TORONTO -- It’s been a while since the Blue Jays were a threat in a footrace.
From 2015 to 2019, the club ranked 25th or worse in stolen bases, leaning instead on the long ball to do most of its damage. The transition to a younger, more athletic team has changed that, though.
The Blue Jays ranked in the top third of the league in the shortened 2020 season, and stole 23 bases in the Grapefruit League, ranking sixth. Steals won’t be the lone metric the change in play style is measured by, though, as Charlie Montoyo pushes his players to be on their toes at all times, looking for an opportunity to grab 90 extra feet.
“That’s one of the things we talked about in Spring Training to do more, on balls in the dirt and all of that stuff,” Montoyo said. “In the first few games that’s what we’ve done: Be a little more aggressive.”
This change has happened naturally. The Blue Jays haven’t dropped two or three burners onto their roster, but instead have grown more dynamic and athletic across the board. Even catcher Danny Jansen advanced on a ball in the dirt over the weekend in New York, which eventually resulted in a run. Jansen works as a fine example for this team-wide trend, though, ranking in 2020 as the fifth-fastest catcher in baseball.
Marcus Semien has the club’s only two stolen bases after one series, and is typically a player who falls in the range of 10-to-14 steals over a full season. On Saturday, Semien reached 29.1 feet-per-second on an infield single, just shy of the 30 ft/s that Statcast deems “elite speed.” He then stole second and, later in the game, swiped his second bag.
“For me, I just try to pick spots that make sense," Semien said. "I don’t want to run into outs. ... If I could be safe every time, that’s the goal, so I try to pick spots and guys I think I can get. If the legs are feeling good, I’ll go for it.”
That philosophy sounds similar to what you see from Cavan Biggio. The third baseman isn’t known for his speed by any means, but he’s opened his Major League career a perfect 20-for-20 on stolen base attempts by picking the right spots at the right times.
This roster won’t have a 50-steal player on it, but by chipping away with an extra base more often the Blue Jays hope to give themselves an added edge in close games, especially down the stretch and into the postseason, when every base batters.
Springer progressing toward return
George Springer has been taking swings recently and going through regular baseball activities, as he recovers from a left oblique strain. Given that his IL stint was retroactive to March 29, he’s eligible to return to the roster in time for the Blue Jays’ first series back in Dunedin later this week.
“He’s doing well. He's doing really well,” Montoyo said, “and now his next step is just taking the live batting practice. I think we might have one tomorrow, so he'll be part of that.”
When Springer returns, he should slot in right at the top of the lineup. Montoyo was rolling out Springer followed by Semien, Bo Bichette and Teoscar Hernández for much of Spring Training, which would move Biggio back to the lower third of the lineup. Toronto’s other decision will come down to keeping either a ninth bullpen arm or outfielder Jonathan Davis on its active roster.
Bichette on Blue Jays’ vaccination process
Bichette shared Monday that he had an asymptomatic case of COVID-19 previously, and learned he has antibodies during Spring Training. The Blue Jays plan to begin vaccinating players when they return to Dunedin later this week, now that vaccines are available to their age range in the state of Florida. Some staff members have already begun that process.
“We’ve had a lot of conversations about it as a team,” Bichette said. “Personally, for myself, I already have long-term antibodies, so it’s not necessarily an immediate decision for me, but a lot of guys should be getting it and hopefully we can get some protocols lifted for the team.”
Clubs were informed last Monday that MLB and the MLBPA have agreed to relax certain health and safety protocols contained in the 2021 Operations Manual for fully vaccinated Tier 1 Individuals and for clubs where 85% of their Tier 1 Individuals are fully vaccinated. As part of that memo, players and staff were again strongly encouraged to receive one of the approved COVID-19 vaccines when eligible.