Marco Estrada, Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, R.A. Dickey, J.A. Happ. Before the season it looked like the Jays had a #2 in Stroman and bunch of guys who would struggle to finish the season with an ERA under 4.00. At the break, two are All-Stars, and Toronto’s rotation quietly leads all of baseball in innings pitched, edging the Giants with 579.1 IP (albeit with one more game played). If you look at just the American League, the gap is even greater.
It’s taken injury luck and outstanding defence but a large part of why the rotation has taken on such a huge load is the team’s worrying lack of pitching depth. Besides two spot starts from Drew Hutchison, Toronto has rolled out its five arms in order without a hiccups. That’s unimaginable compared to what happened in the first half of 2015. In May, Estrada replaced Daniel Norris in the rotation, and Todd Redmond was called up for a spot start. In June, Scott Copeland got three starts and Matt Boyd got two. Then July came around and Felix Doubront somehow got in on the action twice. That’s already ten guys, and by the end of the season that number would climb to twelve with the addition of David Price and Stroman’s return.
Here’s a side-by-side of the starting pitchers the Jays have rolled out this year vs. last year up to the All-Star break.
In many cases, using a lot of different starters is a result of injury luck. In some cases, such as the Dodgers’, it’s a testament to pitching depth. And looking at the Dodgers’ league-leading 11.8 SP WAR, who’s to say having five steady workhorses is a better strategy than building ridiculous starting pitching depth. (Although having unlimited money and Clayton Kershaw certainly helps when going for the latter strategy.)
But let’s imagine an arbitrary dream world where all teams aspire to use just five starters all season, and have each of those starters exceed 200 IP on the year, or 100 IP at the end of the first half. Yes it’s arbitrary, and a guy like Patrick Corbin has thrown 105 IP with an ERA of 4.94, but getting to 100 IP by the break generally means that either your team has no other options, or they like what they’re seeing from you enough to keep throwing you out there.
With this dream world in mind, here’s a table showing how many different starters each team has used, and how many 100 IP+ starters each team has at the break.
The Cardinals’ staff of Adam Wainwright, Carlos Martinez, Michael Wacha, Mike Leake and Jaime Garcia hasn’t rested for even a fraction of an inning, but the Jays’ staff has the overall edge 579.1 IP to 535.0 IP. Plus, the Jays have already faced baseball’s wRC+ leaders, Boston (#1: 117 wRC+) and Baltimore (#2: 110 wRC+), a combined 21 times. The NL Central may be the toughest division for pitchers in the NL, but it’s still got nothing on the AL East.
So the innings have been there, and that’s been surprising. But even more surprising is that they’ve been good innings. Every pitcher in the Jays’ starting five has at least 10 quality starts, and Aaron Sanchez leads the AL with 14 QS heading into the break. Yes, the same Aaron Sanchez who fought to make it as the Jays’ fifth starter out of Spring Training leads the AL in quality starts. Toronto actually leads all of baseball with 59 QS, and that’s exactly what a team constructed like the Blue Jays needs from its staff. After a slow start, the offence is averaging almost 5 runs a game, which will lead to a win more often than not when your starter gives you six strong innings.
This level of excellence is something that the Jays haven’t had since the late ’90s, when Roger Clemens and Pat Hentgen were fronting the rotation. Or maybe a few years during the Roy Halladay era when guys like A.J. Burnett, Shaun Marcum, Gustavo Chacin, and Josh Towers pitched in. Talking with the Toronto Star’s Richard Griffin close to the break, R.A. Dickey emphasized the dependability of the staff.
“I would challenge you to find a better staff than what we have as far as dependability, innings pitched for starters, quality starts.”
Three days later, in an interview with Toronto freelancer John Lott, Dickey went even further.
— John Lott (@LottOnBaseball) July 10, 2016
But it’s this quote from Griffin’s piece that got me thinking about the real question:
“The pieces are already here is what I’m saying. Last year we thought it would be a stretch with what we had to go all the way, without a trade,” Dickey said. “This year we feel we have what we need.”
Maybe the guy who’s thrown 200 innings in five straight seasons isn’t the best guy to ask about whether or not the Jays are in desperate need of pitching depth. This rotation has been great, excellent even, but even by the most conservative projections nobody should expect things to hold up this well down the stretch.
Estrada and Happ both set career-highs in 2015, with 181 IP anad 172 IP, respectively. Sanchez, at 118.1 IP has already blown past his career-high of 92.1 (also set in 2015). Stroman, a year after his miraculous return from major knee surgery, is already 14.2 IP away from his career-high of 130.2 (set in 2014).
Pitchers surpass their career-highs all the time; they’re not expiration dates. But considering how few pitchers make it to 200 IP in any given season (only 28 made it in 2015), I wouldn’t bet on four pitchers who have never done it. GM Ross Atkins has stated that the team has “not for one second” thought about moving Stroman to the bullpen, and will not think about transitioning Sanchez as long as the young pitcher keeps performing well.
Hopefully that was a PR move – a show confidence in Stroman and Sanchez as starters – because if Atkins really feels this team can make it through the season (and possibly the playoffs) using just six starters, he’s living in the past. Last season, each playoff team used at least 10 different starters over the course of the season (except the indefatigable Cardinals, who used nine). The Dodgers used 16! There will be innings left over, and the Jays will need guys to pitch those innings.
Hutchison is already in the mix, and will likely join the rotation for an extended period of time if Sanchez starts to fatigue or Estrada’s back keeps him sidelined past the break. Gavin Floyd could be stretched out to start, but is facing a possibly season-ending torn lat. Jesse Chavez was decent to good over two seasons as a starter with Oakland, but his skill set is better suited as a longman out of the pen. And unlike last year, there are literally zero viable options in Triple A to call up for one or two starts. Lefty Wade LeBlanc was traded to Seattle for cash in late June. Canadian Scott Diamond had one good season for Minnesota in 2012, but was atrocious in his one inning of Major League work this year.
This trade deadline will be crucial for the Jays, and with Boston and Baltimore also looking for starting pitching and armed with more appealing prospects, it will be a tough test for Atkins. Toronto has already been linked to Minnesota’s Ervin Santana and Oakland pitchers Sonny Gray and Rich Hill – and lord knows the Jays love trading with the A’s. Philadelphia’s Jeremy Hellickson and Tampa’s Jake Odorizzi are other options.
There is some truth in Dickey’s comment; this year is not like last year. The Jays don’t need a David Price. They need slightly above replacement level depth to shore up the back end of the rotation. The beauty of the staff so far has been that you can’t really point to a #1. Sanchez has been terrific, but nobody would call him an ace. This is a staff composed of five guys who have pitched like #2’s, and with a little depth behind them, these five could lead the Jays far into the postseason.