Pitching is the name of the game. The 1990s Atlanta Braves starters (Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz) were living proof of that and Toronto Blue Jays’ history confirms this statement. Three (four if the Jays ended up clinching a wild card spot this year) out of the five times the Canadian team has had above-average pitching starting rotation (at least a solid quartet) has made the postseason.
These are the five times the Blue Jays starting rotations had looked great
1. 1985: The best regular season ever
1985’s Jays played the playoffs for the first time ever and were, as never before, and after, close to a hundred victories. They had an enviable quartet of starters in Doyle Alexander (17), Dave Stieb (14), Jimmy Key (14), and Jim Clancy (9) who were credited with 54 of the 99 team wins. Starting pitchers posted a 3.32 earned run average (ERA) and 1.22 walks plus hits per inning pitched (WHIP). The whole pitching staff led the majors in ERA+ (1.28) and that mastery on the mound coupled with the highest defensive efficiency percentage in the entire circuit (.724).
Stieb, who was in his prime, registered both the best ERA (2.48) and ERA+ (171) and ranked seventh in the American League Cy Young Award voting. Those Jays had the American League-best record (99-62) but lost the League Championship Series to the Kansas City Royals (3-4), after being ahead three games to one. Stieb, who won Game 1, was defeated in that painful seventh game.
2. 1991: The preface to two years of domination
The 1991 Jays looked unstoppable in the regular season (they led the AL and won 91 times) but ran into the eventual World Series champion Minnesota Twins, and their quest ended again in the ALCS.
Before winning two World Series in a row, Toronto had probably the most balanced starting rotation in its history. The 24-year-old Juan Guzman had an amazing rookie year: won 10 games, started 23 times and exhibited a 2.99 ERA and a 142 ERA+. Had Minnesota’s second base Chuck Knoblauch not been around, Guzman would have won the Rookie of the Year award. Meanwhile, Jimmy Key, Todd Stottlemyre, and David Wells (still an occasional reliever) won 15 games each and had an ERA under 4.00. Starting pitchers had an overall 3.49 ERA and a 1.24 WHIP but could not stop Minnesota and the ALCS MVP Kirby Puckett in the playoffs.
3. 2021: When a Cy Young award is not enough
None of the four times the Blue Jays have had a Cy Young award winner in its roster have made the postseason. In 2021, Robbie Ray got 29 out of 30 votes for the American League’s best pitcher and even was mentioned in the AL MVP discussion. Ray led the league in ERA (2.84), ERA+ (157), strikeouts (248), WHIP (1.045), and Wins Above Replacement (6.9). He was not the only Blue Jay who appeared on the AL CY Young ballots: Jose Berrios ranked ninth.
The other members of the starting staff, Hyun Jin Ryu, Steven Matz, and Alek Manoah, had an above-average ERA+; the openers crew had a 3.79 ERA and a 1.20 WHIP altogether. That, in addition to Vladimir Guerrero and Marcus Semien‘s display of power at the plate (they ranked second and third in the MVP ballots) was not enough: they finished one game behind the two AL East wild cards, Boston and New York.
4. 1989: The Stieb-Key tandem struck again
Dave Stieb confirmed why he is a Jays’ all-time idol: even though he did not receive votes for the AL CY Young had another remarkable season. He won 17 games and had a 3.35 ERA plus a 109 ERA+. Jimmy Key, John Cerutti, and Mike Flanagan were also solid: they posted ERAs under 4.00 and the Jays’ starters altogether had a 3.65 ERA and 1.28 WHIP.
In their second postseason run, Toronto’s arms could not contain Oakland’s offense in the ALCS: Stieb lost his two outings and allowed eight runs in 11.1 innings. Mark McGwire and Dave Henderson took him deep in the first game, while he allowed four runs in the fifth and final game of the series. Key registered the only victory after limiting the Athletics to three runs and a solo home run in six acts.
5. 2023: Four reliable guys, day in and day out
“Four guys making 30 starts, that’s super rare”, said Kevin Gausman (31) to MLB.com press reporter Keegan Matheson after pitching seven scoreless innings against the Yankees on September 26th alluding to his fellow members of the starting rotation: Chris Bassitt (31), Jose Berrios (32), and Yusei Kikuchi (30). Gausman, who led the American League in strikeouts and ranked fourth in ERA+, played the role of an ace in a pitching rotation (they were in the top three of MLB in collective ERA) that managed to bounce back from Alek Manoah’s performance regression and absence.
Had it not been for this outstanding quartet the Toronto Blue Jays would not have been able to go into the last week of the regular season with a real chance of making the playoffs. How can you dream of clinching a wild card spot if your offense has below-average slugging (ranked 24th) and on-base plus slugging (21st) percentages? Only with this consistent crew on the mound.