Blue Jays find winning formula similar to Pirates
The Blue Jays already have one of baseball's best lineups, having led the Majors in runs scored in 2015. Therefore, it's no wonder they've spent the offseason looking to upgrade their pitching staff.
While the loss of David Price will sting, Toronto should continue to contend, because the Blue Jays -- who announced on Thursday that Ross Atkins will be their new general manager -- are taking a page out of the Pirates' book by essentially becoming the Pirates of the North.
The Martin connection
Given the Pirates' success over the past three seasons on a shoestring budget, it's not hard to see why teams would want to follow their blueprint. Pittsburgh's coaching staff has already been raided by the rest of the league, with pitching guru Jim Benedict going to the Marlins in a move that brought prospect Trevor Williams to the Bucs as compensation. But few are following the path as closely as the Blue Jays, who began their Pittsburgh imitation behind the plate.
Last offseason, the Blue Jays signed Canadian native and pitch-framer extraordinaire Russell Martin to a five-year, $82 million deal, with much of it the result of the defensive abilities he showed with the Pirates. After all, most teams don't give long-term deals to catchers over the age of 30. Though his 23 home runs in Toronto's friendly climes was helpful last year, Martin was a full 30 runs better than Dioner Navarro was in 2014 strictly through pitch framing, which is roughly equivalent to three wins.
A big part of the Pirates' success has been their ability to take starting pitchers off the scrap heap and turns them into studs. In 2015, we saw the Blue Jays turn this trick with Marco Estrada, though it wasn't quite the overhaul that the Bucs engineered when they turned Francisco Liriano and Edinson Volquez into front-of-the-rotation starters with the help of pitching coach Ray Searage.
Still, the Blue Jays saw a pitcher who was adept at forcing batters to make weak contact (his 21.4 percent soft contact rate was 11th in the Majors last year) when he didn't try to strike batters out. So despite being a fly-ball pitcher in a stadium that punishes fly balls, Estrada was able to dominate batters largely on the back of a nearly 11-mph difference between his 89 mph fastball and his just-under 79 mph changeup.
Toronto is looking to do the same next year. Naturally, the Blue Jays started by bringing back former Jay J.A. Happ. Thanks to a mechanical tweak from Searage following a midseason trade from Seattle to Pittsburgh, Happ pitched more like Corey Kluber over the final two months of the year, posting a 1.85 ERA. Rather than simply being a hot streak mirage, Happ's updated delivery saw the pitcher post an increase in velocity, spin rate and movement on his fastball, bringing his four-seamer up to the mid-90s.
That also led to Happ throwing his four-seamer over 65 percent of the time over the last two months, all the while decreasing his walks to would-be career-low levels. Assuming the Blue Jays can have him repeat his motion in 2016, he's a good bet as a mid-rotation starter, even if he's not the Cy Young Award candidate he looked like.
Which brings the Blue Jays to Jesse Chavez, who is an interesting upside play in his own right. He was acquired from Oakland in November for Liam Hendriks, and his 3.89 FIP outperformed his 4.18 ERA in 2015, closely resembling the 3.85 mark from '14. In other words, Chavez is a good bet to bounce back.
For some, the most notable aspect of Pittsburgh's ascent is the team's use of infield shifts. The Bucs shift as much as anyone, ranking third in shifts in 2015 and sixth in '14, and the Blue Jays are following the blueprint.
According to the "Bill James Handbook," Toronto shifted 884 times in 2015, which ranked seventh in the Majors and was an increase of 198 shifts (more than one per game) from '14. That aggressive shifting helped the Jays turn more batted balls into outs, as evidenced by their team .278 BABIP, which was the best in the Majors.
Add all this to the Blue Jays' explosive offense and rumors of further deals to strengthen the bullpen (Pittsburgh led the Majors in reliever ERA last year), and Toronto stands a good chance of replicating its success next year. After all, it's worked for the Pirates.