Unsustainable Offense Powers Blue Jays’ Hot Start

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At work yesterday, one of my fifth graders approached me and asked “who do you think will win the AL East?” I attempted to cop out and said either the Red Sox or the Yankees, but he was having none of it. He pressed for a definite answer. After much hemming and hawing, I settled on the Red Sox. He furrowed his brow, nodded appreciatively, and then lingered expectantly. Suddenly it occurred to me that the boy was not interested in my infinite wisdom or renowned augury. Instead, he had asked the question of me so that I would ask it of him in return – a habit that does not always disappear with the dawning of adulthood. I conceded. “Who you you think will win it?” His eyes lit up. “The Blue Jays!” he declared with total certainty. Mission accomplished.

The Toronto Blue Jays have been surprisingly good so far in the young season. Their 18-9 record is the best in the American League, and third baseball-wide behind the St. Louis Cardinals and the Los Angeles Dodgers. By itself, this is a nice little story. What has given the story national legs, however, has been the teams beneath the Blue Jays in the standings: the Boston Red Sox, the New York Yankees, and the Tampa Bay Rays. The Blue Jays weren’t supposed to be competitive, given the divisional competition. Yet they currently reside atop the toughest division in Major League Baseball, providing a contrarian position for literally dozens of fifth graders across the country. 

Unfortunately for the Blue Jays, their early success is unsustainable. This is obvious to some degree; the Blue Jays are winning two-thirds of their games, which extrapolates out to 108 wins. That isn’t happening, because it hardly ever happens to any team. Even so, the reason for what will be fleeting superiority is an offense that is performing at an incredibly high level. Torrid starts from seven hitters constitute almost the entire reason for the Blue Jays’ success. When these bats cool off – and they will – Toronto will begin its gradual slide down the AL East standings.

The Blue Jays are getting tremendous offensive production out of their middle infield. Second baseman Aaron Hill is absolutely unconscious, posting a .361/.403/.563 line in 129 plate appearances. Hill has always been a talented player, and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be seeing some real improvement during his age-27 season. And make no mistake about it, some of his improvement has been real. His .385 BABIP will come down, but it won’t free-fall because he’s hitting more line drives. His walk and strikeout rates remain consistent with his career norms, so it would appear that he’s making the same amount of contact as he always has, but it’s just of better quality. As a result, we’ve probably seen the last of the .280/.330/.400 Aaron Hill for a while. This current level of production, however, has no choice but to decline to a good but no longer otherworldly baseline. 

Hill’s double-play partner Marco Scutaro is also overachieving. The 33-year-old shortstop is hitting .267/.406/.475 in the 2009 season. Scutaro’s underlying hitting statistics are an interesting inverse of Hill’s. Hill’s production can be attributed to making better – but not necessarily more frequent – contact with the ball. Scutaro, on the other hand, is actually hitting fewer line drives than ever before in his career. But he currently boasts a career-best walk rate, which makes sense given the difference between his batting average and his on-base percentage. Were Scutaro the same age as Hill, we could attribute his performance to making real improvements to his approach. Scutaro isn’t the same age though, and his underlying statistics indicate nothing more than a brief spike in walks and homers that will shortly dissipate.

Outfielder and designated hitter Adam Lind can also be counted amongst the Blue Jays’ hot hitters. Lind, 25, is raking to the tune of .311/.398/.534 in 118 plate appearances. Possessing a strong minor league pedigree and approaching his prime, Lind is the only other Blue Jays hitter whose improvement is real instead of illusory. He’s hitting line drives with regularity and walking quite a bit. Like virtually every Blue Jays hitter, Lind’s current performance will be nearly impossible to sustain. But a .300/.370/.500 season isn’t out of the question.

The remaining portion of offensive overachievement comes directly from Rod Barajas, Lyle Overbay, Jose Bautista, and Kevin Millar. These four players have contributed some 250 plate appearances of abnormally potent offense, which is sure to decline in the coming weeks. Barajas, 33, has a .333/.356/.519 line this season. He’s never done anything remotely close to that before, and at his age, is incredibly unlikely to do so henceforth. Overbay, 32, has actually performed at his current .239/.381/.463 before in his career. I suspect his batting average with improve and his on-base percentage will decline as the season progresses, making him only a mild overachiever right now. Bautista, 28, is simply playing way over his head; you need to look no further than his current .464 OBP. His decline will be precipitous. Lastly, the 37-year-old Kevin Millar has posted a .341/.383/.523 line. Millar was once a good player and may well have a league-average season. For now, he is just another Blue Jays hitter whose performance has nowhere to go but down.

The Blue Jays’ amazing start is certainly a great story, particularly given the universal condemnation of the team to fourth place in the division. Their prosperity, however, has been tied solely to their unsustainably productive offense. Once their bats cool off, the team will have a much tougher time scoring runs for a pitching staff that is currently decimated by injuries. Then their slide to 80 wins begins.

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