Struggling Blue Jays aren't alone in MLB's brutal offensive landscape – but 'it still sucks'

BALTIMORE — George Springer knows his batting average looks as bad as he feels, which at the moment is terrible, as he clutches a bottle filled with purple electrolytes to try and beat down a nasty virus once and for all.

He realizes the Toronto Blue Jays have largely played like rubbish, that the offense for which he has batted leadoff in 37 of 42 games has been among the worst in the game, and that he flirts with the interstate – a batting average less than .200 – more often than a long-haul trucker.

Yet Springer has seen the game evolve right in front of him, from his 2014 Houston Astros debut to a $150 million contract with the Blue Jays to his team’s current predicament. After two consecutive playoff appearances, this Toronto team is 19-23, largely due to an impotent offense whose .668 OPS ranks 23rd in the major leagues.

In this era, however, offense is relative. And this modern game has, more than ever, especially for hitters, taken a turn toward survival, aesthetics be damned.

“Yeah, obviously, we would like to play better,” says Springer, whose .201 average and .572 OPS have inspired Blue Jays fans to question his status as the leadoff hitter. “We would like to have better numbers. You want the scoreboard to look better and have all those beautiful Statcast numbers and all that stuff.

“I get it. I understand it. You want the pretty scoreboard. Everybody wants the pretty scoreboard. There’s not one person in this room that wouldn’t love to look up and see .300, 15, and 30 at this point in the year. But that’s not the case.

“That’s only going to be a select few guys. Not everybody can be Mookie Betts, Freddie Freeman and Shohei Ohtani.”

To the skeptic, Springer’s contention might sound like standard it’s-still-early veteran obfuscation. But more than a quarter into the season, Major League Baseball is headed toward another offensive outage.

The .697 league average OPS would be the lowest in a full season since 1989, when it was .695. One year after restricting defensive shifts boosted the league batting average five points, it has plummeted from .248 to .239, which would be the worst full-season average since 1968, after which the mound was lowered to boost hitters.

Perhaps no team has born that brunt like the Blue Jays, whose tepid off-season in which they struck out on acquiring Shohei Ohtani left an uneven squad that’s put pressure on manager John Schneider and the star bats they have in place.

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and George Springer celebrate after scoring a run against the Orioles on Wednesday.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and George Springer celebrate after scoring a run against the Orioles on Wednesday.

One by one, they are attempting to rehab their seasons, with some success. Two-time All-Star shortstop Bo Bichette is the latest and perhaps most significant star to face reality, lugging a .189 average into the second week of May, and facing a professional crisis unprecedented in his four-year career.

“It just comes down to, ‘Do I believe in myself or do I not believe in myself?’” Bichette tells USA TODAY Sports. “I do believe in myself, so there’s no real need for panic. I don’t think when things aren’t going well that it gets easier. I mean, it still sucks.

“But you just have the experience to fall back on that you’ll be fine. You’ve been there before.

“You’ll get through it.”

That’s a refrain all the Jays could live by – along with a few of the game’s greatest hitters.

Info wars

The last page of qualified hitters on the stat sheet is typically the province of backup catchers, light-hitting infielders, youngsters just an 0-for-5 from a plane ticket back to Class AAA.

Less than two weeks before Memorial Day, it’s instead littered with All-Stars.

Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Randy Arozarena totes the worst batting average among qualified batters, a .160 mark paired with a .600 OPS. Arizona’s reigning NL Rookie of the Year, Corbin Carroll, is at .193/.539. Francisco Lindor, who hit 31 homers with an .806 OPS for the Mets, is batting .204 with a .655 OPS.

“Guys like Bo, Corbin Carroll and all those guys, they’re so good and they kind of spoil us with how good they are,” says Springer. “Because they do it on such a consistent basis. They’re not what you think they should be.”

Baseball’s reckoning with uber-specialized pitching and the subsequent offensive outage has been going on a decade, with commissioner Rob Manfred’s extreme measures – limiting the size of pitching staffs and defensive shifts, most notably – injecting a little adrenaline into the operation.

But this year feels like a step back, and for the modern hitter, there’s increasingly nowhere to hide.

The hard 98 mph sinker paired with the 92 mph slider has become almost de rigueur, Springer notes, then pauses to consider that afternoon’s starter – Baltimore right-hander Kyle Bradish.

“Yeah, he throws 98, too,” says Springer, not complaining but simply stating what a day at the office typically looks like.

Bichette notes that more than two decades into baseball’s great (not so great?) analytics revolution, scouting reports only get more granular. If a hitter’s cold zone was once defined as a quadrant, it’s now an octant – the proverbial gnat’s derriere somehow growing smaller.

“They have every bit of information on us,” says Bichette, “so if we’re struggling on something certain, they know exactly what it is. There’s no thought process for pitchers – they just go straight to it.”

Bichette prefers not to worry about the other guy, though. He brought a .552 OPS to Baltimore, 275 points weaker than his career mark entering the year.

“There’s a lot of great pitchers, but when I struggle, I don’t necessarily go straight to, ‘What are they doing to me?’” he says. “There’s normally something internally I could be doing better.”

That soul-searching has been going around the Blue Jays clubhouse like the virus.

Shortstop Bo Bichette averaged 24 homers and 89 RBI from 2021-2023.
Shortstop Bo Bichette averaged 24 homers and 89 RBI from 2021-2023.

'I dug myself a pretty big hole'

You can project a player’s statistics and their inherent impact on a team’s ultimate record, but a given baseball season always has a mind of its own. It’s tempting to think these Blue Jays might have painted themselves in a corner, what with wasting 39-year-old DH Justin Turner’s excellent April, along with some stellar starting pitching.

“That’s what makes a team,” says Bichette. “That’s what keeps us together, as you go through adversity, either yourself or teammates. At the end of it, you hope to come out all on the same side, pulling for the same thing.”

They sit fifth in the brutal American League East, and no fewer than 12 of 15 AL teams seem like solid contenders, any number of them gobbling up the three wild-card berths the Blue Jays grabbed the past two years.

Of course, it’s nowhere near too late, and slowly the signs of life are emerging.

All-Star first baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr. was among the light hitters early on, with just three homers and a .675 OPS in his first 34 games. He’s since been on a 14-for-30 tear.

And Bichette might have found something at Camden Yards, a park in which he’s always excelled, reaching base in seven of his nine plate appearances in two games. He will take a .227 average, and a .607 OPS back to Toronto.

“I dug myself a pretty big hole,” he said after reaching base three times Wednesday. “So I got a long way to go.”

Says Schneider, in his second full season as Toronto manager: “I’ve been saying it for a couple weeks: It’s just a matter of time until he has three hits and a walk, or five hits. It’s just who he is. His swings are really good. His takes are really good.

“When his confidence is as high as his ability is, watch out.”

And perhaps the tide is turning. Bichette topped a ball to third off Bradish, but reached on the swinging bunt. Springer chopped a ball down the line that bounced off the bag. Later, Bichette skied a fly to right that glanced off the glove of Baltimore’s Anthony Santander for a two-run double.

Then again, maybe not.

Three outs from what would have been a stirring two-game sweep, a bad-hop single and a pop-fly walk-off homer from Adley Rutschman sent Toronto to another loss.

Progress, though. It’s all you have in mid-May, with a long road ahead and a snakepit of an offensive environment around you.

“Every year is different. Every team is different,” says Springer. “They will go through different things – sicknesses, wins, losses, guys getting hurt, guys performing, guys not performing, and I think that’s kind of the beauty of the game. That every year is different, every month is different, every day.

“Eventually if you trust your process and keep going, I always believe that who you are will eventually show.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Blue Jays' offensive woes part of MLB's brutal landscape for hitters