Blue Jays have new vulnerability exploited by Rays

Controlling the running game hasn't been a notable issue for the Toronto Blue Jays in recent years, but this season opponents are stealing with impunity.

After losing nine of their last 11 games, the Toronto Blue Jays seem to be springing leaks left, right and centre.

From the underperformance of Alek Manoah, to the inconsistency of the team's relievers, to an offence that hasn't found it's footing, there is plenty of blame to go around.

When the Tampa Bay Rays won three of four against Toronto this week they shone a light on a subtle but important issue: the Blue Jays can't slow down the running game.

The Tampa Bay Rays' running game put the Blue Jays on their heels on Thursday. (Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports)
The Tampa Bay Rays' running game put the Blue Jays on their heels on Thursday. (Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports)

In four games the Rays stole 10 bases and got caught just once.

Their top victim was Manoah, who they swiped five bags off of in just three innings. The big right-hander has now conceded 12 steals in just 53.2 innings. In the first two seasons of his career, he allowed just eight in 298.1 frames.

After their series with the Rays, the Blue Jays have now allowed 50 stolen bases — the second-highest total in the major leagues. Only six teams are throwing out runners at a lower rate than Toronto's 15%.

While their neither of their primary catchers, Alejandro Kirk and Danny Jansen, are known for possessing cannon arms, that duo of backstops had at least modest success containing opposing runners in 2021 and 2022.

Via Baseball-Reference
Via Baseball-Reference

The increased size of the bases this season has made stealing bases easier, but that doesn't explain why Toronto ranks so much worse relative to the rest of the league. The numbers above seem to suggest that the team's catching duo can throw at an adequate level — and the Statcast numbers support that.

Off 55 qualified catchers Jansen's Pop Time ranks 27th and Kirk's comes in at 33rd. That's not outstanding, but the backstops are getting the ball from their glove into their infielders' mitts at a respectable speed.

According to Statcast's new Caught Stealing Above Average metric, Jansen and Kirk have been precisely average in 2023, combining for a total of 0. That's consistent with their recent work as they sat at a cumulative +1 in each of the last two seasons.

If the Blue Jays' catchers are doing what they've always done but the team's ability to control the running game is falling off a cliff, the blame shifts to the pitching staff.

Manoah is a big part of that as opponents are stealing 2.01 bases off him per nine innings after managing just 0.24 in the previous two seasons. Nothing is going right for the 25-year-old this season, and his method for holding runners on is yet another thing he may need to adjust.

Kevin Gausman has allowed seven stolen bases, but he's always struggled to hold runners. José Berríos has conceded five, which is surprising considering only six base runners stole off of him in 172 innings last year. Another notable name to watch is Nate Pearson, who's allowed four swipes in just 13 frames.

With runners more incentivized to steal than they've been in recent memory and limits on throws to first base, the task of controlling the running game is getting harder. Pitchers around the league are likely to see the number of stolen bases against them balloon.

The Blue Jays staff has been victimized to a greater degree than most, though, and holding men on base falls neatly under the category of "the little things" — the type of details the Blue Jays said they were emphasizing in the offseason. When Chris Bassitt said the team had to "clean things up" earlier this week, this is the sort of thing that falls under that umbrella.

While Toronto has a pair of catchers who can throw at approximately a league-average level, they don't have a difference maker behind the dish who can compensate for his pitchers' failure to do their part in the running game.

That would take someone like Gabriel Moreno — the man they shipped out in the offseason. A player who just so happens to lead the majors in Caught Stealing Above Average. Moving on from Moreno resulted in committing to Kirk and Jansen, which means the solution to this problem isn't likely to come from behind the plate.

Instead, the Blue Jays pitching staff, from top to bottom, will need to figure it out.