BRANDON GUSTAFSON

Mariners-Blue Jays a battle of strengths with Seattle’s arms and Toronto’s bats

Oct 6, 2022, 2:57 PM
Mariners Andres Munoz...
Andres Munoz of the Seattle Mariners looks on against the Atlanta Braves at T-Mobile Park on September 11, 2022. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)
(Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

The Seattle Mariners play playoff baseball this weekend.

Wow, what a wild sentence to write out.

How Mariners’ starting rotation looks for Wild Card round vs Blue Jays

But it’s true! For the first time since that historic 2001 campaign, the Mariners are taking part in a postseason series.

Unlike that 2001 season, which saw the M’s beat just about everybody in the regular season on their way to 116 wins and homefield advantage, the 2022 Mariners had to scratch and claw their way to the postseason, earning the American League’s second Wild Card spot in a season in which they were 10 games under .500 in late-June.

But enough about that. Let’s focus on the Toronto Blue Jays, the Mariners’ Wild Card opponent.

Seattle heads north of the border this weekend as the 92-70 Blue Jays earned the AL’s top Wild Card spot, meaning they get to host this weekend’s best-of-three set with the Mariners.

These two teams have faced off twice this season, including a three-game series in Canada. Toronto took two of three in that series back in May, but the Mariners got their revenge in a big way in July, sweeping the visiting Blue Jays in four games to take the season series 5-2.

I would point out, though, that while the M’s won five of seven against Toronto, they haven’t played this version of the Blue Jays.

When the Jays left Seattle in mid-July, they were in the midst of a notable scuffle and were drastically underperforming compared to their preseason expectations. That resulted in a change at manager, with Charlie Montoyo getting the boot in favor of bench coach John Schneider, who has led the team not only to a top Wild Card spot and homefield advantage this weekend, but a 45-27 record, or .625 winning percentage, since taking over.

How did the Blue Jays earn their playoff spot? Their star-studded lineup hit the heck out of the baseball this season. That’s in stark contrast to a Mariners team that is going to the playoffs on the strength of their starting pitching and bullpen and has often struggled to pile runs together.

Yes, this weekend will be a battle of each team’s strength. Can the Mariners outpitch the Jays’ dangerous lineup? Will Toronto’s bats be too much for Seattle’s array of arms?

I’m not going to be diving into whether one side has the advantage or not, but I do think it is important that we take a closer look at what the matchup looks like in terms of Blue Jays bats and Mariners pitching.

Jays bats are elite

When it comes to lineups, it’s hard to find one that was better than the Blue Jays this season.

Toronto had six players in this summer’s All-Star game, including starters at catcher and first base in Alejandro Kirk and Vladimir Guerrero Jr., respectively. The Jays had two other big bats in George Springer and Santiago Espinal make the Midsummer Classic along with starting pitcher Alek Manoah – who will start Game 1 against the Mariners on Friday – and stud reliever Jordan Romano.

So yeah, four big bats made the All-Star game for the Jays, and that’s not including star shortstop Bo Bichette, who led the AL in hits, outfielder Teoscar Hernandez, a 2021 All-Star who slugged 25 home runs and drove in 77 runs, or third baseman Matt Chapman, a multi-time All-Star who hit 27 home runs in his first year in Toronto.

Espinal and left fielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr., are both on the injured list as of this writing, but both are nearing returns and could play as soon as Friday.

With such a loaded lineup, it should come as no surprise that the Blue Jays rank at or near the top of MLB in essentially every major statistical category.

Toronto is first in batting average and hits while checking in at third in on-base percentage and fourth in runs scored. And, per Statcast, Toronto is first in hard-hit rate and average exit velocity in MLB.

The Jays can also slug with the best of them, ranking third in slugging percentage, third in OPS and seventh in home runs. They’re also above-average in the walks department at 13th in MLB.

A few of Toronto’s big bats have some swing-and-miss to their game, namely Bichette, Chapman and Hernandez, but overall, the Blue Jays are a tough team to strikeout as they have the sixth-fewest strikeouts in the game. And as far as advanced metrics go, the Jays, per Statcast, have the seventh-lowest chase rate and eight-lowest whiff rate in the game.

You often hear that October baseball is tailored around pitching – and the Blue Jays do have some notable arms – but this Toronto club is where they are because of that lineup.

Los Bomberos & Co.

For the second year in a row, the Mariners won 90 games. And for the second year in a row, pitching is the reason why.

The drought doesn’t end if the Mariners don’t roll out one of baseball’s best pitching staffs this season. And as good as those arms have been, they’ve also been readily available, too, with no M’s starter missing time due to injury and outside of a brief IL stint for Diego Castillo, the ‘pen has held up well in the health department as well.

That’s allowed the Mariners to put up big pitching numbers this year.

Seattle is eighth in MLB in ERA and WHIP. Mariners arms have also allowed the seventh-fewest home runs and ninth-fewest walks while ranking 12th in strikeouts and 10th in opponent batting average and 13th in opponent slugging percentage.

When looking at just the bullpen, the rankings look even better, with the Mariners having the sixth-best bullpen ERA, second-best bullpen WHIP and allowing the second-fewest hits and third-fewest walks. And while many associate relievers with high strikeout numbers, Seattle relievers have accumulated just the 18th-most Ks in baseball, a good sign they can get any lineup out, which is notable as the Blue Jays, as noted earlier, do not strikeout very much.

Luis Castillo gets the ball for the Mariners in Game 1 and while he hasn’t faced the Jays in a Seattle uniform, he did face them with Cincinnati this year, going six innings and allowing two runs in Toronto.

Seattle’s next two likely starters are Robbie Ray and Logan Gilbert.

Ray, who won the Cy Young with the Blue Jays last year, faced his old team in Seattle this summer, spinning six innings of two-hit, one-run ball.

Gilbert, meanwhile, faced Toronto twice in 2022, throwing a combined 13 innings and allowing seven runs (4.85 ERA) with 16 strikeouts.

Mariner arms held the Blue Jays to 3 runs per game in their seven meetings this year, well down from Toronto’s 4.78 average runs scored per game in 2022.

If I have to highlight anyone from Seattle’s bullpen ahead of this series, it would be my preseason breakout star pick, the flame-throwing Andrés Muñoz.

Muñoz started slow for Seattle but really became a force starting in late-May.

Overall in 2022, Muñoz posted a 2.49 ERA, 2.04 FIP and 0.892 WHIP while striking out 96 in 65 innings, good for a 13.3 K/9 clip. He also walked 15 batters, or 2.1 per nine. Not bad for someone who was tabbed as a potential control liability.

But since allowing a walkoff grand slam in Boston on May 22, a case can be made that Muñoz has been baseball’s best reliever. He’s appeared in 49 games since that date and has allowed just nine earned runs and six extra-base hits over 51 2/3 innings, or a 1.57 ERA. All while dominating hitters with 75 strikeouts and an opponent .423 OPS.

For those who love Statcast, Muñoz’s page is a thing of beauty. He ranks in the 99th percentile in expected batting average, expected slugging percentage, strikeout rate, whiff rate and chase rate. He’s also in the 100th percentile in fastball velocity and expected ERA and expected wOBA. His average exit velocity against is also good, coming in at the 92nd percentile.

There’s a strong case to be made that Paul Sewald is the Mariners’ most important reliever, but I feel like the mix of Muñoz’s stuff coupled with a dangerous Blue Jays lineup that’s very right-handed heavy make the 23-year-old flamethrower a top player to watch this series. He’s been one of baseball’s best-kept secrets, and he won’t be for much longer now that he’s about to hit the national stage.

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