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Series Preview: Mariners (30-31) vs. Blue Jays (29-31)

The Canadians invade Safeco Field this weekend as the Blue Jays are in town for three games.

Toronto Blue Jays v Atlanta Braves Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

At a Glance

Blue Jays Mariners
Blue Jays Mariners
Game 1 Friday, June 9 | 7:10 pm
RHP Joe Biagini RHP Sam Gaviglio
44% 56%
Game 2 Saturday, June 10 | 7:10 pm
RHP Marcus Stroman LHP Ariel Miranda
45% 55%
Game 3 Sunday, June 11 | 1:10 pm
LHP J.A. Happ LHP James Paxton
42% 58%
*Game odds courtesy of FiveThirtyEight (Explainer)

Team Overview

Overview Blue Jays Mariners Edge
Overview Blue Jays Mariners Edge
Batting (wRC+) 94 (11th in AL) 107 (3rd in AL) Mariners
Fielding (UZR) -8.8 (14th) 8.4 (4th) Mariners
Starting Pitching (FIP-) 101 (7th) 113 (11th) Blue Jays
Bullpen (FIP-) 87 (7th) 105 (11th) Blue Jays

*Text appearing in italics has appeared in a previous series preview.

The last time the Mariners were this close to .500, they had just scored 21 runs across two games in Philadelphia and were beginning a four-game series against the Blue Jays in Toronto. At that point, the Blue Jays were 13-21 and all but forgotten in the American League playoff picture. You know what happened with the Mariners since then but the Blue Jays have completely turned their season around. Including their four-game sweep of the Mariners, the Blue Jays have gone 16-10 since the last time these two teams met and are firmly in the midst of the muddy American League Wild Card race.

This three-game series will mark the end of the longest homestand of the year for the Mariners. Both the bullpen and the rotation have settled down. The pitching staff has held opposing teams to just 2.88 runs per game during this homestand. If everything goes right, there’s a possibility Mitch Haniger could rejoin the team this weekend as well. Slowly but surely, the Mariners are working back to full strength.

The Blue Jays:

After suffering so many injuries during the first two months of the season, the Blue Jays are almost back to full strength as well. Josh Donaldson and Troy Tulowitzki are back with the team giving their offense a boost. Justin Smoak, of all players, has been one of the best hitters in the American League this year and Jose Bautista has broken out of his early season slump. Combine that with continued excellence from their pitching staff and the Blue Jays look every bit as dangerous as many thought they were entering this season.

Key Players

1B Justin Smoak – Would you believe Justin Smoak is tied for second most home runs in the majors? Or that he has a higher wRC+ than Carlos Correa, Kris Bryant, and Anthony Rizzo? As Jeff Sullivan so skillfully pointed out in this FanGraphs article, Smoak’s renaissance is driven by a huge reduction in strikeout rate and a corresponding increase in contact rate. All of his other batted ball and plate discipline peripherals are in line with his established career norms.

3B Josh Donaldson – Josh Donaldson’s first year in Toronto, he won the AL MVP. Interestingly, his 154 wRC+ that year is the lowest he’s posted during his time with the Blue Jays. Donaldson is a multi-talented hitter, able to hit for contact, power, and draw walks. He’s posted an ISO higher than .200 every year since 2014, his last with Oakland, and continues to get even more patient at the plate, raising his walk rate to a career high 15.6% last season. He’s a great third baseman as well, running a career 10.1 UZR/150 for his career. He’s posted 6.0 or higher WAR in each of the past four seasons, and could still reach that mark even after missing a large portion of the start of the season.

SS Troy Tulowitzki – Another player who’s battled injuries at the beginning of the season, Troy Tulowitzki has found his way back into the Blue Jays lineup. He’s had a rusty start, posting a 79 wRC+ in his first 105 plate apperances, but when his .265 BABIP regresses to his career mean, he’ll be back to career form. Tolu has always been a powerful hitter, running a career .207 ISO from the shortstop position. He’s also a solid shortstop, with a career 5.2 UZR/150. His return to the lineup will help the Blue Jays recover from their slow start to the season.

CF Kevin PillarAlthough he’s spent most of his career in the bottom-third of the lineup, Kevin Pillar has stabilized the injury-riddled Blue Jays lineup from the leadoff spot this year. Just a 32nd round draft choice in 2011, his minor league production earned him a major league debut in 2013. The 28-year-old centerfielder plays phenomenal defense, boasting an 18.7 UZR/150 for his career at his position. Pillar doesn’t strike out much and doesn’t walk very much either. Rather, his aggressive approach at the plate is focused on making contact, and this season, he’s made more hard contact than ever before. That alone explains his hot start to the season as the rest of his batted ball profile is right in line with his career norms. He’s combined for seven wins in his two full seasons in the majors, and looks to be on pace for another great season.

RF Jose Bautista – In 2016, Jose Bautista posted a 122 wRC+, his lowest since 2010, as he worked through an injury-plagued season. His fly ball rate was 41.7% that season, and his HR/FB matched his career average. This yielded 22 home runs in 517 plate appearances. Now through 150 plate appearances in 2017, Bautista has struggled to return to form. His 24.4% strikeout rate is up substantially from his career mark of 18.4%. He still walks a lot, reaching base on balls in 12.4% of his plate appearances this season. With his contact rate down nearly 7% his average, and his hard contact rate down over 11% as well, it looks like he’s finally reached his decline phase. He’s still a very dangerous hitter but his years of dominant offensive production look to be behind him.

Probable Pitchers

RHP Joe Biagini

49 21.8% 5.1% 8.8% 61.4% 3.31 2.84

Pitch Arsenal

Pitch Type Velocity (mph) Frequency Whiff+ BIP+ Avg Pitch Score
Pitch Type Velocity (mph) Frequency Whiff+ BIP+ Avg Pitch Score
Four-seam 94.3 44.4% 93 184 123
Sinker 94.2 3.9% - - -
Cutter 90.8 15.1% -20 137 32
Changeup 87.3 15.3% 120 102 114
Curveball 79.0 21.3% 169 168 169
*Biagini’s sinker does not have a large enough sample size for pitch arsenal scores.

With multiple injuries in their rotation, the Blue Jays had to scramble to fill those spots. Mat Latos was gifted three starts and former-Blue Jay-now-Mariner Casey Lawrence made two more starts. Joe Biagini is just the latest spot starter who has been thrust into the role. Except Biagini isn’t just some depth piece called up from Triple-A, he was one of the most valuable members of the Blue Jays bullpen. His four-pitch arsenal is very good, with all three of his secondary pitches generating above average whiff rates. He combines those strikeouts with the ability to keep the ball on the ground. Biagini has now made six very goods starts this year. He hasn’t seen any loss of effectiveness in the rotation and should stick there even when Aaron Sanchez returns.

New York Yankees v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

RHP Marcus Stroman

74 2/3 19.7% 6.6% 14.3% 60.2% 3.25 3.56

Pitch Arsenal

Pitch Type Velocity (mph) Frequency Whiff+ BIP+ Avg Pitch Score
Pitch Type Velocity (mph) Frequency Whiff+ BIP+ Avg Pitch Score
Four-seam 94.2 9.8% 188 100 159
Sinker 93.9 55.0% 140 157 146
Cutter 90.7 6.4% - - -
Changeup 84.7 2.0% - - -
Slider 86.4 19.7% 118 92 109
Curveball 82.9 7.0% - - -
*Stroman’s cutter, changeup, and curveball do not have large enough sample sizes for pitch arsenal scores.

Despite an impressive pedigree, Marcus Stroman’s developmental trajectory has to be a little disappointing for the Blue Jays. He’s posted an excellent 3.42 FIP in his brief four-year career but it’s mostly buoyed by a very good walk rate and an ability to avoid the long ball. His career strikeout rate sits right around league average and it’s mostly a product of his arsenal. He relies on his sinker to help him run one of the highest ground ball rates for a starting pitcher but he isn’t able to generate whiffs with that pitch. His cutter is his most effective pitch when he needs to get a whiff but he usually turns to his less effective slider in two strike counts. When he elevates his four-seam fastball, it can be a weapon for him as well, but he seems hesitant to do that because the pitch encourages fly ball contact. All of his peripherals are in line with where they were last year, but his ERA is a full run lower because he’s been able to strand almost 80% of the baserunners he’s allowed.

LHP J.A. Happ

25 1/3 24.6% 5.5% 30.8% 46.8% 5.33 5.75

Pitch Arsenal

Pitch Type Velocity Frequency Whiff+ BIP+ Avg Pitch Score
Pitch Type Velocity Frequency Whiff+ BIP+ Avg Pitch Score
Four-seam 92.7 42.6% 175 27 126
Sinker 90.5 27.7% 228 75 177
Changeup 87.4 17.4% - - -
Slider 86.1 5.7% - - -
Curveball 77.4 6.6% - - -
*Happ’s changeup, slider, and curveball do not have large enough sample sizes for pitch arsenal scores.

Another former Mariner, J.A. Happ is in the middle of his second stint with the Blue Jays. After leaving Seattle, Happ benefitted from the wisdom of Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage. He told Happ to throw his 91 mph fastball even more often than he already was. Instead of throwing it around half the time, he started throwing it more than two-thirds of the time. Happ’s fastball has some of the highest vertical movement on his fastball in the majors. But despite leaning on his “rising” fastball, Happ hasn’t turned himself into an extreme fly ball pitcher either. The rest of his repertoire helps keep him grounded, particularly his three secondary pitches. With an increased whiff rate off his fastball and a much better walk rate, Happ has reinvented himself in his mid-30s. He missed a large chuck of this season with some elbow inflammation and has made two starts since returning from the disabled list at the end of May.

The Big Picture:

The AL West

Team W-L W% Games Behind Recent Form
Team W-L W% Games Behind Recent Form
Astros 43-18 0.705 -- W-W-L-L-W
Angels 31-32 0.492 13.0 W-L-W-L-W
Mariners 30-31 0.492 13.0 W-W-W-W-L
Rangers 27-32 0.458 15.0 L-L-L-W-L
Athletics 26-33 0.441 16.0 W-L-W-W-L

The Wild Card Race

Team W-L W% Games Behind Recent Form
Team W-L W% Games Behind Recent Form
Red Sox 32-27 0.542 +0.5 W-W-W-L-L
Orioles 31-27 0.534 -- L-L-W-W-L
Indians 29-28 0.509 1.5 L-L-W-L-L
Rays 31-31 0.500 2.0 L-L-L-W-W
Angels 31-32 0.492 2.5 W-L-W-L-W

The Astros had their eleven-game winning streak snapped by the Royals on Tuesday and actually lost two in a row. They’ll host the Angels this weekend. The Rangers split a two-game series against the Mets and will travel to Washington to take on the best team in the National League. The Rays won two of three against the White Sox to push them back to .500 after their sweep in Seattle. They’ll host the Athletics for four-games in three days over the weekend.