2021 Toronto Blue Jays
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2021 Toronto Blue Jays / Franchise: Toronto Blue Jays / BR Team Page
Managed by Charlie Montoyo
History, Comments, Contributions
The 2021 Toronto Blue Jays headed into the season full of confidence after sneaking their way into the expanded postseason in 2020, to most observers' surprise. This time, these same observers considered that they were a solid, if unbalanced team, and that they were legitimate contenders to do well in the AL East, alongside the New York Yankees, who looked like a juggernaut, and the defending pennant winners, the Tampa Bay Rays. Leading them was manager Charlie Montoyo, whose excellent work the previous year had resulted in a contract extension.
As had been the case the case the previous year, one of the biggest questions heading into the season was where the team would play its home games, given the Canada-U.S. border was still closed to non-essential traffic due to the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic, and that severe quarantine rules had been adopted by the Canadian government that would make it impossible for visiting teams to come to Rogers Centre in the immediate. They settled on starting the year at their spring training complex, TD Ballpark in Dunedin, FL, with plans to move to Buffalo, NY once the weather improved (June 1st was eventually chosen as the date for that move), with the hope of eventually being able to finally play some real home games later in the season. On the field, it had been clear in 2020 that the major issue was starting pitching, but the Blue Jays invested most of their money in other areas, by signing OF George Springer to the biggest free agent contract in team history, and also adding SS Marcus Semien, a top MVP contender two years earlier. Both players were good hitters, and their addition gave the Jays a scary line-up from top to bottom, but they also meant that they had more players who should be starters than spots available for them: they had retained their three starting outfielders from the previous season, LF Lourdes Gourriel, CF Randal Grichuk and RF Teoscar Hernandez, who had formed an outstanding trio, as well as their two young 1B/DH Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Rowdy Tellez, giving them six players for five spots with Springer's addition. In the infield, Semien was slated to start at second base, with Cavan Biggio sliding over to third base and Bo Bichette staying put at shortstop. At catcher, they were well set, with Danny Jansen an excellent defender with a potentially dangerous bat, and two solid back-ups in Reese McGuire and Alejandro Kirk.
The real question was who would pitch. The previous season's marquee free agent, Hyun-Jin Ryu, had been outstanding, finishing third in the Cy Young Award voting, but behind him the rotation had been patched together. Young Nate Pearson was considered one of the top pitching prospects in the majors, but so far he had mainly shown an ability to get himself injured in between flashing 100 mph heat. They had also re-signed two pitchers who had a history of being inconsistent, sometimes pitching like All-Stars, and at other times being completely lost on the mound, in Robbie Ray and Ross Stripling, and traded for a pitcher with a similar profile in Steven Matz. With the departure of veteran starters Matt Shoemaker and Taijuan Walker over the off-season, the only other experienced starter was Tanner Roark, whose main value in recent years had been an ability to eat some innings, as every other stat he had put up had been below average. The hope was that these starters would do just enough to keep the game close until turning it over to the bullpen, while the hitters put so many runs on the scoreboard that the Jays would come out on top in spite of their work. The main pitching acquisition had been Kirby Yates, a former All-Star closer, but he had gone down with an elbow injury in camp and was unlikely to pitch at all during the season. But there were other solid pitchers in the bullpen, with Rafael Dolis, Jordan Romano, David Phelps and Tyler Chatwood among those expected to be used in game situations and share save opportunities with no obvious closer present.
Opening Day took place on April 1st at New Yankee Stadium. The Jays received a solid performance from Ryu, who gave up only solidly hit ball, a homer by Gary Sanchez; unfortunately, Gleyber Torres had reached base in front of him by dropping a single into the outfield after being completely jammed. But the Jays managed to score twice against Gerrit Cole, and a committee of relievers managed to take the game into extra innings in spite of a few close calls. In the 10th, Grichuk drove in pinch-runner Jonathan Davis with a lead-off double, and Julian Merryweather closed things down by striking out the side on just 10 pitches to nail down a 3-2 win. They went 3-3 on their first road trip before the home opener in Dunedin on April 8th. The pitching, and especially the relief pitching, had generally been good, but the hitters were in a collective slump, collecting very few walks and doubles, while all of their homers seem to come with the bases empty. They lost the home opener, 7-5, in 11 innings, to fall below .500 for the first time. Things got even bleaker the next day as the Jays had to place Borucki and Hernandez on the COVID-19 list, Hernandez because of a close contact with an infected person from outside the organization, and Borucki because of an adverse reaction to the vaccine. Simultaneously, Chatwood was placed on the injured list with triceps inflammation, and during that day's game, a 7-1 loss to the Angels, Gurriel left after three innings because he was also having a negative reaction to the vaccine. As a result, two players made their debut in that day's game, OF Josh Palacios and P Ty Tice. The Jays' dormant bats finally came alive the following day as they exploded for a seven-run 2nd inning as part of a 15-1 romp over the Angels. They finished April exactly at .500, with a record of 12-12, with Hernandez and Springer having finally returned from their long absences. Guerrero was clearly their best player during the month, with an OBP around .500 and the first three-homer game of his career, while C Jansen ended the month on a dreadful 0 for 34 skein.
The Blue Jays seemed to be on the verge of taking off in early May as they climbed to six games over .500 after a successful road trip that included a season sweep of all six games they played against the Atlanta Braves. They then started a final homestand in Dunedin, and that is when things went wrong. They fell back to .500 on May 24th after losing six straight to the Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays. The streak included two games in which they blew 9th-inning leads, and two more which they lost in extra innings, as the bullpen, that had been excellent in the first six weeks in spite of a constant turnover in personnel caused by injuries, completely imploded. Still, Guerrero was continuing on his torrid streak, as he was tied for the major league lead with 15 homers, while Hernandez, hitting behind him, was driving in runs constantly and Semien proved to be an excellent leadoff hitter, being named the American League's Player of the Month for May. This explained why they could take so many leads late into games - only for the bullpen to blow them. As they left Dunedin for the final time, they announced that they were calling up top pitching prospect Alek Manoah, whose dominant AAA stats at that point would not have looked out of place next to Jacob deGrom's name. Manoah turned out to be the real deal, and the Jays had a great five-man rotation until Matz had to go on the injured list because of COVID-19. The bullpen continued to have regular blow-ups, usually characterized by pitchers like Chatwood or Thornton completely losing the ability to throw strikes for a spell. The Jays hit a low point when they fell to 33-35 on June 18th.
The Jays' early schedule was unusually difficult, what with using two different ballparks as their home base and seemingly only ever facing contending teams. But the schedule got easier starting in mid-June, with a first look at the wretched Baltimore Orioles, among others, allowing the Jays to collect 8 wins in 9 games, to go back to 41-36 and leapfrog past the Yankees into third place. On June 29th, they began to address their chronic bullpen issues by dealing back-up IF Joe Panik and a low-level pitching prospect in Andrew McInvale in return for a veteran reliever in Adam Cimber and a lefthanded power bat in Corey Dickerson, addressing two needs. However, Dickerson was on the injured list, and with Springer finally healthy again, the Jays had a full slate of outfielders, making it likely that a bigger trade, involving a front-line player, could still be in the works. A few days later, the Jays traded 1B Rowdy Tellez, who was now surplus to requirements, to the Milwaukee Brewers to obtain another reliever, Trevor Richards.
The Jays made quite a splash at the All-Star Game. First, their fans, although deprived of live baseball, voted en masse and managed to get three Jays into the starting line-up in Guerrero, Semien and Hernandez, with Guerrero leading all vote getters. Bichette was later added to the reserves. In the game itself, Semien drove in the first run with a single, then Guerrero followed with a monster home run in the 3rd. Two innings later, Hernandez hit a lead-off double and came to score on a ground out by Guerrero, who was named the recipient of the Ted Williams Award as the game's MVP. More good news followed on the day of their first game of the second half, July 16th, as they finally received permission to resume playing games in Toronto, starting with their home stand beginning on July 30th. They celebrated in proper fashion by demolishing the Texas Rangers, 10-2, with five homers, including a pair from Vladdy. Robbie Ray, who had ended the first half with a great pitching performance against the Rays, did the same to open the second half. After a rainout, they then swept a doubleheader from the Rangers, 5-0 and 10-0, with Ryu pitching the team's first complete game shutout since 2015 (albeit a seven-inning one) and Matz getting his first win since going on the COVID list back in mid-June. They fell back to earth the next day against the Red Sox, as Stripling gave up 6 1st-inning run while retiring just one batter, on the way to a 13-4 loss.
The Blue Jays were active at the trading deadline which that year fell on July 30th, the same date as their long awaited return to the Rogers Centre. They made three separate deals, first acquiring P José Berríos from the Minnesota Twins in return for two of their top prospects, OF-IF Austin Martin and P Simeon Woods-Richardson, and then adding two more bullpen arms in Brad Hand and Joakim Soria. Chatwood, who had been maddeningly inconsistent all year and was currently on the injured list, was designated for assignment to make room on the roster. The Jays had won two of their last three games against the Red Sox at Fenway Park before their homecoming, then won their first true home game in two years when they defeated the Kansas City Royals, 6-4 with Hernandez and Bichette going deep and 3B Santiago Espinal ending the game on a magnificent barehanded running catch in shallow left field. They won the next day as well, 4-0, behind a great pitching performance by Manoah, back from the injured list, and two homers by Springer, to finish July at 53-48. They were still a number of games back from a postseason slot, but there was definitely a big wind of optimism around the team. They completed that first homestand with a 8-2 record, both losses coming in extra innings. However, the following road trip was not a good one, as they lost six of none games at a time when the Yankees were on a big winning streak. Their reconstituted bullpen, which had looked good for a spell, was starting to leak again, with Soria having been placed on the IL after just one outing, where he joined Borucki, while Hand was struggling badly. Even with this lack of healthy arms, the Jays decided to cut loose Rafael Dolis, who like Chatwood earlier had been counted on for high leverage innings but had just been a constant source of frustration with his inability to pitch clean innings. Other injuries were piling up, with Biggio and Springer both placed on the IL, and IFs Otto Lopez and Kevin Smith making their big league debuts on consecutive days. Their next series, at home against the Detroit Tigers, was make or break, and while they got three great performances from their starters, they still managed to lose two of three, both losses again coming in extra innings, as their batters just managed one hit with a runner in scoring position all series while hitting a boatload of double play grounders, and their defense came apart at key moments. As a result, criticism of manager Charlie Montoyo became more prevalent, as the Tigers managed by A.J. Hinch clearly looked like the better-coached team, moving runners along, running the bases properly and playing solid defense to capitalize on their opportunities to score.
That series against Detroit was a low point, but the team began to play better from that point forward. At first, they were winning games largely because their starting pitchers were hardly allowing any runs and in spite of the lack of production from their hitters. Typically, Robbie Ray was named the AL Pitcher of the Month for August with good reason: he pitched deep into every start, never allowed more than two runs, and struck out a ton of batters - but his record for the month was just 1-0. However, when the bats started to get hot again, the Blue Jays became unstoppable. After splitting a series with the Chicago White Sox, they won two of three against both Detroit and Baltimore to end the month and then really got serious with back-to-back sweep of two teams they need to catch in order to make the postseason. They first swept a three-game series against the Oakland Athletics at home, highlighted by a tremendous comeback on September 2nd when they erased a six-run deficit in the 8th and a two-run one in the 9th to win, 9-8, and then walked into New Yankee Stadium and handed the Yankees a four-game sweep. Even better, they never trailed over the course of the four games, administering the Bronx Bombers the type of beating they hadn't seen at home since the days when they were the called the "Highlanders" back in 1908. As a result, they ended that series on September 9th only a half-game out of a playoff spot. After a rare loss to the Orioles on September 10th, they came back with a memorable performance in a doubleheader against the Birds on September 11th. A poor performance by Ryu put them in an early hole in the first game, and they trailed 10-5 at one point and were still down, 10-7, when the 7th and final inning started. But they came back to score four runs, topped by a two-run homer by Springer, to win, 11-10. In the second game, Keegan Akin mystified them for the first six innings, limiting them to two meager walks. They were trailing again, 1-0, when the 7th inning started, and this time their bats exploded. It started off single, homer, single, homer, and by the time the inning was over, they had tied franchise records for a single inning with 11 runs, 11 hits and 4 homers. Guerrero set the tone by hitting a single on the inning's first pitch, and hit another one after they had batted around, and Bichette, Kirk, Semien and Hernandez all went deep, as they won the game, 11-2, their 11th win their last 13 games. They then closed out the series the next day with a 22-7 win that featured a ten-run inning and two grand slams.
The Blue Jays briefly led the wild card race after these strong performances, but fell down the soapy pole with their final road trip of the season, when they lost 2 of 3 against the Rays and 2 of 4 against the Twins. They had six games left to close the one-game gap, all at home, with local authorities having allowed up to 30,000 persons to be present at the Rogers Centre for the games (capacity had been capped at 15,000 until then). However, the final homestand started poorly as they lost to the Yankees, 7-2, on September 28th after another meek performance by Ryu, just off a ten-day stint on the injured list. The next game on September 29th was pretty much a must win, and they managed to score 5 runs off Yankees ace Gerrit Cole to take a 5-2 lead, only to see them come back against their battered bullpen. With Guerrero in another deep slump, it was Bo Bichette who saved the day, hitting his second homer of the game off Clay Holmes in the bottom of the 8th, after which their only truly reliable reliever, closer Jordan Romano, pitched a scoreless 9th for a 6-5 win. However, with the Red Sox and Seattle Mariners both also winning, they were still fourth in the wild card standings, one game behind the second-place Sox, with only the top two teams headed into the Wild Card Game. In that game, both Bichette and Semien passed the 100-RBI mark, giving the Jays four such hitters for the first time in their history, with Guerrero and Hernandez having already passed the milestone. The Blue Jays' hopes were pretty much ended when they lost the rubber match of the series, 6-2, on September 30th, when the usually reliable Robbie Ray gave up three homers in the 5th inning. Indeed, they swept the Orioles in their final three games, but came up one game short, as both the Yankees and Red Sox won in the 9th inning of their final game to secure the two wild card spots - if either of them had lost that final game, the Blue Jays would have been in a playoff for the wild card.
The Blue Jays finished with a run differential of +183, the third highest ever for a team missing the postseason, and their Pythagorean record was 99-63, which would normally have put them not only comfortably in the playoffs, but even allowed them to challenge the Rays for first place in the AL East. Their frontline talent was as good as any other team's. What had undone them was their pedestrian record in one-run games (15-15) and their awful one in games decided in extra innings (3-9), which negated the countless beatings they inflicted on opponents throughout the season (they were 31-15 in games decided by 5 or more runs, and recorded 14 shutouts to their opponents' 3). Clearly, a weak bullpen had been their Achilles' heel, in addition to one or two very poorly timed collective hitting slumps that had cost them the couple of extra wins they would have needed to advance further.
Awards and Honors
- All-Stars: Bo Bichette, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Teoscar Hernandez and Marcus Semien
- AL Cy Young Award: Robbie Ray
- AL Gold Glove: Marcus Semien (2B)
- AL Silver Slugger Award: Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (1B), Teoscar Hernandez (OF) and Marcus Semien (2B)
- Nick Ashbourne: "The Blue Jays don't look like most contenders, but that doesn't mean they can't contend", Yahoo! Sports Canada, March 30, 2021. 
- Nick Ashbourne: "4 heartbreaking losses that could have changed Blue Jays' playoff fate", Yahoo! Sports Canada, October 5, 2021. 
- Associated Press: "Blue Jays shuffling back to Buffalo starting June 1", USA Today, May 5, 2021. 
- Tim Brown: "Blue Jays uncertain of 2021 home after COVID-19 forced them to play 2020 season in Buffalo", Yahoo! Sports, January 19, 2021. 
- Michael Hoad: "10 most memorable moments of the Blue Jays' 2021 season", Yahoo! Sports, October 7, 2021. 
- Matt Kelly: "RBIs outdated? Not for this young team: Blue Jays could have five 100-RBI sluggers, join '36 Yankees", mlb.com, August 21, 2021. 
- Julia Kreuz: "Blue Jays rediscovering normalcy one month after return to Toronto", Yahoo! Sports Canada, September 1, 2021. 
- Keegan Matheson: "Blue Jays clearly ready to make more moves", mlb.com, January 21, 2021. 
- Keegan Matheson: "Help doesn't come for Toronto: 'It hurts': Wins by Yanks, Red Sox knock Blue Jays out despite 91-71 record", mlb.com, October 3, 2021. 
- Mike Petriello; "Blue Jays' pitching finally backing elite bats: Toronto's rotation has 2nd-best ERA since start of July", mlb.com, August 9, 2021. 
- Gregory Strong (The Canadian Press): "After a busy off-season, optimism abounds for Toronto Blue Jays in 2021", Yahoo! Sports, March 31, 2021.