The Angel and the Devil

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It’s May 13th.  We are 36 games into the 2016 season, and we have absolutely no idea who the Toronto Blue Jays are.

With 18 wins and 18 losses, the Jays haven’t exactly been bad but they certainly haven’t been good either.  In fact, they have basically been behaving exactly like a .500 team should – great stretches followed by bad stretches.  Days when the starting pitching has been great, the bullpen has been awful.  Days when the hitting catches fire, the pitching lets them down.  Nothing is clicking.

So just who are these guys?

This situation reminds me of an old cartoon, one where a guy has an angel sitting on one shoulder and a devil on the other.  The angel is inherently optimistic, believes things are OK, and wants to look for the light.  The devil is a pessimist, looking for danger and trouble.

So what would the angel and the devil have to say about the 2016 Jays so far?  Let’s find out.

The Devil

(I imagine him with a raspy voice, smoking a huge cigar, and spitting)

Things are not looking good and they will not get better.

First you have the offense.  In this day and age, the mid-30’s (typically 33 or 34) is when a player begins to decline (or sees his decline accelerate).  The Jays have a bunch of these guys who are struggling mightily:

– Jose Bautista (35) is off to a miserable start to the season, hitting .208 with a .789 OPS, and is on pace for 135 strikeouts which would shatter his career high.

– Edwin Encarnacion (33) is hitting .245 with a .739 OPS and has a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 2.62, far and away the highest since his rookie season in 2005.

– Russell Martin (33) has an abysmal .160 average and .391 OPS (dead last among all AL players with 100 plate appearances), and he has struck out 39 times to only 6 walks.

Are they all just slumping badly at the same time or is the start of an inevitable age-driven regression?

Then you have Troy Tulowitzki, who is a shell of his former All-Star self.  He is hitting a mere .173, has an OPS+ of 70 (meaning he is providing about 70% of the offense of an average player), has 39 strikeouts, has failed to come through in a bunch of clutch situations, and his defense has dropped off tremendously of late.  He is on pace to commit 27 errors, which would nearly triple his career high.  He is only 31 years old, so it might not be age regression, but perhaps his injury history has finally caught up to him – or maybe his amazing career numbers were fully due to the Coors Field effect.

In terms of pitching, the bullpen outside of Osuna is terrible.  Brett Cecil looks lost, Drew Storen looks horrendous, and it’s only a matter of time until the chronically injured (Gavin Floyd) or the kids with no experience (Biagini, Girodo) falter.

And seriously – how long can J.A. Happ keep this up?

The bottom line is that the offense is permanently broken, the bullpen is a mess, and the rotation is bound to come back to earth soon.  An under .500 season is inevitable.  Sell everybody while you still can!

The Angel

Not so fast.

There are many, many reasons to be excited about this team.

Yes, it’s true – there’s no denying that the hitting has been bad.  The Jays have scored 145 runs.  Through 36 games last season they had already scored 189.  They are also striking out a ton.  As a team the Jays have struck out 324 times, which puts them on pace for 1,458 (as compared to 1,151 in 2015).

And yes it’s also true that the bullpen has been responsible for losing 7 games in which the Jays were tied or ahead in the 8th inning.  They have looked shaky at best.  And yes R.A. Dickey has been quite bad (to put it mildly) through the first six weeks.

But despite all of that, Toronto is a .500 team.  If you were to tell me on Opening Day, that come mid-May Bautista, Edwin, Tulo, Goins, Martin, Cecil, Storen, and Dickey would be struggling mightily, Colabello would be suspended for half the year, and that team defense would be responsible for several losses (errors, passed balls, etc.) I would have bet that the Blue Jays would be in dead last, at least 6-8 games below .500.

Yet here we are, 18-18, third place in the AL East and not far behind the leaders.

That alone is reason for optimism, but there’s more.

Bautista is going to hit.  For a guy that takes such good care of his body and has a six year track record of success, he suddenly won’t hit near the Mendoza line.  Plus, with both he and Encarnacion in a contract year, huge second halves are possible, if not likely.

Before this season, Russel Martin had a career OPS of .757.  Even if we factor in regression due to age and wear and tear, an OPS of .650 is reasonable.  His current OPS is .391

Tulowitzki might be feeling the effects of leaving Colorado.  Maybe his body is breaking down due to years of injury.  Maybe he misses his old glove.  Whatever the case, he is not a .174 hitter.  A closer look at his batted ball stats tell a similar story.  His line drive % is down significantly (from 22% to 7%) and his fly ball % is up significantly (from 37% to 50%).  On it’s own that is not great news, but his infield fly ball rate is actually down materially from previous years (from 13% to 5%), and his soft hit ball rate (balls that are classified as coming off the bat at soft speeds – think infield dribblers, flares, or lazy pop ups) is right on par with his career rate (around 15%).  So while he’s not exactly scorching the ball and is a victim of bad luck, he’s also not completely whiffing either.  All of which suggests that better days should be ahead.  We might not see the 2014 version of Tulo again (.340 AVG, 1.035 OPS) but we should at least see a non-corpse version of Tulo.

Drew Storen has a track record that suggests he isn’t as bad as he has shown, and Brett Cecil had similar struggles last year early in the season before turning things around significantly.  Dickey is a proven second half pitcher, and while it’s very likely that Happ / Sanchez / Estrada won’t keep up this early pace, if their regression is timed with the turnaround of the bullpen, it might work out well.

And we haven’t even mentioned the imminent return of Devon Travis, whose bat should be light years ahead of Goins.

All in, about 50% of the Blue Jays roster has played like garbage, but the team is not dead and buried.

In fact, they are very  much alive.

I don’t know about you, but I’m listening to the Angel.  Things will be fine.

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