The Fan is back! For those of you wondering what happened to this blog and why I abandoned it during the greatest stretch of games this season, have no fear. I was away for a week in Calgary, taking a break from everything. I contemplated writing a few posts from the road, but thought it may be better to take a full week off as nothing more than a pure fan. Instead of watching each pitch, each at-bat, and each inning with a critical eye on the performance of the team, on the state of the minor league system, and on the issues of sustainability, depth, or expectations, I did something novel: I simply watched the games.
Of course I still worried about certain aspects of the team, but for the most part I shut my mind off and watched the Blue Jays as nothing more than a huge fan.
And from that experience, came these thoughts:
Edwin Encarnacion is unreal
For those of you who play fantasy baseball, you probably read a lot of negativity and skepticism about Mr. Encarnacion as you prepared for your drafts. The prevaling thought was that the wrist surgery he underwent at the end of last season would sap his power and thus destroy his value. For a while, the criticism looked accurate. At the end of April EE had just 2 HR, an OPS of only .747 and twice as many strikeouts as walks. It was ugly.
But then he exploded. In his past 22 games, beginning on May 6th against the Phillies, Edwin has destroyed the baseball. His stats hardly make sense: 14 HR, 27 RBI, 19 Runs, .314 average, .359 OBP, .872 SLG, 1.231 OPS. Even after his slow start, he now sits in the top-10 in the AL in the following categories: HR (2nd), RBI (T-2nd), 2B (T-10th), Total Bases (2nd), OPS (5th), WAR (6th). It has been a remarkable turnaround, and it is no surprise that in those 22 games the Jays have gone 17-5.
He is simply on fire right now, and his confidence is contagious, as the entire team looks loose and inspired during his at-bats. He is a treat to watch.
Casey Janssen = MVP?
In this case the P stands for pitcher, and why wouldn’t he be? Before his return the Jays bullpen was in tatters with guys pitching out of position and in roles they were not accustomed to. As a result, normally reliable relievers such as Santos, Delabar, Loup, and Cecil were getting knocked around and blowing games. But once Janssen returned, things have turned around in a hurry.
In nine appearances, Casey is 8 for 8 in save opportunities, and has yet to allow a run. He has pitched 9 innings, allowing only 6 hits and a single walk, while striking out 5. Opponents are mustering a .188 average against him, and a paltry .431 OPS. More impressive, however, has been the calmness that has overtaken the bullpen since his return. It’s impossible to tell whether all of that can be attributed to his influence, but most of it definitely can. Virtually every single reliever has performed remarkably better since his return, and that is no coincidence.
What a Lineup!
It has gone through many variations, injuries, and slumps, but as currently constructed the Blue Jays lineup is outstanding. Against righties, the top-5 of Reyes, Cabrera, Bautista, Lind, and Encarnacion might be the best in all of baseball. When facing a lefty starter, Gibby has massaged the order to protect Lind and allow for the huge bat of Juan Francisco to get in the lineup by moving Lawrie to second base, where he has been just as solid defensively as he is at third. (By the way – for supposedly being such an awful fielder, Francisco has been great at 3B. What an arm!). The addition of Anthony Gose at the bottom of the lineup as been great as well, as his speed is playing havoc with opponents and his outfield defense has been phenomenal.
It likely won’t last forever, but right now there really are no weak spots.
Reyes the Best
I, like most Jays fans, felt ripped off last year as we didn’t get to see Jose Reyes at his best. When he returned from his ankle injury he was very obviously not himself, running with a limp and not able to generate his normal bat speed. This season, after another DL stint and some time to recover, he has finally taken off. In his past 19 games he is hitting .342 with a .412 OBP, has scored 18 runs, and has stolen 9 bases. His season batting average has risen from .176 to .260, and his season OBP from .253 to .333. He even leads the league in an unofficial stat – smiles. Seriously – he is constantly happy, and his enthusiasm has been huge for the team.
While Janssen’s return stabilized the bullpen, it’s hard to put a finger on what has solidified the rotation. My theory is the stability of a fixed schedule. April was a month full of off days and inconsistency. Questions lingered after each full turn: what is wrong with Morrow? Can Dickey figure it out? Will McGowan stay or will he go? What happens when Happ comes back?
Well, each of those has been answered. The lack of off days in May has set a firm 5-man rotation with little room for skipping starts. Morrow is hurt again, but Dickey has emerged as an ace once more. McGowan’s move to the bullpen has been huge, and opened up a spot for Happ who has been pretty good. Through two starts, new 5th starter Liam Hendriks has also been decent. The rotation just finished a stretch where they won 8 straight games. They have been a very pleasant surprise.
Winning is Contagious
The Blue Jays have won 9 straight games, 12 of 13, and 19 of 24. They sit at 32-22 and in first place in the AL East. They have won five consecutive series, and what’s most impressive is the quality of the opposition. Yes some of the teams have been struggling thus far in 2014, but let’s take a step back and remember that Cleveland, Texas, Boston, Oakland, and Tampa Bay were all playoff teams last season (technically Texas didn’t make the playoffs – only game 163 but we’ll let that slide), and the A’s were the best and hottest team in baseball coming into that series.
As is the truth in any winning sreak, the Jays are winning games that they probably shouldn’t, the most obvious being last night. Hendriks allowed only 3 hits in 6 innings, but was hit very, very hard. On any other day, several of the balls crushed by Rays hitters would have fallen in for extra bases, but other-worldly defense by Gose, Cabrera, and Lawrie saved the day. To win on a walk-off error is incredibly rare, but when Gose drives in Pillar – two guys who started this year in Buffalo – from first on a bunt that makes it halfway to the pitchers mound, you know that something special is happening with this team.
Bottom line – maybe I should go to Alberta more often…