Category Archives: Upper Deck Insight

Relax Kids

 

“Relax, kid.  We got 162 of these games to go.” – Jake Taylor

It’s not often that I get to open a post with a quote from Jake Taylor.  For those who aren’t aware, those words were spoken by Taylor, a grizzled veteran on the Cleveland Indians, to rookie pitcher Rick Vaughn minutes before Opening Day in 1989.  Vaughn, sitting near his locker,  was visibly nervous before being reminded: it’s a long season.

Of course, neither of those players are real, that quote being from Major League the greatest baseball movie of all time.  But that doesn’t change the fact that the words are 100% accurate., and that today seems like a very opportune time to state them.

Social media is a great and very useful thing, but it also has the ability to rile people and start mass panic.  Case-in-point the hours immediately following Mark Trumbo’s walkoff HR that gave Baltimore an Opening Day victory over the Blue Jays.  Suddenly, any excitement that was generated from the return of the Jays and having baseball back after a long winter was gone.

Instead?  How about:

  • The Jays can’t hit with runners-in-scoring position just like last year.  This will be an issue all season long.
  • After seeing Edwin’s performance with Cleveland and Bautista’s performance it’s clear that Toronto re-signed the wrong free agent.  Bautista’s days of being an elite slugger are gone.
  • Russell Martin still strikes out way too much and looks past his prime.
  • Tulo is on the decline.
  • Grilli is too old and is not a viable late-inning relief option.  With Osuna on the DL the bullpen is screwed.
  • It’s clear that Donaldson is hurt.
  • Releasing Upton was the worst move Atkins could have made, leaving the team without an OF replacement and no speed on the bench.

Does that about cover everything?

At this point in my life, after years of running this blog and of following fans on Twitter, I shouldn’t be surprised.  Yet somehow I continue to be.  Within hours the Toronto Blue Jays went from a solid contender to winning the AL East to a team that looks finished in the eyes of many.  Not in the eyes of everybody, but in a staggeringly high number of people.

Relax.  Seriously – there are 161 more games to go.  The season is 0.62% complete.  By my best guesses, even the very best team in baseball will lose at least 55-60 games this year.  Even the very best teams in the game will lose a game they probably should have won, or lose a few games in a row.  No team is immune.  Baseball is a marathon.

Do you know who else lost on Opening Day?  The Cubs.  The Giants.  The Yankees.  The Rangers.  The Mariners.  Each of those teams is expected to challenge for a postseason spot as well.

I feel like a broken record pointing this out year after year, but it bears repeating: it’s one game.  The Jays will be fine.

And if you won’t take my word for it, at least listen to Jake.

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 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.

 

Sizing Up the Red Sox

redsoxfans

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

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

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

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

jays boston june july

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

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

jays boston pitching

Other than bullpen ERA, Toronto trumps Boston everywhere.

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

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

The major difference?

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

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

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

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

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

No

– not really, and here’s why:

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

Want more reason for hope?

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

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

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

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

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

Just keep winning.

500 Level Fan Book Review: The Big 50 by Shi Davidi

big 50

To purchase a copy of the book please refer to the links at the end of

the review.

Rankings and “best-of” lists always make for great debate.  Whether it be lists of best movies, best bands, or best restaurants, rankings are subjective, personal, and vary significantly based on the age, background, and inclinations of the individual making the list.

This used to be the case in baseball.  For years, decades even, the question of “who is the greatest baseball player of all time” sparked water cooler (or bar-room, depending on your choice of beverage) debates amongst fans of all ages.  Was it Babe Ruth?  Ty Cobb?  Willie Mays?  Was it Mantle, Bonds, Pujols, Griffey, or Koufax?  What about current stars like Kershaw, Trout, and Harper?  While debate can still rage, new advanced stats like WAR enable us to compare players of different eras and at different positions with relative ease.  Subjectivity is slowly dying.

Which is part of what makes The Big 50: The Men and Moments That Made the Toronto Blue Jays such an entertaining read.  The latest effort by Shi Davidi (also the author of Great Expectations: The Lost Toronto Blue Jays Season with John Lott) attempts to do what so many Blue Jays fans (myself included) have tried: to rank the Top 50 moments in the history of the franchise.

It’s an exercise in futility to be sure, because 96% of the book will be considered “wrong” by both casual and hardcore fans.  (Let’s be honest – every single person should have the 1992 and 1993 World Series wins as 1 and 2).  But that is also what makes the book so fascinating and appealing: 96% of the list is up for debate.

I had the privilege and the pleasure to speak with Shi Davidi about the book earlier this week from Denver, where he was in town for the Jays interleague visit against the Rockies (as an aside, Colorado’s Coors Field is the 29th big league stadium that Davidi has visited, leaving only Dodger Stadium on his list – I’m jealous).  Not only was Shi gracious enough to take my call while visiting the Red Rocks Amphitheatre (again – jealous), he was kind enough to stay on the line while I rambled through a series of questions about the book and the team itself.

At its core, defining the top moments of any baseball franchise is a difficult task, but picking the top 50 for the Toronto Blue Jays seemed like it might be more difficult than most.  With only 39 seasons in the books, the Blue Jays have a relatively short history when compared to the Yankees and Red Sox, Cubs and Cardinals.  With many of those seasons lacking in star power, results, and excitement, was it difficult to find 50 salient moments?  Not at all, according to Davidi.  “I put together a list of 75 to 80 potentials,” he said in response to the question.  In order to trim that list without cutting some great moments out, he tried to bring several great moments together: “As I moved along in the process, what I started trying to do where possible was to try and combine things wherever I could.  Rather than just focusing on the Alomar home run I turned it into what I called the Holy Trinity of home runs [with Joe Carter and Ed Sprague, and the bat flip as an added bonus].”

Still many moments missed the cut.  “There were a couple of things that I was upset about not getting into the book,” Davidi said.  “I really wish I’d done more on Jimmy Key, I really wish I’d done a bit more on the Brandon Morrow one-hitter, and maybe even fit a bit more Aaron Hill into the book too.”

Davidi did spend a lot of time talking about individual players in the “Franchise Icon” series, a set of chapters devoted to ten of the most important people in Blue Jay history (Gillick, Alomar, Gaston, Bell, Halladay, Stieb, Delgado, Carter, Fernandez, and Cheek).  These chapters were terrific as they dealt less with individual in-game moments, and more on the actual people themselves, often giving the reader personal touches and interesting tidbits.  For instance in the “Franchise

Icon: Cito Gaston” chapter (#15), we get this beauty from Cito: “I lost about 10 pounds those first two weeks managing.  I also blame it on the fact it became 24/7 because Paul’s [Beeston] a workaholic and Gillick is too.  They’d make you one whether you were already or not.”

Or this, from my personal favourite “Franchise Icon: Tony Fernandez” (#45): “I saw him taking ground balls off the bat, with no shoes, no shirt, and like a cotton glove, and he just picked it clean.” remembered Alfredo Griffin.”  Classic.

The list of Franchise Icons that Davidi chose for the book is virtually an exact match to the Level of Excellence in the Rogers Centre.  When asked who might be the next great Jay honoured with a spot on the Level of Excellence Davidi mentioned “Halladay is an automatic.  After that, Jose Bautista and you can make a pretty good argument for Edwin Encarnacion.”  When asked about the candidacy of John Gibbons to the Level, there was a pause before Shi said “for a manager to up there, you’ve got to win a World Series….the induction of Gibbons would be too polarizing for the fan base….unless he wins a World Series or two.”

Obviously it was impossible to fit everything in the book, and I noticed that of the 50 moments chosen, only six took place within the “Dark Days” of the franchise, the post-World Series / pre-Bautista era.  Although those teams are not remembered as fondly as others, there were some solid squads in that 15 year stretch.  I asked Shi that if today’s two Wild Card playoff structure existed back then if that would have changed the way that era is perceived by fans and writers alike: “I thought that I under-represented that era, but then I thought: what am I really going to

take from that era?….If there had been a second wild card….they could have won a one-off game and had a chance to make some noise, but the Yankees and the Red Sox just had too much.”

At the end of the day though, what makes this book so great is the endless debate it can trigger.  Why is Carlos Delgado’s 4-HR game ranked so high (#7)?  Why is Vernon Wells’ record setting 215-hit season ranked so low (#41)?  Where is Frank Catalanotto’s 6-hit game?  The verbal sparring is endless, and according to Shi a lot of discussion went in to crafting the list. “I distributed my list to a bunch of people.  Jerry Howarth, Buck Martinez, Howard Starkman, Jay Stenhouse, Bob Elliot, Mike Wilner, Scott MacArthur – a bunch of people who are around the team and whose opinion I trust and who know more about the team than I do.   I said ‘hey what do you guys think of this to give me an idea?  Yes or no?  Up?  Down?  I used that a little bit, and then I also used my own subjective opinions.”

For those of you who regularly read Shi’s pieces on Sportsnet.ca (and that should be pretty much all of you) you will know that his subjective opinions are ones that you can trust.  He is an excellent journalist, incredibly skilled in the art of concise writing.  A Davidi article provides context, content, a message, and his aforementioned subjective opinion in a short amount of time, letting a reader get exactly what they need quickly.  He has replicated that style with this book, not once but 50 times.

The Big 50 is set up in such a way that you don’t have to read his opinion 50 times, but can simply pick and choose any of the top moments in franchise history.  But trust me – once you start, it’s impossible to not read straight through to the end.

And once you’re there, it’s even harder to not spend hours trying to come up with your own list.

Let the debate begin.

*******

You can order The Big 50: The Men and Moments That Made the Toronto Blue Jays online at indigo.ca and amazon.ca

Also visit the publishers of The Big 50 at the Triumph Books website.

Follow Shi David on Twitter for all the latest Blue Jays news.