The Royals end the first half of the season with their first look at the Toronto Blue Jays this season. Now that the Royals have the 2014 American League pennant flag flying at Kauffman Stadium, it is the Blue Jays who have the longest post-season drought, not having made the playoffs since their second championship in 1993. Toronto has certainly been making a push the last few years with General Manager Alex Anthropolous aggressively seeking good players like Mark Buerhle, Jose Reyes, R.A. Dickey, and Josh Donaldson. But the Jays have yet to win more than 85 games under his tenure, and despite the best run differential in the league this year, they sit with a record of just 44-43.
The Blue Jays have been terrible in one-run games, going 10-17, which may explain why their record is so far off their run differential. They have been playing better baseball lately, going 18-9 in the month of June, although they have lost seven of their last ten including a walk-off loss yesterday to the White Sox.
The Jays feature a power house offense which leads the league in runs, slugging percentage, and doubles. They are second in on-base percentage, walks, and home runs. They are paced by third baseman Josh Donaldson, acquired from the Athletics last winter. Donaldson is second in the league in fWAR at 4.9, and is tied for fifth in the league in home runs with 21. Despite their high walks and home runs, the Jays are not a free swinging team. They actually have the sixth-lowest strikeout rate in the league, whiffing just 19% of the time.
Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion continue to have terrific power seasons, although their on-base percentages have each suffered due to terribly low batting averages on balls in play (BABIP). The Jays have found power in role players as well, with former Twins player Chris Colabello reviving his career in Toronto, although his .428 BABIP seems unsustainable. Former Royals third baseman Danny Valencia has enjoyed a good season as an outfielder, despite walking just 4.4% of the time. Second baseman Devon Travis will be a Rookie of the Year candidate, after being acquired from the Tigers in the off-season.
On defense, Toronto has some outstanding defenders mixed with some lead gloves. Josh Donaldson has had a fantastic season defensively and is sixth among all American League defenders in Defensive Runs Saved. Outfielder Kevin Pillar is a very underrated defender, and is second in the American League in Defensive WAR. Catcher Russell Martin is known for his framing abilities. On the flip side, shortstop Jose Reyes has become a very poor defender, and any time the Jays have Danny Valencia or Chris Colabello on the field, they become a liability.
Toronto's weakness has been pitching. They have the fourth-most runs allowed in the league this year, with the second-worst ERA for starting pitchers. The Blue Jays have some promising young pitchers, but Marcus Stroman is lost for the year with a knee injury, Aaron Sanchez is on the disabled list with a lat strain, and Daniel Norris is back in the minor leagues. The Royals will instead face an older crop of pitchers, including the ageless Mark Buerhle, who continues to chug along with a solid season at age 36. Buerhle has the third-lowest strikeout rate in the American League, probably because his "fastball" sits at 84 mph now, and he throws the fourth-most changeups in the league.
Marco Estrada has been solid for the Jays after being acquired from the Brewers for Adam Lind last winter. Estrada throws the most changeups in the league, but can be home run-prone and has enjoyed a very low BABIP this year. Journeyman lefty Felix Doubront will make his second start for the Blue Jays, after giving up just one run in over six innings of work against the White Sox this week. Doubront has a career 4.73 ERA in 447 Major League innings.
Jays relievers have the third-best strikeout rate, but the closer's role has been in flux lately. Closing duties have been handled primarily by 20-year old rookie Roberto Osuna lately, after Brett Cecil lost his job, but manager John Gibbons has not officially anointed anyone for the job. Osuna offers a 95 mph fastball with a plus slider and changeup. Former All-Star reliever Steve Delabar has struck out over ten hitters per-nine-innings and Toronto has also gotten use out of former Royals pitcher Liam Hendricks, who has a 2.38 FIP and a 6.17 strikeouts-to-walk ratio in 39 relief innings.
The Jays have underachieved this year, but seem to be loaded with talent and may be poised to make a move at the deadline to improve their pitching staff. This showdown could very well be a post-season preview if the Jays can end their postseason drought. The Royals are riding high right now despite the loss of Alex Gordon, so ending the first half on a high note can send our All-Stars to Cincinnati with positive vibes.