Blue Jays are having a (fence-clearing) blast

Tim Brown
Yahoo Sports

ANAHEIM, Calif. – A couple days after the Toronto Blue Jays hit 10 home runs in a weekend series in Arizona, a couple hours before his Jays would hit three more in a game here, hitting coach Dwayne Murphy grinned at the notion he was creating an entire lineup in his image.

“Nah,” he said. “That’s not it.”

A man knows what he knows, however, and Murphy, who has taught hitting for long enough – including as a coach for the Arizona Diamondbacks when they were World Series champions and leading the National League in scoring nearly a decade ago – was first a get-after-it slugger leading into the Mark McGwire-Jose Canseco era in Oakland.

A left-handed-hitting jackhammer, who didn’t mind the occasional strikeout (or two) in his day, Murphy is 48 games into running the Jays’ offense (or offence) and the result is as loud as it is drafty.

With a lineup largely anonymous south of the 49th parallel, the Jays are going over the wall at a record rate and bludgeoning their way into something like contention in the American League East. Through nearly one-third of the season, they have hit 79 home runs, one for every 20.9 at-bats, projecting to 267, three more than the MLB record-holding 1997 Seattle Mariners of bashers Ken Griffey Jr.(notes), Jay Buhner, Edgar Martinez and Paul Sorrento.

The no-name, some-game Jays – none is in the top four of the AL All-Star balloting through this week – have adopted a single, simple strategy: Get ready, get a pitch, swing hard.

“Murph’s a big believer in getting started early and letting it fly,” said Vernon Wells(notes), the club’s resurgent cleanup hitter. “If you know anything about him, he didn’t hold anything back at the plate. He expects the same out of us.”

He didn’t have to ask twice.

Through Tuesday night, when Jose Bautista(notes), Aaron Hill(notes) and Jeremy Reed(notes) went deep in Anaheim for the entirety of the Jays’ scoring against Angels starter Ervin Santana(notes), you could find Murph men ranking first (Bautista, 15), fifth (Wells, 11) and eighth (Alex Gonzalez, 10) in the AL in home runs. Four Jays are in the top 20 and eight in the top 31. You could also find the Jays – as a whole – second in the major leagues in strikeouts, 25th in batting, 22nd in walks and 29th in on-base percentage.

And leading the majors in runs, half of which – 125 of their 250 – have come by the long ball and a leisurely jog.

“There’s no defense,” manager Cito Gaston said, “against the trot.”

Curiously, two regulars who have barely gotten involved – Hill and Adam Lind(notes) – were one-two for the Jays in home runs last season, when they combined for 71. Together, they have 12 and are working out of very slow starts. Lyle Overbay(notes), who hit 16 home runs last season, also has carried an early-season slump toward June.

Maybe word hasn’t reached Toronto, but the new baseball lords have determined on-base percentage is offense, and a list of the AL’s on-base percentage leaders generally mirrors that of the AL’s scoring leaders. Except that the Jays – who have had fewer runners in scoring position than all but the Baltimore Orioles and Chicago White Sox in the AL – run counter to that. And, by the way, it doesn’t seem to bother them a bit.

“I think on-base percentage is an overrated stat,” Murphy said flatly. “Those guys getting on base, most of them aren’t getting them in. Give me somebody who drives them in after that. I need guys who can drive the ball.”

Some of his philosophy, Murphy admits, has been grooved because of the hitters he has. Part comes from the survival instincts derived from being in the world’s toughest division. (“Playing in the AL East, man, you gotta hit in the AL East,” he said.) And, last, well, he loves to watch guys mash.

“People talk home runs,” he said. “I just talk driving the ball.”

Take Bautista. At 29, he’s on his fifth organization. He has accumulated more than 400 at-bats in a season once – three years ago in Pittsburgh. He batted .254 and hit 15 home runs. Through 168 at-bats under Murphy, he already has 15 home runs, one fewer than his career high.

Bautista recited the mantra: Get ready, get a pitch and swing hard.

“A lot of us, we’ve come from all over to here, we’ve adopted it and it works,” he said. “My situation right now, I’m getting the playing time and I’m getting the confidence from the manager and the coaching staff. I really don’t think I’m a home run hitter. I do try to hit the ball hard. If it goes out of the yard I’m not going to complain.”

Murphy’s philosophy comes from the belief many – if not most – hitters aren’t ready to hit when the pitch arrives. For some, it means keeping their hands back. For others, getting their front foot down in time. For Wells, it meant “loading down,” or getting some movement in his body early rather than generating his swing entirely as the pitch approached.

“You can’t change these guys’ swings,” Murphy said. “Their swings are their swings. You can’t do much. You change a guy’s mechanics and by game time they revert back to what they were. It’s the hardest thing to do. Guys are taught, ‘See the ball, let it travel,’ a lot of terms. Instead of, ‘Get ready, get a good pitch to hit and barrel it up.’

“I’m not going to make Jose Bautista a .300 hitter. He’s a .240 hitter. But, he’s a .240 hitter who can do some damage.”

Sound familiar? Murphy was a .246 hitter who three times hit at least 20 home runs and once hit 33.

Maybe it doesn’t work forever. Maybe it doesn’t fit the offensive prototype anymore. But, who’s to say?

“I don’t think anybody knows what’s going to work for the next couple years,” Bautista said. “I know what works is scoring one more run than the opponent. As long as that keeps happening nobody’s going to complain.”

Or, as Wells said, “I think you ride it as long as you can. We’ll continue to have the same approach until we die trying.”