Category Archives: Upper Deck Insight

Loss of a Legend

Where do I even start?

Back in October of ’85, when he was the first to meet a kneeling George Bell in left field, Toronto’s first AL East title finally secured?

Maybe October of ’89, his 2-run double in the fourth inning giving the Blue Jays the lead in the first playoff game ever hosted at SkyDome, a game doubling as my first ever in-person playoff game.

Or there was the devastating moment, that feeling of anger, frustration, and sadness in December of 1990 when he was packaged with Fred McGriff and sent to San Diego for Alomar and Carter. Or the feeling of pure elation when Mike Timlin fielded that bunt to finally crown the Jays World Series Champions, yet elation mixed with a tinge of regret knowing that he wasn’t a part of the celebration.

How about June 1993 and his triumphant return to Toronto, reclaiming his natural spot at short in the Dome’s infield? Or his sensational 5-RBI night in Game 4 of the World Series that put the Jays on the precipice of a repeat? Or the sight of him helping Joe Carter to his feet after the home run hero emerged from a dog pile at home plate?

All are worthy memories. All hold a special plate in my heart.

But when Octavio Antonio Fernandez, better known as Tony to a legion of Jays fans in the 1980’s, sadly passed away last weekend at the age of 57, none of those came to mind first.

I have spent countless hours these past few days reading tribute after tribute to Tony, and all share one common thread: his inspiration of an entire generation of Canadian baseball youth. Indeed, that is exactly where my mind went when I heard the sad news: my 8-year old self, feet firmly planted at shortstop on my house league team. Fielding grounders (mostly clean!) and trying with all my might to fire the ball underhand to first, that famous Tony-esque delivery that looked so easy but was anything but.

I was by no means a natural athlete as a kid. I was skinny, had zero power, couldn’t run fast, had very little arm strength. But I was a massive Jays fan, and seeing Tony play the game inspired me that maybe, just maybe, I could play it as well. He was skinny; he looked nothing like those behemoth sluggers who ruled the late ’80’s (the McGwire’s and Canseco’s). But man could he glide in the field. He was easily the most gifted, most natural, most awe-inspiring defender I had (or have) ever seen.

That 1989 Blue Jays team went on a crazy run in the second half of the season to catch and then surpass the Orioles and win the division. That winter, a commemorative video titled “Sky High: The Story of the 1989 Toronto Blue Jays” was released on VHS, and to say I wore that tape out would be an understatement. There is a clip in the video that focuses on Tony and his fielding ability, one that produces one of my most memorable baseball quotes of all time: “I like to field ground balls.”

It’s a simple six-word sentence, but one that always perfectly captured Tony Fernandez. He exuded nothing but pure joy when he played the game of baseball.

His tenure with the Blue Jays almost perfectly aligned with my devotion to the team when I was younger. I was a massive fan from my first baseball memories in ’85 through the 1993 World Series triumph. My interest started to wane a bit in 1994 and 1995 but it wasn’t the players strike or the Blue Jays struggles that were to blame. No, it was the fact that Tony was no longer there, no longer patrolling the infield and delivering timely hits. Instead he was wandering the baseball wilderness, and although he did have some success in Cincinnati, New York, and Cleveland, it wasn’t until his return in 1998 that my attention was captured once again. I’ll never forget a 37-year old Fernandez in 1999 making one of the most unlikely assaults on .400 in baseball history, still sitting with an average above that magical mark near the end of June. It was the perfect culmination of his career, one last out-of-nowhere All-Star appearance.

As corny as it sounds, I feel like I owe my love for the game to Tony. He has always been and (will always be) my favourite player. I own several Jays jerseys, but only one has a name and number: a powder blue #1 Fernandez shirt. I have only one sports autograph – a photo signed by Tony himself. His smiling, celebrating face has been my Twitter avatar for a decade.

At 57 he’s gone way too soon. But in the short time he was here he left an indelible mark on so many, myself included.

And though I never made the majors (missed out by just a little bit – my .240 average in Whitby house league didn’t quite make the cut), every game of catch I play to this day still starts and ends with a few Tony flips.

Always has.

And always will.

The Day Tony Came Home

Note: this story was inspired by the 1993 Jays In Real Time twitter feed.  If you’re not following that, you’re missing out.

Let’s start with a proclamation: my earliest baseball memory is from 1985.  Somewhere in the deep, dark, and dusty recesses of my brain I can still pull up the clip of the Blue Jays winning the AL East for the first time, George Bell sinking to his knees after securing the final out in shallow left field.  The first person to greet Bell and start the celebration?  Tony Fernandez.

From that day forward Tony has had a special place in my heart.  He was long and lean, I was long and lean.  He played shortstop, I played shortstop.  I remember trying to emulate (quite poorly) his underhanded flip throw across the diamond.  I remember trying to emulate (even more poorly) his batting stance, the way the bat seemingly just floated in his limp wrists before exploding through the zone.

So you can imagine my horror on December 5, 1990 when Toronto packaged Tony along with Fred McGriff – who just so happened to be my second favourite player – to San Diego for Joe Carter and Roberto Alomar.  The franchise-altering trade obviously worked out incredibly well for the Blue Jays and I quickly forgave Pat Gillick for sending my hero out of town, but I never forgot the way Fernandez looked with the Blue Jay on his chest.

Luckily I wouldn’t have to.

This past Monday – June 11 – marked the 25th anniversary of one of the happiest days of my life as a Blue Jays fan.  On that day in 1993, chasing their second straight World Series title but with a group of shortstops decimated by injury, Pat Gillick re-acquired Tony Fernandez from the New York Mets for Darrin Jackson.  In hindsight I remember this being a great and highly celebrated deal for the Jays, but my hindsight has clearly been compromised.  In reality the homecoming was viewed by many (or most) as a negative.

Darrin Jackson was acquired on the eve of the ’93 season and came with high expectations.  Sick of Derek Bell’s perceived lack of effort the Jays shipped him to San Diego, hoping that Jackson, coming off consecutive 4.4 WAR seasons, could take over the left field role left open after the departure of Candy Maldonado.  But in 46 games he only hit .216 with a .597 OPS for the Blue Jays (-0.9 WAR), so fans weren’t surprised when he was jettisoned.  What was surprising was who came back in return.

While Toronto’s left fielders and shortstops struggled that season, the starting pitching gave cause for the greatest concern, with fans clamoring for an upgrade in the rotation.  So when news broke that it was Fernandez, and not a starter, that was coming back, except for one single 14-year old kid who cheered, there was a collective “huh?” from the faithful.

And why not?  Fernandez was terrible, a shell of his former self.  He was 30-years old, batting a measly .225, and had become a liability in the field.  Even more, he was seemingly always hurt, struggling through thumb problems and then kidney stones.  Dave Perkins of the Toronto Star ridiculed the move, calling Fernandez “Mr. Migraine”.

As we know now, he was proven to be incredibly wrong.

I remember watching Tony’s first game back.  I don’t have any recollection of the game itself (a good thing, as the Jays lost 12-1 in Detroit), but I remember Tony stepping into the lineup with a single and a triple.  I remember seeing his smile as he stood on third base, happy to be back in familiar surroundings.

Fernandez took off in Toronto.  In his first three games he went 7-for-14 with a home run, three doubles, a triple, a steal, and 7 RBI.  After his first 25 games, he had raised his season average 45 points to .270 and his season OPS a whopping 128 points to .746.  He cemented his return by hitting .326 in the playoffs and setting a record for World Series RBI by a shortstop with 9.

Tony, of course, would leave Toronto after the season and bounce around the league before returning on two more occasions.  He has been retired since 2001 yet still holds Toronto’s franchise records for WAR, Defensive WAR, Games Played, Hits, and Triples.  His name hangs on the Rogers Centre Level of Excellence, and more importantly on the back of my powder blue Jays jersey.

Everybody has their major sporting moments that they remember forever.  For my dad it was Canada winning the 1972 Summit Series.  I have lived through the ’92 and ’93 World Series, the Bat Flip, the Donaldson Dash, and Olympic hockey golds in ’02, ’10, and ’14.  While those moments will remain the gold standard (until the Blue Jays win it all again), sometimes it’s the smaller stuff that matters more, those moments that mean more to you than to anybody else.

For me, that remains a Friday in 1993 when my favourite player of all time came home.

Hindsight: Reliving Past MLB Drafts

The early stages of the 2018 MLB draft are in the books.  The Blue Jays used their first pick (12th overall) on highschool SS Jordan Groshans  and their second pick (52nd overall) on Griffin Conine, son of former major leaguer Jeff Conine.  Toronto’s recent early round history has been spotty at best: in the past five drafts only one player selected in the first two rounds has reached the big leagues and he did so as a member of the Rockies (Jeff Hoffman).  Hopes are high for guys like Bo Bichette, Sean Reid-Foley, and Nate Pearson but only time will tell if those players along with this year’s selections will fit into the Success or Bust category.

As we all know by now the MLB draft is the ultimate crapshoot with many early round picks flaming out and many late round picks turning into bargains.  But with the benefit of hindsight we can easily go back and re-grade past drafts.  So to continue a 500 Level Fan tradition, let’s do just that.  To keep it simple I am using Baseball Reference’s WAR stat to rank all players.  It’s not perfect but it’s a nice, convenient stat.  So let’s take a look back at the 2013, 2008, and 2003 MLB drafts (5, 10, and 15 years ago). Armed with hindsight, which is always 20/20, we can see how the draft order might have changed knowing how careers played out.

Note – My re-ranked top-10 list doesn’t take into account things like signability issues, team needs, or draft strategy (i.e. high school vs. college). I simply re-ranked the drafted players based on career WAR (Note: Career WAR totals are as of May 31.

2013 Draft

It often takes several years for drafted players to reach the major leagues. Five years have passed since the ’13 draft, and while many of the drafted players are still young, one would expect the top talents to have found their way to the big leagues by now.

Here are the top-10 picks of the 2013 draft:

Throwing around terms like “bust” are very subjective, but I think virtually everybody can agree that Mark Appel is quite possibly the biggest draft bust in baseball history.  Drafted first overall to great acclaim by the Astros, Appel is only the third #1 pick to never reach the major leagues.  After scuffling in the minors he was dealt to the Phillies for closer Ken Giles, DFA’d in 2017 and then retired from baseball earlier this year.  Kris Bryant was hands down the best player in the draft and Jon Gray has had a nice start to his career, but other than that the rest of the top-10 leave  a lot to be desired.  Clint Frazier and Austin Meadows are just starting their careers, a few others have had cups of coffee, and the rest have yet to experience life in the majors:

Kohl Stewart – Currently in AA after being sent back from AAA and struggling with a 5.90 ERA and 1.44 WHIP.

Trey Ball – Currently struggling in AA with a 6.66 ERA and 1.68 WHIP.

Phil Bickford – Did not sign with the Jays, was re-drafted by San Francisco, traded to Milwaukee, and is currently languishing in single-A.

This is what the the top-10 looks like with the magic of hindsight, based on career WAR:

Overall, the first round wasn’t too bad with Bryant and Judge reaching superstar status, and Manaea, Gray, Anderson, and Knebel all performing well the last year or two.  Graveman, Bellinger, and Green all have been nice later round finds.  Of note, Benintendi was drafted 945th overall by Cincinnati but did not sign and re-entered the draft.

Blue Jay Focus

The 2013 draft was Toronto’s fourth under Alex Anthopoulos, and has become notable less for who was drafted than for who those players became.  The draft didn’t start well as AA’s first and second round selections were miserable.  As previously mentioned, Bickford failed to sign meaning he re-entered the draft and second round selection Clinton Hollon was twice suspended for PEDs before being released by the team in 2017.  However, Matthew Boyd (175th overall) and Kendall Graveman (235th) were part of packages that became David Price and Josh Donaldson.  Not too shabby.

Total Number of Picks: 40

Number of Players to Reach the Majors: 6

2008 Draft

The 2008 draft turned out to be a real mixed bag.  The top-10 produced All Stars, World Series Champions, and several unquestionable busts.  The good news for those GM’s is that each one of the top-10 made the majors.

Here are the top-10 picks of the 2008 draft:

Buster Posey was the real gem.  2018 marks his 10th major league season and the Giants catcher is a 5-time All-Star, has won a Rookie of the Year award, an MVP, four Silver Sluggers, a Gold Glove, and three World Series titles.  Eric Hosmer is having a nice career as well, but nobody else in the top-10 really made the leap to stardom.  Three players are no longer active:

Brian Matusz – Released by Arizona in 2017

Kyle Skipworth – Only recorded four career plate appearances

Aaron Crow – Did not sign with Washington, was re-drafted by Kansas City and is currently in the Mexican League.

With the magic of hindsight, here is a re-ranked version of the 2008 draft, based on career WAR:

What a great draft for the San Francisco Giants who added SS Brandon Crawford in the 4th round to go along with Posey.  Tanner Roark was the late-round gem, putting up a 15.5 WAR from the 753rd overall drat slot.  Jason Kipnis (San Diego), George Springer (Minnesota), and Anthony Rendon (Atlanta) did not sign with their respective teams and re-entered the 2009 draft.

Blue Jay Focus

The 2008 draft was completed under the guidance of J.P. Ricciardi, and looks pretty bad in hindsight.  In fact, it is downright ugly.

The Jays used their first round pick (17th overall) on 1B David Cooper, who played 72 games over two seasons in Toronto, putting up a career .750 OPS.  With the 63rd pick the Jays selected Kenny Wilson an OF who has yet to appear in the major leagues and is currently in Detroit’s system (his fifth organization).  The only name of note was Eric Thames, picked 219th overall, who is now hitting home runs for the Brewers.

Total Number of Picks: 44

Number of Players to Reach the Majors: 8

2003 Draft

To those who say that drafting players should be easy, may I present the 2003 top-10.  Yikes.
Without question the real success of the top-10 was Nick Markakis, taken 7th overall, and still active (and producing) with the Braves.  John Danks, Paul Maholm, and Rickie Weeks all had moderate levels of success and Delmon Young actually had a 2nd place ROY finish and a 10th place MVP finish in his career (but will forever be remembered as the guy who threw a bat at an umpire).  There were some real busts in the top-10 including:

Kyle Sleeth – Never rose above AA where he posted a 10.66 ERA in 12.2 IP before retiring in 2008.

Chris Lubanski – Reached as high as AAA (including a short stint in the Blue Jays system), but last played in 2011.

Ryan Harvey – Never rose above AA, last played in 2013.

Here is a re-ranked version of the 2003 draft, based on career WAR:

Ian Kinsler is a real success story, emerging from the 17th round to become a 4-time All-Star.  Adam Jones and Nick Markakis were both taken by the Orioles in a rare bit of excellent drafting in Baltimore.  The Blue Jays pick of Aaron Hill was also a success.  Of note, Max Scherzer was selected by St. Louis but did not sign.

Blue Jay Focus

2003 was the second draft of the  Ricciardi era and was relatively productive.  As noted above, Aaron Hill was taken with Toronto’s first pick (13th overall) and had a nice career, including a huge 2009 season in Toronto (36 HR, 108 RBI, .829 OPS, Silver Slugger Award).  With his second selection, Ricciardi picked RHP Josh Banks 50th overall.  Banks only appeared in three games with the Jays (7.36 ERA, 1.77 WHIP) before moving on to San Diego and Houston, but at least he reached the majors.  The other notable pick by the Jays was Shaun Marcum 80th overall.  He had a few nice years in Toronto and his legacy lives on as he was dealt to Milwaukee for Brett Lawrie who was in turn traded for Josh Donaldson.

Total Number of Picks: 50

Number of Players to Reach the Majors: 7

Fun With Early Season WAR

It’s hard to believe, but the 2018 regular season is close to 30% complete.  That means it’s time for an annual post here on 500 Level Fan where we take a few minutes to have fun with early season stats.

We are approaching June and the standings are starting to become established.  While things look as expected in some divisions – the Yankees, Red Sox, and Astros are sailing right along – things look awry in others.  Cleveland, Minnesota, and the Dodgers are under .500, the Braves and Phillies are pacing the NL East, and the Pirates are near the top of the NL Central.

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

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

Player WAR

The above tables show the best players in baseball in terms of WAR, and for what seems like first time in the history of this column, there aren’t really any surprises.  Names like Trout, Betts, Ramirez, Lindor, Freeman, Martinez, and Machado are all established stars.  Simmons was great last year and Cain, Herrera, and Belt have always had expectations.  The biggest surprises for me are seeing Jed Lowrie and Ozzie Albies listed in the top-10 in oWAR, meaning they have been some of the best hitters thus far.  In addition, Kevin Pillar’s name pops out once for where it is and once for where it isn’t.  To see him leading the Jays in WAR is a surprise, but to see him not leading the Jays in dWAR is an even bigger one.  In fact, to date Pillar’s dWAR is a rather pedestrian 0.1.  It’s his bat that’s carrying him in 2018.

Most Likely to Stick in Top-10: Virtually everybody

Most Likely to Drop Out: Belt

Here’s where we see some jaw dropping names.  Dexter Fowler and Ian Desmond were signed to big contracts not long ago, Jason Kipnis is a former All-Star and Chris Davis is a former HR King.  Over on the dWAR side, while Bryce Harper has never been considered a savant with the glove, to see him listed as one of baseball’s 10 worst is stunning.  And then there is poor Kole Calhoun.  Us Jays fans have had to suffer through the offensive woes of Martin, Travis, Grichuk, and Morales, but to see Calhoun listed – no, buried – that far below is nuts.  So what does a -1.5 oWAR mean in contemporary stats?  How about a .160 average, .399 OPS, 1 HR, and 40 strikeouts to only 7 walks?  Yikes.

Most Likely to Stick in Bottom-10: Davis

Most Likely to Climb Out: Kipnis

Pitcher WAR

I honestly can’t point out any surprises in the top-10.  Sale, Verlander, Scherzer, Severino, Kluber, and deGrom are studs.  Nola, Cole, and Bauer have long been considered breakout candidates and Porcello and Cueto have past success.  Similarly there are few surprises on the worst list.  For fun, let’s add some context to just how bad Grimm has been in KC.  In terms of contemporary stats, a -1.6 WAR translates to: 0-2, 21.86 ERA, 3.00 WHIP, 9 walks and 6 strikeouts in only 7 innings.  And we thought Stroman was off to a bad start…..

Most Likely to Stick in Top-10 / Bottom-10: All in the top-10

Most Likely to Drop Out / Climb Out: None

As always, we’ll check back on these lists later in the season to see if things become “more normal”.

What Is Wrong With Marco Estrada?

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The Marco Estrada saga is one of a number of great Blue Jay success stories.

Over the years we’ve seen players like Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, and Justin Smoak struggle in other organizations only to finally fulfill their potential in Toronto.  Estrada pitched decently well, though a bit inconsistent and erratic during his years in Washington and Milwaukee, but found his form after being acquired in advance of the 2015 season for Shaun Marcum.  He was one of the key players that helped end Toronto’s playoff drought, and was incredible in the playoffs in elimination games against Texas and Kansas City.

Sadly, something is happening to Estrada, a performance decline that threatens to derail both his and the Blue Jays’ season.  After seeing his numbers dip last season, Estrada has seemingly fallen off a cliff through five starts this year.  After another rough outing last night against Boston, Estrada’s numbers, both on an absolute and relative basis, are terrible.  There are 46 qualified pitchers in the American League thus far – here is where Estrada ranks in a number of key categories:

Those are not pretty.

So what happened?  Is this simply an early season slump, a rough patch that will end after a few adjustments?  Or is this the continuation of a career decline?

I took a look at several other numbers to see if anything jumps out in his early season performance.  Is he suddenly walking more batters?  Has his velocity significantly declined?  Is he surrendering a ton of hard contact?

The good news for Blue Jays fans is that the answers to the above questions appear to be “no”.

Through five starts Estrada’s strikeout rate is 7.67 K/9, down a touch from 2016 and 2017 but up from a 6.51 rate in 2015.  His walk rate is actually down thus far, sitting at 3.0 BB/9, down from 3.44 last season.  His fastball velocity sits at 89.4, down a touch from last season’s 90.1 but in-line with the previous two years.  And in terms of hard contact, his hard-hit rate is 30.6% vs. 28.6% over the past three years.

So with those numbers fairly consistent, what has changed?

First of all, his pitch selection is much different.  Estrada’s fastball usage has increased to 58% up almost 5% from last year.  He is throwing it at the expense of his cutter (down from 6.7% to 5.3%) and his curveball (down from 7.7% to 5.3%).  In years past Estrada was excellent at mixing his cutter and curveball in and around his killer changeup to keep hitters off-balance.  With those pitches fewer and far between, hitters might be sitting on his below-average velocity fastball and teeing off.

Which brings us to dingers.  Estrada has always been a fly ball pitcher, but so far this season he has taken that to an extreme.

His ground ball % has dropped to 28.2% and his fly ball % has risen to a new high of 55.3%.  The result is a significant drop in his GB/FB rate from a high of 0.69 in 2016 to 0.51 thus far in 2018.

The obvious consequence of that is that more fly balls brings the potential for more home runs:

That is a steep incline.  Estrada has already allowed 7 HR in only 27 IP, and more often than not they have been the type of game-changing, soul-crushing bombs that can really hurt a team.  To wit:

  • March 31 vs. New York: Allowed two HR to Tyler Austin, both times wiping out Toronto leads
  • April 20 vs. New York: HR by Austin gave NY a 2-0 lead; HR by Stanton gave NY a 4-2 lead; solo HR by Andujar erased a 5-4 Toronto lead
  • April 26 vs. Boston: HR by J.D. Martinez turned a 3-2 lead into a 5-3 deficit

With players all over baseball trying to increase launch angles thanks to advanced analytics, Estrada will need to make some adjustments or else things might get worse.  Whether that is reducing his reliance on the fastball and throwing his curve more often remains to be seen.

But through five starts it’s obvious that Estrada is broken.  It’s up to him to fix things or else the postseason hopes of the Jays could be in jeopardy.

The Early Outfield Returns Are Good

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There’s an old saying in baseball that the games in April count just as much as those in September.  Another adage states that a team can’t win their division in April, but they can certainly lose it.

While the magnitude of a game in the final few weeks of the season with pennant race implications may be amplified, team’s must also show up ready to play in the first few weeks.  So although the Blue Jays still have 149 games left to play let’s not simply gloss over the the start with an “it’s early” shrug of the shoulders.  Last April the Jays essentially played themselves out of playoff contention with a 6-17 start they never recovered from.  Let’s give these guys a bit of credit.

Off to a quick 8-5 start, the Blue Jays look like decent value in the 2018 World Series futures, currently sitting at 30/1.  While 13 games is a small sample size, we’ve seen some important traits: Justin Smoak is showing that 2017 was not an anomaly; Aaron Sanchez is blister-free and throwing great’ Jaime Garcia is proving to be a solid back-of-the-rotation option; and the outfield defense is much improved with Curtis Granderson and Randal Grichuk.  It wouldn’t be a surprise to see their odds get shorter – maybe in the 25/1 or 20/1 range via MyTopSportsbooks – in the coming days.

Of those key traits, the one that isn’t always reflected on the scoreboards or the boxscores is outfield defense.  Last season, with mainly Ezequiel Carrera and Jose Bautista flanking Kevin Pillar, the Jays were not good defensively.  According to Baseball Reference’s Total Zone Fielding Runs Above Average, Toronto had the 5th worst OF in the American League at -9.  BIS Defensive Runs Saved had the Jays even lower at -14, the 4th worst group in the AL.

So how much have Granderson and Grichuk helped?  The answer is obvious:

Total Zone Fielding Runs Above Average: +4   4th in the AL

BIS Defensive Runs Saved: +1   3rd in the AL

Yes it’s still early.  Yes Grichuk is going to have to hit higher than .077 with a .319 OPS.  And yes, health is going to continue to be the key for the Jays chances.

But let’s take a moment to at least be happy with the way things have started.

Happiness is an Effective Bullpen

After almost six consecutive months without baseball, the first off-day of the season is always jarring.  We’ve just started getting back into the groove and suddenly the Jays have Thursday off?  Bummer.

But what yesterday’s off-day did do was allow us to reflect on the first week of the season.  To this writer, Toronto’s first seven games have to be qualified as a success.  First of all they are over .500, something that hasn’t happened since 2016.  Second of all the 4-3 record is much, much better than last year’s 1-6 mark through seven games.   Finally, they have picked up win #4 already, something that didn’t occur until April 21 last season.

Obviously the offense has been great.  After finishing dead last in the American League in runs scored last year, the Jays have plated 36 thus far, good enough for T-4th.  They also sit 5th with 10 HR and 5th with a .760 team OPS.

But this is not a long-ball hitting team.  Gone are the days when Donaldson, Encarnacion, and Bautista could mash opponents into submission.   The long balls will occasionally dry up, like we saw on Wednesday.

Instead, if the Blue Jays are going to keep this nice start up they will need to rely on pitching.  And while we all know that the rotation should be solid, it is the bullpen that thus far has been the most impressive.

Toronto’s bullpen was actually quite solid in 2017 but they simply pitched too much.  They averaged 3.68 innings per game, the third highest amount in all of baseball.  The fact that they finished with a 4.21 ERA (15th overall) and 1.26 WHIP (7th) is actually quite impressive.

So the key this year is to keep the number of innings down and subsequently, hopefully, the effectiveness up.  Through one week, it’s been job well done.

The starters haven’t been pitching super deep into games, but that is par for the course in the early stages of the season.  Overall the Jays bullpen has thrown 3.3 innings per game, down from last year and only the 20th highest total in the game.  As a result, their 2.31 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, and 3.71 K/BB ratio are all outstanding and much better than last season.

Obviously it is still very early but the signs are encouraging.  Ryan Tepera, John Axford, Seung-hwan Oh, and Danny Barnes have all looked good.  Roberto Osuna has looked absolutely incredible.  Hell, even Aaron Loup has been sharp.

Yes, the play of Donaldson, Martin, Smoak, and Travis will dictate how successful this team will be, but the longer the bullpen performs like this  the better they will be able to withstand the inevitable offensive dry patches that will come.

Through seven games I think we can safely say mission accomplished.

Toronto Blue Jays and the Hall of Fame

The Baseball Hall of Fame announced its 2018 class on Wednesday night, with a whopping four members elected by the Baseball Writers Association of America.  Vladimir Guerrero, Chipper Jones, Trevor Hoffman, and Jim Thome will join Alan Trammell and Jack Morris (previously elected by the Modern Baseball Era committee) in Cooperstown later this year.

With talk of the Hall of Fame taking over the internet the past month, it got me thinking about how the Blue Jays fit in to this process.  Normally at this time of year, the baseball world discusses, debates, considers, and ultimately celebrates great baseball players, who mostly had nothing to do with the Blue Jays during their careers.  Roberto Alomar is the only player enshrined in Cooperstown with a Blue Jays cap, and that is not likely to change anytime soon.

But what about the other players in Toronto’s past?  The Hall of Fame is – quite rightly – a difficult place to enter.  Only the best of the best get in.  But just being listed on the ballot is an impressive feat, even if you are one of the dozens each year that fall short.  So to give this time of year a bit more of a Blue Jay tint, I took a look back at HOF voting history to see how the Jays have fared, and what the future might hold.

To my surprise, there have been 69 different players on the Hall of Fame ballot to make an appearance for the Blue Jays.  Some are well known (Devon White, Jimmy Key, David Wells).  Some are not (Jeff Burroughs (86 games in 1985) or Bill Singer (12 starts in 1977)). Alomar is the only one to be elected and represent Toronto, but six other ex-Jays currently reside in Cooperstown:

  • Rickey Henderson – member of the Jays in 1993, elected to the Hall in 2009
  • Paul Molitor – member of the Jays from 1993 – 1995, elected to the Hall in 2004
  • Jack Morris – member of the Jays from 1993 – 1994, elected to the Hall this year
  • Phil Niekro – pitched 12 innings for the Jays in 1987, elected to the Hall in 1997
  • Frank Thomas – member of the Jays from 2007 – 2008, elected to the Hall in 2014
  • Dave Winfield – member of the Jays in 1992, elected to the Hall in 2001

Of the remaining 63, only six managed to remain on the ballot for more than one year: Ron Fairly (on the original 1977 team), Dave Parker (36 AB for Toronto in 1991), Dave Stewart, and Jeff Kent, Roger Clemens, and Fred McGriff, all still currently on the ballot.

Two other players with Blue Jay ties debuted on the ballot this year and survived the 5% cutoff: Scott Rolen (10.2%) and Omar Vizquel (37.5).

So that leaves a total of 54 one-and-done players, guys who didn’t received 5% of the ballot and thus dropped off.  Some of the names were pretty obvious: Woody Williams, Royce Clayton, Orlando Hudson, Matt Stairs, Mike Timlin, etc.  But there are some players who I thought were deserving of more love from the voters.  These guys don’t belong in the Hall of Fame necessarily, but should have at least received greater recognition.  I’m thinking specifically of:

  • Carlos Delgado – 473 career HR, 4 top-10 MVP finishes, 2-time All-Star, 3-time Silver Slugger winner, 44.3 career WAR.  Only 3.8% of the vote in 2015.
  • David Cone – 5-time All-Star, Cy Young winner, 5-time World Series champion, 61.7 career WAR.  Only 3.9% of the vote in 2009.
  • Dave Stieb – perhaps the best pitcher of the entire 1980’s, yet only received 1.4% of the vote in 2004.
  • John Olerud – batting title, .295 career average, 58.0 career WAR.  Only 0.7% of the vote (4 votes total) in 2011.
  • Tony Fernandez – 5-time All-Star, 4-time Gold Glove winner, only 0.7% of the vote (4 votes total) in 2007.

So what lies ahead for the Blue Jays?  Who might be the next player enshrined or seriously considered for Cooperstown?

My best guess is that as of right now (the end of the 2017 season), we might see eight Jays listed on the HOF ballot when eligible.

Roy Halladay will be on the ballot next year and should be a lock for the Hall.  Whether he gets in on the first ballot, and whether he goes in as a Jay or a Phillie is another story.

Mark Buehrle had a great MLB career – 214 wins, sub-4.00 ERA, 14 straight 200 IP seasons, World Series, perfect game – but falls short based on JAWS.  I would imagine him to have a strong enough candidacy to survive one ballot.

David Price and Troy Tulowitzki will forever be linked as mid-season acquisitions in the magical 2015 season.  Both looked like HOF locks in their early days, but both have tailed off significantly.  I don’t know if either garners enough support to make it past one ballot.

Edwin Encarnacion and Russell Martin have both had long and solid careers (they have combined for 7 All-Star teams and 6 top-20 MVP finishes) but will have a hard time exceeding 5%.

Josh Donaldson was a late bloomer – he didn’t become a major league regular until he was 27 – but the five full seasons he has played have been outstanding.  He has collected three All-Star nods, two Silver Sluggers, one MVP, and three additional top-5 MVP finishes.  His 37.3 WAR is two-thirds of the way to meeting the JAWS standard for third baseman, so if he can put together four or five more great seasons he might be pushing for HOF contention.

Finally, we get to the Blue Jay most near and dear to our hearts.  Jose Bautista will be a member of the Level of Excellence.  He will likely be inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame.  If there was a Hall of Fame for best individual moments, or most important home runs, or best late career surge, he would lead the way.  Unfortunately his peak was too short and his fall to steep to be considered for the Hall.  But hopefully he did enough during those years for at least 5% of the BBWAA to recognize him.

A Dream Offseason Plan

When Corey Seager grounded out to Jose Altuve on November 1st, the 2017 MLB season officially ended.  The final out brought delirium to Houston fans, but also brought happiness to fans of 28 other teams (sorry Dodger fans), because suddenly baseball’s offseason was upon us.  Every franchise was now tied for first again.

Normally the offseason is loaded with speculation and predictions, often-times outlandish.  The past few weeks have proven to be no exception.  Rumours are flying left, right, and centre involving what seems to be over half the players in the league.  The Blue Jays are in for an interesting few months as they try to do the impossible – stay in contention with an aging core, while at the same time bridge the gap to the next wave of elite prospects .

So how can they do that?  It’s easy to say things like “trade for Stanton” and “sign Jake Arrieta“, but those things are clearly easier said than done.

However, with Toronto continuing to pack in the fans and operating in a massive market, nothing should be deemed impossible.  With that said, may I present 500 Level Fan’s “completely unlikely yet not fully ridiculous” Dream Offseason plan for the Toronto Blue Jays.

Move 1 – Sign Chris Iannetta

Backup catcher has been a black hole in Toronto for a few years now.  It wasn’t as much of a concern the last few seasons when Russell Martin was catching 130+ games a year, but injuries limited Martin to just 91 games last year, only 83 of which were behind the plate.  The backup brigade of Montero, Saltalamacchia, Lopez, Maile, and Ohlman were worse than bad and prospect Dan Jansen is still a year or two away.

The answer?  Why not Chris Iannetta?  He has been linked to the Jays for a number of years now, and proved last year that he still has some pop in his bat (17 HR, .865 OPS) and some prowess defensively (+2 defensive runs saved, 24% caught stealing).  Plus he’ll be 35 this year so no longer should demand a ton of playing time, he can slot in an DH if need be, and at $1.5 million last year he is relatively cheap.

Likelihood of happening:  I thought this was happening in each of the last four winters.  It never has.  So….40%.

Move 2 – Sign Tony Watson

Below are the ERA’s for each of Toronto’s LH relievers in 2017:

Aaron Loup – 3.75

Matt Dermody – 4.43

Tim Mayza – 6.88

Jeff Beliveau – 7.47

J.P. Howell – 7.36

Loup was the best of the bunch and he is the rare lefty who can’t retire left-handed batters.  That is….not good.

After several incredible years in a row, Tony Watson took a step back last season, but still finished the year with a 3.38 ERA split between Pittsburgh and LA.  Better yet, LHB posted a .691 OPS against him, better than Loup’s .721.  He would be a nice fit.

Likelihood of Happening:  The market for relievers is always inflated so while he would be a great fit I can’t see the Jays getting into a bidding war for his services.  35%.

Move 3 – Sign Shohei Otani

This is easy to fit in the “keep dreaming” category, and I know there are issues with MLBPA trying to hold up his posting, but just hear me out.

Every single MLB team would love to have Otani in its lineup.  He can hit.  He can pitch.  He is a legitimate dual threat.  But a lot of MLB teams are…how to put this….cowardly.  The thought of allowing a pitcher to slot in at DH on his off days would be a non-starter.

But Toronto, with their “high-performance” team and supposed devotion to recovery and health, could be a different story.  He would be a legitimate number two starter behind Stroman, and could suit up as DH at least two of the four days he doesn’t pitch (not to mention a nice bat off the bench late in games).

NL teams can’t offer the duality as well as AL teams. Toronto is a diverse city that will give him a piece of home he craves.  Why not?

Likelihood of Happening:  Makes too much sense to happen.  Good things like this rarely happen to Jays fans….  2%

Move 4 – Trade Kendrys Morales

It goes without saying that one of the big flaws in the plan to sign Otani and DH him several times a week is that the Jays already have a DH.  Unless, that is, they trade him.

Look, I get it.  Trading Morales won’t be easy.  He’s old.  He’s slow.  He can’t play defense.  But that’s focusing on what he can’t do.  Let’s talk about what he can do.  He can still hit, despite everybody labeling him a free agent bust.  Morales popped 28 HR with a .753 OPS last year – not elite, but definitely not bad.

A quick glance around the American League shows three teams – three would be contenders mind you – that had awful DH production last year: the Angels (24 HR, ..677 OPS), Twins (17 HR, .711 OPS), and Rangers (15 HR, .686 OPS).  With Pujols on board adding Morales doesn’t make a lot of sense for LA, and I’m not sure he really fits with Minnesota.  But what’s wrong with Texas?  They made the postseason in 2015 and 2016 and were in the Wild Card race for a spell last year.  More DH production would suit them.

In return, Toronto should have the balls to ask for Jurickson Profar.  Despite being anointed the next big thing since 2011 Profar is still only 24, is very versatile, and his value has never been lower.  Toronto could use him in LF, RF, or even as insurance for Tulo and Travis in the middle infield.  They would have to offer more than just Morales (bullpen depth?) and maybe eat some salary, but it would be a sweet deal.

Likelihood of Happening: You never know, but I think we’re stuck with him.  4%

Move 5 – Trade Kevin Pillar

I lobbied for this in a previous post.  I know it would be a very unpopular move, but Pillar’s value will never be higher.  He is featured on highlight shows seemingly nightly and is becoming known across the league – not only Toronto – as Superman.

Toronto should reach out to the Marlins and offer up Pillar.  Sure Stanton would be nice, but I think Christian Yelich would be a much better fit.  He’ll only be 26 next season, he offers passable defense, and is a solid bat (.807 OPS).  Plus he’s under team control through 2021 with about $42-million owing on his deal.  He would give the Jays a nice looking outfield with himself, Teoscar Hernandez, Anthony Alford, Zeke, and possibly Profar.

Pillar would offer the Marlins huge money savings (arbitration eligible, coming off a $550,000 salary in 2017, and not FA eligible until 2021).  Plus, on a fully rebuilding team, he would still give the fans a reason to come to the park.  You never know when the next Superman catch will happen.

Likelihood of Happening: A man can dream.  1%

Final Verdict: Each of the above moves makes at least a little bit of sense, both on and off the field.  Make all of them and the Jays would be set up for contention in 2018 and possibly beyond, regardless of what happens with Donaldson.  Make one or two of them, 2018 is still in play.

What do you think?

The Delicate Case of Kevin Pillar

With the Blue Jays not participating, my viewing experience of the 2017 MLB playoffs has been rather muted in comparison to the past few years. No matter how much one hates the Yankees or Red Sox, nothing can replicate the feeling of watching your team play in October.

But one added benefit of not living and dying with every pitch is that my judgment is not impacted.  I am watching through a very neutral and decidedly objective lens, which has really opened my eyes to the CF position.

Look around at the teams participating in the playoffs and you see some incredible centrefielders.   A.J. Pollock, Charlie Blackmon, Chris Taylor, George Springer, and Byron Buxton have all been featured heavily not only in October alone, but throughout the season as well.  Watching these guys play made me inevitably think of Kevin Pillar, and about how it just might be time for the Jays to cut ties with him.

Don’t get me wrong – I like Pillar.  Watching him make incredible catch after incredible catch has been nothing short of astonishing over the years.  He is a huge fan favourite and by all accounts is well liked by his teammates.  He seems to love the city and has a huge passion for the game.

But, and here we have be honest with ourselves – he just can’t hit.

Pillar now has three full major league seasons under his belt and nothing about his results suggest that he is (a) figuring things out or that (b) a trend in the upward direction is coming.

Simply compare Pillar’s offensive production to other CF’s across baseball and a very bleak picture emerges.  Out of all qualifying CF across baseball in the past three years (there were 23 in 2015, 16 in 2016 and 18 in 2017), here is where Pillar ranks among more traditional stats:

As you can see….not great.  In terms of OBP, one of baseball’s most important stats – especially for Pillar considering he spent 58 games in 2017 and 20 games in 2016 at the leadoff spot – he was dead last in 2016 and second last in 2017 among all CF.  Same story for OPS.

But things look downright ugly when we take a deeper dive into some more advanced metrics:

Yikes.  Yikes.  Yikes.

The first two numbers basically confirm what we already knew: Pillar never walks (worst or second worst walk-rate among CF for three straight years), and despite the fact that he seemingly always chases awful pitches, he doesn’t strike out a whole lot.

But that’s not what’s so alarming.

wOBA (weighted on base average) combines all the different aspects of hitting into one metric, weighing each of them in proportion to their actual run value.  wRC+ (weighted runs created plus) essentially takes wOBA and adjusts it for park and league.  An average wOBA is somewhere around .320 and an average wRC+ is 100.  Pillar is decidedly below average.  In fact, he was ranked the second worst CF in all of baseball in 2017, and the worst in 2016.  For context the leader in both categories this past season was Mike Trout at .437 and 181.  Right around average?  The underwhelming Denard Span at .325 and 102.  To interpret Pillar’s stats, you can say that he is approximately 15% worse than the average CF, and 17% worse than Span.  Not good.  In fact, his 85 wRC+ ranked him 128th out of all 144 qualified hitters across the majors.

The final three numbers on the chart measure offensive runs above average, defensive runs above average, and wins above replacement (the Fangraphs version).  Once again Pillar ranks right near the bottom in the offensive category, and more alarming is that his defensive production has also been slipping.

Which brings us to the final piece of Pillar’s puzzle: his fielding.  He has earned the nickname Superman for his outstanding diving catches, and to the naked eye appears to be one baseball’s defenders.  But the naked eye has long had issues in accurately judging defensive value, leading to the creation of several advanced stats.  Fangraphs “Def” stat ranks Pillar as the 4th best CF, UZR pegs him 6th, and Baseball Reference’s dWAR has him 3rd.

But new this year to the advanced stats craze is Outs Above Average, a product of MLB’s new Statcast revolution.  Known best for measuring things like exit velocity and launch angle, Statcast has tiptoed into the defensive side of the game in 2017.  Outs Above Average (OAA) sets out to measure just how good each MLB outfielder is at turning batted balls into outs.  Every fly ball is assigned a probability based on it’s placement and trajectory, and a fielder is credited with each successful play.  The more difficult the play, the more credit the player earns.  Conversely, failure to make plays will penalize fielders.  The leader in OAA in 2017 was Minnesota’s Byron Buxton at +25.  Pillar?  He ranked 112th at -2.

A similar new statistic – Catch Percentage Added – sets out to measure how good an outfielder is against the batted balls hit in his direction.  Using the probabilities described earlier, an expected catch percentage is calculated for each player based on all balls hit in his direction, along with the players’s actual catch percentage.  An 85% expected catch percentage means that an average fielder would be able to successfully turn 85% of balls hit in his direction into outs.  If that player actually turned 90% of balls hit his way into outs, he has earned a +5% Catch Percentage Added.  The leader in 2017 was once again Byron Buxton with +6%.  Pillar was dead average with 0% (86% expected and 86% actual).

Granted these stats are in their infancy and should be taken with a grain of salt.  There are many ways to interpret them and don’t necessarily mean that Pillar is a below average fielder.  But they definitely raise questions into whether he is the elite, game changing outfielder that many think he is.

And if he isn’t that elite fielder, it begs the question: is his glove good enough to carry his bat?

Watching other CF across baseball – Trout, Blackmon, McCutchen, Springer, Yelich, Pollock – I think the answer is a fairly heavy no.

Which begs one final question: with many of his catches still making the rounds on 2017 highlight reels, his value might never be higher.

And if his value might never be higher, does it make sense to trade Kevin Pillar now?

At the risk of angering his millions of fans, I think that answer is a definite yes.