For all its tactical nuance, the primary goal of hitting major-league pitching often boils down to finding a juicy fastball and putting good wood on it.
During their dreadful 1-8 start, the Toronto Blue Jays have shown a distinct inability to do just that. On Thursday night at Rogers Centre, the club was faced with the task of solving Baltimore Orioles starter Kevin Gausman and his 95.2 mph heat and found they weren’t equal to the task en route to a 2-1 loss.
It was symptomatic of the club’s difficulty handling top-notch heat, which something that doesn’t come as much of a surprise to manager John Gibbons.
“Guys that throw that hard are hard to hit,” he said, “Especially if they have their off-speed stuff going at all really.”
The problem for the Blue Jays is that not only have the struggled with big-time fastballs, they’ve seen a lot of them. According to FanGraphs, they’ve been subjected to the highest average velocity in the league while producing at a dismal rate against the hard stuff:
These numbers are intuitive in the sense that fastballs that are faster are usually better and it isn’t surprising that a team would struggle against the hardest heat. At the same time, the Philadelphia Phillies have faced the second-hardest fastballs at 93.9 mph and been 8.7 runs above average against them.
Toronto has gone up against some big-time muscle, but with guys like Jose Bautista, Kendrys Morales and Josh Donaldson, a team designed to hunt fastballs has become the hunted.
The Blue Jays have gone up against three of the top 20 hardest-throwing starters in baseball (Wily Peralta, Chris Archer and Gausman twice), they’ve scored only eight runs over 25 innings – allowing the power pitchers to run up a 2.88 ERA. Theoretically, the counterpoint would be that hard throwers tend to be better overall, but the trio of Peralta, Archer and Gausman combined for 508.2 frames of 4.09 ERA and 4.14 FIP ball last year – hardly the stuff of legends.
Against Gausman on Thursday, the Blue Jays consistently struggled to get around on the fastball. Bautista was the only hitter who managed to pull anything in the air with authority as four of the team’s five hits went the other way. And the pitches the big right-hander used to get his three strikeouts? Fastball. Fastball. Fastball.
“Gausman’s been one of the better young arms in the game and he’s just starting to come into his own out here. He’s got a chance to be really, really good,” Gibbons said of the 26-year-old. “There’s a lot of similarities with [Aaron] Sanchez. Similar styles and they’re both starting to harness it now.”
Like all of the Blue Jays current struggles, it’s hard to determine to what extent this is here to stay. With a lineup of comprised of hitters in their thirties, it’s certainly worth wondering if a bat or two in this group has slowed down a touch.
What is certain is that if the Blue Jays are going to get their offence in gear, they’re going to need to turn on a few heaters – even if they’re in the mid-nineties. More than anything else, that’s what this team was designed to do at the plate.
Until they start to hammer the heat they’ll struggle to produce runs – and wins.