto had—dare we say it—hope that their Stanley Cup drought could soon come to an end.
Combine that with the Blue Jays’ recent hot streak and Toronto must feel spoiled. An eight game winning streak, a record over .500 for the first time in a month, and a division deficit of only three games? Yep, they, along with the moment, all belong to the Jays.
There’s hardly debate on the frailty of the American League East. Even though first place in the division has rarely changed hands this year, the east is mostly a pitiful sight. Aside from the New York Mets in the horrid National League East and the Houston Astros who have dropped seven straight games, no division leader in Major League Baseball has a worse record than the New York Yankees. Just a few days ago, there were three teams with losing records in the AL East, and less than two weeks ago only one club had a winning record—and that by the slim margin of a single win.
Sounds like a good year for the Jays to capitalize on their winning streak, right?
It took until June for them to take advantage of the standings, but since the start of the month the Blue Jays have lost only one game and have won 12 of 16 going back to May 24. In that span, they’ve outscored their opponents by 45 runs.
Sure, their pitching staff, which has surrendered three runs or more in only four games during the Jays’ eight game winning streak, is unlikely to perform at such a high level for the whole year; it has a 4.22 ERA and leads the league with 69 home runs allowed, after all. But that’s fine because Toronto just needs to string some more wins in this division to be a contender for first place.
Notice how I said contender.
Why not the team most likely to be the top dog in the east? Well, that would be because of, oh hum, the Yankees once again. Yes, the Bronx Bombers are only 17-13 against teams not from the scrawny AL East and have flaws, but they are almost as hot as the Blue Jays right now. After a six-game losing streak a few weeks ago, New York has gone 11-4. The offense has scored at least five runs in nine of those games, and has allowed opposing clubs to touch home plate at least four times a game in only four of those contests.
The most significant note to take away from the Yankees’ recent hot streak, however, is the man who returned to the team. He has only been back with the club for a little over a week, but Masahiro Tanaka’s presence in the Yankees’ starting rotation is a noteworthy obstacle to the Jays taking the AL East. CC Sabathia may have an ERA north of 5, but Michael Pineda and Adam Warren both have ERA+ over 105. The Blue Jays, however, have just one starter with that distinction: Aaron Sanchez (109 ERA+).
Add Tanaka to the mix, then, and the Yankees catapult much further than the Toronto starting five. As long as his elbow holds, Tanaka is the best starter in the division after Chris Archer. His ERA+ of 158 is miles ahead the Jays’ starters and even most of their relievers. Sure, Tanaka has only pitched under 40 innings this year, but we’ve seen how nasty his stuff has been and how overwhelming he was last year in a larger sample size before his elbow injury.
And while the backend of the Yankees’ rotation is horrendous, it will be glossier soon; Ivan Nova, who is rehabbing after his Tommy John surgery last year, looks like he will come back to the rotation before the All-Star break. In two of his last three full seasons, Nova pitched to an ERA+ of at least 116, and allowed a total of 13 and nine home runs in those two years, respectively.
Just the prospect of a pitcher with those numbers coming to the Yankees’ starting rotation not only makes New Yorkers salivate, but also causes Toronto residents to groan and realize that the Yankees very well might take even more games on the mound.
If they only had to worry about the depth of the Yankees’ rotation, then the Blue Jays would probably feel a lot more optimistic about catching them in the AL East and holding onto first place. Big arms versus big bats—that’s an adequate one-on-one battle for the remainder of the season, right?
But we’re not looking at a one-on-one clash; the Yankees rate better than Toronto when it comes to putting a stopper on games late too. The Blue Jays might be in the market to trade for Jonathan Papelbon, but until then the Yankees’ bullpen is unlikely to blow more games than them. When Andrew Miller returns from the disabled list his 1.03 ERA will haunt hitters. And beyond him, the Yankees have Dellin Betances (one earned run and 54 strikeouts in 32.1 innings pitched) and Chasen Shreve (182 ERA+) to lock down wins late, down a division run.
Toronto’s bullpen meanwhile has contributed to the team having one of the worst staff ERAs in MLB. Roberto Osuna’s 4.14 strikeout-to-walk ratio and sub-2 ERA is potent, but no other Blue Jay relief pitcher has an ERA under 3. Point for the Yankees.
The Blue Jays can hang their hats on their offense, there’s no doubt about that, but New York’s is nothing to laugh about either; if there was no team called the Toronto Blue Jays, then the Yankees would be the highest-scoring team in baseball. Five Yankee hitters have OPS+ of 120 or more, and the club is in the top three in the league in home runs and OPS.
The Blue Jays have scored 50 more runs than New York and have seven regular hitters with OPS of at least .740. But the Yankees’ lineup looks deeper than it has in years and is doing the most important thing a team playing at Yankee Stadium can do: smashing baseballs out of the park at a rapid rate. Their offense can easily make up for their rotation’s weaknesses, to string up wins and carry them deep into September.
There is no team in the majors with a longer winning streak than the Blue Jays right now, and their offense is not going anywhere, but the Yankees have what Toronto wants badly: the ingredients to sustain their positives for the entire year. A great nine-day stretch of games is not enough for the Jays to feel as though they will throttle teams for the remaining three-and-a-half months of the regular season; they simply are not meant to pitch this well for so long.
Almost every Toronto starting pitcher has a fielding independent pitching (FIP) well over 4, the club averages a walk every three innings, and the team ranks 28th in the majors in home runs surrendered. A club like that is not likely to hold teams to under three runs a game for too long; a team that does that during a hot streak and then adds two more strong starters to its rotation, is likely to do just that.
The Yankees have batters meant to hit well, relievers meant to pitch well, and a rotation that will soon have the last piece to patch things together. The Jays only have one of those things. If Toronto could count on New York to only maintain their recent form, then maybe they could peck closer as the year goes on.
But for the Yankees to gather strength in its rotation? That looks like the killer divide we were waiting for in the AL East, the spark to create separation between the teams.
Well, at least Toronto has Mike Babcock.