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Friday, May 30, 2014
Toronto's fearsome threesome on fire

By David Schoenfield

The Blue Jays lost a tough one on Thursday, a fun back-and-forth game with the Royals that the Jays ultimately blew when Jose Reyes shanked a throw to first base on a routine grounder in the ninth inning. It would have ended the game -- Edwin Encarnacion couldn't come up with the scoop on the short hop -- but instead allowed the tying to run score and the Royals then scored twice in the 10th to win it 8-6.

So the Jays' winning streak ended at nine. But I'm going to write about them anyway.

1. Encarnacion's on fire

Talk about locked in. He homered twice: a fourth-inning two-run shot off James Shields and then a sixth-inning two-run blast that gave the Jays the lead and sent the home crowd into a frenzy. That's five multi-homer games for Encarnacion since May 8, tying him with Mickey Mantle for the AL record with 16 home runs in May. Here are the guys who have hit at least 15 home runs in May:

Barry Bonds, Giants, 2001 -- 17
Encarnacion, Blue Jays, 2014 -- 16
Mark McGwire, Cardinals, 1998 -- 16
Mantle, Yankees, 1956 -- 16
Ken Griffey Jr., Mariners, 1994 -- 15
McGwire, A's, 1987 -- 15
Frank Howard, Senators, 1968 -- 15
Harmon Killebrew, Senators, 1959 -- 15
Babe Ruth, Yankees, 1928 -- 15
Cy Williams, Phillies, 1923 -- 15

Some good stories. You may not have heard of Williams, but he was a four-time home run champion and led the NL with 41 in 1923. McGwire was a rookie in 1987. Killebrew wasn't a rookie, having spent parts of the five previous seasons with the Senators (but batting just 280 times). He hit 42 in 1959, the first of his six home run titles. Howard's big month came in the Year of the Pitcher in 1968; he hit 44 that year, and I can only imagine how many he'd have hit in 1998.

Both of Encarnacion's home runs on Thursday went to left field. He's pulled 16 of his 18 home runs this season, with the other two going to center.

2. The fearsome threesome
Jose Bautista
Jose Bautista is healthy and slugging, two things the Blue Jays could use all season long.
Jose Bautista also homered and Melky Cabrera went 2-for-4. How good is Toronto's big three? As I write this, Bautista (second), Encarnacion (fourth) and Cabrera (13th) all rank in the top 15 in the AL in wOBA. (If you're not familiar with wOBA, it measures the sum of a player's offensive contributions, although it isn't park-adjusted.)

That's a rate stat. Runs created also measures the sum of a player's contributions, but the more plate appearances you get, the more runs you'll create. Entering Thursday, the big three all ranked in the top 10 in the AL. So how rare is that? Is this potentially one of the great threesomes in recent history?

Perhaps. But last year, Encarnacion, Bautista and Adam Lind actually ranked fifth, 10th and 12th in the AL in wOBA, although Bautista and Lind missed significant time. In 2012, Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Austin Jackson of the Tigers ranked first, third and 11th. In 2011, Adrian Gonzalez, David Ortiz and Jacoby Ellsbury of the Red Sox ranked third, fourth and fifth in the AL in wOBA (and Dustin Pedroia ranked 11th).

Another advanced metric is OPS+ -- a player's on-base plus slugging, but adjusted for home park and era and scaled to where 100 is league average. Entering Thursday, the Jays had Bautista at 165, Encarnacion at 148 and Cabrera at 135. But they also had Adam Lind at 169, although he hasn't played enough yet to qualify for the leaderboard. Encarnacion certainly jumped over the 150 mark after his two-homer game. Only five teams since 1901 have had three regulars with an OPS+ of 150 or higher, via the Play Index:

• 2004 Cardinals (Jim Edmonds, Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen)
• 1996 Mariners (Ken Griffey Jr., Edgar Martinez, Alex Rodriguez)
• 1963 Giants (Orlando Cepeda, Willie Mays, Wille McCovey)
• 1929 Yankees (Lou Gehrig, Tony Lazzeri, Babe Ruth)
• 1902 Pirates (Ginger Beaumont, Fred Clarke, Honus Wagner)

So there's nothing really historic about Toronto's fearsome threesome, but if Lind can keep hitting, maybe we'll have to start looking at fearsome foursomes (apologies to Deacon Jones).

3. Is this the best lineup in the league?

I think the jury is still out on that. After all, the Jays have scored only four more runs than the A's, while playing one more game. They've scored only 13 more runs than the White Sox. And the Jays get a boost from SkyDome. They're hitting .271 and slugging .488 at home compared to .255 and .414 on the road.

They're also getting some great production from role players -- Juan Francisco is slugging .577 in 120 plate appearances, Steve Tolleson is slugging .596 in 53 PAs and backup catcher Josh Thole is hitting .340 in 59 PAs.

I do like what John Gibbons is doing with a multi-position platoon, however, sliding Brett Lawrie between second and third base with Francisco platooning with Tolleson. It's a creative way to get more offense out there, even if Francisco and Tolleson aren't exactly Gold Gloves candidates.

4. The Buehrle thing

The Jays are 10-1 when Mark Buehrle starts and 22-22 when anybody else starts. I'm pretty sure they're not going to go 30-3 in Buehrle's starts this season, which means they'll have to pick up elsewhere. Toronto's rotation is actually fifth in the AL in ERA (yes, Buehrle's 2.33 has a lot do with that), so I don't think it's as bad/mediocre as people portray. Again, factor in SkyDome; Jays starters have a 3.04 ERA on the road.

It could be that for the Jays to keep this hot stretch going all season, they'll actually need the offense to score more runs, rather than finding another starter.