Headed into the American League Championship Series (beginning Friday in Cleveland at 8 p.m. ET on TBS and, in Canada, Sportsnet and RDS) it's probably fair to assume that most will place the bullpen edge squarely with the Indians, since we've seen what Andrew Miller, Cody Allen, Dan Otero and friends can do.
That's probably not unfair; they're very good. Even so, it's time to take a minute to praise what was universally considered to be the weakest part of Toronto's otherwise strong team: the bullpen.
Remember how the Blue Jays got here, anyway. In just four postseason games, they've had two huge extra-innings moments that Toronto fans will remember forever -- Edwin Encarnacion's walk-off homer against Ubaldo Jiménez in the AL Wild Card Game, and Josh Donaldson's mad dash home to finish off the Rangers in Game 3 of the AL Division Series.
:: ALCS: Blue Jays vs. Indians coverage ::
But remember this, also: You don't get to the 11th inning of that Wild Card Game if five Blue Jays relievers don't combine to throw five innings of scoreless, hitless baseball to back up starter Marcus Stroman. You don't get to the 10th inning of Game 3 of the ALDS if four relievers don't combine to throw 4 1/3 innings of scoreless, one-hit ball behind starter Aaron Sanchez.
Overall, Toronto's relievers have allowed two earned runs in 14 innings over four postseason games, all wins, and just a .106 average against, which is five hits allowed in four games. Not only have they been the unexpected anchor, they've been actively helping the team win.
Now we should be perfectly clear here -- four games shouldn't meaningfully change your opinion of any team or unit, and this still isn't one of the best bullpens left in the postseason, not when compared to the arms that teams like Cleveland and Chicago can offer. This is less about projecting them to be very good going forward and more about doling out appropriate credit for what's happened so far.
In fact, of the six relievers we've seen, five have managed to escape unscathed:
Joe Biagini: 0 runs, 3 strikeouts, 0 walks in 3 2/3 innings
Brett Cecil: 0 runs, 0 strikeouts, 2 walks in 2/3 innings
Jason Grilli: 0 runs, 2 strikeouts, 0 walks in 2 innings
Francisco Liriano: 2 runs, 1 strikeout, 1 walk in 2 innings
Roberto Osuna: 0 runs, six strikeouts, 0 walks in 5 innings
Ryan Tepera: 0 runs, 0 strikeouts, 0 walks in 2/3 innings
The sixth, Liriano, was replaced by Danny Barnes after sustaining a concussion, though he is progressing and he is eligible to return for the ALCS after sitting out the necessary seven days under the concussion protocol.
It can't be overstated how small these sample sizes are. But really it's about expectations, and those were (not unfairly) low for Toronto coming into the postseason. Joaquin Benoit got hurt, Grilli allowed six runs over his last three appearances of the regular season (and 12 in his final 13), and Osuna's poor September (18 percent strikeout rate in the month, compared to 31.3 percent in the first five months) raised concerns even before he had to leave the Wild Card Game with a sore right shoulder. Collectively, that September ERA of 4.80 was the sixth highest in baseball.
So what's changed? As we said, there's only so much that can be divined from four games, and a lot of this is about Osuna, who, despite his shoulder concerns, appeared in three of the four games, had six whiffs, and was trusted by manager John Gibbons to get five outs and six outs in two wins against Texas.
But we can give you two quick reasons on what has made Toronto's relievers so effective thus far.
They're not walking anyone …
Excluding the Orioles and Mets, who played just one game, the Blue Jays' relievers have been the stingiest at free passes among the seven other postseason teams.
Lowest walk rate, 2016 postseason
- Toronto: 5.6 percent
- San Francisco: 5.9 percent
- Boston: 6 percent
- Chicago: 7 percent
- Cleveland: 8 percent
- Los Angeles: 8.7 percent
- Washington: 12.2 percent
- Texas: 16 percent
Putting men on base at any time of the year is a bad idea. In the postseason, it can be a killer.
... and batted balls aren't finding holes.
There's no doubt that Toronto's defense is turning more balls into outs than anyone else. This list is Batting Average on Balls in Play, and it's across all pitchers, not just relievers:
Lowest BABIP, 2016 postseason
- Toronto: .214
- San Francisco: .218
- Washington: .250
- Texas: .253
- Chicago: .278
- Cleveland: .281
- Boston: .344
- Los Angeles: .387
If you were to look just at the sixth inning or later as a rough proxy of "relievers," then Toronto's .216 opponents' BABIP is just about the same as its overall mark, and it would be third behind Boston and San Francisco. When the ball is put in play, it becomes an out nearly 80 percent of the time.
So is that good luck, good defense, good pitching or some combination of it all? By looking at exit velocity and launch angle, we can see what a batted ball's "expected average" would be, and so it's interesting to see what happens on batted balls with an expected average of .700 or higher, which is to say, the kind of balls that become a hit 70 percent of the time or more. To turn those high-value batted balls into outs would be to save yourself some major headaches, and wouldn't you know it ...
Lowest average allowed on balls with expected average of .700 or higher, 2016 postseason
- Toronto, .688
- Cleveland, .778
- Chicago, .786
- San Francisco, .789
- [tie] Washington / Los Angeles, .857
- [tie] Texas / Boston, 1.000
What that is saying is on the batted balls that tend to be the most likely to become hits, Toronto has turned most of them into outs anyway. Texas and Boston didn't do it once. The Rangers and Red Sox combined to win zero postseason games.
After the Blue Jays beat the Rangers, Kevin Pillar called Osuna "the best closer in the world," and while that's an admirable description of a teammate, it's almost certainly not true. It doesn't have to be true, though. He doesn't have to be better than Zach Britton or Kenley Jansen. The same goes for Toronto's bullpen, which almost certainly isn't "better" than Cleveland.
All they have to do is get the job done. So far, they've done that and then some.