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

nice-things

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.

hoegler-1

hoegler-2

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

skovs79

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

The Sanchez Conundrum

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Aaron Sanchez is one of the best starting pitchers in the American League.  He is first in winning percentage (.917), first in ERA (2.71), seventh in WAR (3.5), first in quality start percentage (81%), and tenth in WHIP (1.13).  At this stage in the season, he has to be considered one of the front runners for the AL Cy Young award.

But he will not win the award, because Aaron Sanchez is now officially moving to the bullpen.

We don’t know for certain when he will be shifted from a member of the rotation to a member of the relief corps, but we know for certain that he will be shifted.  Quite obviously my opinion on the matter means nothing, and many writers both more influential and better than myself have already weighed in.

But I’m going to share my two cents anyways: I understand the decision, but I don’t agree with it.

Here is why I understand the decision: Aaron Sanchez is one of the most important members of the Toronto Blue Jays.  He is young, he is talented, and he has the potential to be an ace pitcher for many years to come.  Protecting his arm from injury is of the utmost importance to the future of the franchise.  If limiting his innings by removing him from the rotation is how Ross Atkins, Mark Shapiro, and the rest of the Blue Jays braintrust want to proceed, then so be it.  They have access to all kinds of performance monitoring data and are closer to the situation than anybody else.

The Verducci Effect, named after SI writer Tom Verducci, states that pitchers under the age of 25 with large inning jumps year-over-year, have an increased risk of arm injury.  The theory was largely predicated on the heavy workload and subsequent collapse of Cubs pitchers Mark Prior and Kerry Wood.  But the theory has been largely debunked in recent years.  There are many variables that can determine injury risk – body type, height, delivery, velocity, stamina – that narrowing everything down to a count of innings is absurd.

No two innings are the same, yet all are accounted for identically.  A pitcher can have a 1-2-3 inning on four pitches, or struggle through a 30-pitch inning with several base runners and heavy pressure.  Clearly those are different situations, yet both count as one inning pitched.  Simply deducting last year’s total from this year’s total to arrive at an innings increase is misleading.

Sanchez’s previous career innings high of 133.1 was set in 2014 (split between the majors and minors).  He has now reached 139.1 innings pitched.  For some people, that rings alarm bells.  But consider:

  • He is bigger and stronger than in previous seasons thanks to a rigorous off-season workout program conducted with Marcus Stroman
  • He has faced very few high stress situations
  • He has thrown a total of 2,078 pitches (as compared to 2,101 in his 2014 season), suggesting he is more efficient than in years past
  • As a starting pitcher Sanchez has an established routine that will not exist with a move to the bullpen

The other question to ask is where will Sanchez fit in?  After struggling to develop a bullpen identity all season long, Gibbons has finally found something that works with an endgame of Grilli and Osuna.  Does Sanchez supplant Grilli as the 8th inning guy?  Does he become a multi-inning relief beast?  Does he pitch the 7th?  Until those questions can be answered I’m not sure moving him makes sense.

This whole debate is eerily similar to what happened in Washington a few seasons ago.  In 2012 the Washington Nationals won 98 games – the most in baseball.  They did it largely on the arm of Stephen Strasburg who went 15-6 with a 3.16 ERA.  However, concerns over his workload (159.1 innings) led the Nats to shut him down in early September, meaning he wasn’t available for the playoffs.  Not surprisingly, Washington lost in the first round.  Though they have had good teams in the years that followed, 2012 was their best shot at a World Series.

In 2016, the Jays are tooth and nail to make the playoffs for the second year in a row.  Though their window for contention will not close at the end of the season, there is a very real possibility that it narrows considerably as both Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion may be in different uniforms.  Like Strasburg in 2012, Sanchez is dominating big league hitters.  Like Strasburg in 2012, Sanchez is 23 years old.

But, and this is a HUGE but, unlike Strasburg in 2012, Sanchez has a much broader body of work behind him.  Coming into the 2012 season, Strasburg had pitched professionally for parts of three seasons, compiling a total of 186.2 innings across six levels (Arizona Fall League, A, A+, AA, AAA, MLB):

Year Age Tm Lg Lev IP
2009 20 Phoenix AZFL Fal 19.0
2010 21 Harrisburg EL AA 22.0
2010 21 Syracuse IL AAA 33.1
2010 21 WSN NL MLB 68.0
2011 22 Hagerstown SALL A 6.1
2011 22 Potomac CARL A+ 3.0
2011 22 Harrisburg EL AA 6.0
2011 22 Syracuse IL AAA 5.0
2011 22 WSN NL MLB 24.0
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 8/3/2016.

 

Coming into the 2016 season, Aaron Sanchez has pitched professionally for parts of six seasons, compiling a total of 514.2 innings across eight levels (Arizona Fall League, Rookie League, A-, A, A+, AA, AAA, MLB):

Year Age Tm Lg Lev IP
2010 17 Blue Jays GULF Rk 19.0
2010 17 Auburn NYPL A- 6.0
2011 18 Bluefield APPY Rk 42.2
2011 18 Vancouver NORW A- 11.2
2012 19 Lansing MIDW A 90.1
2013 20 Dunedin FLOR A+ 86.1
2013 20 Salt River AZFL Fal 23.1
2014 21 New Hampshire EL AA 66.0
2014 21 Buffalo IL AAA 34.1
2014 21 TOR AL MLB 33.0
2015 22 Blue Jays GULF Rk 2.0
2015 22 Dunedin FLOR A+ 2.2
2015 22 Buffalo IL AAA 5.0
2015 22 TOR AL MLB 92.1
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 8/3/2016.

 

That is nearly three times the workload that Strasburg had, spread out over twice as many years.  The argument that Sanchez doesn’t have sufficient mileage built up in his arm to withstand a large innings increase seems very thin.

As is well known, Washington did not win the World Series in 2012.   Without Sanchez in the rotation it may prove difficult for the Blue Jays to win in 2016.

But if there is some cause for hope, consider this:

Back in spring training there were two key questions facing Toronto’s pitching staff.  The first was whether Drew Storen or Roberto Osuna would open the season in the closer role.  The second was whether Aaron Sanchez or Jesse Chavez would win a rotation spot.  Toronto’s management chose Osuna and Sanchez.

Without a doubt they made the right decision back then.

Here’s hoping they made the right decision now.

Summing Up the Deadline

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It was a whirlwind week for the Blue Jays pitching staff.

In a span of seven days Toronto rid themselves of three of their worst relievers (Drew Storen, Jesse Chavez, Franklin Morales), brought in four new pitchers (Joaquin Benoit, Scott Feldman, Mike Bolsinger, Francisco Liriano), and confirmed the controversial decision to move staff ace and potential Cy Young candidate Aaron Sanchez to the bullpen (more on that later).

Now take a breath.

At risk of sounding like the ultimate homer, I like the trades.  Drew Storen was terrible this year, and he didn’t look like he was going to snap out of his funk.

Split ERA G IP H ER HR BB SO WHIP SO/W
April/March 10.13 10 8.0 14 9 3 1 7 1.875 7.00
May 3.86 11 9.1 11 4 1 3 12 1.500 4.00
June 5.56 12 11.1 12 7 1 4 10 1.412 2.50
July 9.00 7 7.0 9 7 1 3 4 1.714 1.33
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 8/3/2016.

 

As obvious from the above table, there was nothing positive happening for Storen.  Nothing was trending in the right direction.  In fact, it can be argued that he was actually getting worse as the season progressed.

Jesse Chavez, while not as big of a train wreck as Storen, was also a huge disappointment.  He had a decent April (1.93 ERA), but was a disaster the rest of the way, allowing 19 ER in 32 IP (5.34 ERA).  There are 27 pitchers in the AL that have inherited at least 20 runners.  Of those 27, Chavez has the second worst rate of allowing those runners to score (48.4%).  He also surrendered nine home runs, the third most of any relief pitcher in the AL.

Yes Benoit has had a tough year thus far (5.18 ERA with 5.5 walks per 9 in Seattle), but he brings experience (four years of playoff exposure) and a decent track record to suggest he might be able to turn things around.  His 0.00 ERA in four innings as a Jay is a good start (though the four walks do not bode well).  Feldman was pitching well in Houston and offers Toronto help as a reliever or spot starter.  Bolsinger adds emergency depth.

The real gamble for the Jays is the return to form of Francisco Liriano.  After three great seasons in Pittsburgh he has come crashing down hard in 2016 with a 5.46 ERA and a league leading 69 walks.  However, as has been written elsewhere, his velocity and pitch selection have not dropped, meaning his stuff is still there.  He just needs to pitch better.  Maybe reuniting him with Russell Martin gives him the spark he needs.  Maybe it doesn’t.  But let’s be honest – Hutchison was never going to succeed in Toronto so why not take a shot at a guy who has the potential to bolster the staff and deliver in the playoffs?  And to bring back two quality prospects to boot?  Not a bad deal by any means.

Perhaps most impressive is the fact that Shapiro and Atkins added salary as a result of these trades.  More encouraging was Shapiro saying yesterday that the team can still afford to be very aggressive during the August waiver trade window.

For a guy with a reputation of selling and penny-pinching at every opportunity, that is music to Jays fans ears.

 

The Week That Was: Week 17

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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 17.

Week 17: July 25 – July 31

Record: 4 – 2

Season-to-date: 59 – 46

AL East: 2nd, 0.5 games behind Baltimore

Wild Card: 1 ahead of Boston (WC1) 2 ahead of Detroit (WC2)

  1. First Place!

The most recent edition of the “biggest series of the year” took place last week when the first place Baltimore Orioles came to town.  With Toronto sitting a mere 1.5 games back, first place was up for grabs.  And for the first time since April 5, the Jays moved atop the AL East after back-to-back wins on Friday and Saturday.  Toronto jumped out early on Friday and held on for a 6-5 win, before thumping Baltimore into submission on Saturday.  Russell Martin and Kevin Pillar delivered key hits while J.A. Happ continues to dominate in 2016.  He held the Orioles to 1 run on 3 hits over 7 innings while striking out 11, improving his record to a crazy 14-3.  Unfortunately their time on top of the division was brief because of…..

  1. ….More Bullpen Woes

First some clarification: the Blue Jays bullpen has been very good of late.  Osuna, Grilli, and Biagini are consistently excellent day in and day out.  Bo Schultz has looked good in the 12 innings he has

pitched.  Brett Cecil has not allowed a run in five straight appearances.  But a major league bullpen is typically comprised of seven relievers, and I only listed five names above.  The final two spots in Toronto’s pen have been a revolving door of ineptitude this year.  Aaron Loup, Pat Venditte, Ryan Tepera, and Chad Girodo have been either mediocre or bad.  Joaquin Benoit has looked decent in his first few innings, but Jesse Chavez and Franklin Morales have not.  The two combined to give Baltimore the win (and first place) on Sunday by allowing four runs in the 12th

inning.  Chavez allowed his 9th HR of the season, a three run shot to Adam Jones, after Morales bungled his way through the beginning of the inning.  Thus far, the Atkins and Shapiro era has shown fans a willingness to move on from players and not hang on to them due to contract or track record (see Storen, Drew).  Is it only a matter of time before we can say so long to Chavez and Morales?

  1. Health Concerns

That the Jays are only a half game out of first has to be seen as somewhat of a miracle considering the health issues that have seemingly plagued this team all year.  It started way back in the spring with Edwin Encarnacion and has continued on to this past weekend.  Bautista was lost for a month with turf toe; Martin went down with a sore knee; Estrada and Cecil went to the DL; Tulo and Donaldson have been battling soreness and injury; Travis missed the first few months of the year.  The question of Aaron Sanchez’s arm has been hanging over the team all year long.  Now, the latest injury – a chip fracture on the right thumb of Troy Tulowitzki after he was hit by a pitch on Sunday afternoon.  Just when he was hitting his stride the Jays will lose Tulo anywhere from a day or two, up to two-plus weeks.  For a team with very little infield depth, let’s hope Tulo is back sooner rather than later.

Player of the Week

Russell Martin, C

Finally starting to swing the bat like he normally does: 5 for 14, 7 BB, 3 2B, 5 R, 3 RBI, .357 / .591 / .571 / 1.162

Down on the Farm

A look at how the minor league affiliates are doing

AAA – Buffalo: 55 – 54, 5th place, 12 GB

AA – New Hampshire: 47 – 60, 5th place, 23.5 GB

A+ – Dunedin: First Half: 33 – 36, 5th place; Second Half: 24 – 14, T-1st place

A – Lansing: First Half: 36 – 34, T-5th place; Second Half: 19 – 18, 3rd place, 5 GB

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

The Look Ahead

Tough week ahead, with four in Houston, a place where Toronto is 2-9 in the past three seasons

August 1 – 4 at Houston

August 5 – 7 at Kansas City

The Week That Was: Week 16

rockies-blue-jays-troy-tulowitzki

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 16.

Week 16: July 18 – July 24

Record: 3 – 2

Season-to-date: 55 – 44

AL East: 3rd, 3 games behind Baltimore

Wild Card: 0.5 ahead of Houston

  1. Pitching Magic

Toronto came home on Friday, winners of three straight and close to taking over top spot in the AL East.  They were then promptly throttled by the Seattle Mariners, losing 2-1 and 14-5 to fall back to three games behind Baltimore.  Entering Sunday the Jays were reeling and really needed a huge performance from J.A. Happ to stop the bleeding.  And as he has more often than not this year, he delivered.  Happ, Cecil, Grilli, and Osuna combined to toss a 1-hit shutout, limiting the Mariners to only six total baserunners.  Not a single Mariner reached third base.  The pitching performance was huge not only because it prevented a sweep, but also because it rescued Toronto’s offense from a miserable weekend.  Including Sunday’s win, the Jays managed only 7 runs on 16 hits, looking nothing like the juggernaut that obliterated the Diamondbacks.

  1. So Long Storen

The

off-season acquisition of Drew Storen was greeted by much excitement by Jays fans.  With the trend being to create incredibly strong bullpens, the Jays looked to have constructed a pen to rival the Royals and Yankees for effectiveness.  After all, Storen entered 2016 with a career 3.02 ERA and 95 saves, and would make the back end of Toronto’s pen unstoppable when combined with Osuna and Cecil.  To say it didn’t work out would be an understatement.  Storen struggled all season long.  After allowing three ER on Saturday to drop his ERA to 6.21, the Jays finally pulled the plug on Drew, designating him for assignment.  Osuna still looks good and Grilli has been a revelation, but Storen’s failure leaves the bullpen in a great state of flux.  With the trade deadline now just one week away, pitching help should be priority #1 for Atkins and Shapiro.

  1. Tulo Lives!

To put it bluntly, Troy Tulowitzki was awful early this season.  He was hitting .107 with a .426 OPS after his first eight games, and by May 27 he found himself on the 15-day DL sporting a .204 average and ,673 OPS.  He was striking out a ton and making several uncharacteristic errors in the field.  But before anybody could even think about the word “regression”, Tulo has turned things around in a big, big way.  Since the calendar switched to July, he has been on fire, posting a .338 average, .902 OPS, and 6 RBI, with 6 extra base hits.  He also recorded a hit in every game last week to extend his hitting streak to nine games.  A healthy and productive Tulowitzki has yet to play at the same time as

a healthy and productive Bautista.  With Jose set to return this week, the two of them could be key for a charge to the top.

Player of the Week

Marcus Stroman, SP

Huge bounceback effort for Stroman in Arizona: 8 IP, 1 W, 8 H, 0 BB, 6 K, 1.13 ERA, 1.00 WHIP

Down on the Farm

A look at how the minor league affiliates are doing

AAA – Buffalo: 52 – 50, 4th place, 12 GB

AA – New Hampshire: 45 – 55, 5th place, 22.5 GB

A+ – Dunedin: First Half: 33 – 36, 5th place; Second Half: 18 – 13, 2nd place, 2 GB

A – Lansing: First Half: 36 – 34, T-5th place; Second Half: 17 – 14, 3rd place,

2.5 GB

A (Short Season) – Vancouver: 16 – 21, 4th, 3 GB

The Look Ahead

July ends with six more at home, including a showdown with the Orioles

July 25 – 27 vs. San Diego

July 29 – 31 vs. Baltimore

Sizing Up the Red Sox

redsoxfans

As the MLB season enters the final week of July the contenders are starting to separate themselves from the pretenders.  In the AL East, it seems apparent that a three team dogfight is emerging between the Jays, Orioles, and Red Sox.  I took a look at how the Jays schedule has compared to the Orioles thus far a few weeks back, and today I will do the same with Boston.

The Boston Red Sox are a very good baseball team (sadly).  There is no denying that.  They have also been ahead of the Blue Jays virtually the entire season.  But are they really better than Toronto?

Offensively, a case can be made that they are.  They lead the majors with 529 runs scored and an .836 team OPS, compared to Toronto’s 478 runs and .773 OPS.  The Jays have out-homered Boston (137-118), but Boston has hit .289 with runners in scoring position compared to Toronto’s .258.  Advantage Red Sox.

But let’s not forget that the Blue Jays got off to an atrocious start this season.  Let’s re-evaluate those numbers from June onward:

jays boston june july

Suddenly it’s the Jays offense that seems more fearsome.

On the pitching side of the ball it has been all Jays:

jays boston pitching

Other than bullpen ERA, Toronto trumps Boston everywhere.

So why are the Jays behind the Red Sox in the standings?  Sure some of it is due to Toronto’s inconsistent and stuttering start.  But a lot of it can also be blamed on the schedules the two teams have played.

Including the series being played this weekend (Toronto against Seattle, Boston against Minnesota) both teams have played 31 series in 2016.  In series played against opponents who were in first place at the time, Toronto sports a .533 winning percentage compared to Boston’s .526.  Against opponents who were in last place in their divisions at the time Toronto’s win % is .833 and Boston’s is .643.

The major difference?

The Blue Jays have only played six games (over two series) against last place teams.  That’s it – a four game set against the Twins in May, and the recently completed two game stop in Arizona.  The Red Sox, on the other hand, have played a whopping 28 games against last place teams (over 10 series).  That difference is staggering. (For reference, the Jays have played 30 games against division leaders.  Boston?  Only 19.)

To go one step further, you can look at the quality of the opposing pitchers faced.  The top-10 pitchers in terms of WAR in the AL (excluding Aaron Sanchez who, obviously, can’t pitch against Toronto) are:

Chris Tillman, Danny Salazar, Michael Fulmer, Carlos Carrasco, Cole Hamels, Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, Corey Kluber, Colby Lewis, Rich Hill, Masahiro Tanaka

The Blue Jays have faced that group 13 times, compared to only 10 times for Boston.  In terms of interleague play, while both teams had to face Madison Bumgarner, the Jays also had to oppose Clayton Kershaw.  Kershaw will more than likely still be on the DL when the Red Sox head to LA in two weeks.

Is this simply sour grapes?  An exercise of a whiny Jays fan?

No

– not really, and here’s why:

This should give Jays fans a good feeling.  They have faced a much more difficult schedule and survived a bad start to sit only a game and a half back.

Want more reason for hope?

41 of Boston’s final 69 games (just under 60%) will be played

on the road.  The Red Sox are barely above .500 on the road at 21-19 (and 7 – 9 since June 1st).

47 of Toronto’s final 66 games (51.5%) will be played at home where the Jays are 27 – 20 (but 14 – 6 since June 1st).

Of course there are several other factors that will come into play.  Boston is now without its two best relievers (Kimbrel and Uehara), and their newest prize (Pomeranz) was rocked in his first start.  Toronto will get Bautista back soon, but still must answer the Sanchez question and hope that Estrada’s back holds up.  And obviously, there are still nine days until the deadline.

But boil it all down and the Jays are in a good spot.

Just keep winning.

The Week That Was: Week 15

martinreddick

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 15.

Week 15: July 11 – July 17

Record: 1 – 2

Season-to-date: 52 – 42

AL East: 3rd, 3 games behind Baltimore

Wild Card: 1 ahead of Houston

  1. Same Old Problems

The Jays were rolling heading into the All-Star break, winners of 8 of 9.  The issues that plagued the team from mid-May to early-June seemed to be a thing of the past.  And then the second half started, and back came the same old problems: a bad Marcus Stroman, an inconsistent R.A. Dickey, and a leaky bullpen.  On Friday night Stroman was staked to an early 7-3 lead but surrendered home runs to Josh Reddick, Khris Davis, and Stephen Vogt to tie the game, before Brett Cecil allowed the winning run to drop his record to 0-6.  On Saturday Dickey was rocked for three HR, turning a 2-0 lead into a 5-4 loss.  Then on Sunday it only took Jesse Chavez four pitches to allow two inherited runners to score as the Jays blew a 3-0 lead.  Thankfully they came away with the W on Sunday, but really could have won all three.  Let’s chalk it up to an All-Star break hangover, but any lasting effects might prove devastating.

  1. All-Star Success

Five Blue Jays were named to the AL All-Star team, and all that were eligible to play saw game action last Tuesday night.  Although the contributions by the Jays were negligible – Donaldson, Encarnacion, and Saunders combined to go 0 for 3 with a walk and a run scored, and Sanchez allowed a run on two hits and a walk in one inning – the American League left San Diego with a 4-2 win and home field advantage in the World Series.  While I personally disagree with making the All-Star game itself worth something as valuable as home field advantage, it was nice that for the first time in decades (literally), Toronto entered the break as a contender.  For once, the game itself actually mattered to a Blue Jays fan.

  1. David Ortiz the Troublemaker

Perhaps it’s because this is his final big league season.  Maybe it’s because he is playing so well.  It could be because he is likable and says things with a laugh and a smile.  Whatever the reason, it seems a little bit odd that nobody seems to care about what David Ortiz had to say during the All-Star festivities about Edwin Encarnacion.  For those who missed it, Ortiz – on multiple occasions – stated that Boston should pursue the Jays DH in the offseason when he becomes a free agent.  “There is no better replacement for me than Edwin,” he said, before adding “sorry Blue Jays fans.”  In a profession where even the smallest things can lead to tampering charges, it is surprising – shocking even – that this is seemingly being pushed under the rug.  Maybe it’s nothing worth fretting over, but for a star to be openly lobbying for another player while he is still under contract to another team (a division rival no less) seems upsetting.

Player of the Week

Roberto Osuna, RP

Not much to choose from in a three game week, but Osuna shut the door when called upon:  2 IP, 1 SV, 0 H, 1 BB, 2 K, 0.00 ERA, 0.50 WHIP

Down on the Farm

A look at how the minor league affiliates are doing

AAA – Buffalo: 51 – 45, 4th place, 9 GB

AA – New Hampshire: 42 – 52, 5th place, 23.5 GB

A+ – Dunedin: First Half: 33 – 36, 5th place; Second Half: 17 – 8, 1st place

A – Lansing: First Half: 36 – 34, T-5th place; Second Half: 15 – 10, 3rd place, 1 GB

A (Short Season) – Vancouver: 15 – 16, T-2nd, 1 GB

The Look Ahead

A short 5-game week

July 19 – 20 at Arizona

July 22 – 24 vs. Seattle

Halfway Home: Revisiting My 2016 Predictions

Crystal Ball

The 2016 MLB mid-season lull

is in full effect.  The Blue Jays are off until Friday night, meaning we have two straight nights of dead air ahead of us.  To help fill the empty space, today I will take a look at just how bad my 2016 predictions look so far.  It’s a good thing that I didn’t make a wager on any of these and I hope that nobody out there made bets at the best sportsbook.  If so, my apologies.

On with the show!

American League Predictions

East 2016 AL East

Thoughts: This is the tightest division in baseball – only 2 games separate Baltimore, Boston, and Toronto.  Call me a homer, but I think the Jays might be in the best position heading into the second half.  Tampa Bay will definitely not finish third as they look completely lost.  The most interesting story will be if the Yankees sell at the deadline or attempt one last charge at a playoff spot.

Central 2016 AL Central

Thoughts: Almost completely nailed this one at the break.  In a very top and bottom heavy division, Cleveland is comfortably ahead and Minnesota is miles behind.  The middle is very tight, with only 0.5 games separating Detroit, KC, and Chicago.  It’s not out of the realm of possibility that I actually sweep this division.  Shocking!

West 2016 AL West

Thoughts: Maybe I should have made a wager after all.  Texas, Houston, and Seattle as the top-3?  Perfect!  In reality, this division is not nearly as settled as it appears.  With the Astros charging and the Rangers hitting a bit of a rough patch, Houston is suddenly only 5.5 games back after a brutal April.  Oakland and LA look like afterthoughts at this point.

Wildcards

I predicted the Royals and Astros.  As it stands now the Red Sox and Blue Jays hold the two slots, but KC (4.5 GB) and Houston (2 GB) are lurking.

Stat Leaders

2016 AL Stat Leaders

Thoughts:  Of all the years I have been making these predictions, this year looks particularly ugly.  I (among many) was expecting a big year from Bautista in his contract year, but his power numbers are down across the board and now he is battling injury.  Jose Altuve as batting champ seems to be nearly automatic these days, and Kimbrel as saves leader has always been as well – except for this year.  Trailing Britton by 10 saves and now out for 4-6 weeks with a knee injury pretty much seals the deal there.  Not my finest effort.

Awards & Miscellany

MVP – Mike Trout, LAA

– Leads all

of baseball in WAR, so has as good a shot as any.

Cy Young – Chris Sale, CHW

– He started the All-Star game so that is a pretty good endorsement.  Seems to be in good shape for a Cy run.

Rookie – Byron Buxton, MIN

– No.  Oh no.  He has nearly twice the number of strikeouts as he has hits.  That is not good.

Manager – John Gibbons, TOR

– He will never get enough credit, even if the Jays do win the East.

Bounceback Player – Matt Wieters, BAL

– A .728 OPS and an All-Star birth are both good signs.

Most Disappointing Player – Justin Upton, DET

– Others may have worse numbers, but considering the expectations and the big contract, Upton’s .235 average, .670 OPS, -0.2 WAR, and 112 strikeouts takes the cake.

First Major Player Traded – Sonny Gray, OAK

– Unless you count Oswaldo Arcia, there hasn’t been a major American League player dealt yet.  Gray still seems like a good bet.

National League Predictions

East 2016 NL East

Thoughts: Again, not bad at all.  The Mets and Marlins are currently tied in the standings, and with NY’s injury woes and Miami maybe getting a second half boost from Giancarlo Stanton’s HR barrage in the Derby, there may be a chance the Mets slip to third.  I was much too high on Atlanta.

Central 2016 NL Central

Thoughts: The Cubs were an across the board favourite and haven’t disappointed.  I still think the Pirates will emerge over St. Louis for second.  The Reds are just plain awful…..

West  2016 NL West

Thoughts: I decided not to believe in the even year magic, and maybe I should have.  The Giants look strong again.  Arizona has been one of the biggest flops in baseball.

Wildcards

I predicted New York and Pittsburgh, and both teams are definitely in the mix.  It might be tough to keep the Dodgers out, but I still have a chance!

Stat Leaders

2016 NL Stat Leaders

Thoughts: Fantastic on the pitching side, though let’s be honest – picking Kershaw across the board would have been just as easy.  On the offensive side?  Not great.  It has been a bit of a down year for Bryce Harper, especially in comparison to his 2015 season, but he is only six HR back of Bryant.  Goldschmidt still has a shot in the RBI and AVG categories as well.  But unless Gordon comes back from his PED suspension running wild, he is done.

Awards

MVP – Bryce Harper, WAS

– At this point I don’t think he is in the top-5.  Kershaw, Bryant, and Bumgarner all have better shots.

Cy Young – Clayton Kershaw, LAD

– No-brainer #1.

Rookie – Corey Seager, LAD

– No-brainer #2.

Manager – Dusty Baker, WAS

– Tempted to say no-brainer #3, but you can make a case for Maddon, Bochy, or even Mattingly in Miami.

Bounceback Player – Giancarlo Stanton, MIA

– Unless his impressive home run derby performance triggers a huge resurgence, then I don’t think he wins – not with a .233 average and 107 Ks.

Most Disappointing Player – Johnny Cueto, SF

– Not even close.  He has been outstanding as a Giant, earning the start for the NL in the All-Star game.  A huge whiff.

First Major Player Traded – Carlos Gonzalez, COL

– CarGo is still a Rockie.  James Shields wins this prize.

A View From the Cheap Seats