Which Side Are You On?

There are two kinds of people in the world: pessimists and optimists.

Glass half full kind of people vs. glass half empty kind of people.

Those who see the positive and those who see the negative.

Nothing has fully accentuated the differences between those sides like the 2017 Toronto Blue Jays.

Personally this has been the most confusing, frustrating, hair pulling season in memory.  2013 was up there, after the hectic offseason brought fresh hope and high expectations.  But the team still had not accomplished anything heading into the season.  This squad is coming off back-to-back ALCS appearances, and by all appearances were poised to contend again.  Many even picked them to win the division.

But it has been a disaster of a year highlighted (or lowlighted) by injury, woeful situational hitting, and an avalanche of bad luck.

Yet, there are still so many reasons for optimism.


Russell Martin, Josh Donaldson, Troy Tulowitzki, Ezequiel Carrera, Devon Travis, Francisco Liriano, Aaron Sanchez, J.A. Happ, Roberto Osuna, J.P. Howell, and Joe Smith have all spent time on the disabled list.  The pessimist would say that this team simply can’t say healthy.  But the optimist would tell you that getting these guys back would be akin to a trade deadline acquisition, only one where the team doesn’t have to trade an asset away.  Reinforcements are coming.

Or consider:

This team just can’t hit with runners in scoring position.  Time and again they come up with a runner on third and nobody out, or the bases loaded and one out, or runners on second and third with two out and don’t score.  It’s awful.

But then you see this stat provided by @james_in_to

That is nuts.  Since stats like these have a tendency to regress to the mean (which this year in MLB is a .302 batting average on balls in play with RISP) one would expect some positive regression.  Better times have to be ahead.

Or consider this, the big one:

The Blue Jays started 1-9.  At one point they were 6-17.  They are a woeful 2-8 against the Orioles, and a miserable 12-20 against the AL East.  They just finished a stretch against weaker opponents, a stretch where they had a chance to make some noise, and went 8-10.  They are now 0-9 when trying to reach .500.

That is enough to make even the most passionate fan question the ability and potential of the team.  It is enough to make many less committed fans give up on the season entirely.

Yet someway, somehow, on June 29th the Jays are only 5.5 games back of first place in the division.  They have actually gained 5 games in the standings in the past month and a half.  They are the same distance from first as they were last season at this time.

So despite all the injuries, despite the horrid luck with runners in scoring position, despite the bad offensive production from guys like Tulo and Bautista, despite the awful start, and despite the dreadful performance against the division, the Toronto Blue Jays are still in the race.

This team that has played nowhere near its best baseball yet, is only one big run away from possibly reclaiming first in the division.

I fully admit that I have doubted this team many times this year.  But they are much better than they have played and hopefully it’s only a matter of time until things turn around for the better.

So – pessimist or optimist?  Doubter or believer?

Which side are you on?

The Week That Was: Week 12

Every Monday during the 2017 season, 500 Level Fan will take a look back at the week that was, giving readers a snapshot of all things Blue Jays, including three top stories and the Blue Jay player of the week.

This is what happened in week 12.

Week 12: June 19 – June 25

Record: 3 – 4

Season-to-date: 36 – 39

AL East: 5th,  5 games behind New York/Boston

Wild Card: 3.5 games behind Cleveland

  1. Osuna

Some things are bigger than wins and losses.  Roberto Osuna has been one of the best pitchers in baseball this season, seemingly single-handedly rescuing Toronto’s bullpen from early season ruin.  But his off-field actions last week might just be the most important thing he has done in his career.  By publicly speaking up about his anxiety issues he has helped open the door for other professional athletes to come clean about any potential issues they might be dealing with.  He looked great in his return to game action on Sunday, and here’s hoping he can make a full and healthy return, not only to the team, but to his life as well.

  1. Nightmare in KC

The 2015 version of the Kansas City Royals won the World Series using smoke and mirrors, and remain one of the worst championship teams ever.  Jays fans will remember the Royals beating Toronto in the ALCS with a combination of lazy pop-ups that found holes, and broken bat opposite field singles.  Well this weekend the Royals were back to their old tricks.  They won on Saturday thanks to some shaky Toronto defense, but Friday was the real kicker.  The Jays entered the bottom of the 9th with a 4-1 lead, and proceeded to retire two of the first three batters.   With a runner on 2nd, 2 out, and three straight sub-.200 batters due up, the Jays win expectancy was 98%.  Then the Royals started doing Royal things: a 9-pitch walk, a bleeder that dropped in, and two solidly struck hits later, KC walked off with a 5-4 win.  In a season in which Toronto is unable to reach .500, giving away games to middling opponents is tough pill to swallow.

  1. RISP Woes

Of course, one of the main reasons why the Royals won that game on Friday night was their ability to hit with runners in scoring position.  Sadly, this is something that has eluded the Blue Jays this season.  They were up 4-1 heading into the 9th on Friday, but could easily have had more after putting runners on 2nd and 3rd with 1 out in the 8th.  The result?  Back-to-back weak groundouts by Pillar and Barney.  For the week, Toronto went 16 for 74 (.216) with RISP, lowering their season mark to .226, second worst in the American League.  In a season where runs are seemingly harder to come by than ever, the Blue Jays are going to need to improve on that number to have any chance at making it back to the playoffs.

Player of the Week

Justin Smoak, 1B

Now a 10-game hitting streak for Toronto’s potential All-Star:  10 for 24, 4 BB, 2 2B, 5 R, 1 HR, 3 RBI, .417 / .500 / .625 / 1.125

Down on the Farm

A look at how the minor league affiliates are doing

AAA – Buffalo: 35 – 40, 5th place, 13.5 GB

AA – New Hampshire: 31 – 43, 6th place, 17 GB

A+ – Dunedin: First Half: 34 – 35, 4th place, 4.5 GB; Second Half: 1 – 3, T-5th, 2 GB

A – Lansing: First Half: 37 -29, 4th place, 7.5 GB; Second Half: 0 – 4, 8th place, 4 GB

A (Short Season) – Vancouver: 8 – 3, T-1st place

The Look Ahead

Back home to kick off a hellish 13-game stretch.

June 27 – 29 vs. Baltimore

June 30 – July 2 vs. Boston

The Week That Was: Week 11

Every Monday during the 2017 season, 500 Level Fan will take a look back at the week that was, giving readers a snapshot of all things Blue Jays, including three top stories and the Blue Jay player of the week.

This is what happened in week 11.

Week 11: June 12 – June 18

Record: 2 – 3

Season-to-date: 33 – 35

AL East: 5th,  5.5 games behind New York

Wild Card: 2 games behind Tampa Bay

  1. 0-7

Try as they might, the 2017 edition of the Toronto Blue Jays just can’t reach the .500 mark.  On Tuesday they tried for the sixth time to break even at home against Tampa Bay, but dropped the game 8-1 to the Rays.  Then on Friday night the Jays welcomed the White Sox to town with opportunity number seven to reach .500.  But they dropped their seventh straight contest in .500 games, this one an 11-4 thumping.  It remains a huge hurdle that this squad has yet to overcome.  One gets a feeling that all they need to do is break through that barrier, and once through a huge run awaits.  But getting there has proven to be the toughest part.  At 33-35, the Jays will hopefully have an eighth crack it early next week.

  1. Lefties Starting to Shine

Entering the season, Toronto’s rotation was expected to be a major strength.  Unfortunately, that has yet to be the case.  As of this morning, Toronto’s starting pitchers have posted a 4.48 ERA, 7th best in the American League.  Obviously injuries have played a major part, with Sanchez, Happ, and Liriano all missing time.  So it was with great relief when both LHP were activated from the DL in recent weeks, and with greater joy when Happ and Liriano were effective in their most recent starts.  Liriano pitched 7 innings allowing only 2 ER, 5 H, and 2 BB while striking out 9 on Wednesday, and has posted a 3.71 ERA in his three starts since returning.  Happ pitched into the seventh inning yesterday, allowed 3 ER, struck out 9 and didn’t walk a batter.  He has now won two straight starts.  With Estrada and Biagini scuffling in recent weeks, the Jays are going to need Liriano and Happ to continue to pitch well in order to reach .500 and beyond.

  1. 2017 Draft

The MLB draft was held last week and by all accounts the Blue Jays did very well.  With their first pick Toronto took SS Logan Warmoth from the University of North Carolina, and added RHP Nate Pearson from Central Florida Community College with their supplemental first round pick.  Although it will take years for either player to make an impact, both selections received an “A” grade from Bleacher Report, for what that’s worth.  The most interesting selection Toronto made was picking Kacy Clemens in the eighth round.  Kacy is the son of Roger Clemens who obviously spent two very good (and likely chemically enhanced) years as a Blue Jay.

Player of the Week

Kendrys Morales, DH

Another big week for Morales, which included an absolutely mammoth HR yesterday:  6 for 21,  1 2B, 4 R, 3 HR, 7 RBI, .286 / .286 / .762 / 1.048

Down on the Farm

A look at how the minor league affiliates are doing

AAA – Buffalo: 34 – 34, 4th place, 10.5 GB

AA – New Hampshire: 28 – 39, 6th place, 17 GB

A+ – Dunedin: First Half: 33 – 33, 4th place, 2.5 GB

A – Lansing: First Half: 37 -29, 4th place, 7.5 GB

A (Short Season) – Vancouver: 2 – 2, T-2nd place, 1 GB

The Look Ahead

A seven game road trip against recent playoff foes.  Watch for fireworks.

June 19 – 22 at Texas

June 23 – 25 at Kansas City

Seventh Time’s A Charm?

An eighth inning HR by Russell Martin rescued Joe Smith and the Blue Jays last night, once again raising their record to one game below the magical .500 mark.

That record – .500 – has been very elusive for the 2017 Jays.  In fact, they have yet to reach it!  Tomorrow night’s game against the Chicago White Sox will be the seventh attempt to climb to ground zero, a quest that began way back on April 5.  On that night Toronto was 0-1 with a chance to get to 1-1.  They lost that game 3-1 and have lost five additional “reach .500” games since.

There is something mystical about .500.  The figure represents an invisible line separating pretenders from contenders.  Rise above it and you have won more games than you have lost, and therefore have a chance for greater glory.  Fall below it and all hopes for winning championships are gone.

It is the reaching of that magical mark, however, that is the most important, especially for a team that has struggled for a large part of the season.  Reaching .500 can almost be seen as hitting the reset button – anything that came before it is in the past and can be forgotten.  The Jays have been scratching and clawing and lunging and reaching and struggling to get to that line, that milestone, since day one.

Somewhat shockingly, in the 40 year history of the franchise, the Toronto Blue Jays have only had one season where they failed to ever reach the .500 mark.  No, it wasn’t 1977, 1978, or 1979, the inaugural years in which the team lost over 100 games per season.  In 1977 they won the first game in club history, and sat 5-2 through seven.  In ’78 they split the first two games of the campaign to begin the season 1-1 before fading away.  In the dreadful 1979 season in which they lost 109 times, the Jays were actually above .500 in mid-April.

No, it was the godawful 2004 season where the .500 mark proved to be unreachable.  That was a J.P. Ricciardi season; the year when John Gibbons was first hired to replace a fired Carlos Tosca; when Roy Halladay only made 21 starts; when Josh Towers, Miguel Batista, and Dave Bush were in the rotation and Jason Frasor was the closer; when Chris Gomez, Chris Woodward, and Russ Adams split time at SS.  It was an awful year, but one that actually started better than this one.  Toronto was 1-5 and then 8-17 (compared to 1-9 and 6-17 in 2017), before a 9-20 August doomed them to a last place finish, 33.5 GB.

With Bautista, Donaldson, Tulo, Martin, Morales, Stroman, Osuna, and company, the 2017 squad is surely better than the 2004 team.  Yet here we are, about to play game #66 and they still haven’t been able to win the same number as they’ve lost.  They had a chance at 0-1, at 1-2, at 26-27, 27-28, 28-29, and 31-32 and failed each time.

One gets the feeling that hitting .500 will be like a collective weight coming off the player’s shoulders; that breaking through that glass ceiling is all the club needs to go on a long and sustained run to the playoffs.

We shall find out if they can get there tomorrow night.  Again.

Maybe, hopefully, the seventh time will be the charm.

The Week That Was: Week 10

Every Monday during the 2017 season, 500 Level Fan will take a look back at the week that was, giving readers a snapshot of all things Blue Jays, including three top stories and the Blue Jay player of the week.

This is what happened in week 10.

Week 10: June 5 – June 11

Record: 3 – 3

Season-to-date: 31 – 32

AL East: 5th,  7.5 games behind New York

Wild Card: 1.5 games behind Cleveland/Tampa Bay

  1. Surviving Out West

Last week brought with it a six game road trip to Oakland and Seattle.  Despite the A’s generally underachieving in recent years and games in Seattle resembling home games due to the tens of thousands of Canadians that flock there, trips to these stadiums typically bring bad news to the Jays.  Since 2010 Toronto’s record in Oakland is a dismal 11-15 and in Seattle a worse 9-14.  So expectations were muted.  But a 3-3 week has to be considered a win, more-so when you factor in the lacklustre first two games against Oakland.  Outstanding pitching by Happ, Stroman, Smith, and Osuna combined with some clutch hitting by Donaldson and Smoak enabled the club to take 2 of 3 vs. Seattle, a venue in which they had dropped 5 of 6.  Also, this happened, one of the best things I have seen in years:

  1. Smoak is Firing

What else can we say about Justin Smoak?  The much maligned 1B was left for dead by fans in the offseason, with many begging and pleading with Ross Atkins to simply release him before Opening Day.  (Yes, including me).  But he has done nothing but rake all season long.  He kept his hot streak going last week with another huge week, hitting 4 more HR and posting an OPS of 1.353.  Smoak is now in the top-10 in the American League in Slugging (.599), OPS (.956), Total Bases (124), HR (18), and RBI (43).  He is one of the main reasons why the Jays are within a game of the .500 mark.

  1. Osuna Matata

If Smoak is red hot, Osuna should be classified as scalding.  He has now registered a save in 11 consecutive appearances, including 3 last week alone.  In those 3 saves, Osuna struck out 4 and needed only 27 pitches to record 7 outs.  Of all AL relievers with at least 20 IP, Osuna ranks T-4th with 16 saves, 6th with a 0.84 WHIP, and 13th with 11.88 K/9.  And all this from a guy who blew 3 of his first 4 save opportunities and had an ERA of 7.50 in late April.  His turnaround, coinciding with the emergence of Joe Smith, Ryan Tepera, and Danny Barnes, gives Toronto one of the AL’s better bullpens.

Player of the Week

Justin Smoak, 1B

His incredible run just keeps going:  9 for 23,  2 BB, 4 R, 4 HR, 4 RBI, .391 / .440 / .913 / 1.353

Down on the Farm

A look at how the minor league affiliates are doing

AAA – Buffalo: 32 – 29, 3rd place, 9 GB

AA – New Hampshire: 24 – 37, 6th place, 16 GB

A+ – Dunedin: First Half: 30 – 32, 4th place, 3.5 GB

A – Lansing: First Half: 34 -26, 4th place, 6 GB

A (Short Season) – Vancouver: season not started

The Look Ahead

The team returns to Toronto for a short 5-game homestand.

June 13 – 14 vs. Tampa Bay

June 16 – 18 vs. Chicago White Sox

Hindsight: Looking Back at Past MLB Drafts

The 2017 MLB draft is less than two weeks away.  The Blue Jays hold the 22nd overall pick as well as the 28th overall pick as compensation for the loss of Edwin Encarnacion to Cleveland.  Toronto’s recent first round performance has been hit and miss.  In the past six drafts (2011 to 2016) the club has made 15 first round selections including all compensatory picks.  Other than Dwight Smith’s cup of coffee this year, only Marcus Stroman has reached the big leagues as a Blue Jay.  (Though to be fair, Joe Musgrove and Jeff Hoffman were used to acquire J.A. Happ and Troy Tulowitzki).

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 many of Toronto’s recent picks (T.J. Zeuch, Jon Harris, Max Pentecost, etc.) 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 2012, 2007, and 2002 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.

2012 Draft

It often takes several years for drafted players to reach the major leagues. Five years have passed since the ’12 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 2012 draft:

Carlos Correa and Byron Buxton were each thought to be sure-fire studs, but to date only one has panned out.  Correa won the Rooke of the Year award in 2015 and is raking again this year for the first place Astros.  Buxton, like the rest of the first round selections, has had a slow start to his career.  Kevin Gausman has showed flashes for the Orioles, but the jury is still out on the rest of the top-10.   Zunino, and Almora have each had a bit of major league success, and both Heaney, and Dahl are currently injured.  Kyle Zimmer is currently toiling in AA and Max Fried has yet to step out of AA.  Mark Appel refused to sign with PIttsburgh, went back in the draft and was chosen #1 overall in 2013 by Houston and has since been traded to the Phillies. 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:

What really stands out about that chart is how solid the first round was outside of the top-10.  Seager, Russell, Stroman, McCullers, and Wacha, have all had great starts to their big league careers, including post season appearances and World Series titles.  Of note, Graveman was drafted 1097th by the Marlins but didn’t sign and was picked up the following year by the Jays, who then packaged him for Josh Donaldson.  Although he is currently the 10th best player out of that draft I think Jays fans everywhere would make that trade again.  And again.

Blue Jay Focus

The 2012 draft was Toronto’s third under Alex Anthopoulos, and has the potential to be outstanding.  Although top pick D.J. Davis (17th overall) looks bad (in his 6th year Davis is still in high A ball in Dunedin), AA used a compensatory pick for failing to sign Tyler Beede in 2011 to draft Marcus Stroman who is a mainstay in the rotation.  Then with pick 112 he gambled on a two sport athlete out of Mississippi who was said to be leanings towards football.  Instead, Anthony Alford stuck with baseball, put up an .867 OPS in New Hampshire this year before being called up to the bigs a few weeks ago.

First Round Picks: D.J. Davis (17th overall), Marcus Stroman (22nd overall)

Total Number of Picks: 44

Number of Players to Reach the Majors: 3

– Marcus Stroman (22nd overall), WAR of 6.9

– Chase De Jong – traded to LA Dodgers for international bonus slots in 2015, then to Seattle in 2017 (81st), WAR of -0.7

– Anthony Alford (112th) – WAR of 0.0

Total WAR = 6.2

2007 Draft

The 2007 draft turned out to be a real mixed bag.  The top-10 produced All Stars, World Series Champions, and several unquestionable busts.

Here are the top-10 picks of the 2007 draft:
Just like in 2012, this was a rare draft where the first overall pick really panned out.  Price was phenomenal in Tampa Bay, Detroit, and Toronto, and is currently a big ticket item for the Red Sox.  Likewise, Madison Bumgarner has been a dominant force in San Francisco, helping the Giants to three World Series titles, including almost single-handedly winning the ’14 edition.   Both Moustakas and Wieters have appeared in the postseason and an All Star game, lending credibility to their selections.  The rest of the top-10 was a bust however.  Josh Vitters hit .121 in 36 games with the 2012 Cubs and is now out of baseball.  Mat LaPorta was a key piece in a CC Sabathia trade, but hasn’t played a big league game since 2012.  That’s more than can be said for Casey Weathers, who never made it above AA.

With the magic of hindsight, here is a re-ranked version of the 2007 draft, based on career WAR:
Chris Sale ranks as the second best player in the draft, but he did not sign with the Rockies and was re-drafted in the first round in 2010.  There were a lot of sluggers selected, including Heyward, Stanton, Freeman, Rizzo, and Lucroy.  And then there was the Bringer of Rain Josh Donaldson drafted with a compensatory pick by the Cubs as a catcher.   He never quite panned out in Chicago, but has done pretty well elsewhere.

Blue Jay Focus

The 2007 draft was completed under the guidance of J.P. Ricciardi, and looks pretty bad in hindsight.  When your top pick doesn’t make the big leagues, you get a big red X.

First Round Picks: Kevin Ahrens (16th overall as compensation for the loss of Frank Catalanotto), J.P. Arencibia (21st overall), Brett Cecil (38th overall, supplemental pick for the loss of Justin Speier), Justin Jackson (45th overall, supplemental pick for the loss of Frank Catalanotto), Trystan Magnuson (56th overall, supplemental pick for the loss of Ted Lilly)

Total Number of Picks: 35

Number of Players to Reach the Majors: 7

– J.P. Arencibia – now retired, (21st), WAR of 2.7

– Brett Cecil – now with St. Louis (38th), WAR of 6.5

– Trystan Magnuson – out of baseball, (56th) WAR of -0.2

– Brad Mills – out of baseball (145th), WAR of -1.5

– Marc Rzepczynski – now with Seattle (175th), WAR of 3.7

– Brad Emaus – out of baseball (355th), WAR of -0.7

– Darin Mastroianni  (505th), WAR of -0.5

Total WAR = 10.0

2002 Draft

To those who say that drafting players should be easy, may I present the 2002 top-10.  Yikes.

Where do we even begin?  Greinke was obviously a great selection by KC, even if he didn’t really come into his own until after he left the Royals.  There are a few classic cases of what could have been with Upton, Francis, and Fielder each seeing their promising careers derailed by injury and/or inconsistency.  But the rest of the lot?  Let’s take a closer look:

Bullington pitched a total of 18.1 innings for the Pirates before bouncing around to a few other clubs including a 6-inning, 6-walk stint for Toronto in 2009.  Beginning in 2011 he spent five relatively successful years in Japan.

Neither Gruler nor Everts ever reached the majors.  Loewen had a few solid months as a pitcher for the Orioles before reinventing himself as an outfielder.  He appeared in 14 games for the Jays in 2011.  Finally, Moore and Meyer made short stops in the major leagues and did nothing that would confuse them for a top-10 pick.

Here is a re-ranked version of the 2002 draft, based on career WAR:

A pretty solid list of players.  The real standout has to be Martin, drafted 511th overall by the Dodgers, and still enjoying a productive career in Toronto.

Blue Jay Focus

2002 was the first draft of the  Ricciardi era and to say it wasn’t great would be an understatement.  The Jays drafted yet another shortstop of the future in the first round, picking Russ Adams with the 14th pick.  Adams went off the board ahead of Nick Swisher, Cole Hamels, and Matt Cain in the first round.  He actually enjoyed a fairly productive 2005 season (63 RBI, 11 SB, .707 OPS), but quickly fizzled and did not appear in the majors after 2009.

First Round Pick: Russ Adams (14th overall) – Career WAR: 0.0

Total Number of Picks: 50

Number of Players to Reach the Majors: 8

– Russ Adams (14th), WAR of 0.0

– Dave Bush (55th), WAR of 3.5

– Adam Peterson (116th), WAR of -0.2

– Jason Perry (176th), WAR of -0.5

– Jordan De Jong (536th), WAR of -0.2

– Dewon Day (776th) – WAR of -0.5

– Erik Kratz (866th) – WAR of 0.1

– Drew Butera (1419th) – WAR of -1.3

Total WAR = 0.9

Nearly There…..

What.  A.  Turnaround.

The crazy 2017 season continued its crazy ways this afternoon as the Jays, featuring Chris Coghlan, Ryan Goins, and Luke Maile at the bottom of the lineup and Mike Bolsinger on the mound, completed a three game sweep of the Reds to creep to within a single game of .500.

That’s right.  This team that started 1-9 overall, 2-8 at home, and at one point was 6-17 – good for dead last in baseball – is now 26-27.  This team that at one stretch was missing Josh Donaldson, Troy Tulowitzki, Russell Martin, Kendrys Morales (for a few games), J.A. Happ, Aaron Sanchez, and Francisco Liriano, is now only 6 games behind the Yankees for top spot in the AL East.  This team that on top of all the injuries saw Devon Travis and Jose Bautista batting under .150, Roberto Osuna blowing every save chance he could find, and Grilli / Howell / Leone and co. giving away runs like candy on Halloween is now suddenly only 2.5 games back of a Wild Card slot.

It’s crazy.

On the morning of April 27th, with the Jays sitting with a record of 6-14 and looking rather hopeless, I wrote that it was important for the team to reach the .500 mark by game 62.  That would leave them with a nice round 100 games remaining to make their move towards October.  At the time of that post, Toronto needed to go 25-17 in the next 42 games to reach the .500 mark.  Did I really believe they could do it?  I’d like to say yes.  But let’s be honest.  They still had to go to New York to face the red hot Yankees.  There was still a home and home series with Tampa, a visit to Baltimore, and series against two 2016 playoff teams in Cleveland and Texas.  Then, immediately after writing that article Toronto lost three straight games (including an embarrassing doubleheader sweep in St. Louis) to fall to 6-17.

The season was horrid.  And getting worse.

But what has transpired since then has been simply magical.  Bautista and Travis have started hitting.  Players have started returning to health.  Stroman turned into a slugger and an ace.  Estrada is suddenly a strikeout artist.  Osuna regained his 2015/16 form.  And the most unlikely players have taken turns as hero’s.  Goins, Carrera, and Barney of all people took turns carrying the offense.  Joe Biagini of all people stabilized the rotation.  Joe Smith, Ryan Tepera, and Danny Barnes of all people suddenly morphed into Andrew Miller and Cody Allen, transforming Toronto’s ‘pen into a fortress.

Even better, during Toronto’s 18-10 month of May, the rest of the AL East has stayed stagnant.  Tampa, New York, and Boston are each 3 games over .500, and Baltimore has lost significant ground at 11-16.  The division is essentially up for grabs.

The Jays have now collected 20 of the 25 wins required to reach .500 by game 62.  A 5-4 record in the next 9 games is all it will take.  With a four game set at home with the Yankees, and then a west coast trip to Oakland and Seattle upcoming, it definitely won’t be easy.

But I like our chances.

The Week That Was: Week 8

Every Monday during the 2017 season, 500 Level Fan will take a look back at the week that was, giving readers a snapshot of all things Blue Jays, including three top stories and the Blue Jay player of the week.

This is what happened in week 8.

Week 8: May 22- May 28

Record: 4 – 1

Season-to-date: 23 – 27

AL East: 5th,  7.5 games behind New York

Wild Card: 3 games behind Cleveland/Baltimore

  1. They’re Back!

Friday night brought with it a most welcome sight for Blue Jays fans.  No, I’m not talking about Rougned Odor and the Texas Rangers coming to town for their annual spanking.  I’m talking about the return of Josh Donaldson and Troy Tulowitzki to the Jays lineup.  After missing over four weeks of action, the pair returned Friday and immediately transformed Toronto’s lineup from pedestrian to terrifying.  It didn’t take long for both to announce their presence either, with Donaldson ripping a double in his first at bat and Tulo reaching base three times.  With news that Francisco Liriano and possibly J.A. Happ might both return this week, the Jays are coming agonizingly close to being able to field their full team for the first time in 2017.

  1. Stay Hot Devon

April was a miserable month for the entire Blue Jays roster, but it was downright awful for Devon Travis.  The second baseman hit .130 and posted a .388 OPS in 83 April plate appearances putting him among the worst hitters in all of baseball.  But then the calendar switched to May and something clicked.  Travis has been tearing the cover off the ball, putting up video game numbers.  He is hitting .360 with a 1.010 OPS, and has set a Blue Jay record with 15 doubles in the month.  He is now tied for the major league lead with 17 doubles.  He also hit safely in all five games last week, extending his hitting streak to 12.  With Tulo and Donaldson back, Bautista and Morales heating up, and Smoak and Pillar still hitting well, Travis gives the Blue Jays an incredibly long and deep batting order, one that should have the rest of AL shaking.

  1. Barnes to Tepera to Osuna?

Nearly every good bullpen has a hierarchy cemented by a dominant back-end.  In 2015, the Jays ‘pen featured Cecil to Sanchez to Osuna to finish off games.  Last season saw Biagini to Grilli to Osuna, and that same combo was expected to close things out this year.  But Biagini has moved to the rotation, and Grilli got off to a terible start, forcing the Jays to improvise.  And suddenly it seems like they might be onto a new combo.  With apologies to Joe Smith, the Danny Barnes – Ryan Tepera – Roberto Osuna trio has been lights out recently.  Barnes has a 2.33 ERA with 21 strikeouts and has allowed earned runs in only 3 of his 15 appearances.  Tepera hasn’t been scored on since April 27, and has a 0.00 ERA, .102 BAA, and a 0.64 WHIP in May.  And Osuna, after a rough start, is back to his old self, posting 3 saves in 3 scoreless appearances last week.  The development of this newest lockdown trio has been a huge key in Toronto’s 2017 turnaround.

Player of the Week

Jose Bautista, RF

His 3-run HR off Yu Darvish was just another one of his huge hits recently:  6 for 17,  2 BB, 4 R, 2 HR, 5 RBI, 1 SB, .353 / .400 / .706 / 1.106

Down on the Farm

A look at how the minor league affiliates are doing

AAA – Buffalo: 26 – 21, 3rd place, 7 GB

AA – New Hampshire: 19 – 29, 6th place, 13 GB

A+ – Dunedin: First Half: 29 – 22, 1st place

A – Lansing: First Half: 27 -20, 4th place, 6 GB

A (Short Season) – Vancouver: season not started

The Look Ahead

The 10-game homestand continues with a visit by the Yankees and Toronto’s own Joey Votto.

May 29 – 31 vs. Cincinnati

June 1 – 4 vs. New York Yankees

Fun With Early WAR

It’s hard to believe, but the 2017 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 for some teams (Astros and Nationals are good, Padres and Phillies are not), the league is still full of surprises.  The Yankees, Twins, and Brewers at the top?  The Rockies dominating?  The Jays, Royals, Mariners, and Pirates in last?  Fans everywhere are scratching their heads, wondering if down is up or if up is down.

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 the leaderboard is a healthy mix of guys you would expect to see there and guys you wouldn’t.  To the surprise of nobody, Mike Trout is once again dominating the league, and guys such as Goldschmidt, Freeman, Harper, and Arenado are mainstays.  Judge, Cozart, and Conforto have been talked about as having the talent so their names aren’t overly shocking.  But what about Corey Dickerson and Eugenio Suarez?  Crazy.  In terms of defensive WAR, the usual suspects are all there, so no real surprises.  For Jays fans, the shock has to be Kevin Pillar.  To see him leading the team in dWAR is no surprise, but in total WAR?  It speaks to how great he has been, but also to how disappointing the rest of the team has been.

Most Likely to Stick in Top-10: Trout, Goldschmidt, Harper, Arenado

Most Likely to Drop Out: Suarez, Cozart

Two names jump off the list of worst players in terms of WAR: McCutchen and Ichiro.  It wasn’t long ago that both were perennial MVP candidates, but now they both seem like shadows of their former selves.  The biggest shock on the list has to be Kyle Schwarber of the Cubs.  Many were expecting a huge year from him, and I think he still ends up producing.  Maikel Franco is also off to a horrendous start in Philly.  To the surprise of absolutely nobody who watches the Blue Jays, Ezequiel Carrera is ranked as the second worst fielder in all of baseball.  He has a knack for turning every fly ball into an adventure.

Most Likely to Stick in Bottom-10: Hernandez, Revere, Asche

Most Likely to Climb Out: Schwarber, Franco

Pitcher WAR

For the most part, the list of top WARs is a who’s-who of stud pitchers.  Chris Sale, Clayton Kershaw, Dallas Keuchel, Zack Greinke, and Yu Darvish were all expected to do well, and all have met expectations.  But then there is the rest of the list and….wow.  Mike Leake is baseball’s top pitcher?  Ervin Santana dominating?  Dylan Bundy and Ivan Nova?  It will be interesting to see if these guys are legit.  Over on the other side, Sam Dyson sucks.  But sadly, so does Jason Grilli.

Most Likely to Stick in Top-10 / Bottom-10: Sale, Kershaw, Keuchel, Greinke, Carraso, Dyson, Weaver

Most Likely to Drop Out / Climb Out: Bundy, Glasnow

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

The Week That Was: Week 6

Every Monday during the 2017 season, 500 Level Fan will take a look back at the week that was, giving readers a snapshot of all things Blue Jays, including three top stories and the Blue Jay player of the week.

This is what happened in week 6.

Week 6: May 8 – May 14

Record: 6 – 1

Season-to-date: 17 – 21

AL East: 5th,  6.5 games behind New York

Wild Card: 3 games behind Cleveland

  1. We’re Alive!

That is more like it!  After five purely awful weeks, the Toronto Blue Jays finally showed up for the 2017 season, stringing together five straight wins to finish off a 6-1 week.  The Jays began the week by taking two of three from the Indians before sweeping the Mariners.  The week had a little bit of everything.  There was offense, with the team scoring 7 runs or more three times.  There was pitching, with the Jays surrendering 2 runs or less four times.  There were blowouts, with three games decided by four or more runs.  And there was plenty of drama.  Ryan Goins played the hero on Wednesday, providing the finishing touches on a comeback win:

And Kevin Pillar played walkoff hero yesterday:

  1. Welcome Back Edwin

Monday saw the return of former Blue Jay hero Edwin Encarnacion to Toronto.  Though some (including Edwin himself) were worried about how he would be greeted by fans after what happened in the offseason, Toronto fans quickly showed that concerns weren’t warranted.  Edwin was greeted with several long and loud ovations, and appeared to be genuinely moved by the reception.  And though he is not performing to his normal level of dominance, he showed Jays fans that he still has life left by going 3 for 9 with 4 walks against Toronto pitching.  But the Jays got the last laugh, taking two of three and gaining ground on the Indians.  Regardless, it was great to see Edwin back.  A spot on the Level of Excellence should be his in the not-too-distant future.

  1. Welcome Back Jose!

After welcoming Encarnacion on Monday night, Blue Jays fans also welcomed back iconic slugger Jose Bautista this past week.  While it’s true that Jose has been playing with the Jays the entire 2017 season, he has been such a shell of his former self that he might as well have not been here at all.  After an 0-for-3 on Monday vs. Cleveland, Bautista was hitting a woeful .169 with a .550 OPS, one of the worst hitters in the American League.  But all of a sudden….boom.  The prodigal son returns.  Jose went deep in the first inning on Wednesday to give the Jays a 3-2 lead.  He went deep on Friday to extend a 1-run lead to 3-runs.  And he went deep again on Saturday, breaking a 2-2 tie in the 7th inning.  In six days he raised his average 13 points to .182 and his OPS 92 points to .642.  Dare we say…..he’s back?

Player of the Week

Kevin Pillar, CF

Several outstanding catches to go with his walkoff bomb, Pillar has been unreal in 2017:  8 for 25, 5 BB, 1 2B, 8 R, 1 HR, 2 RBI, 2 SB, .320 / .419 / .480 / .899

Down on the Farm

A look at how the minor league affiliates are doing

AAA – Buffalo: 18 – 16, T-3rd place, 4 GB

AA – New Hampshire: 12 – 24, 6th place, 9.5 GB

A+ – Dunedin: First Half: 20 – 17, T-2nd place, 2 GB

A – Lansing: First Half: 19 -14, 4th place, 4.5 GB

A (Short Season) – Vancouver: season not started

The Look Ahead

A home-and-home interleague set before another series against Blanche and the Orioles

May 15 – 16 vs. Atlanta

May 17 – 18 at Atlanta

May 19 – 21 at Baltimore

A View From the Cheap Seats