All posts by 500LevelFan

2017 Division Previews – National League West

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

We’ll begin today with the NL West.

Defending Champion

Los Angeles Dodgers

Past Five Champions

2016 – Los Angeles

2015 – Los Angeles

2014 – Los Angeles

2013 – Los Angeles

2012 – San Francisco

Average Wins of Past Five Champions: 92.6

Best Player

Nolan Arenado, Colorado Rockies

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

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

Best Pitcher

Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers

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

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

Three Storylines For 2017

1. World Series or Bust

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

2. Rockies Revival

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

3. Can San Francisco Hang Around?

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

Interesting Stat

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

Who Should Win

Los Angeles

Who Will Win

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

Looking Back at My Blue Jay Predictions

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

  1. Jose Bautista leads the American League in HR.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Actual: A lot of bombs, none that big.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Actual: But not that huge.

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

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

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

Actual: Hahahahahaha!!!!!

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

Actual: Sadly, no.

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

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

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

Actual: No.

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

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

 

Requiem of a Season

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Playoff Magic

 

It all starts tonight.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Step One Complete: The Jays Are In

2016-celebration
Photo from Associated Press

Let’s be honest: it wasn’t pretty.

At times, it was downright ugly.

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

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

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

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

Yes, there were ugly times.

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s hope the streak continues tomorrow night.

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

strumbellas-hope

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

mlbf_85006783_th_45

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

sanchez

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

liriano

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.