Baseball, The Law of Averages, and Why I Still Have Hope For 2015

Upper Deck Insight 20 May 2015 | 0 Comments

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The Law of Averages: the expectation that a possible event is bound to occur regularly with a frequency approximating to its probability

As is often said by baseball analysts and fans, a baseball season is a marathon, not a sprint.  With 162 games spread over six months and with very few off days, the baseball schedule is the most daunting, grueling, and seemingly never-ending of all the major professional sports.

Because of this, however, baseball is also a sport that breeds consistency.  Due to the length of the season, it is a sport that sees very few “flukes” emerge over a long period of time, and player performances – generally – revert to established norms.  Unlike, say, in the NFL, where players can go from zero to hero than back again in 1-2 years, baseball (for the most part) is more established.

While anything can happen over the course of an inning, a game, or even a few weeks (AKA a small sample size), over the course of a full season, things tend to fall back to normal.  Hence the law of averages quote at the beginning of this post.

For example, if a career .300 hitter is batting .125 in May, odds are likely that he will have at least one, two, or three hot streaks in him to get his average closer to .300 by season’s end.  Likewise, a career .215 hitter more than likely will not maintain a .365 average (sorry Chris Colabello).

So what does any of this mean?  How does any of this provide any kind of hope for fans of the underperforming, last place, and, to this point, woeful Blue Jays?

Let me tell you.

Even though about a quarter of the season has been played, that still represents a fairly small sample size in the grand scheme of the MLB schedule.  While two key Blue Jays are performing about on par with expectations (Josh Donaldson and Rusell Martin), and a few don’t have a meaningful track record to compare against (Aaron Sanchez, Roberto Osuna, Kevin Pillar, Devon Travis), several very important players are having dismal seasons compared to the bulk of their careers.

On the offensive side, there’s no arguing that Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, and Jose Reyes, are struggling (Reyes is injured again, but he wasn’t doing much in the games he did play).  There’s also no arguing that they are possibly the most important players on Toronto’s roster.  But take a look at their 2015 OPS:

Averages - OPS

EE has posted a number 68 points below his career mark, and 149 points behind his OPS from the past three years.  Bautista is currently 30 points worse than his recent career numbers, while Reyes is nearly 200 points below.  All three are clearly performing miles below their expected levels, and one would expect (or hope) that a performance correction is in the future.

But the offense hasn’t been the biggest issue.  Toronto’s pitching has been downright atrocious, and those most to blame are the top-3 in the rotation (Dickey, Buehrle, Hutchison), along with two key left-handers in the bullpen (Loup and Cecil).  How bad have they been?  Look at their ERA numbers:

Averages - ERA

Hutchison and Loup don’t have more than three years of data available, and Cecil has only been a full-time reliever for two seasons (we’ll leave his time as a starter out).  But look at how startling the declines have been.  Hutchison is giving up over 1.5 runs a game more than his career mark, Cecil just under 1, and Loup about three-and-a-half.

Similarly, look at the starters.  Both Dickey and Buehrle have career ERA’s under 4.00, and recent career ERA’s closer to 3.75.  So to see them both stuck over 5.00 (and closer to 6.00) is a bit shocking.

Yes, there could be other circumstances.  Both are getting older, and perhaps their decline is starting to come at a more accelerated rate.  But I have a hard time believing that both guys would suddenly fall off a cliff.  Maybe we shouldn’t expect a return to a mid-3.00 ERA, but something in the low 4’s might not be out of the question.

The bottom line is that if each those eight players can turn things around to post numbers within range of their career totals, then good things are in store for not only them, but for the team and the fans alike.

And that is why there may still be hope left for 2015.

Is it likely?  I can’t say for sure – but the law of averages says yes.

The Week That Was: Week 6

Weekly Things 18 May 2015 | 0 Comments

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Every Monday during the 2015 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 6.

Week 6: May 11 – May 17

Record: 1 – 6

Season-to-date: 17 – 22

AL East: 5th, 5 GB of New York

Wild Card: 4.5 GB of 2nd Wild Card (Minnesota)

1. Houston: Where Dreams Go To Die

On July 31 of last season, the Jays showed up in Houston and won the first game of a four game set to improve to 60-50.  They had a 3 game lead on Seattle for the second wild card spot, and were only 1.5 GB of the Orioles.  That was the last good day of 2014.  The Astros won the next three games to suck the life out of the Jays and start them on the path to a disastrous 9-17 August.  Last Thursday the Jays arrived in Houston again, looking for some momentum to kickstart their 2015 campaign.  Unfortunately, history repeated itself.  Toronto was swept in four straight, losing games in any way imaginable.  Blow a late lead with a bullpen collapse?  Check.  Have a starter get shelled? Check.  Have the offense go missing?  Check.  The Blue Jays are now 2-9 in Houston since the Astros switched to the American League three years ago.  Thankfully they don’t go back until next year.

2. What To Do With Dickey?

The knuckleball wasn’t knuckling on Friday night, as R.A. Dickey was torched by the Astros.  He surrendered 7 ER and 2 HR in 5 IP, marking his second straight start (and 3rd in the past 5) that he has allowed 6 or more earned runs.  On the season he has a poor 1-5 record, 5.76 ERA, and 1.36 WHIP, and leads the league in losses and earned runs.  Not only has he been struggling badly, he also weakens the lineup when he starts, as Josh Thole replaces Russell Martin behind the plate, making it that much more difficult for the team to earn a W.  The question now is what should the Jays do?  With his huge salary, trading him will be next to impossible, and relegating him to the bullpen would likely be a disaster for a guy who relies on feel.  The only real option is to keep sending him out there and hope he pulls himself out of this current funk.  He has a history of improving as the weather gets warmer, so I’m still hopeful that he can deliver in 2015.  I hope he proves me right.

3. Chris Colabello: Hall of Famer

He didn’t even make the team out of Dunedin, but Chris Colabello certainly is playing like a man on his way to Cooperstown.  In 12 games, the 31 year old veteran is hitting .413 with a 1.003 OPS.  He has a base hit in 9 of those 12 games, including 7 multi-hit games, and is one of the only Jays that is continuing to hit despite the current struggles of the team.  It’s clear that this insane hot streak isn’t going to last (Colabello had a .649 OPS in 114 career games coming into this year), but as long as he keeps hitting, fans should keep enjoying it.

Player of the Week

Edwin Encarnacion, 1B

It took a while, but just like last season EE is starting to heat up in May.  Edwin only had 4 hits last week, but all of them went for home runs.  That’s how you can explain a strange slash line of a .182 average but a 1.035 OPS.  He also scored 6 runs and drove in 6.

Down on the Farm

A look at how the minor league affiliates are doing

AAA – Buffalo: 19 – 18, 4th place

AA – New Hampshire: 18 – 19, 5th place

A+ – Dunedin: 16 – 21, 6th place

A – Lansing: 20 – 17 , T-2nd place

The Look Ahead

Back home to kick off a 10 game homestand.  Time to make a move.

May 11-21 vs. LA Angels

May 22-24 vs. Seattle

Dickey, Syndergaard, and the Worst Trades in Blue Jays History

Upper Deck Insight 15 May 2015 | 0 Comments

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Noah Syndergaard made his highly anticipated major league debut on Tuesday night.  It came with great fanfare and lit up social media and the MLB Network.  Though he wound up with the loss, he looked pretty solid, going 5.1 IP, allowing 6 hits and 4 walks while striking out 6.  All three of the of the runs he surrendered came in the sixth inning, after he sailed through the first five with relative ease.  It was a very promising debut, enough to get Jays fan excited about his potential.

Or, it would have made Jays fans excited about his future potential if Syndergaard didn’t play for the Mets.

On December 17, 2012 Noah was dealt alongside John Buck, Travis d’Arnaud, and Wuilmer Becerra to New York for R.A. Dickey, Mike Nickeas, and Josh Thole.  At the time, the deal was celebrated by Jays fans, as it gave Toronto a fearsome rotation and made them one of the best teams in baseball on paper.

Now, two and a half years later, it has a real chance to wind up as one of the worst trades in the history of the franchise.

Dickey has been solid as a Blue Jay, but has largely underwhelmed, especially in comparison to his Cy Young winning 2012 campaign, and Thole has been brutally sub-par.  While d’Arnaud hasn’t amounted to much thus far, it is Syndergaard who has the scouts, fans, and analysts drooling, and Blue Jays fans banging their heads saying “what if”.

If Dickey would have arrived in 2013, repeated his Cy Young form and led the Jays to the World Series, fans wouldn’t care about how amazing Syndergaard may or may not be.  But of course, with hindsight being 20/20, this looks like a potential steal for the Mets.

It is still to early to tell for sure how the trade will pan out, but it got me thinking: how good will Syndergaard and/or d’Arnaud have to be in order to qualify this as one of the worst trades in the history of the Toronto Blue Jays?  Have there been other woeful trades in the past that have blown up in our faces?  The short answer is yes…several.

According to Baseball Reference, the Blue Jays have made 315 trades in the history of the franchise.  The overwhelming majority have been minor, often times not even involving two players (i.e. November 5, 1976 the Jays acquired Chuck Hartenstein from San Diego for cash).  There have also been a lot of great deals: Fernandez/McGriff for Alomar/Carter, Tom Dodd and Dale Murray for Fred McGriff, Robinzon Diaz for Jose Bautista.

(As an aside, there have also been some downright bizarre transactions, including this: June 15, 1982 the Jays traded Wayne Nordhagen to Philadelphia for Dick Davis, who immediately flipped him to Pittsburgh for Bill Robinson.  Seven days later on June 22, 1982, the Jays traded Dick Davis to the Pirates for Wayne Nordhagen.  Weird.)

Sadly, there have also been several deals that have not worked out as planned, that those involved wish they could take back.  With the benefit of hindsight, and of Baseball Reference’s WAR stat, we can quantify just how bad some of the trades ended up being.

The methodology is simple.  For all players the Jays traded away, add up their WAR for all seasons after they were traded.  For all players the Jays acquired, add up their WAR for all seasons they were on the roster.  The bigger the difference between the two, the more lopsided the trade.

Using that formula, I identified 15 trades in franchise history where the difference was 9 or greater, meaning the players that were traded away contributed 9+ more wins than those that were acquired.  In short, these are the deals that make fans shake their heads and wish were never made.

Of course, there are caveats to this exercise, because not all trades are created equal.  Management’s objectives change from year to year.  A salary dump is much different than a trade meant to improve the team right now, which is also much different from a trade that is meant to get a team over the hump.

For example, the worst trade in Toronto Blue Jays franchise history according to WAR, was on August 27, 1992, when Toronto traded Ryan Thompson and Jeff Kent to the Mets for David Cone.  Cone only spent two months with the Jays, contributing a WAR of 1.7, while Jeff Kent went on to a borderline Hall of Fame career with the Mets and Giants.  His WAR of 55.2, and Thompson’s 3.5 WAR, mean that the total difference was a WAR of 57.  Of course, Cone was acquired to help push the Jays over the top, which he did.  Despite the large difference in WAR, the World Series championship more than compensates, and I’m sure that any Jays fan would happily make that trade all over again.

In order to differentiate between types of deals, I have split the 15 into three categories:

Deadline Playoff Push: these are trades that were made during the season in order to get to October.  In the short term, they all worked.

“Hands are Tied”: these are trades where the GM was basically forced to trade a star player who was not going to re-sign in Toronto.  There was often little (or no) leverage.

Straight Trade: these are basic trades, meant to make the team better both in the present and the future.

Based on those definitions, we can be more forgiving for any in the first two categories, but those in the third?  Yikes. (And there are some doozies on the list.)

Without further ado, here are the 15 worst trades in the history of the Blue Jays.

Category: Deadline Playoff Push

Trades - deadline

Despite the large differences in traded vs. acquired WAR, each of these deals has to be considered a success.  Do the Jays win the ’92 World Series without Cone, or the ’93 Series without Henderson?  Similarly, Tom Candiotti was outstanding for the team in ’91, helping them win the AL East.

Category: “Hands are Tied”

Trades - tied

In each of these cases, it was obvious at the time that the veteran stars had to be dealt.  Olerud, Clemens, Halladay, and Green were either not going to re-sign, or were going to be too expensive, so a trade was necessary.  The Jays knew it, the fans knew it, but unfortunately so did the rest of baseball, making it virtually impossible to get anything close to equal value in return.

The Clemens and Green deals aren’t too bad because at least Toronto got some production out the players they received.  Raul Mondesi posted a .798 OPS with 66 HR in two and a half years with the club, and David Wells went 37-18 with an All-Star appearance and a top-3 Cy Young season during his second go-around with Toronto.  It was just that Clemens and Green put up some monster seasons afterwards (though we now know how Roger did it.)

The other two are especially hard to swallow.  John Olerud won three Gold Gloves, went to an All-Star game, and made five playoff appearances after he left the Jays, whereas Robert Person went 8-13 with 6 saves and a 6.18 ERA in two and a half seasons, before being dealt for Paul Spoljaric.  More recently, the Halladay deal still leaves a sour taste for all involved.  Despite being praised at the time, the return that Alex Anthopoulos brought back looks bad now.  Drabek flamed out with the Jays, and d’Arnaud is now on the Mets.  The silver lining is that Michael Taylor turned into Brett Wallace who turned into Anthony Gose who turned into Devon Travis, who is enjoying a huge rookie season thus far.  Unfortunately, it’s just not as huge as Halladay’s years with the Phillies (Cy Young, 2 All-Star games, 2 division titles, a top-10 MVP finish).

Category: Straight Trade

Trades - straight

 

Here we go.  These eight trades are your big boys, the deals that were made supposedly from a pure baseball standpoint that backfired spectacularly.  Some of these are the most infamous trades in team history.  Some deserve to be thought of like that but aren’t for whatever reason.

The two most recent trades stick out like a sore thumb for current Jays fans.  We barely had time to celebrate in 2011 when AA was able to shed the albatross contract belonging to Vernon Wells, when he instantly turned around and sent Mike Napoli packing to Texas for reliever Frank Francisco.  Napoli has put up a 14.1 WAR in the past four seasons, including 3 seasons with 20+ HR.  But it is the Gomes trade that hurts more.  In 2014 he belted 21 HR while winning a Silver Slugger award, and has contributed an 8.0 WAR in just two seasons.  In return, Esmil Rogers came and went.

Maybe it’s because I can’t remember the context, or because the trades are too far back in time, but the Ashby, Woody Williams, and second David Cone deal don’t resonate with me the way that the others do.  Even though all three of those players had solid careers after Toronto, including All-Star appearances and World Series victories, the trades don’t seem particularly awful.

The other three on the list, however – that is a different story.  These have to be considered three of the worst trades in our long, proud history.

1. Jason Frasor was a solid contributor to the franchise, putting in parts of nine seasons as a Blue Jay and posting a pretty decent 6.4 WAR as a reliever.  However, Jayson Werth would go on to blossom after leaving the Dodgers, and has finished in the top-20 in NL MVP voting four times.

2. On July 18, 2000, Toronto was 50-45, only 1.5 games back of the Yankees.  In a pre-deadline move to bolster the rotation the Jays acquired Esteban Loaiza from the Texas Rangers for minor league infielder Michael Young.  They limped to a 33-34 finish, missing the playoffs, then watched as Young turned into a star in Texas.  He appeared in 7 All-Star games, won a Gold Glove, and five times finished in the top-30 in AL MVP balloting.

3. Just six months later, Gord Ash made what is without a doubt the most terrible trade ever.  Ash took advantage of a 20-win season from David Wells, and sent him to the White Sox for a package centred on 15-game winner Mike Sirotka.  The only problem was that Sirotka was badly injured, and would never pitch a single inning for Toronto.  Wells, meanwhile, played seven more seasons, reaching the playoffs four times, and the World Series once.  It was one of the most embarrassing moments in Blue Jay history.

****

As you can tell by the above, there is a long way to go before we might see  Dickey for d’Arnaud and Syndergaard on that list.  For the sake of Blue Jay fans everywhere, let’s hope it never gets to that.

The Week That Was: Week 5

Weekly Things 12 May 2015 | 0 Comments

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Every Monday during the 2015 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 5.

Week 5: May 4 – May 10

Record: 4 – 2

Season-to-date: 16 – 16

AL East: 3rd, 4 GB of New York

Wild Card: 2 GB of 2nd Wild Card (Minnesota)

1. Coming Together

It took a long, long time, but finally, things appear to be looking up for the Blue Jays starting rotation.  Before Monday’s opener against the Yankees, the Jays starters sat dead last in the AL with an ERA of 5.70.  However, after a very solid week, that number has been shaved to 5.20, good enough to rise ahead of Boston and Cleveland.  Not great, but getting better.  Dickey, Buehrle, Sanchez, and Hutchison all delivered solid starts against the Yankees and Red Sox, battling through some early control issues to limit the the opposition to a total of 3 runs in 4 games.  With the Jays offense, Toronto doesn’t necessarily need a Cy Young outing each and every start, so last week’s progress is incredibly encouraging to the Jays postseason aspirations.

2. Who Are These Guys?

Toronto was supposed to have one of the most fearsome top-6’s in baseball, and that combined with some very promising rookies gave them the look of an offensive juggernaut.  But you would never know that from looking at Sunday’s starting lineup.  Injuries and underperformance have robbed the Jays of Reyes, Saunders, Pompey, and half of Bautista, meaning on Sunday guys like Chris Colabello and Ezequiel Carrera joined Josh Thole and Ryan Goins in the lineup, with Danny Valencia and Justin Smoak coming off the bench.  Not exactly how we drew it up in the spring.  But to their credit, Colabello and Carrera are making the most of their opportunity, with CC batting .571 with a 1.418 OPS and Carrera chipping in a .429 average and a 1.026 OPS.

3. Jacoby Suspended

News broke last week that hitting coach Brook Jacoby was suspended for 14 games for an altercation with an umpire at Fenway Park.  While details are a bit sketchy in terms of what exactly happened, there was plenty of support for Jacoby among Blue Jay players blaming the umpires for starting the argument, and placing responsibility squarely on their shoulders.  But of course, nothing happens to baseball umpires.  On his weekly “Sunday Roast” feature on Blue Jays Central, Gregg Zaun went on a bit of a rant about the comfort that MLB umpires operate in.  I don’t generally agree with Zaun, but he was bang on in his assessment.  If a player, manager, or GM performs poorly, he is benched, sent to the minors, or fired.  But an umpire?  He might not get to officiate the World Series.  With technology telling fans exactly if a pitch should be a ball or a strike, or if a runner is safe or out, umpires now have more scrutiny on them then ever before – yet they don’t seem to care.  Watch a baseball game and count how many times a pitch 4-6 inches outside the strike zone is called a strike, or how many times a pitch clearly on the corner is a ball.  Or worse, how many times a pitch is called a strike for a veteran pitcher, but not for a rookie (especially Aaron Sanchez).  Umpires operate with their own agendas and with no fear of punishment.  The fact that Jacoby received 14 games and the umpire got zero proves that point.

Player of the Week

Russell Martin, C

Similar to the starting staff, it took Russell Martin a while to turn things on in 2015, but he has been white hot lately.  The only way for opponents to cool him off is to have R.A. Dickey on the mound, meaning Josh Thole moves behind the plate.  Because of that, Martin was limited to only four games last week, but what a stretch it was.  He went 10 for 17 with 2 HR, 3 2B, 4 RBI, 5 R, and a slash line of .588 / .566 / 1.118 / 1.673.

Down on the Farm

A look at how the minor league affiliates are doing

AAA – Buffalo: 15 – 15, 3rd place

AA – New Hampshire: 16 – 14, 4th place

A+ – Dunedin: 13 – 17, 6th place

A – Lansing: 17 – 13 , 2nd place

The Look Ahead

The Jays hit the road for seven:

May 11-13 at Baltimore

May 14-17 at Houston

Fun With Early Season WAR

Around the Majors 8 May 2015 | 0 Comments

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It’s hard to believe, but the 2015 regular season is already over 15% finished.  That means it’s time for an annual post here on 500 Level Fan where we take a few minutes to have fun with early season stats.

We are approaching mid-May, so some teams are establishing themselves as legit (Detroit, KC, the Dodgers), and some look to be already playing for next year (poor, poor Milwaukee).  But a large majority of teams have fans scratching their heads, wondering if down is up or if up is down.

Houston and the Mets are in first?  Washington, Boston, Cleveland, Seattle, and Pittsburgh are a combined 18 games under .500?  The Yankees are actually good???

But the one thing we keep hearing, the one universal caution about assessing performance at this time of year is this: it’s still early.

But it’s never too early to have some fun with stats. Let’s take a look at some early season WAR stats and assess which players may have staying power (both good and bad).

Player WAR

Player WAR - BEST

 

The above tables show the best players in baseball in terms of WAR, and in all of the years that I have been writing this early season post, this looks the most normal.  For the most part, the names above seem to make sense, and one would expect to see them at the top in September.  Paul Goldschmidt, Adrian Gonzalez, Mike Trout, Miguel Cabrera, and Anthony Rizzo are all superstars.  Lorenzo Cain and Eric Hosmer are carrying over their playoff success, and Joc Pederson is a highly touted rookie for the Dodgers.  The two truly surprising names are Gordon and Vogt.  I wouldn’t expect to see Vogt remain in the top-10, but for a player with Gordon’s speed and baserunning ability, who knows?  For Jays fans, the fact that Donaldson, Encarnacion, Reyes, and Bautista are nowhere to be found goes hand-in-hand with the sub-.500 record.  Good to see Martin and Pillar up high though.

Offensively, some of the biggest bats in the game are off to great starts.  Gonzalez, Cruz, Goldschmidt, Trout, Rizzo, and Cabrera are all over the top-10.  If I was a betting man, I would lay a few quarters down on each of them remaining there.  In terms of dWAR, it’s great to see Pillar translating some of those incredible catches into a nice overall rating.  He might be the real deal, at least in the field.

Most Likely to Stick in Top-10: Goldschmidt, Gonzalez, Trout, Cabrera

Most Likely to Drop Out: Vogt

Player WAR - WORST

 The first thing any Blue Jays fan will notice is that Edwin Encarnacion is the worst Blue Jay across the board.  With a .216 average, .631 OPS, 4 HR, and 24 strikeouts, it’s hard to disagree.  Overall, there are some surprising names in the worst list, ones that really make me feel old.  It wasn’t long ago that Michael Bourn, Carlos Beltran, Torii Hunter, and Chase Utley were perennial All-Stars.  Now?  Ugh.

Perhaps the most surprising name on the oWAR list is Victor Martinez, currently one of the 10-worst offensive players in the game.  Considering his pedigree and his tremendous season in 2014, I can’t imagine him sticking around that list for long.

Most Likely to Stick in Bottom-10: Morse, Ianneetta, Rivera

Most Likely to Climb Out: Martinez (oWAR), Werth

Pitcher WAR

Pitcher WAR

 

Dallas Keuchel is for real.  He finished 2014 as one of baseball’s best, and is once again topping the list in 2015.  Also no surprise to see powerhouses like King Felix, Scherzer, and Greinke up there.  Sonny Gray, Shelby Miller, and Jake Odorizzi are all talented youngsters who are starting to harness their immense talent, and Nick Martinez is just 24.  But can somebody explain Aaron Harang and Colby Lewis?  In terms of Jays, all you need to know about the pitching thus far, is that the best starter in terms of WAR who is still with the team (i.e. not Daniel Norris), is Dickey, the 330th best pitcher in baseball at -0.1.  Similarly, our opening day starter, staff ace, and player most likely to take a huge step forward in 2015 is currently tied for the second worst WAR in baseball.  I guess that’s what a 7.47 ERA, and 1.60 WHIP will get you.

Most Likely to Stick in Top-10 / Bottom-10: Hernandez, Scherzer / Ramirez, Norris

Most Likely to Drop Out / Climb Out: Harang, Lewis / Walker, Hutchison

As always, we’ll check back on these lists later in the season to see if things become “more normal”.  By then, if Hutchison is still in the bottom-10, I’ll be worried.

Russell Martin: Back on the Bandwagon

Upper Deck Insight 7 May 2015 | 0 Comments

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We first started hearing the whispers as early as April 12, which seemed unreasonably harsh.  It is becoming widely known that Toronto is a very hard sports town, often full of overblown expectations and quick trigger fingers, but to start criticizing a player after the Blue Jays had only played six regular season games?  Unfair.

But after big-ticket offseason acquisition Russell Martin went 0-for-3 in Baltimore and saw his numbers fall to an .063 average and .301 OPS with 8 strikeouts in 16 at-bats you could hear the whispers.

After another 0-for-3 on April 21, Martin’s stats were downright ugly (.132 average, .622 OPS, 14 strikeouts), and the whispers were no longer quiet.  People were starting to shout.

You didn’t have to scroll through Twitter long to find comments like “overpaid”, “bust”, “bum”, “waste”, and “Toronto’s new David Clarkson”.  The locals were restless and they’d seen enough.

But here’s the thing about baseball fans: for being so knowledgeable, a large amount of them can be really, really stupid.  After the April 21st game, the Jays still had 148 games remaining.  That is a lot of baseball, which also means a lot of time to turn things around.

Not surprisingly, Russell Martin has….big time.

Since that aforementioned game against the Orioles, Martin has gone on an absolute tear.  In a span of 14 games from April 22 to May 6, he is hitting .413, has an OBP of .491, an OPS of 1.360, and has swatted 5 HR with 10 RBI.  He has also cut his strikeout rate way down, from 36.8% on April 21, to 26.2% today.  As of right now, his 1.4 WAR ranks T-8th among all position players in the AL.

The turnaround has been monumental, and can’t be a shock to anybody (it shouldn’t be a shock at least).  Not only did Martin join a new team, he also joined a new league, returning to the AL after two years in Pittsburgh.  That meant not only did he have to learn a brand new pitching staff (one full of four rookies, don’t forget), but he also had to figure out how to hit pitchers he either hasn’t seen for two years, or has never seen at all.  Add the fact that a) he was a huge free agent signing, b) he is a Canadian returning to Canada, and c) he was joining a team that hoped to be a contender.  Just a small, tiny bit of pressure…

But fans, especially fans in Toronto, lose sight of stuff like that.  They also lose sight of the fact that Martin was a career .259 hitter coming into 2015, with a career .759 OPS.  And that’s based on 4,000 AB over 9 big league seasons – not a small sample size.  Obviously he was not going to maintain a batting average of .063.

It might not be a stretch to say that Martin’s resurgence is the only thing keeping Toronto afloat.  Reyes is injured again, Bautista and Saunders are not 100%, Encarnacion is scuffling, and the pitching been woeful.  If not for Martin, Donaldson, and Travis, Toronto might be in Brewer territory, with a record closer to .350 than .500.

So to all of you foolish fans who booed, doubted, and crucified him: take a moment to really understand and appreciate what “the next David Clarkson” has done over the past few weeks.

And welcome back to the Russell Martin bandwagon.

 

The Week That Was: Week 4

Weekly Things 4 May 2015 | 0 Comments

Buehrle Start

photo from Associated Press

 

Every Monday during the 2015 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 4.

Week 4: April 27 – May 3

Record: 3 – 4

Season-to-date: 12 – 14

AL East: 5th, 4.5 GB of New York

Wild Card: 1.5 GB of 2nd Wild Card (Baltimore)

1. Pitching Nightmare

Things are getting really ugly in Toronto.  Coming into the season it was expected that pitching would be the Blue Jays weak spot, but I don’t think anybody expected things to be this bad.  The starting rotation is in shambles.  In seven games last week, Toronto starters only pitched a total of 34 innings, an average of less than 5 per start, and sported an ERA of 7.68 and a WHIP of 2.00.  They surrendered 18 walks and a mind-boggling 50 (!!) hits.  The bullpen wasn’t much better either, as the relievers combined with the starters to give away three games.  The Jays blew a 5-4 lead in the 8th inning on Monday, a 4-1 lead on Friday, and a 6-1 lead on Sunday.  The Jays starting pitchers rank dead last in the AL with a whopping 5.70 ERA, and also rank last in batting average against (.294) OPS against (.856), and walks (64).  The bullpen is third worst with a 4.23 ERA and 4 blown saves.  In short, the pitching has been awful.  We’ll see if the recall of Chad Jenkins and Steve Delabar, and the move to put Estrada into the rotation helps.  It surely can’t get any worse.

2. Youth Abandoned

Much was made of Toronto’s decision to start the season with six rookies on the roster playing prominent roles.  It was a gamble, but the talent was just too high to keep the kids in the minors.  But just 26 games into the season, that thinking has shifted dramatically.  After rough starts, half of the rookie crop was sent down just a few days apart.  Dalton Pompey was hitting just .193 with a .601 OPS when he was shipped to Buffalo.  Daniel Norris, despite having the best ERA of the rotation, was demoted Thursday night.  Miguel Castro was optioned on Sunday after his promising start was derailed with several terrible outings that inflated his ERA to 4.38 and his WHIP to 1.70.  All three of these players are a very important part of the team’s future, so having them work out their problems and improve their confidence is probably the right move.  I’m sure we’ll see them back in the majors before long.

3. He Just Keeps Going

Despite the struggles of Castro, Norris, and Pompey, not all of the Blue Jays rookies are off to poor starts.  In fact, Devon Travis is off to one of the greatest starts ever.  The rookie second baseman continues to pound the baseball and perform at levels not reached by a Toronto 2B since the days of Aaron Hill.  In six games last week, Travis hit two more home runs, and drove in seven runs, putting up an .803 OPS – a number that actually lowered his season mark.  He also hit his first career grand slam yesterday.  On a team loaded with sluggers, it is Travis who is climbing the American League leaderboards.  At weeks end he ranks 5th in OPS at 1.019, 4th in HR with 7, and 2nd in RBI with 23.  As Buck Martinez likes to say: this kid can flat out hit.

Player of the Week

Kevin Pillar, OF

I am becoming a believer.  After doubting him for so long, Kevin Pillar has changed my view of him by simply refusing to stop playing well.  He put together a fantastic week, going 11 for 29 with 5 doubles and a triple, good for a .379 / .419 / .621 / 1.040 slash line.  And in what is becoming another ho-hum moment, he made another highlight reel catch in Cleveland, crashing into the outfield wall.

Down on the Farm

A look at how the minor league affiliates are doing

AAA – Buffalo: 15 – 9, 1st place

AA – New Hampshire: 13 – 11, 4th place

A+ – Dunedin: 11 – 13, 4th place

A – Lansing: 14 – 10 , 2nd place

The Look Ahead

Back at home with two series against bitter AL East rivals.

May 4-6 vs. New York

May 8-10 vs. Boston

An All-or-Nothing April

Upper Deck Insight 1 May 2015 | 0 Comments

May Calendar

When I woke up this morning, the calendar said May 1, 2015, and I immediately broke into a smile.

Not only does that mean that summer is one day closer and the weather is getting warmer, it also means that finally, mercifully, April is over.

To many Jays fans, the turn of the calendar will be celebrated.  After all, by reading comments on the internet, following certain people on Twitter, and listening to callers on Jays talk, one thing is obvious: April was the worst month in the history of the franchise.  There was widespread panic, fans were jumping off the bandwagon left, right, and centre, and the team was on the verge of a last place finish, deep in the basement of the AL East.  The only thing left to do was fire Gibbons, fire Anthopoulos, and trade everybody with any value.  Start over.

Now, this kind of talk seemingly happens every year when the club goes through a bad stretch, but for some reason it seemed especially exaggerated this year.  And the fans do make some valid points: the bullpen looks thin and often overmatched; the health of the team is once again in question, with Navarro and Reyes on the DL and Bautista missing a few games; the rotation has been wildly inconsistent; the team is striking out a lot and not scoring runs at a consistent rate.

But there is one very important number to remember: 2.5.

That is the number of games back that Toronto is of the first place Yankees.  Despite all of those issues, the Blue Jays are 11-12 and right in the thick of things.  Compare their fortune to other teams and the news gets better.  Preseason darlings like Cleveland, Seattle, and Washington are each already 5 games back or more in their respective divisions.  Defending champion San Francisco sits dead last, 4.5 games back of the Dodgers.

The fact that the Jays are where they are goes to show that a) it is very early, and b) there is no need to condemn the team to death.

But I am glad that the calendar has turned and the weather is getting warmer, because April was a very up-and-down, all-or-nothing type of month.

With 122 runs scored, Toronto leads the entire major leagues in offense, scoring three more runs than second best Kansas City.  However, they have allowed 115 – only Boston and Milwaukee have surrendered more.

But that league-leading 122 runs is a little bit misleading.  In 23 games, the Jays are averaging 5.30 runs per game, a total that should have them at least a few games above .500.  The problem has been consistency.  The team has scored 3 runs or fewer 10 times, including four games in which they only crossed the plate once.  On seven occasions they have scored 7 or more runs, including five times reaching double digits.  The same can be said for hits.  With 190 hits on the season, Toronto is averaging 8.26 per game.  But they have exploded for 10 or more hits 7 times and been held to 5 or fewer hits 6 times.  That is the very definition of an all-or-nothing offense.

Last night’s game was the perfect example of Toronto’s April rolled into nine innings.  The team scored 5 runs on 7 hits in a tidy 5-1 victory in Cleveland.  However, four of the hits and all five runs occurred in one inning.  That’s one inning of an explosive offense, and eight innings of futility.

Looking at the American League as a whole, Toronto ranks 4th in team OPS (.741), but also 4th in strikeouts (178).  They rank 4th in HR (28), but also 5th in grounding into double plays (18).  The good and the bad.

On an individual basis, the Jays have two players in the top-10 in WAR (Devon Travis, 1.3 T-6th and Josh Donaldson, 1.1 T-8th), and two players in the bottom 35 (Michael Saunders, -0.3 and Edwin Encarnacion -0.5).  They also have two regulars batting over .300 (Travis at .324 and Donaldson at .319), and four (!) batting under .210 (Encarnacion at .205, Pompey at .203, Martin at .197, and Bautista at .164).

You can see similar patterns on the mound as well.  For all relief pitchers with a minimum of 10 IP, the Jays have both a good and a bad.  Marco Estrada ranks 6th with a 0.84 ERA in 10.2 IP, and Aaron Loup ranks 5th-worst with a 4.91 ERA in 11 IP.  Brett Cecil and Miguel Castro have taken turns looking nasty and downright unhittable, to looking pedestrian and awful.  It truly is back and forth, game-in and game-out.

But again, despite the wild inconsistency that April brought, the Blue Jays are only one game under .500 and within 3 games of first place.  Fans can take heart in knowing that Martin, EE, and Bautista will not continue to flounder around the Mendoza line.  They can take heart that the inconsistency shown by both Sanchez and Norris is because they are both under 22-years old, and not because they can’t pitch.  They can take heart in knowing that for his career R.A. Dickey has a 4.94 ERA in April, and a 3.84 ERA in all other months.

But most of all, fans can take heart in the fact that the team has done this before.  It was only last season that a wildly inconsistent Blue Jay club finished April with a losing record of 12-14, and found themselves near the bottom of the division trailing the first place Yankees.

That team responded with a 21-9 May.

With 16 of 29 games in May scheduled to be played at home, I wouldn’t count out this years team doing the same.

The Week That Was: Week 3

Weekly Things 27 April 2015 | 0 Comments

Romero

So long Ricky…

 

Every Monday during the 2015 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 3.

Week 3: April 20 – April 26

Record: 3 – 3

Season-to-date: 9 – 10

AL East: T-4th, 2 GB of New York/Tampa Bay

Wild Card: 2 GB of 2nd Wild Card (New York/Tampa Bay)

1. A Tale of Two Teams

The week began with Toronto looking like a contender.  In three straight wins over the Orioles the Jays were hitting (24 runs on 32 hits and 6 HR), pitching (starters went 2-0 with a 3.26 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, and 6.4 IP per start), and playing exceptional defense.  The team played with emotion, came through in the clutch, and looked like they were about to go on a big roll.  They headed to Tampa Bay on Thursday night in a tie for first place in the AL East.  But then came the Tampa series, a series in which the Jays emerged looking like a pretender.  They couldn’t hit (6 runs on 17 hits and 3 HR), couldn’t pitch (starters went 0-2 with a 6.75 ERA, 1.85 WHIP, and 5.7 IP per start, and the bullpen imploded), and they looked lost in the field.  The team looked flat, collapsed when it mattered most, and looked like they may be in danger of hitting the skids on an extended losing streak.  They left Tampa Bay in a tie for last place in the AL East.  But don’t worry – Toronto doesn’t face the Rays again until June 22nd, which is a good thing.  Toronto is 1-6 against Tampa so far this season, and 8-4 against everybody else.

2. Too Early to Panic

Yes the team looked beyond hopeless in Tampa Bay, but they always do.  Yes the starting pitching has been inconsistent, the offense has looked shaky at times, and the manager may be relying far too heavily on young bullpen arms Osuna and Castro (who are already showing signs of cracking).  But there are three reasons why it is too early to panic.

1 – The Jays have played 19 games and have yet to put their full lineup on the field.  The return of Michael Saunders coincided with the injury to Jose Bautista.

2 – Despite the shaky start, the AL East appears very winnable.  The Jays are only 2 GB of first.

3 – They look really good in comparison to other preseason favourites.  Cleveland is 6-11, Seattle is 7-11, and Washington is 7-12 and already 7 games behind the Mets!

There’s still plenty of time to get things right, and the fact that no AL East team is off to a great start is encouraging.  Stay calm.

3. In With the New, Out With the Old

The Blue Jays made history on Saturday, becoming the first major league team to have three Canadian born players in the starting lineup.  Rusell Martin and Dalton Pompey were finally joined by offseason acquisition Michael Saunders, who made his Blue Jay debut.  Saunders went 0-6 with a walk in two games, but was a welcome sight to Jays fans eager to see another Canadian perform at the big league level.  However, on the same day that Saunders debuted, the Jays said goodbye to former ace Ricky Romero, releasing the lefty after several injury plagued minor league years.  It was a sad end for Romero, who established himself as the teams ace by going 42-29 with a 3.60 ERA from 2009-2011, including an All-Star appearance and a top-10 finish in AL Cy Young voting.  Things went sideways for Ricky in 2012 and other than four terrible appearances in 2013 he never set foot on a Blue Jay mound again.  His release means that every member of what was once expected to be Toronto’s core are now gone: Romero, Arencibia, Lawrie, Snider, and Lind.

Player of the Week

Drew Hutchison, SP

Josh Donaldson put together another solid week (.375, 1 HR, 4 RBI, 2 SB), but the nod this week goes to Hutch.  In his lone start he completely shut down Baltimore, taking a perfect game into the 6th and finishing with 8 IP, 2 ER, 4 H, 0 BB, and 7 K.

Down on the Farm

A look at how the minor league affiliates are doing

AAA – Buffalo: 12 – 5, 1st place

AA – New Hampshire: 9 – 9, 5th place

A+ – Dunedin: 9 – 9, T-3rd

A – Lansing: 12 – 6 , 1st place

The Look Ahead

The road trip continues with a full seven game slate.

April 27-29 at Boston

April 30 – May 3 at Cleveland

The Game That Had It All

Upper Deck Insight 22 April 2015 | 0 Comments

Jose Bautista;

image from Canadian Press

 

Quite the ballgame at the ol’ dome last night.  It may have been a dark and dreary Tuesday night outside, but inside the Jays and Orioles were turning up the heat old style.

The Jays 13-6 win had it all.

If you like offense, you were happy.  There were 19 runs scored on a combined 28 hits.  The Jays knocked out 16 hits, including 5 doubles and 3 home runs.  Edwin Encarnacion hit two of those bombs, including an absolutely mammoth blast to the fifth deck in left field.

Prefer defense?  The unbelievable Kevin Pillar made yet another highlight reel catch, robbing Adam Jones of extra bases in the 7th, saving two runs, and turning the catch into a double play in the process.   There was also some not-so-good defensive plays, with three errors, and a few other plays that very well could have been called errors.  Or “airs” as Buck Martinez would say…

There was some great baserunning, with Dalton Pompey scoring from third on a ground ball to short, and speedster Dioner Navarro stretching a double into a triple (technically it was a double plus a base on an error, but let’s give him the benefit).

There was the return of former fan-favourite Travis Snider to Toronto, and the mind-boggling reaction of thousands of fans to welcome him back with a chorus of boo’s.

And of course, there were some heated emotions.  Once again a Baltimore Oriole pitcher threw a pitch behind the head of Jose Bautista, who promptly turned around and belted a 2-run home run to deep centre.  The real fireworks began in between innings, with Bau and Adam Jones exchanging pleasantries.  It looked as if a brawl was imminent, but cooler heads prevailed and the rest of the game played without incident.  After the game, Gregg Zaun ran his mouth a bit, calling the Blue Jays (for all intents and purposes) soft for not hitting an Oriole in return.  If Zaun has his way, Adam Jones will be beaned with a 90+ MPH fastball tonight, in a “don’t mess with us” move by Aaron Sanchez.  Will that be productive for anybody involved?  No, especially because Sanchez would likely be made a example with a suspension by MLB.

Believe it or not, last night’s game even had some pitching.  Mark Buehrle wasn’t great, but he was good enough, notching a quality start to go to 3-0.  And Marco Estrada struck out the side in the ninth, and looked very good doing it.

Oh – and how could I forget the return to Toronto of Buck “Blanche” Showalter?  Nobody in baseball looks angrier, grumpier, and downright more crotchety than the 85 year old woman managing the O’s.

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The Jays sit at 7-7 after last night’s epic.  Let’s hope for something similar tonight.

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