The 2023 Toronto Blue Jays are, at the very least, a decent baseball team.
It may not feel that way coming off three grim losses to the Texas Rangers, but Toronto is 14 games above .500 and just one game out of a wild-card spot. This club is in a tight battle for a postseason berth, and given the chaotic nature of the MLB playoffs, a deep run is still a conceivable possibility.
Just two years ago, an Atlanta Braves team with 88 regular-season wins won the World Series. If Blue Jays fans were inclined to talk themselves into believing in this squad, there would be plenty of ways to do it.
While there’s no surefire, precise method for measuring fan sentiment, it’s abundantly clear that whatever optimist camp is left within the Blue Jays fan base is a minority — and not a particularly vocal one at that.
This team simply hasn’t captured the imagination of its supporters.
One sign of that was the fact Toronto drew its smallest home crowd of the season on Monday as it opened an absolutely crucial series against the Texas Rangers, a wild-card rival the Blue Jays have relatively recent playoff history with.
There are mitigating factors — most notably kids returning to school — but if the city was genuinely excited about this team there would be more butts in seats. The fans that did attend on Wednesday gave their team a hearty booing during a 10-0 loss that guaranteed the Rangers would walk out of Toronto gaining at least two games on the Blue Jays.
While the temperature has been turned up during the Blue Jays’ recent faceplant against the Rangers, the team’s fan base has been rejecting its 2023 iteration for quite some time now — for a number of understandable reasons.
Perhaps the most important is that the gap between expectations and reality has been significant. The Blue Jays’ offseason retooling efforts that brought Daulton Varsho, Chris Bassitt, Erik Swanson, Brandon Belt, and Kevin Kiermaier to town were sold as a way to take the next step and contend for an AL East title.
Toronto hasn’t been a real threat to win the division for months.
Not only that, but the Blue Jays have been truly abysmal against AL East teams, with a 12-25 record in those contests. Only the Colorado Rockies — who have a 53-92 record — have won fewer games within their own division. Toronto has also gone 41-49 against teams with a record above .500, giving pessimistic fans ammunition to label the Blue Jays as frauds.
Fans aren’t just disappointed with the team’s competitive situation; the entertainment product is also falling flat. By pivoting resources to run prevention — and receiving underwhelming seasons from its top sluggers — this group has become one that rarely hits home runs and feels incapable of making significant comebacks.
This offence is good at getting guys on base and doesn’t do a good job of scoring them, which isn’t a recipe for a joyful fan experience. Some of that is the statistical weirdness of failing to deliver timely hits, but even as that’s improved recently, the lack of power remains a huge issue.
The Blue Jays have hit .323 with runners in scoring position since Aug. 1, but their five home runs in those spots is tied for last in the majors. That’s making huge innings hard to come by.
A run prevented can be as valuable as a run scored, but more often than not it’s far less exciting to watch. Sometimes keeping runs off the board takes the form of spectacular defensive plays, but it more commonly comes via inducing soft contact, executing routine plays, or walking one fewer guy per start than you were before. Creating a scenario where something does not happen rarely results in fireworks.
Home runs always do.
There’s also a stylistic difference in the way the team has presented itself in 2023. The Blue Jays were a notably fun-loving group from 2020 to 2022. Teoscar Hernández was letting sunflower seeds fly through the dugout, the home run jacket added random doses of levity to ballgames and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. was always up to something.
Did any of that help the franchise win ballgames? That’s impossible to say, but it undoubtedly made the team more likeable.
The club didn’t just move away from that kind of behaviour organically in the offseason, it made a concerted effort to stamp it out.
Hernández and Gurriel weren’t traded solely because of their antics. That duo’s inability to provide quality outfield defence ultimately spelled the end of their tenures in Toronto, as did the team’s desire to give its lineup more lefty/right balance.
Even so, the team let the home run jacket go to the Pittsburgh Pirates and spring training comments from multiple members of the organization showed the Blue Jays were trying to cultivate a different vibe.
“Baseball’s hard, right?” manager John Schneider told the Toronto Star before the season. “I think fun is a big part of being good. But at the same time there’s a fine line between having fun and being silly.”
That sounded good to some people at the time, but silly is fun — and trying to have fun with silliness legislated out is a tall order.
By moving away from a part of their identity that people were drawn to, the Blue Jays left themselves with precisely one avenue for fans to connect with them: winning. By not meeting expectations in that area, there’s wasn’t much to like outside of isolated feel-good stories like Davis Schneider and Yusei Kikuchi‘s bounce-back season.
In previous years there was pain associated with following the Blue Jays, but they were an entertaining team to spend your summer with. That hasn’t been the case this season, and the fan base has received nothing in return for what it’s lost.
The Blue Jays are a fine club that may even have a surprising finish up their sleeves. From a competitive standpoint, this season can be salvaged. If it is, cognitive dissonance might even set in down the road, allowing fans to remember this team with a fondness they didn’t have while the season was unfolding.
With Toronto’s playoff odds sitting below 50%, the more likely scenario is that the 2023 Blue Jays go down as a team that fell a little bit short in terms of record, and toppled off a cliff from a watchability standpoint.