Streaking Blue Jays Are Taking the AL East by Surprise

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Streaking Blue Jays Are Taking the AL East by Surprise
USA Today

These aren't your 2013 Toronto Blue Jays. After a 9-6 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays on Tuesday night, the AL East's best team is steamrolling toward June as the hottest team in baseball. While that distinction may be a surprise, don't be fooled by the recent past when it comes to talking about this Blue Jays team. 

After a 74-88 debacle last season, few expected a contender to emerge north of the border. Through the first 53 games of this season, the Blue Jays have been even more than that. Led by the best middle-of-the-order duo in baseball, an unlikely dominant ace and similarities to a special team of a year ago, the Blue Jays deserve baseball's attention.

Let's start with the bats.

The Jose Bautista-Edwin Encarnacion tag team may not be a well-known tandem among causal baseball fans, but an emerging contender in Rogers Centre can change that. After combining to the tune of four hits, three runs, two RBI and six trips on base, both of Toronto's star sluggers ended Tuesday night with OPS marks greater than .900.

In fact, Encarnacion (.926 OPS, 16 HR) and Bautista (.957 OPS, 12 HR) have a chance to become one of the most prolific lineup duos in the recent history of the game.

Over the last 20 full seasons (1994-2013), only nine teams have had two players post 40 HR, .925 OPS seasons together, per Baseball-Reference (subscription required). Due to the offensive shift experienced since the end of the Steroid Era, not one of those seasons has occurred since Jim Thome and Jermaine Dye dominated opposing pitching for the 2006 White Sox

Entering play on May 27—prior to another big offensive night—both Bautista (159 OPS+) and Encarnacion (146 OPS+) were dominating the American League and hitting well above some of the best hitters in all of baseball.

When putting their exploits in the context of adjusted OPS—allowing for league and park factors to enter the equation—the duo stands out even more. Only 13 teams in baseball history have had two hitters smash 40 homers and post respective OPS+ marks of 146 in the same season. 

40 HR, 146 OPS+ From Teammates in MLB History
Year Team Players
2006 Chicago White Sox Jermaine Dye/Jim Thome
2005 Boston Red Sox David Ortiz / Manny Ramirez
2004 St. Louis Cardinals Jim Edmonds / Albert Pujols
2002 Texas Rangers Rafael Palmeiro / Alex Rodriguez
2000 Houston Astros Jeff Bagwell / Richard Hidalgo
1973 Atlanta Braves Hank Aaron / Darrell Evans
1961 Detroit Tigers Norm Cash / Rocky Colavito
1961 New York Yankees Mickey Mantle / Roger Maris
1961 San Francisco Giants Orlando Cepeda / Willie Mays
1953 Brooklyn Dodgers Roy Campanella / Duke Snider
1931 New York Yankees Lou Gehrig / Babe Ruth
1930 New York Yankees Lou Gehrig / Babe Ruth
1927 New York Yankees Lou Gehrig / Babe Ruth

Baseball-Reference

When Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig are the standard, it's clear that Toronto's duo is on the path to something special. Along with Jose Reyes (11 SB), Melky Cabrera (.320 batting average), Adam Lind (.573 SLG) and Brett Lawrie (8 HR), the Blue Jays have an offense that can mash with anyone in the game right now.

That sentiment is being felt inside the walls of the Blue Jays clubhouse. As catcher Dioner Navarro recently told Ken Fidlin of the Toronto Sun, offensive success can transfer throughout the lineup.

"Hitting is contagious," Navarro said. "Reyes started the game with a bunt single and Melky is hitting about seven thousand this month. We just feed off that. Kevin (Seitzer, the hitting coach) has been doing a great job feeding us information and we’re trying to do our best job when we go out there."

Of course, it can't be just about offense in Toronto. The path to first place in one of baseball's most competitive divisions always takes a well-rounded effort. In most years, the team that pitches the best wins the most.

Part of the success—and surprise—of this Blue Jays team has been due to the dominance of veteran left-handed starter Mark Buehrle.
 

To be fair, the 35-year-old southpaw has always been a consistent and very good pitcher. Expecting that wouldn't have been a stretch for Toronto's coaching staff. Expecting a Cy Young award contender to emerge, however, would have seemed foolish just eight weeks ago.

From 2001-2013, Buehrle was the picture of consistency: 200-plus innings pitched, 30-plus starts and a total ERA+ of 117. For 13 straight seasons, the former White Sox and Marlins starter was the perfect No. 2 or No. 3 starter: really good, but never great. That was backed up by only one top-five finish in a Cy Young vote, garnered during an outstanding (236.2 IP, 144 ERA+) 2005 season. 

Now, after years of monotonous production, Buehrle has found rare and special success. At 9-1, Toronto's unlikely ace is on pace to record his first 20-win season. More importantly, the victories have been accompanied by telling statistics: ERA and FIP (fielding independent pitching).

With marks of 2.33 and 3.10, respectively, Buehrle is pitching better than during any season of his long, distinguished career.

The combination of rare, power-hitting teammates, an unlikely ace and an unyielding belief in a roster filled with talent have combined to put Toronto atop the division. One year ago, the AL East looked quite different.
 

AL East: 2014 vs. 2013
May 28, 2014 May 28, 2013
1. Toronto Blue Jays: 31-22 1. Boston Red Sox: 32-21
2. New York Yankees: 27-24 2. New York Yankees: 30-21
3. Baltimore Orioles: 26-24 3. Baltimore Orioles: 28-24
4. Tampa Bay Rays: 23-30 4. Tampa Bay Rays: 27-24
5. Boston Red Sox: 22-29 5. Toronto Blue Jays: 22-30

ESPN

It's probably premature to talk about a worst-to-first story with this team or conjure up memories of what the 2013 Red Sox were able to accomplish, but the similarities are hard to ignore for anyone immersed in the game.

In 2012, the Red Sox watched everything go wrong as injuries piled up and a last-place season commenced. Instead of tearing down a talented core, Boston's front office put the band back together for another run at relevance in 2013. By October, a 97-win team emerged and captured a World Series. 

Where will the Blue Jays finish in the AL East standings?

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In 2013, the Blue Jays watched everything go wrong as injuries piled up and a last-place season commenced. Instead of tearing down a talented core, Toronto's front office put the band back together for another run at relevance in 2014. As June approaches, the franchise is on pace for its first 90-plus win season since Joe Carter touched them all.

Surprised? For now, it's a natural reaction. Just don't be shocked if the winning continues in Toronto.

Agree? Disagree?

Comment, follow me on Twitter or "like" my Facebook page to talk about all things baseball.

Statistics are from Baseball-Reference.comESPN.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted. All contract figures courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts. Roster breakdowns via MLBDepthCharts.com

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