Category Archives: Upper Deck Insight

Timing is Everything

timing

Some things in baseball will never change.  Games played on grass will always be better than games played on turf.  The Rogers Centre will always be better when the roof is open.  Jonathan Papelbon will always be the worst.

And fans everywhere will always gripe about the unfairness of the schedule.

In the early 2000’s it was Jays fans who hated the unbalanced schedule, as Toronto was forced to play 38 games a year against the two biggest powerhouses in the game, while teams in other divisions could load up against teams like the 100-loss Tigers, or the awful

Rangers.  This year I’m sure Pirates fans are unhappy about having to play 38 against the Cubs and Cardinals while the Mets – a team they are battling against for a Wild Card – plays 38 against Philadelphia and Atlanta.

But there is another part about the schedule that can also play havoc with teams records, and it has nothing to do with divisional play or interleague imbalance.  It is all about timing.

Everybody can agree that the Atlanta Braves are one of the worst (if not the worst) team in baseball this year, but don’t tell that to the Marlins this week, who opened up a two game series against a Braves team that had won 5-straight games.  They promptly made it 6-in-a-row by taking game 1.

Yes, even the worst teams in baseball can catch fire,

just like the best teams can struggle.  The truly random aspect of when those things happen, however, can completely alter a team’s schedule.  A series that may have been penciled in as “easy” might not be so simple if the opponent is red hot.

The Blue Jays have played 23 series in 2016.  Not counting the first series of the year against Tampa Bay, when every team in baseball was tied for first, the Jays have played a first place team eight times:

– April 19th series vs. Baltimore

– April 25th series vs. Chicago White Sox

– May 2nd series vs. Texas

– May 9th series vs. San Francisco

– May 27th series vs. Boston

– June 3rd series vs. Boston

– June 9th series vs. Baltimore

– June 17th series vs. Baltimore

An additional four series have been played against second place teams.

Some other wonky stats that the Jays have faced include:

– Six times they have opened a series against a team riding a winning streak of 3 or more games

– Nine times they have opened a series against a team that had won 4 of its previous 5 games

– Five times they have opened a series against a team that had won 7 of its previous 10 games

– 15 times they have opened a series against a team with a .500 or better record

To me, that is a tough, tough road.  But it has been even tougher.  Even some of the series that could have potentially been seen as “easy” have come at bad times.  Toronto faced Oakland in late April when the A’s were on a five game winning streak.  They played the underachieving Yankees beginning May 24th when New York had won five straight.  The up and down  Tigers hosted Toronto at a time when they were definitely up, having won three straight and four of five.  And in the series that just concluded at the dome, the badly flopping Diamondbacks came in on a four game win streak and 7-3 in the past 10.

Only twice this year can the Jays say that they have played a team that was truly in the dumps: the series’ against Minnesota (L3, 2-8 in past 10) and Philadelphia (L4, 3-7 in past 10).

And it doesn’t get any better for the Blue Jays.  They head to Chicago to open up a 3-game set against the White Sox this weekend, and face a team that has self-destructed since the last time they met.  In late April, the Sox were 13-6 and in first place when they came to Toronto and swept the Jays.  However, Chicago is just 9-18 in its past 27 games, a mark that is one of the worst in baseball and has seen them plummet to 4th place.

But, keeping true to form, the Jays visit them at a time when they appear to be pulling out of their funk.  Entering this afternoon’s game, the White Sox have won three straight games against Boston, ensuring that they will be hot when Toronto comes to town.

Timing is everything in baseball, and unfortunately for the Blue Jays, they have been on the rotten end of a lot of it.

Knowing this, their 40-34 record looks a whole lot better.

Hindsight: Looking Back at Past MLB Drafts

hindsight

The opening rounds of the 2016 MLB draft took place last night and with the 21st overall pick the Blue Jays selected 6-foot-7 RHP Zdeno Chara TJ Zeuch out of Pittsburgh.  As we all know by now the MLB draft is the ultimate crapshoot with so many early round picks flaming out and many late round picks turning into bargains.  The real verdict on Zeuch won’t be in for several years.  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 2011, 2006, and 2001 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 June 10).

2011 Draft

It often takes several years for drafted players to reach the major leagues. Five years have passed since the ’11 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 2011 draft:

2011 Draft

Unlike the previous two years, where Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg were the top picks, there really wasn’t a consensus choice at the top.  Even so, the Pirates made a very nice choice in selecting Gerrit Cole.  He arrived in the big leagues in 2013 and emerged as a true ace last year with a 19-8 record, 2.60 ERA, and 202 strikeout season.  He made the All-Star team and finished 4th in Cy Young voting and 19th in MVP voting.  Anthony Rendon has been a solid, if inconsistent, player for Washington, and Francisco Lindor looks to be a star in the making.  The rest of the top-10 however?  The jury is still out.  The four B’s (Bundy, Bauer, Bradley, and Baez) are all on major league rosters but enjoying varying degrees of success.  Hultzen has put up good numbers in the minors but missed all of 2014 and is currently out for 2016 with injury.  Starling has yet to play above AA and is currently under the Mendoza line in the Texas League.  They are getting perilously close to being considered busts.

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

2011 Redux

There are a lot of terrific players on that list, including some later round talents that prove the fact that future MLB regulars exist after round one.  Jose Fernandez, Mookie Betts, George Springer, and Jackie Bradley all might be All-Stars in 2016.  Cody Allen has emerged as a solid closer for the Indians and of course Pillar is one of baseball’s best defensive outfielders (even if he steadfastly refuses to take walks!).

Blue Jay Focus

The 2011 draft was Toronto’s second under Alex Anthopoulos, and aside from Pillar will go down as a bit of a bust on the surface.  However many of the prospects were used in trades to acquire big league players so the story isn’t all bad.  Musgrove and Comer were sent to Houston in the Happ trade (who was in turn traded for Michael Saunders).  DeSclafani was sent to Miami in the huge Jose Reyes trade, and of course Daniel Norris was used in the package to acquire David Price last season.  Toronto failed to sign top choice Tyler Beede (now in the Giants system), and Aaron Nola who looks like a future star in Philadelphia (Nola chose to pursue a collegiate career before turning pro).

First Round Picks: Tyler Beede (21st overall), Jacob Anderson (35th overall), Joseph Musgrove (46th overall), Dwight Smith (53rd overall), Kevin Comer (57th overall) – none have made the major leagues

Total Number of Picks: 55

Number of Players to Reach the Majors: 6

– Daniel Norris – traded to Detroit for David Price in 2015, currently in AAA (74th overall), WAR of 0.5

– Anthony DeSclafani – traded to Miami in the Jose Reyes deal in 2012, currently with Cincinnati (199th), WAR of 1.0

– Andy Burns (349th) – WAR of 0.1

– Aaron Nola – did not sign, now with Philadelphia (679th), WAR of 3.6

– David Rollins – traded to Houston in the J.A. Happ deal in 2012, now in AAA in Seattle’s organization (739th), WAR of -0.6

– Kevin Pillar (979th) – WAR of 7.6

Total WAR = 12.2

2006 Draft

The 2006 draft produced a few All-Stars, including one of the greatest pitchers of all time, but was otherwise underwhelming.  In fact the career WAR of the top-10 players selected in 2011 has nearly caught up to those drafted in ’06.

Here are the top-10 picks of the 2006 draft:

2006 Draft

Pick number seven: the one that got away from KC, Colorado, Tampa, Pittsburgh, Seattle, and Detroit.  Clayton Kershaw has emerged into not only one of the best pitchers in baseball today, but as one of the best to ever play.  He has three Cy Young awards (and two other top-3 finishes), and currently leads baseball with a 1.46 ERA and an absolutely staggering K/BB ratio of 18.17 (109 K’s, 6 BB).  Evan Longoria is still playing at a high level for the Rays, Tim Lincecum won a few Cy Young awards and World Series with the Giants, and Andrew Miller has developed into a dynamite reliever in New York, but the rest of the first round is full of busts and disappointments.  Both Lincoln and Morrow had stops in Toronto that did little to shake that verdict.

With the magic of hindsight, here is a re-ranked version of the 2006 draft, based on career WAR:

2006 Redux

As you can see, underwhelming.  Add Max Scherzer to the list of studs, but that’s about it.  Chris Davis and Daniel Murphy have had great seasons, but there is little else to suggest that 2006 was a great draft.

Blue Jay Focus

The 2006 draft was completed under the guidance of J.P. Ricciardi, and to be blunt, it was terrible.  Everybody had such high hopes for Travis Snider, but he failed to deliver – in Toronto and elsewhere.  The rest of the picks?  Yikes.

First Round Pick: Travis Snider (14th overall) – Career WAR: 4.6

Total Number of Picks: 48

Number of Players to Reach the Majors: 5

– Travis Snider – now in the AAA with Kansas City (14th), WAR of 4.6

– Cole Figueroa – now with Pittsburgh (270th), WAR of -0.2

– Jonathan Diaz (360th) – WAR of -0.3

– Brad Mills – now in AAA with Seattle (660th), WAR of -1.5

– Graham Godfrey – out of baseball (1020th), WAR of -0.5

Total WAR = 2.1

2001 Draft

Similar to the 2006 draft, the 2001 draft featured a few borderline Hall-of-Famers and then a bunch of decent but not great players.

Here are the top-10 picks of the 2001 draft:

2001 Draft

A classic case of “what-if”.  Joe Mauer was a force for several years, even winning an MVP, but is clearly in his decline years.  But Mark Prior – he could have been huge.  He put up an absolutely incredible 2003 campaign (18-6, 2.43 ERA, 245 strikeouts), but overuse caused him to burn out early and he was out of baseball by 2006.  Gavin Floyd was always a solid pitcher – good but not great – and remains such as a member of Toronto’s bullpen.  The rest of the top-10?  Oh boy.  Three players put up negative career WARs, and three never even made the big leagues.  Do over?

Here is a re-ranked version of the 2001 draft, based on career WAR:

2001 Redux


David Wright was one of the best players in baseball until his health got in the way, and Haren, Youkilis, and Hardy all made All-Star teams, but the rest of the best from ’01 doesn’t exactly scream out “success”.

Blue Jay Focus

2001 was the final draft for Gord Ash and it left a lot to be desired.  Nobody developed into a star major leaguer, and only a few even contributed.

First Round Pick: Gabe Gross (15th overall) – Career WAR: 4.7

Total Number of Picks: 50

Number of Players to Reach the Majors: 7

– Gabe Gross – now out of baseball (15th), WAR of 4.7

– Brandon League – now out of baseball (59th), WAR of 2.6

– Tyrell Godwin – now out of baseball (91st), WAR of -0.1

– Mike Rouse – now out of baseball (151st), WAR of -0.5

– Jeff Fiorentino – now out of baseball (631st), WAR of 0.7

– Dave Gassner – now out of baseball (721st) – WAR of -0.2

– Sean Barker – now out of baseball (1370th) – WAR of 0.0

Total WAR = 7.2

The Big Five Blues

damn-right-i-got-the-blues

Don’t worry everybody – it’s OK to be sad.

I think most people in Blue Jays nation are feeling down today after last night’s debacle in Detroit.  For the fourth or fifth time this season the Blue Jays managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in a 3-2 10 inning loss to the Tigers.

It was a waste of monumental proportions.  Obviously there was the wasted start by Aaron Sanchez, who threw the best game of his young career.  Through 8 innings he allowed just one hit and one walk while striking out 12.  It was the best he has ever looked in his Blue Jays career.

Then there was the wasted opportunities.  The Jays were gifted 9 (!) walks by Detroit pitching, were the recipient of a blooper reel error by Bobby Parnell, and put runners on second and third with nobody out in the 9th.  Yet for all of that they only managed to score two runs and left 11 men on base.

And that right there is why they lost the game.

For all armchair managers who were ripping into John Gibbons for leaving Sanchez in for the 9th, or for not ordering more sacrifice bunts, or for not intentionally walking Miguel Cabrera to get to Victor Martinez (who, as an aside, just happens to be the leading hitter in the AL), none of those had anything to do with losing.

It should have been at least 4-0, possibly 8-0, heading into the 9th.  But once again in 2016, the Blue Jays offense was dormant.

This certainly was not the plan coming into the season.  Expectations were of another huge offensive year, with runs piling up in record numbers.  But through 60 games Toronto is on pace to score 670 runs, a staggering 221 fewer than last year.  That is the equivalent of removing the 2015 version of Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion from the lineup and replacing them with, well, nobody.

The offense has been bad.  Really bad.  As a team the Blue Jays are hitting .234 with a .716 OPS, down from .269 / .797 in 2015.  With runners in scoring position the average and OPS numbers are .219 / .679 as compared to .286 / .839.  With RISP and 2 out they sit at .219 / .669, down from .243 / .762.  In short, the Jays aren’t hitting, and they are leaving tons of runners on the basepaths.

So who is at fault for this?  Shockingly, you have to look no further than the Big Five.  All season previews started with Toronto’s hitting, led by five of the top sluggers in all of baseball: Jose Bautista, Josh Donaldson, Edwin Encarnacion, Troy Tulowitzki, and Russell Martin.  But a deeper dive into their numbers show a significant decline:

Big 5 - Overall

As a unit, the Big 5’s OPS is down nearly 100 points from their career averages, and 130 points from the past 3 years.  Martin and Tulo have been the main culprits, but EE is also way down, and Bautista and Donaldson are also struggling.

Big 5 - RISP

When looking at the numbers with Runners in Scoring Position, it is a similar tale.  Bautista seems to be producing in line with or above his career and recent numbers, but not the case for the rest of the bunch.  EE’s OPS is down over 240 points in 2016 as compared to his 2013-2015 production.  As a unit, the group OPS has fallen from .921 to .727, with a batting average down to the Mendoza line.  Tough to win games with numbers like that.

Big 5 - RISP 2 Out

 

Big 5 - Late and Close

Getting into some more clutch stats tells the same story.  In late and close situations the Big 5 is putting up a .633 OPS, miles away from what they have done in the past 3 years.  Same for batting with RISP and 2 outs.  Donaldson’s numbers in that category are particularly startling: an .071 average and .563 OPS, down from .307 and .853.

We are now 60 games into the 2016 regular season.  The excuse of “it’s early” no longer applies.  In fact, this is generally the time of year when analysts start to believe the old adage of “what you see is what you get”.  If players with no track record started the season on a tear and are still producing at a high clip, maybe it’s no longer reasonable to expect regression, just as it might not be reasonable to expect players producing well below career norms to rebound.

If that is the case, and Martin, Bautista, Encarnacion, Tulowitzki, and Donaldson are starting to decline, then it might be a long, long summer in Toronto.

I, for one, still believe in this group.  I still believe that this is just an extended slump that is unfortunately hitting all five guys at the same time.  One or two extended hot streaks are just around the corner and those numbers presented above will start to rectify themselves.

I just hope I’m not a hopeless dreamer.

Fun With Early WAR

doc4fede34c4864d7455968181

It’s hard to believe, but the 2016 regular season is already over 25% finished.  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 late-May, so some teams are establishing themselves as legit (Cubs, Red Sox, Giants), and some look to be already playing for next year (poor, poor Minnesota).  But a large majority of teams have fans scratching their heads, wondering if down is up or if up is down.

The White Sox are in first and the Phillies are 5 games over .500.  Last year’s AL playoff teams are a combined two games under .500.  Perennial playoff entrants St. Louis and the Dodgers are only two games over the break-even mark.  Seems weird right?

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

mid year WAR best

The above tables show the best players in baseball in terms of WAR, and the leaderboard is a healthy mix of guys you would expect to see there and guys you wouldn’t.  Machado, Altuve, Trout, and Cano are perennial All-Stars, while Bogaerts and Springer are up-and-coming stars.  The biggest surprises have to be Adam Eaton ranked as the best player in all of baseball, and the fact that the two reigning MVP’s are nowhere to be found.  Josh Donaldson is the top Blue Jay with a 1.9 WAR, and Bryce Harper is one notch below him at 1.8.  I would expect to see them creep up the board as the season moves on.  In terms of oWAR and dWAR, seeing Michael Saunders as the top Jays is certainly a nice surprise, and seeing Kevin Pillar ranked T-3rd overall is what we have come to expect.

Most Likely to Stick in Top-10: Machado, Altuve, Trout, Springer, Bogaerts, Cano

Most Likely to Drop Out: Eaton, Piscotty, Perez

mid year WAR worst

Here is where things get a bit upsetting for Blue Jay fans: there is a lot of yellow on those lists.  Ryan Goins ranks as one of the worst players in all of baseball thus far, as well as the third worst hitter in the league.  Russell Martin and the pre-suspension version of Chris Colabello are right at the bottom in terms of offense.  Jose Bautista just misses the list of the worst ten fielders.  But there are other names on those lists that have to be troubling to fan bases across the game.  Prince Fielder, Kendrys Morales, and Carlos Gomez were huge parts of the 2015 success of Texas, KC, and Houston.  Adam Jones has been Baltimore’s rock for years.  All are awful right now.

Most Likely to Stick in Bottom-10: Aybar, Pierzynski, Goins

Most Likely to Climb Out: Fielder, Parra

Pitcher WAR

mid year WAR pitcher

That is a who’s-who of stud pitchers.  There are virtually no surprises on that list.  Kershaw, Arrieta, Sale, Salazar, Syndergaard, Strasburg: all are Cy Young candidates.  I am honestly surprised at the early season success of Cueto – I fully expected him to flame out in SF.  Rich Hill continues to be a very nice story and might make for a nice trade deadline acquisition for a contending team.  Is Chris Tillman finally putting it all together?  I doubt it….

In the worst list, there are two huge names that stand out.  The first is the so-called ace of the New York Mets rotation, Matt Harvey.  He was counted on to be one of baseball’s top pitchers and has not lived up to the bill yet.  The second is huge off-season acquisition Shelby Miller.  He has been an absolute bust for Arizona.  For Drew Storen to somehow not be in the bottom-10 is somewhat miraculous considering his awful start in Toronto.

Most Likely to Stick in Top-10 / Bottom-10: Kershaw, Arrieta, Sale, Syndergaard, Strasburg / Tolleson, Simon

Most Likely to Drop Out / Climb Out: Tillman, Chatwood / Harvey

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

Finally!

tick-tock

It’s about damn time.

Let’s be honest – the Blue Jays have been pretty awful so far in 2016.  Heading into last night’s game they were sitting in dead last, and hadn’t scored in 17 consecutive innings.  That is not something that we expected, not for 2015’s best offense.

But finally – finally! – things happened last night that hopefully bode well for the rest of the season:

1. The team finally scored some runs – eight of them to be exact.  It marked only the fourth time all season that the Jays had reached eight runs in a single game.

2. They finally won a game when allowing 4+ runs.  Coming into the game they were an eye-popping, hard-to-believe, 0-21 in such situations.

3. Russell Martin did something.  He came into the game with only one extra base hit all season, a double hit way back on April 22.  He was sporting a .180 slugging percentage and a .423 OPS.  But two huge home runs bumped his slugging % all the way up to .236 and his OPS to .484, and will hopefully ignite him to greater things.

4. Ryan Goins also did something good.  Granted it was only one hit, but it was a huge 2-run double that gave the Jays the lead for good.  We all know that Goins isn’t a great big-league hitter, but he also isn’t as bad as he as shown recently.  In his past 23 starts (dating back to April 15) Goins was 8 for 84 with only 5 walks, good for an abysmal .095 average and a minuscule .156 OBP.  He’s not going to hit .300 but he’s also not going hit under .100 either.

5. They finally got some hits with runners in scoring position.  Entering the game Toronto was hitting .212 (72 for 339) with RISP, a number that is now up to .216 after a 3 for 8 performance last night.  The Jays still rank 28th in MLB but are finally trending in the right direction.

6. For the first time in forever, the Blue Jays finally came through with 2-out, notching 7 2-out RBI.  Prior to last night they had only managed to knock in 61 runs with 2-outs, 7th worst in all of baseball.

7. Hey – Devon Travis is back!

Again, it’s only one game.  Several times this season we expected things to turn around after one solid game only to be disappointed once again (a 9-3 pounding of Oakland, the 12-run drubbing of Derek Holland, the Texas brawl).

But once again in 2016, there seems to be reason for hope.

Rock Bottom

Rock Bottom

Surely this it.

Surely this team can’t sink any lower.

A lot of people (myself included) truly believed that Sunday’s brawl in Texas would galvanize this team.  Nothing brings a group together like a good old fashioned fight.  We all thought (hoped) that such a bonding experience would wake the boys up from their early season doldrums and get them rolling back towards the top of the AL East.

Sadly that hasn’t happened.

Not even close.

The Jays welcomed Tampa Bay to Toronto Monday night for a three game series, and, to be blunt, it has not gone well.

Coming into the series, the Rays had a losing record (16-19), they couldn’t score (only 128 runs, 3.65 per game), and they couldn’t hit (.221 average, dead last in the AL).  But they seemingly love the crisp Canadian air.  The Rays suddenly look nothing like their weak hitting selves.  In two games they have scored 25 runs and hit .395 as a team (34 for 86).  And they aren’t just hitting cheap singles either.  Tampa has crushed Blue Jay pitching for 5 home runs, 9 doubles, and 1 triple.

More worrisome is who it was that Tampa Bay rocked – Happ and Stroman, Toronto’s two most consistent pitchers to date.

Hopefully this is just a one-off, a few bad games in the midst of an emotionally draining stretch for the team.  Not only was there the fight with Texas, but the Jays are in the middle of a bizarre stretch on their schedule.  After a 7-game homestand to start May, they traveled to San Francisco for 3, to Texas for 3, back to Toronto to 3, and then will follow this up by heading to Minnesota for 4 and New York for 3.  Not an easy travel stretch.

The biggest concern that many fans now have is what this all means to the job security of John Gibbons.  He is (for the most part) well liked by fans, and it certainly isn’t his fault that the hitters aren’t hitting.  But there are three things working against him: 1) managers always take the fall for underperforming teams; 2)he is, and will always be seen as, Anthopoulos’s guy; 3) Cleveland Indians Toronto GM Ross Atkins and President Mark Shapiro already have an in-house replacement that they hired: Eric Wedge.

Of course, the team can make all of this speculation and worry go away by stringing some wins together.  They can lessen the pressure (real or not) on their skipper by scoring some runs.

They certainly haven’t looked good the past few days, but that’s the good thing about hitting rock bottom:

You can’t get any lower.

 

The Angel and the Devil

401749-bruce

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

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

So just who are these guys?

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

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

The Devil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Angel

Not so fast.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In fact, they are very  much alive.

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

Blanche Showalter Strikes Again!

blanche showalter

Incredible.  Absolutely incredible.

No, I’m not talking about Josh Thole’s passed ball and Toronto’s brutal loss to Baltimore.

I’m not talking about any moves John Gibbons did or didn’t make.

I’m talking about the brilliant, top-shelf, gold medal performance by Baltimore manager Buck “Blanche” Showalter.

During the 5th inning of last night’s game, Blanche actually fell asleep in the dugout.

Asleep!

This is not Tom Hanks from “A League of Their Own”.  This is not a man who is 85 years old (though he looks like he is).

This is a major league manager.

Incredible.

Stay classy Blanche.

 

Baseball Is Fun Again

stromanstart

Fact: I love baseball.

I love to play baseball, whether it’s on my weekly beer league team, a simple game of catch, or through my fantasy leagues.

I love to watch baseball.  I watch virtually every regular season Blue Jays game.  I watch a healthy amount of other teams.  I watch the playoffs and World Series, regardless if the Jays are involved.  I even watch classic games.

In short, I am a baseball junkie.

But here is a second fact: for 20 years, Toronto Blue Jays baseball has not been a whole lot of fun – even for a junkie like myself.

Don’t get me wrong: we have had great moments and great players.  Roger Clemens won back-to-back Cy Young awards here, Roy Halladay was sensational, we got to see Carlos Delgado and Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion destroy baseballs.  But every year ended the same way, with me watching the Tigers in the playoffs, or the Yankees, or the Cardinals.  It ended with the Jays either being long out of contention by August (most of the time), or hanging around the fringes of the Wild Card race in early September.

Sure April brought hope, but nobody really, truly believed that Toronto was a contender.

Until now.

Last season’s playoff run was the most excited I have been about baseball in years, and was only surpassed by Opening Day of this year.  This Jays team as currently constructed is very, very, very good, and watching games has become fun again.  There is no longer the feeling of dread hanging in the back of our minds when the Yankees come to town, or when the Jays take a 2-0 lead into the 8th, or when they fall behind early.  Because unlike in years past, we can now beat the Yankees, our bullpen holds that 2-0 lead, and early deficits mean nothing.

Take this season so far.

Toronto’s vaunted offense, expected by many to once again lead all of baseball in runs scored by a healthy margin is scuffling:

– 4.2 runs per game (7th in the AL)

– .224 average (11th)

– .383 slugging (8th)

– .684 OPS (8th)

– 100 strikeouts (2nd most)

– Pillar, Tulowitzki, and Encarnacion each have an OPS of under .600

– Martin and Colabello each have an OPS of under .200

But that’s not all that’s wrong:

– R.A. Dickey is sporting an 8.10 ERA

– Cecil and Storen (two thirds of the back-end shutdown bullpen) have allowed 6 runs in 7 IP

– With Loup and Morales injured, the Jays might be forced to give switch pitcher Pat Venditte high leverage innings

Yet despite all of the above, the Toronto Blue Jays are 5-5, and have actually had a lead in all 10 games thus far.

Think about that.

The team is firing at maybe 50% of it’s full strength, and there is a very reasonable chance that they could be 10-0.

And after the last two games, there are signs that the bullpen (non-Osuna division) is shaking the rust off, and that Martin and Tulowitzki and Pillar are waking up.

So if you think that baseball is fun now, just wait.

Things might be about to get crazy.

Not A Bad Start!

Pillar Catch
photo Chris O’Meara / AP

 

The 2016 season is underway, and the Blue Jays are off to a great start.  Two games, two wins – you can’t ask for much better than that.

I know that two games in a 162-game season is peanuts, but keep in mind that the last time Toronto started a season 2-0 was 2012, meaning it’s not something that happens very often around here.

It’s OK to be excited.  After all, this is a team that faced a difficult offseason, was given a bit of a bad shake in terms of travel (they spent Thursday in Florida, Friday and Saturday in Montreal, then back to Florida for a Sunday afternoon opener), and had to kick off the season in Tampa Bay, their personal house of horrors.

2-0 should be seen as an accomplishment, and here are two things that really impressed me about the opening games.

1.  The Jays won both games by a score of 5 – 3 punctuated by a strong 9th inning from Osuna, but that is where the similarities end.  The wins were two completely different ball games.  On Sunday afternoon the Blue Jays jumped out to an early lead and were never really challenged.  Yes Chris Archer kept them off balance with 12 strikeouts, and yes it was only a 3 – 1 game into the eighth inning, but you never got the indication that Tampa Bay was close.  That’s how good Marcus Stroman was.

Last night, however, was a different story.  The Rays threatened early, took a lead, and even after falling behind 5 – 1 kept chipping away.  They left nine runners on base, finished 1 for 12 with runners in scoring position, and wasted some golden chances in the 6th and 8th.  It looked like a game the Jays really had no business winning.

Last season Toronto finished 30-42 in 2-run games.  They are already 2-0 in 2016.

2.  The Jays won both games despite arguably not playing very well.  Stroman looked incredible, Osuna is dealing, and Saunders is off to a terrific start.  But look at everybody else:

– Martin, Colabello, Goins, and Tulo are a combined 2 for 25

– Donaldson, Bautista, and Encarnacion have one extra base hit

– As a team the Blue Jays have struck out 25 times and only drawn five walks

– They are batting .176 (3 for 17) with runners in scoring position

– Defensively they have already committed three errors

– On the pitching side, Dickey looked wobbly, both Storen and Chavez looked a bit shaky, and Cecil was saved from trouble by another Superman style catch by Pillar.

To see all of the above, and then realize that Toronto actually won both games?  All you can do is laugh.

Because here we are, 2-0.

Just wait until they really get going.