Best Day Ever – The Tenth Annual Fantasy Baseball Autodraft

Fantasy baseball draft cheat sheets?

Throw ’em away.

All your research on position scarcity?

Don’t need it.

Projections, sleepers, busts, and breakout players?

Burn ’em.

If you are a hardcore fantasy baseball fan, stay away.  This is not the draft for you.

But if you are a man who enjoys heavy drinking, chicken wings, disgusting shots, and watching a tiny computer screen automatically select baseball players for your team, then get ready.  Buckle up.

Today brings one of the greatest days on the baseball calendar – the 10th annual PEGS fantasy baseball league auto draft.

What makes this league so unique from others?  Why is this league, the one that I play in each year that requires no draft strategy, my ultimate favourite?  Please, join me in the ultimate guide to the auto draft to find out.

The History

It all started in 2008 when a group of 10 friends decided to set up a fantasy baseball league.  The draft was set for 5 pm on a Wednesday.  Each member of the league planned to stay in the office late in order to draft from work.  Unfortunately, it turned out that the majority of the league was blocked from running Java, meaning they couldn’t access Yahoo’s live draft.

So, instead of drafting, the members of the league convened at a pub and drank multiple pitchers of beer, logged into a laptop, and watched as Yahoo automatically filled our rosters.  The amount of fun, joy, and hilarity that ensued was unexpected, but amazing.

The auto draft was born.

The Draft

From that point on, it was decided that the league would continue each year, and the auto draft would continue as well.  In order to keep the draft standard each year, the following rules were established:

– Only one member of the league is allowed to log in, and only one laptop can be used

– No member of the league is allowed to alter his pre-draft rankings.  Doing so results in his execution (figuratively).

– Every pick must be made by the Yahoo auto draft system.

– The draft must take place at a pub.  Every member of the league must either be there in person, or at least be there in spirit (via text).

– Each member of the league who is at the bar must drink a least three beers, though the commissioner (me) would prefer to see everybody have at least twelve.

The League

Believe it or not, it takes some very shrewd managing to win the league.  Since all teams are essentially random, the GM who makes the best free agent pickups and trades will rise to the top.

In addition, the man who comes in last place faces one of two punishments:

1. He must purchase a round of rye shots for the entire league at the next year’s draft, or

2. He is ruthlessly cut from the league, tarred and feathered and paraded through the streets.

The Penalty Shots

Before the draft the league nominates several players, debates them, and ultimately confirms a final list.  Whenever any of those pre-determined players are drafted, the owner who is stuck with that player must drink a pre-determined shot.  In 2011, there were a total of six penalty shots.  In every year since the number has been expanding.  This year we are up to a minimum of 13.  Meet this year’s penalty shot nominees:

– Yoenis Cespedes

– Yasiel Puig

– Josh Donaldson

– Edwin Encarnacion

– Bryce Harper

– Rick “Just the Tip” Porcello

– Pablo Sandoval

– Josh Hamilton

– Jose Quintana

– Dee Gordon

– Carlos Gomez

– Chris Davis

– Rougned Odor

– Any Asian Player (Darvish, Iwakuma, etc.)

The list of potential shots is endless, but will definitely include Rye, Jack Daniels, Tequila, Captain Morgan, Jagermeister, Goldschlager, Hawaiian Lion, and a Bear Fight (made of an Irish Car Bomb immediately followed by a Jagr bomb, as shown below).  Good luck gents.

bear fight

The Trades

As mentioned, it is important to be active in the trade market to win this league.  Trading, especially at the draft, and especially before the draft is over, is highly encouraged.

Each year at least one trade has been made during the draft.  Generally these trades are completely random, such as a 21st rounder and a 24th rounder for a 22nd  rounder and a 23rd rounder.  Generally these trades turn out to be ill-advised, including a few years back when a meaningless swap of 23rd rounders ended up not being so meaningless when Mike Trout exploded onto the scene.  Or last year, when one member of the league, a die-hard Detroit Tiger fan, unknowingly traded away Miguel Cabrera, and spend the next 90 minutes wiping away tears streaming down his cheeks.  Or the infamous “longest last name” trade, resulting in a Kevin Quackenbush for Edwin Encarnacion swap.  Brilliant.

The Final Words

Today’s draft takes place at Gabby’s on King East in Toronto.  The fun gets going at 6:00.

Who will be this year’s champion and join this exclusive list?

2008 – The Forward Claps

2009 – ionionionionionion

2010 – Bear Fights

2011 – The Five Holers

2012 – Dad’s Magic Wiener

2013 – Pupusa Power

2014 – GOD

2015 – Monumental Dog

2016 – Two Enormous UECs

We’ll find out soon enough.

To all my competitors in the league – get ready.  It’s time.

2017 Division Previews – National League Central

Welcome to part two of 500 Level Fan’s season preview series. Today we focus on the National League Central.

Defending Champion

Chicago Cubs

Past Five Champions

2016 – Chicago

2015 – St. Louis

2014 – St. Louis

2013 – St. Louis

2012 – Cincinnati

Average Wins of Past Five Champions: 97.4

Best Player

Kris Bryant, Chicago Cubs

Kris Bryant has now played two complete MLB seasons and has already been named an All-Star twice, won two individual awards, and won the World Series.  In 2016 Bryant became only the fourth player in history to win the Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player awards in back-to-back seasons, joining Cal Ripken Jr. (1982/83), Ryan Howard (2005/06), and Dustin Pedroia (2007/08).  The Cubs 3B/LF improved his already stellar offensive numbers in every category finishing in the top-10 in the NL in WAR (7.7), OBP (.385), SLG (.554), OPS (.939), Runs (121), Hits (176), HR (39), and RBI (102).  What’s scarier for the rest of baseball is that Bryant just turned 25 meaning he probably has yet to reach his prime.  He is the lynchpin of a Cubs team that is positioned to be a force for years to come.

Honourable Mention: Joey Votto, Reds; Anthony Rizzo, Cubs

Best Pitcher

Kyle Hendricks, Chicago Cubs

Though Bryant won the MVP, and Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, and John Lackey were bigger names, an argument can be made that the real hero behind Chicago’s World Series triumph last year was Kyle Hendricks.  The 26-year old righty came into his own in his third big league season, posting a 16-8 record with 170 strikeouts in 190 IP, and leading the league with a 2.13 ERA.  He kept up his dominance in the playoffs, pitching to a 1.42 ERA and 1.03 WHIP in five starts, including a 2-hit, 0-run masterpiece in the NLCS clinching Game 6 vs. the Dodgers.  Hendricks finished 3rd in Cy Young voting and will look to build on his 2016 success as one of a trio of Cubs aces.

Honourable Mention: Jon Lester, Cub; Carlos Martinez, Cardinals

Three Storylines For 2017

1. Beginning of a Dynasty?

It was one of the greatest stories of the sports year: the Chicago Cubs ended 108 years of futility and heartbreak by winning the 2016 World Series.  But instead of simply resting on their laurels and basking in the glory of ending sports longest title drought, Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and co. got straight to work towards winning another title.  Yes, the Cubs lost several significant pieces over the offseason.  Gone are leadoff hitter Dexter Fowler, fireball closer Aroldis Chapman, clubhouse leader David Ross, and pitchers Travis Wood, Trevor Cahill, and Jason Hammel.  But Chicago replaced Chapman with former KC closer Wade Davis, signed former highly rated prospect Jon Jay, and brought in Brett Anderson and Koji Uehara to solidify the bullpen.  Oh, and they also return many of baseball’s best (and youngest) position players in Kyle Schwarber, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Wilson Contreras, Javier Baez, Anthony Rizzo, and Jason Heyward, not to mention Lester, Hendricks, and Arrieta in the rotation.  Add to that one of baseball’s best managers, a still loaded farm system, and a ton of resources, and you have the recipe for a potential dynasty.

2. The Saga of Andrew McCutchen 

Entering 2016, Andrew McCutchen was riding four consecutive stellar seasons in which he earned four Silver Slugger awards, four All-Star appearances, a Gold Glove, an NL MVP, three playoff appearances, and a 26.4 WAR.  But things went downhill in a hurry.  McCutchen posted a career worst batting average and OPS, and was awful in the field (-28 DRS), leading to a -0.7 WAR and a disappointing sub-.500 record for the Pirates.  Then came the offseason and the seemingly daily rumours that he would be traded to give top prospect Austin Meadows a chance to play.  Despite all the turmoil, McCutchen begins 2017 as a member of the Pirates, albeit with a new position (LF).  However, all eyes will be on Pittsburgh: a rough start by the Pirates will likely bring a lineup of suitors hoping to acquire the former MVP.

3. MVP Exile

Andrew McCutchen isn’t the only former MVP from the NL Central seemingly poised to be on the move in 2017.  The 2010 and 2011 winners could also find themselves in new uniforms at some point during the season.  The Cincinnati Reds and Milwaukee Brewers are both undergoing rebuilds/retools and are in the process of compiling young, controllable assets and turning their rosters over.  Cincinnati has already shipped out Jay Bruce, Brandon Phillips, Mike Leake, and Aroldis Chapman over the past few years, while Milwaukee has bid adieu to Jonathan Lucroy, Chris Carter, Jeremy Jeffress, and Carlos Gomez.  With neither team expected to contend in 2017 and with prospects seemingly set to take over the starting lineups, it seems odd that Ryan Braun and Joey Votto still remain.  Both men’s names have been involved in trade rumours for more than a year, and with the Brewers and Reds seemingly buried by the still solid Pirates, always competitive Cardinals, and champion Cubs in the division, 2017 seems like the time when those rumours may finally become reality.

Interesting Stat

No teams in baseball stole more bases in 2016 than Milwaukee (181) and Cincinnati (139).  The Brewers’ Jonathan Villar led all of basebal with 62 SB, followed closely by Cincinnati’s Billy Hamilton with 58, and Villar’s teammate Hernan Perez with 34.  But the teams also featured two other speedsters who racked up SB: Milwaukee’s Keon Broxton (23 SB in only 75 games) and Cincinnati’s Jose Peraza (21 SB in 72 games).  No major league team has reached the 200 SB plateau since the 2007 New York Mets.  But with Hamilton, Peraza, Villar, Perez, and Broxton running wild, it’s not inconceivable that two teams top that mark in 2017.

Who Should Win

Chicago

Who Will Win

Find out in my season prediction column at the end of March

2017 Division Previews – National League West

It’s that time of year again, time for 500 Level Fan to start embarrassing himself with futile, sad, and mind-blowingly awful predictions.  Before we get to my annual predictions, let’s go division by division to get a glimpse of what is in store for baseball fans in 2017.  These preview posts should be seen as a division primer, so we can get to know the best players and teams, along with some interesting storylines, in each.  These won’t have my actual predicted order of finish – just a quick snapshot.  The predictions come later.

We’ll begin today with the NL West.

Defending Champion

Los Angeles Dodgers

Past Five Champions

2016 – Los Angeles

2015 – Los Angeles

2014 – Los Angeles

2013 – Los Angeles

2012 – San Francisco

Average Wins of Past Five Champions: 92.6

Best Player

Nolan Arenado, Colorado Rockies

The 2016 season was only the fourth full year of Arenado’s big league career yet he has already developed into one of baseball’s most elite stars.  For the second year in a row, Arenado reached the 40 HR, 130 RBI, and 350 Total Bases plateaus, topping the National League in HR, and all of baseball in RBI.  He also maintained his title as MLB’s best defensive third baseman, leading all 3B with a +20 Defensive Runs Saved rating, and earning his fourth consecutive Gold Glove award.  Arenado is becoming a perennial MVP candidate and is the key reason why many are pegging the Rockies as sleeper contenders in 2017.

Honourable Mention: Paul Goldschmidt, Diamondbacks, Corey Seager, Dodgers

Best Pitcher

Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers

If last season taught as anything it’s that Kershaw is mortal, as the Dodgers All-Star missed significant time due to injury for the first time in his career.  Unfortunately for the rest of the NL West, it also confirmed one thing: when healthy Kershaw is an untouchable machine.  Limited to 21 starts, Kershaw still put up unworldly numbers: a 12-4 record, 1.69 ERA, 0.73 WHIP, and an incredible 15.64 strikeout to walk ratio.  That last number is not a typo: Kershaw surrendered only 10 unintentional walks in 149 innings.  While the injury robbed him of what was going to be a certain Cy Young win, he still finished in the top-5 in voting for the sixth straight year and led the Dodgers to their fourth straight NL West crown.

Honourable Mention: Madison Bumgarner, Giants; Johnny Cueto, Giants

Three Storylines For 2017

1. World Series or Bust

The LA Dodgers have reached the postseason four years in a row and eight times since the 2004 season, but have yet to reach the World Series since winning it all back in 1988.  If there ever is a year for them to finally get over that hump it might be 2017.  LA has an elite starting rotation after re-signing Rich Hill to slot in after perennial Cy Young candidate Clayton Kershaw, Kenta Maeda, Scott Kazmir, and young sensation Julio Urias.  They broke the bank to bring back closer Kenley Jansen, added former World Series winner Sergio Romo from the Giants, then acquired super-utility infielder Logan Forsythe from Tampa Bay to add to a loaded offense that already boasts Adrian Gonzalez, Yasmani Grandal, Joc Pederson, Yasiel Puig, Justin Turner, and 2016 ROY Corey Seager.  With that kind of roster, anything short of a World Series will be considered a major disappointment.

2. Rockies Revival

With 75 wins, last year’s version of the Colorado Rockies finished below the .500 mark for the 6th consecutive year.  But after years spent seemingly spinning their tires without an identity, the Rockies took several steps forward last year and seem poised to contend, at least for a Wild Card spot.  Hotshot rookie Trevor Story was lighting the league on fire (27 HR in only 97 games) before succumbing to injury, and the team signed Ian Desmond to a huge deal to join Nolan Arenado, Carlos Gonzalez, Charlie Blackmon, and DJ Lemahieu.  And for the first time in forever the Rockies might actually have pitching to get excited about, with Jon Gray, Tyler Anderson, Tyler Chatwood, and former Blue Jay prospect Jeff Hoffman.  The signing of former Royals closer Greg Holland could also prove to be a huge boost to the bullpen.  As currently constructed the Rockies have a surplus of outfielders, but if they can figure out a way to all co-exist, there is nowhere to go but up.

3. Can San Francisco Hang Around?

For the first time since 2008 a team other than the Giants won an even-year World Series, and it’s not hard to figure out why.  San Francisco’s bullpen blew a staggering 30 saves in 2016, so the Giants threw $62-million at former Pirate closer Mark Melancon to fortify the late innings.  The problem, however, is that the rest of the bullpen remains either weak or unproven, meaning there might be an issue bridging the gap between the rotation and Melancon.  But there are more problems: the team is still missing a starting LF, many of its core players are approaching the wrong side of 30 (including Buster Posey, Denard Span, and Hunter Pence) and aside from Bumgarner and Cueto there are question marks in the rotation.  Does this squad as currently constructed have another run left in them or does the decline start now?

Interesting Stat

Clayton Kershaw was utterly dominant in 2016, but the injury that shelved him for 11 starts forever robbed us of a chance to see him make history.  Kershaw walked a total of 11 batters (1 intentional) in 149 IP, for a BB/9 ratio of 0.6644.  That rate would have been good enough for 35th on the all-time single season list, but 3rd all-time in the modern era behind only Carlos Silva (0.4301 in 2005) and Bret Saberhagen (0.6598 in 1994).  But what really made Kershaw special last season was his strikeout totals.  With 172 strikeouts, his K/BB ratio was a staggering 15.64.  MLB’s single season record is currently held by Phil Hughes, who posted an 11.63 mark in 2014.  Kershaw was on pace to obliterate that record but ultimately fell short of the required number of innings pitched.  Can he pick up where he left off and make another run at history in 2017?

Who Should Win

Los Angeles

Who Will Win

Find out in my season prediction column at the end of March.

Looking Back at My Blue Jay Predictions

The season is done, free agency is here, and the Blue Jays are undergoing some wholesale changes.  2017 is sure to have a much different look and feel than 2016.  But before we look forward, let’s take a look back at how well I predicted 2016. (Hint: not good)

  1. Jose Bautista leads the American League in HR.

Actual: Nope.  An injury plagued year limited him to only 22 dingers, tied for 43rd in the AL.

  1. Troy Tulowitzki stays healthy, has a huge year, and finishes in the top-5 of AL MVP voting.

Actual: He stated relatively healthy (131 games), but had an absolutely terrible start, and received zero MVP votes.

  1. Josh Donaldson continues where he left off in 2015, and joins Tulo in the top-5.

Actual: Nailed it.  Another outstanding season for Josh saw him finish 4th in AL MVP balloting.

  1. Marcus Stroman thrives as the “ace”, reaching the 20-win plateau.

Actual: Was held to only 9 wins, after a very up-and-down season.

  1. Both J.A. Happ and Marco Estrada regress from last year, but while the stats are down across the board they still turn in solid seasons.

Actual: Quite the opposite, as both actually improved.  Happ reached the 20 win plateau and Estrada finished with a 3.48 ERA.

  1. For the first time in years, Toronto’s bullpen stays relatively stable.  The club uses fewer than 15 relievers (after using 23 in 2013, 23 in 2014, and 22 in 2015)

Actual: Not even close.  The bullpen was a dumpster fire through much of the first half.  Including relief appearances by three starters (Dickey, Hutchison, and Liriano all came out of the pen at least once each), the Jays actually used 25 relievers in 2016, more than the previous three years.

  1. Jesse Chavez is called on to make 10 starts.

Actual: Nope – zero starts and was gone before the deadline.

  1. Drew Hutchison is called up to make 3 starts.

Actual: Nope.  He made three appearances (one in relief, two starts) and was gone by the deadline.

  1. Kevin Pillar struggles in the leadoff spot and is moved down to the 8/9 slot by the end of April.  He is replaced by Michael Saunders.

Actual: Hey hey – nailed it!  Pillar’s last game as the leadoff hitter came on April 16th, an 0-for-4 appearance that dropped his average to .188 and his OBP to .235.  He was replaced in the leadoff spot on April 17th by….Michael Saunders.  Nice!

  1. Saunders has a very nice bounceback season, finishing with an .800 OPS and 20 HR.

Actual: Two in a row!! Saunders had a huge first half that resulted in his first ever All-Star appearance, and finished the season with 24 HR and.815 OPS.

  1. After being moved down, Pillar thrives on the basepaths, stealing over 20 bases after the All-Star break.

Actual: Nope.  He finished with 14 SB total, 7 each in the first and second halves.

  1. R.A. Dickey throws more than 200 innings for the 6th straight season.

Actual: Not really even close.  Dickey finished with 169.2 IP after being skipped for most of September.

  1. The Blue Jays crush the Orioles, winning 14 of the 19 regular season meetings.

Actual: Close, but not quite.  The Jays won 10 of 19 games vs. Baltimore, good enough to give them home field in the Wild Card game.

  1. Edwin Encarnacion hits a home run into the 500 level….twice.

Actual: A lot of bombs, none that big.

  1. The Jays rip off four winning streaks of at least 6 games each.

Actual: No, just twice.  They won seven straight from July 2 -8 and six straight from October 1 through the ALDS sweep of Texas.

  1. GM Ross Atkins swings a deal for a backup catcher sometime in May.

Actual: No – but he did reacquire Dioner Navarro in August, so kind of close.

  1. Toronto absolutely humiliates the Red Sox by scoring over 20 runs in a June game in Fenway.

Actual: Not even close.  They managed to score 15 runs combined in three June games in Fenway.

  1. Aaron Sanchez struggles in April, but the Jays stick with him and he rebounds with a huge May and June….

Actual: Half right.  He didn’t struggle in April.  In fact, he never really struggled all season long, putting together a huge season for the Jays.

  1. …including throwing the second no-hitter in Blue Jays history.

Actual: But not that huge.

  1. The Blue Jays offense does not get shutout once, all season long.

Actual: Oh boy.  Despite having baseball’s best offense on paper heading into the season, the Jays were shutout eight times during the regular season, then twice more in the five game loss to Cleveland in the ALCS.

  1. Roberto Osuna starts the season as the closer, but Drew Storen finishes the season as the closer.

Actual: Hahahahahaha!!!!!

  1. One of Bautista and Encarnacion signs an extension during the season.

Actual: Sadly, no.

  1.  Ryan Goins starts over 75 games split between 2B and SS.

Actual: Two-thirds right.  Goins made 50 starts during the season.

  1. One member of the team posts a 30-game hitting streak.

Actual: No.

  1. The Jays use a 20-9 September to rally past the Red Sox and successfully defend their AL East title.

Actual: Quite the opposite.  The Jays suffered through am 11-16 September to cough up the division lead to the Red Sox, nearly dropping out of the postseason entirely.

 

Requiem of a Season

It’s ironic isn’t it?  The way it ended?

A season that began under a storm cloud of change and uncertainty ended exactly the same way as last year.

Think about it.  All winter, all spring, even all summer, rumblings of change were everywhere.  Anthopoulos was gone.  Price was gone.  Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion were facing the end of their contracts, and either might have potentially been moved at the deadline.  There were questions about Aaron Sanchez (starter or reliever? shut him down or let him pitch?), questions about the future of John Gibbons, questions about what Shapiro and Atkins would do to the team’s future.

But despite that constant uncertainty, the Blue Jays season ended with a loss to an AL Central team (Cleveland instead of Kansas City) that they theoretically should have beaten, a team that used suspect starting pitching (Tomlin / Bauer / Merritt instead of Volquez / Ventura / Young)  to shut down their much vaunted offense, and a dominant bullpen (Miller / Allen instead of Davis / Herrera) to keep Toronto a few wins short of the World Series.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Tonight, Game 1 of the World Series will be played without the Toronto Blue Jays for the 23rd consecutive year, and there are still a few more weeks before we have to seriously consider what the future brings.  So let’s reflect on what happened this season.

The 2016 season was a disappointment – it has to be.  Every single season ends in disappointment for the 29 clubs that don’t win the World Series.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t be proud of what took place.

As mentioned, there were so many question marks heading into the year.  Yes, on paper the Jays looked just as strong as last year, poised to be a contender.  But the games aren’t played on paper, and there were very real threats.

First there were questions about Shapiro and Atkins.  They were vilified before they even started, and then proceeded to let David Price walk.  But they delivered with several shrewd moves: the Happ signing, the Grilli and Benoit acquisitions, and the trade for Upton for basically nothing.

The rotation was a major question mark.  Could Stroman stay healthy for a full year?  When would Sanchez be shut down? What, if anything, could they seriously expect out of Happ, Estrada, and Dickey?  The answer was the best ERA in all of baseball.

Then there was the lineup.  Would impending free agency loom heavy over Jose and Edwin?  Would Saunders make an impact?  Could Tulo stay healthy?  The results were up and down to be sure, but through it all Edwin put up MVP level numbers, Bautista struggled but still finished with the 9th best OBP in the American League, and Toronto finished 5th in runs scored.  Not too shabby.

Sure they struggled early, and sure they struggled late, trudging through a horrendous September that forced them into the Wild Card game.  But when it was all said and done, the Toronto Blue Jays made baseball’s version of the Final Four for the second year in a row.  They also provided two of the most memorable moments in franchise history along the way: the Edwin walkoff and the Donaldson Dash.

That is something that everybody – players, coaches, management, and fans – should be proud of.

So as we get set to watch the Indians face the Cubs tonight it’s OK to feel a plethora of emotions.

We can play the what-if game, and think about how the Jays might have fared against Chicago.  We can be jealous of Cleveland.  We can be angry that our team isn’t there.

But as we exit one tumultuous season and brace ourselves to enter another tumultuous winter, it’s also important that we be thankful for what transpired in 2016.

Playoff Magic

 

It all starts tonight.

For the seventh time in club history, the Toronto Blue Jays will play in the American League Championship Series, this time facing the Cleveland Indians (or the Cleveland Baseball Team if you’re Jerry Howarth (good for him by the way)).

Depending on what time of year you look back on, this ALCS appearance is either fully expected, or completely unexpected.  The Jays entered 2016 with a ton of hope and expectations, stumbled along for a few months, got hot, then nearly bottomed out in September.

But who cares.  They made it, and that’s all that matters.

Toronto is 2 – 4 in franchise history in the ALCS, and have entered prior series in a variety of different manners.

In 1985 they were a 99 win juggernaut but were facing postseason pressure for the first time, so expectations were tempered.

In 1989 they were clearly overmatched by a powerful Oakland A’s club led by Henderson, McGwire, and Canseco.

In 1991, ’92, ’93 there were heavy favourites, a powerhouse team expecting to finally break through.  Twice they did.

Finally, last season they were baseball’s hottest team, riding a huge wave of momentum that started in August and carried right through to the 7th inning of Game 5 against Texas.  But though they were hot, and most of us expected them to beat Kansas City, I don’t think many were surprised when they didn’t.  After all, everybody – the players, management, and fans – were almost delirious after the bat flip, riding an emotional high that fogged over the ALCS.

But now it’s 2016, and things feel different.  There are so many different angles to this ALCS that it’s hard to simply compare the teams and pick a winner.

First, this is a Toronto team that was given up on and left for dead as late as the 8th inning on October 1st, when during a must-win game in Boston Roberto Osuna balked in the game tying run.  But they recovered, won the game in the 9th, and have not lost since.  Everything is hot right now, peaking at the same time.

Second, there is the Edwin and Jose angle.  On September 29th, it looked fairly obvious that each had played his final game in Toronto as a Blue Jay, a disheartening 4-0 loss to the Orioles.  But something happened, and now neither man refuses to believe that.  Something keeps drawing the best out of them, especially at home, something magical that is hoping, or willing, to keep them in Toronto for just a little bit longer.

Third, there is the guts factor.  Last season everything simply fell into place and the Jays rode the wave as far as it would take them.  This year, they have gutted out each and every win, seemingly from Opening Day onward.  You have Donaldson gutting his way through injury to hit .538 in the ALDS.  You have Tulowitzki gutting his way through one of his worst seasons at the plate and leading this team into the playoffs.  You have a starting staff gutting themselves through injury (Estrada), doubt (Stroman), and innings limits (Sanchez), to lead the AL in ERA and then dominate the playoffs.  Then you have Osuna pulling himself from the Wild Card game with a potentially devastating shoulder injury, then returning to gut his way through not one but two multi-inning saves.

John Gibbons called this team battle tested after they clinched their playoff spot that Sunday afternoon in Boston.  I think that is the most accurate term that can be applied.  You didn’t get that feeling from the 2015 team, or the ’85, ’89, or ’91 teams.

This is a team of 25 players who simply refuse to lose.

Cleveland is a good team with a great story.  They have speed, they play good defense, have a great bullpen, get timely hitting, and can pitch.  It should be tight series.  It will be a tough series.

But there is magic in the air in Toronto.  And I don’t think anybody is ready to see it go away yet.

Step One Complete: The Jays Are In

2016-celebration
Photo from Associated Press

Let’s be honest: it wasn’t pretty.

At times, it was downright ugly.

But they did it.  The Toronto Blue Jays survived the 162-game marathon and will live to play another game.  Yesterday’s 2-1 win over Boston clinched the first wild card birth in the history of the franchise, and ensured a home game against the Baltimore Orioles on Tuesday night.

Obviously it’s great to be back in the playoffs.  There’s no denying that.  But perhaps the best part about making the postseason is that we can wipe the slate clean.  Everything starts all over again tomorrow.  The Cubs are no longer a 103-win juggernaut.  They now have zero wins.  The Giants are no longer a team that scraped and clawed its way into October.  They are now a team on equal footing with nine others.

And most importantly, the Blue Jays are no longer the team that sputtered its way through September with baseball’s worst offense.  They are now a playoff team, a team needing 12 more wins to capture the ultimate prize.

Wiping the slate clean is very meaningful for these Jays, simply because there was a lot of dirt to wipe off.  Consider that Russell Martin posted a .391 OPS in April, and hit just .161 in September.  Consider that Troy Tulowitzki hit .169 in April and was striking out at an alarming rate.  Consider that Jose Bautista spent two separate stints on the disabled list, that Marcus Stroman went through a stretch in which he was one of the worst starting pitchers in baseball, and that Toronto continually sent Drew Storen, Jesse Chavez, and Pat Venditte to the mound to get pummeled by opposing hitters.

Yes, there were ugly times.

This Toronto Blue Jays team played some of the most mind-numbingly awful baseball ever seen at times this year.  They lost 18 games that they were leading in the seventh inning or later.  A lineup stacked with some of baseball’s best hitters scored two runs or fewer 43 times.  There were times when they bunted when they shouldn’t.  There were times when they didn’t bunt when they should.  And of course there was the dismal 11-16, 100 run scored September.

But here’s the thing: they still found a way to make the postseason.

Maybe John Gibbons is right when he said this team might be in better shape for the playoffs than last year’s version.  Last year everything seemed to come easy.  They were able to crush teams seemingly at will.  This year the Blue Jays were forced to grind their way through the schedule, doing anything to push runners across home plate when the bats dried up.  Battle tested.  That’s what Gibbons called his team, and he’s right.

So despite that awful September, Toronto is back where it belongs: one of ten teams that still has the opportunity to win the World Series.

And despite winning only 11 times in September, the Blue Jays are currently undefeated in October.

Let’s hope the streak continues tomorrow night.

Hope (Or Why Being A Baseball Fan Is So Important)

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September is a highly anticipated month in the 500 Level Fan household.

The weather is still beautiful, only without the oppressive and skin burning heat.  Nightfall comes a little bit earlier, but not early enough to seemingly cut days in half.  Add to that the allure of pennant races in baseball and you have a great time of year.

This September was poised to be one of the best ever.  We had several family and friend events planned.  For the first time ever I was going to be published in print (Bat Flip: The Greatest Toronto Blue Jays Stories Ever Told).  And it looked as if the Jays were on the verge of winning the AL East for the second consecutive year.

But then September actually came.

And it has been the worst.

From the trivial and mundane to the life-altering, things have happened that were not part of the master plan.

A short list:

After romping through the regular season, my co-ed softball team unravelled in the year-end tournament, losing in the quarterfinals.  This website went down on multiple occasions, ruining any chance I might have had to promote the book before it launched.

Stunningly, the Blue Jays, mighty and in control at the end of August, regressed to levels not seen since 1987.  A 7 – 12 September record has threatened to destroy five months of hard work, as the team has lost seven games in the standings in 20 days and now seemingly only has Wild Card hopes.

But then came the big one.

On September 14, out of the blue and with no rhyme or reason, I shockingly lost an uncle.  Now, the normal assumption when somebody loses an aunt or uncle is that they were in the periphery of your life, a person who you saw a few times a year at most.  But not in this case.  Uncle Anth was a part of my wife’s immediate family, and after I married her he became a part of mine.

He was without a doubt one of the nicest people I have ever met; he had the proverbial heart of gold.  Need a favour with something?  No problem, here’s Anth!  Need a laugh?  No problem, here’s Anth!  Need somebody to talk to, or watch sports with, or have a rye and coke with?  No problem, here’s Anth!

Of course he had his flaws – we all do.  His biggest flaws were his horrendous choices of sports teams: the Bruins and the Red Sox (for real – who likes the Bruins?!?!?).  We had a friendly bet every year about the Jays / Sox rivalry, and this year was shaping up to be one of the closest yet, until September.  (As an aside, I swear that he was personally responsible for changing the trajectory of at least two of those Hanley Ramirez home runs last week.  They looked a little “wind-aided”.)   Ever since his passing I find that my normal deep rooted hatred of all things Red Sox has significantly diminished.

But this is not meant to be a melancholic column.  The point of this post is not to bring people down or spread sadness to the masses.  No, it is meant to be a column of hope.  That’s why I titled it “Hope”.

And it is also meant to be about baseball.  So how does all this relate?

One of the best traits about Uncle Anth was his penchant for Yogi-isms, those verbal quips made famous by the late, great Yogi Berra.  You know them: “it ain’t over ’til it’s over,” or “when you come to a fork in the road, take it,” or “you can observe a lot just by watching.”

Uncle Anth had a bunch but his best has resonated with me for a while, and holds extra special meaning for the Blue Jays this September.  About five years ago he was bemoaning the fact that we didn’t get out to visit him and Aunt Dar very often.  The drive from our place at the time was about two-and-a-half hours (longer with traffic).  “It’s so far,” I said, “it makes more sense to meet half way.”  “Yeah, but all you gotta do is get there,” he replied.

Ridiculous!  Clearly that was the main complaint – getting there!  But take a step back and think about it: it’s so true.  It doesn’t matter what kind of a journey you are on, the hardest part is always getting to your destination.  Once you’re there?  Take a load off, relax, enjoy it!

And that’s what all of you who jumped off the Jays bandwagon (including yours truly for a few hours), need to remember.

With 162 regular season games (compared to 82 in the NBA and NHL, 38 in MLS,  and 16 in the NFL) baseball has the longest regular season, by far.  Only 10 teams (33% of the league) make the postseason in baseball, compared to 60% in MLS, 53% in the NBA and NHL, and 37% in the NFL, making it the most difficult sport to reach the playoffs.  In short, MLB’s regular season is a long, long marathon after which only a small amount of teams have a chance to win it all.

All of which makes qualifying for the playoff dance incredibly important.  Once you’re in, anything can happen.  Ask the 2006 Cardinals who won only 83 games but won the World Series.  Ask the 2003 Marlins who finished 10 games behind the Braves but made it as a Wild Card and won it all.  Even ask the 2015 Mets who finished the season 7-11, including a 1-5 tailspin, yet recovered to make the World Series.

Each and every one of those teams will say the same thing: making the playoffs is the hardest part.  Once you’re there, anything can happen.

So for the Blue Jays and their fans, forget about this September swoon.  The goal right now, as it was back in April, remains the same: make October.  Sure the division would have been ideal, but the Wild Card game still means that the World Series is within reach.

Anything can happen.

Or as Anth would say:

All you gotta do is get there.

(Miss you buddy)

This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

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Blue Jays fans are a curious bunch.

The team emerged from a long, dark, and dreary period in its history last year with an incredible run to the postseason.  They have kept the momentum going this season and currently sit in a playoff spot.  Interest is at an all time high with people flocking to the Rogers Centre and watching on Sportsnet in record numbers.

You would think everybody would be happy.  Stressed, but happy.

But here’s the thing: so many fans are not happy.  In fact, they are downright angry.  Judging by social media alone, people hate the Toronto Blue Jays.

Yes, several of the people are trolls who get a kick out of drawing a reaction out of fans.  Take this idiot named Alex Hoegler (@alexhoegler) who calls himself a “Jays blogger and editor for The Sportster”.   He is clearly riling people up.

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Some of the people are just plain stupid, like this guy:

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Just spewing negativity at everybody and hoping somebody validates his life.

But it’s more than just those two losers.

Go on to Twitter and search #FireGibbons.  There are literally thousands of people who are calling for his head, proclaiming the season over because of his stupidity.

My question is: what is wrong with people?

With 23 games to play, the Blue Jays lead the Wild Card race and are 1 game back of the first place Red Sox.

From 1995 – 2014, fans would given anything to be in that position. On average in those 20 seasons with 23 games left to play, the Blue Jays were 5 games under .500, in second last place in the AL East, and 17 games back.  The best team they had in that stretch was in 1999 when they were 74 – 65, but still 11.5 behind.  The closest they were in that stretch was 2000 when they were 7.5 back.

Fans have literally been hoping and praying for a contender for over 20 years.  We now finally have one and people are angrier than ever.

Hey people – cheer up!

The Week That Was: Week 18

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Every Monday during the 2016 season, 500 Level Fan will take a look back at the week that was, giving readers a snapshot of all things Blue Jays, including three top stories and the Blue Jay player of the week.

This is what happened in week 18.

Week 18: August 1 – August 7

Record: 4 – 3

Season-to-date: 63 – 49

AL East: 2nd, 1 games behind Baltimore

Wild Card: 1.5 ahead of Detroit (WC1) 2 ahead of Boston (WC2)

  1. Where’s the O?

One of the biggest surprises early on in the 2016 season was the futility of the Blue Jays offense.  Baseball’s top scoring team in 2015 got out of the gates extremely slowly, scoring a mere 4 runs per game in April, and a slightly better 4.3 per game in May (down from 5.5 per game in 2015).  But you can only hold down a lineup stacked with Donaldson, Bautista, Encarnacion, Tulowitzki, Martin, Saunders and co. for so long.  The team plated 293 runs in 51 June and July games, and all was right with the world.  Well, suddenly the runs have dried up again.  In seven games last week Toronto scored a mere 17 times, an average of 2.4 a game.  They only managed 48 hits and 18 walks and struck out a whopping 84 times!  Seemingly only Devon Travis was able to hit the ball, accounting for nearly a quarter of the team’s offense.  Though this is likely just a blip for many guys, there has to be real concern over Bautista who is hitting just .160 with a .660 OPS off the DL.  His season average is down to a rock bottom .218.  The fact that the team managed to go 4-3 during that stretch has to be considered a miracle.

  1. Six Man Rotation

The Aaron Sanchez debate came to a conclusive end last week with confirmation that the young ace would be moving to the bullpen.  And then, strangely, Jays management changed course and announced that the team would be going to a six man rotation in order to keep him starting.  It was a bizarre announcement for a number of reasons (mainly because six man rotations really don’t work – ever), but at least showed Jays fans that management is cognizant of what is happening within the fan base.  I’m not sure how long the six starter experiment will last (probably

not long given that Sanchez will still need more rest), but it didn’t get off to a great start over the weekend.  Francisco Liriano looked solid in his debut on Friday, but both Sanchez and Stroman struggled a bit with extra rest on Saturday and Sunday.  Sanchez coughed up four runs on nine hits in 6 IP, while Stroman was undone by his own shoddy fielding in allowing seven hits and three runs over 5 IP.  Fans should be happy that Sanchez still gets to start, but wary about it lasting much longer.

  1. Royal Love

I’m normally not one to complain about Toronto’s TV and radio broadcast crews.  Yes Buck and Pat can get a bit wordy and annoying on the Sportsnet broadcasts, and yes Jerry has been known to voice his displeasure with certain players on the Fan 590 (see Reyes, Jose), but neither crew has really bothered me.  Until this weekend.  What was true in the postseason last year with the Fox Sports guys, has come home to roost with the Jays commentators: an unbridled passion for the Kansas City Royals.  Buck, Pat, Jerry, and even Joe Siddall were practically falling all over themselves gushing praise on the Royals team.  If you were just a casual fan listening in, you would have thought that KC was the top team in the league.  The way that the crews described KC’s offense (the bunting!  the speed!  the ground balls!) you would have thought that KC was an offensive wrecking crew.  (Note: the Royals are 53-58, second last place in the AL Central, 10 GB of Cleveland, and have scored 3.84 runs per game (27th in MLB)).  I also learned that Raul Mondesi Jr., aside from being the son of a former Jay, is likely a surefire Hall of Famer, and a definite future All-Star.  He was described as an incredible ballplayer, and potential superstar.  (Note: Mondesi is hitting .256 with a .564 OPS, -1 DRS, and -0.1 WAR).  I’m all for giving credit to the opposition, but this weekend was a bit ridiculous.

Player of the Week

Devon Travis, 2B

He looks like a superstar (not Mondesi): 11 for 31, 1 BB, 2 2B, 3 HR, 4 R, 5 RBI, .355 / .375 / .710 / 1.085

Down on the Farm

A look at how the minor league affiliates are doing

AAA – Buffalo: 57 – 59, 5th place, 15.5 GB

AA – New Hampshire: 52 – 61, 5th place, 23.5 GB

A+ – Dunedin: First Half: 33 – 36, 5th place; Second Half: 28 – 15, 1st place

A – Lansing: First Half: 36 – 34, T-5th place; Second Half: 21 – 22, 4th place, 7.5 GB

A (Short Season) – Vancouver: First Half: 16 – 22, 4th place; Second Half: 4 – 6, T-3rd place, 2 GB

The Look Ahead

Back home for six.

August 8 – 10 vs. Tampa Bay

August 12 – 14 vs. Houston

A View From the Cheap Seats