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4/11-4/14 Blue Jays @ Yankees Series Preview

Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge (Keith Allison from Hanover, MD, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons)

Fresh off opening series wins, the Yankees and Blue Jays clash for a crucial four game set in the Bronx. In April, teams are far from complete, many pitchers are working on strict pitch counts, and the consequences of poor play aren’t felt for months. However, the gravity of this series should not be understated, as both are expected to cross the 90-win mark in a likely close division race.

Projected Lineup (2021 stats):

The Blue Jays entered 2022 as one of the favorites to win the American League, primarily due to the depth and talent of their lineup. Led by a trio of stars in George Springer, Bo Bichette, and Vladimir Guerrero Jr., they bring a blend of high average and power rarely found in MLB today. Here is how they lined up in their series finale against the Rangers on Sunday.

  1. George Springer (R) DH (.264/.352/.555, 140 wRC+)
  2. Bo Bichette (R) SS (.298/.343/.484, 122 wRC+)
  3. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (R) 1B (.311/.401/.601, 166 wRC+)
  4. Teoscar Hernandez (R) RF (.296/.346/.524, 132 wRC+)
  5. Lourdes Gurriel Jr. (R) LF (.276/.319/.466, 107 wRC+)
  6. Matt Chapman (R) 3B (.210/.314/.403, 101 wRC+)
  7. Raimel Tapia (L) CF (.273/.327/.372, 76 wRC+)
  8. Santiago Espinal (R) 2B (.311/.376/.405, 115 wRC+)
  9. Danny Jansen (R) C (.223/.322/.473, 105 wRC+)

While you will likely see some Cavan Biggio and Alejandro Kirk, expect at least 1-6 to remain unchanged. While the Yankees have taken criticism for deploying a heavy right-handed lineup, Toronto, after leading the majors in HR and OPS in 2021, can line up a righty only batting order at times. The have had great regular season success thus far, but it remains to be seen how they hold up against elite pitching.

While they lost MVP finalist Marcus Semien in free agency, they added defensive wizard Matt Chapman in hopes he can return to his peak Oakland form, as did Semien. The Jays also moved on from Randal Grichuk in favor of soft-hitting Raimel Tapia, in hopes to balance out their homogenous order. With those changes they figure to lose a lot of production offensively, but still figure to be one of the top hitting teams in the game. 

Probable Pitchers

Game 1: Jameson Taillon vs Alek Manoah

Taillon had an up and down first year in the Bronx, posting a 3.50 ERA in the second half after a bloated 4.90 in the first. The former second overall pick has a lot to prove in a contract year after a string of injuries following a sterling 2018 campaign. The Yankees paid a steep price to bring him aboard, including now top 100 prospect Roansy Contreras, signaling a strong belief he can return to form as their number two or three starter. Since coming to New York Taillon has relied on a high-spin four-seam fastball à la Gerrit Cole, a pitch he had some success with in 2021 but is prone to get hit hard, as he held batters to a xBA of only .202 but a .404 xSLG with the pitch.

Manoah is another top pick (11th overall in 2019) with high expectations for 2022. He pitched to a sterling 9-2 record with a 3.22 ERA and 127 strikeouts in 20 start rookie season, landing him eighth place in the rookie of the year voting. His slider is his primary weapon, limiting batters to a dismal .236 wOBA in 2021, and he also mixes in a four-seam fastball and sinker. 

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Game 2: Nestor Cortes Jr. vs Yusei Kikuchi

Cortes was one of the Yankees biggest surprises in 2021, posting an elite 2.90 ERA in 93 innings. Drafted in 2013 by the Yankees, Cortes has bounced around the bigs, including unsuccessful stints with Baltimore and Seattle, but has seemed to come into his own in his third go-around with the Bombers. While his stuff is far from overpowering, he manages to find success keeping hitters off balance and limiting hard contact, ranking in the 68th percentile in hard hit percentage in 2021. He aims to secure a rotation spot long-term with a strong 2022. 

The Blue Jays were busy this offseason and managed to snag highly-coveted starter Yusei Kikuchi on a 3/$36M contract. Kikuchi came to the States prior to the 2019 season and struggled to the tune of a 5.39 ERA in his first two seasons before piecing together a solid 2021 (4.41 ERA). His advanced metrics don’t bode well for him as he ranked towards the bottom of the league in hard hit percentage (3rd percentile) and barrel percentage (8th percentile) in 2021, but the Jays are hoping to unlock some of what made him one of the top pitchers in Japan.

Game 3: Gerrit Cole vs Jose Berrios

Both Cole and Berrios are slated for their second starts of the season following forgettable debuts. Cole allowed three runs before recording an out in the Yankees season opener, but managed to get through four innings without allowing any more damage. While Cole has struggled some since the MLB crackdown on spider tack, his four-seam fastball averaged over 2500 rpm in his first outing, similar to his 2019 numbers, signaling that he has found a way to restore the elite-level spin rate which propelled him to one of the best pitchers in baseball. Cole will work with a heavy dose of fastballs and sliders as well as mix in some curveballs and change-ups, but look out for his cutter, a pitch he threw in college and is looking to work back in this season. 

Berrios was the Jays’ big trade deadline addition last year and pitched well in his first stint with Toronto, posting a 3.58 ERA and 78 strikeouts in 70.1 innings. Berrios has yet to establish himself as a frontline starter but has been one of baseball’s most reliable pitchers, as he has reached 32 starts and a sub 4.00 ERA in each of the last three full MLB seasons. His curveball is his best weapon and he also incorporates a sinker and four-seam fastball, the latter being a pitch he has yet to find much success with in the bigs. He threw 16 of them in his 34 pitch opening outing, giving up four runs and only recording one out, so expect a lot of sinkers in an attempt to induce ground balls.

Game 4: Luis Severino vs Kevin Gausman

Severino has only thrown 18 regular season innings since 2018, so I think it is fair to mark his season debut as a success. He pitched three innings and the only damage was a two-run homerun, following a questionable hit call on a botched ground ball by Isiah Kiner-Falefa. His command was not as sharp as he hoped but his fastball velocity stayed in the upper 90’s and he got five total whiffs, hopefully a sign of things to come. It remains unclear how the Yankees intend to use Severino this season, as it is hard to imagine him clearing 125-150 innings even if healthy, but when he is right he can still be a top starter. 

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After losing 2021 AL Cy Young award winner Robbie Ray in free agency, the Jays pivoted to breakout star Kevin Gausman on a 5/$110M deal. He has an exceptional splitter which the Giants exploited during his time in San Francisco, putting it all together in 2021 with a sterling 1.73 ERA in the first half. Gausman struggled after the break with a still respectable 4.42 ERA, so it remains to be seen what kind of pitcher he is. The Jays paid him like an ace and are staking much of their success in 2022 on his shoulders. His first run in the AL East with the Orioles had mixed results, so his first start back against the Yankees will have the Toronto front office holding their breath. 

What to watch:

Battle of bullpens: 

The Yankees’ pen was phenomenal in their series with the Red Sox, rolling out a deep 11-man group due to expanded rosters. Look for relievers Jonathan Loaisiga, Clay Holmes, Miguel Castro and rookie Ron Marinaccio to play a big role in the series against Toronto’s top hitters, as they all are capable of producing whiffs as well as ground balls against right-handed hitters.

The Blue Jays bullpen on the other hand has some question marks. Jordan Romano was one of the top relievers in baseball last season, but the pecking order after that is yet to be determined. They brought in Yimi Garcia on a 2/$11M deal to provide some stability, which he has in two appearances thus far. After those two, the rest of the Toronto bullpen has given up an ugly 10 earned runs in only 14.1 innings, performance that cannot continue if they hope to have success against the deep Yankee lineup.

Aaron Hicks:

Hicks struggled in the Yankees opening series and it remains to be seen how much playing time he is going to get. They Yankees clearly feel comfortable using Judge in center and if he continues to struggle expect them to utilize the opportunity to sit Hicks to get DJ LeMahieu’s bat in the lineup.

Lourdes Gurriel Jr.:

Gurriel appeased many old-school baseball fans in 2021 with a solid .276 batting average and 84 RBI. However, he has struggled defensively in the outfield and his low walk rate has kept his career OBP at a weak .323. The Jays have a lethal 1-4 in their lineup but questions after that, relying on strong production from Gurriel this season. He is a gifted pure hitter but has enough weaknesses to give Toronto pause in cementing him as a foundational piece to their future. 

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