Sunday, June 24, 2012

Keeping Up Appearances, Barely

[Pops head into the blog; looks around nervously yet hopefully]

Oh, good.  You're all still here.  See, I had given assurances to the Tao that, while he was gallavanting across Europe, I would water the plants and bring in the mail around here.  As you might have noticed, I haven't exactly followed through on my end of that bargain.  But they don't put the baseball season on hold for any of us, so instead of further lamenting my aimlessness, let's get to it.

Smoke and mirrors

The Jays continue to bob along at two games over .500 after taking two of three from the struggling Marlins.  The series victory came on the heels of an uglier one-for-three showing in Milwaukee, which itself followed a home sweep of the Phillies.  That's six wins in nine outings, but for the life of me, I can't figure out how -- apart from recognizing that the quality of competition hasn't exactly been tip-top.  Ricky Romero gave up his all-too-usual four or five runs in his two starts.  Joel Carreno and Jesse Chavez were entirely forgettable.  Brett Cecil went as deep into his starts as you could hope for, but he's still not the type to inspire confidence.  I caught some of the radio broadcast* from Cecil's Saturday start, and Alan Ashby** was astutely pointing out that despite the talk about Cecil having improved his command to both sides of the plate and his ability to keep the ball down in the zone, his pitches were up, up, up.  He didn't get punished too badly, and he's still about the best option to eat innings while George Poulis tends to the M*A*S*H unit in the trainer's room, but I remain apprehensive.  In any case, the results are the results, but it's awfully tough to get too enthusiastic about wins when they feel like optical illusions.

(* I mentioned this on Twitter on Friday night, but it bears repeating: I understand if the sports radio station in Ottawa, Team 1200, wants to pre-empt a Jays game occasionally for some local sports action, like a Senators or 67s game.  Lately, though, Jays games have been pre-empted by Euro 2012 games and, on Friday, the scintillating radio that can only be produced by thirty guys in suits reading the names of teenagers into a microphone, coupled with thirty other guys in uglier suits analyzing it.  Thank God for the MLB At Bat app.)

(** Dear God, but Ashby is the best.  When he filled in for Buck Martinez I don't remember enjoying the television broadcast that much since the airwaves were filled with the dulcet tones of Dan Shulman.  I'd like to think Rogers is smart enough to know what kind of talent they've got on their hands with him, and increase his role.)

Hot Stove!  Hot!

The MLB trade market officially heated up with today's trade of Kevin Youkilis and a rumoured $5.5 million in cash from the Red Sox to the White Sox, for Zach Stewart (Jays connection!) and Brett Lillibridge.  Who knows how much we're hearing through the grapevine is true, but the fact that the Jays are still considered potential buyers ought to be encouraging to fans who aren't keen on simply cashing in the chips on the season, trading the pending free agents like Kelly Johnson and Edwin Encarnacion, and seeing what 2013 brings.  My hunch, though, is that if Alex Anthopolous is in the market for a starting pitcher, it may have less to do with staying in the postseason hunt, and more to do with ensuring that pitchers who aren't quite ready to make the leap from AA New Hamsphire (Chad Jenkins and Deck McGuire, for instance) aren't unnecessarily rushed.  I don't mind the idea of looking externally for pitching help, if it actually preserves some of the minor league arms in the system, even if it's at the expense of lesser prospects.

Roster Merry-Go-Round... with no room for Snider

Welcome back, then, Adam Lind and Ben Francisco -- the former from a Vegas exile in which he pretty much smashed the living bejeezus out of everything he saw; the latter from a DL stint and rehab assignment that concluded with speculation he might not see the big league roster when it was over.

Lind first:  the rubber is about to meet the road for the erstwhile Silver Slugger.  The demotion to AAA-ball was, to me, a demonstration that the organization is perfectly willing to cut their losses on Lind if he doesn't show he's more than a AAAA-hitter upon his return.  It's hard to imagine he'll come back and re-assume the cleanup spot in the order, but stranger things have happened.  I suppose you have to root for him.  If he were to OPS something around .800 the rest of the way, it might earn enough goodwill to keep him around into next season.  If not, I suspect this next three months might be Lind's last as a Blue Jay.

As for Francisco:  I can't even.  His presence on the roster has been a mystery to me since the day he was acquired.  Bring me Travis Snider.  Like, yesterday.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Tommy John is a Punk

How convenient.  Our host 'round these parts, the Tao, has jetted off to parts unknown for God knows how long, leaving yours truly in charge of providing Jays-related content, at a time when it's fully understandable that the fanbase is growing increasingly perturbed and inconsolable.  I'm going from comfortably posting on the weekends (or not, as the case may be), to getting tapped for more regular duty at the exact time that the team slipped into a losing record for the first time all season, coupled with a meteor shower of injuries to the starting rotation.


The Twitterverse damn near blew a gasket tonight when Drew Hutchison became the third Jays starter this week to tiptoe off the mound in the first inning and disappear into the dugout, presumably to navigate a maze of MRIs and/or flight schedules to Birmingham, the home of Dr. James Andrews. (Aside: I picture Dr. James Andrews owning a foreboding-looking castle on the top of a mountain somewhere, and you have to pound a giant medieval door knocker to get in the place.  And it's always raining.  I'm sure his office is much better lit than I'm imagining, though.)

Lost in the rush to start hacking off our own arms and sending them to SkyDome as replacements was the fact that the Jays won tonight, with some yeoman's work put in by the bullpen being the most significant factor (because they sure as hell didn't hit much, although it was good to see Brett Lawrie drive a couple of balls hard to the wall.  We'll forget about his little baserunning escapade in the eighth).  That losing record?  Back to even-Steven.  No matter how much rending of garments takes place, the fact remains that the team is still competitive.  Nobody's printing post-season tickets, but they're hanging tough. 

Don't tell that to Fox Sports' Jon Paul Morosi, though.  After Hutchison's injury, Dr. Morosi (I can only assume he's a medical doctor, and moreover one who is capable of diagnosing arm injuries from a TV screen) tweeted that it was time for the Jays to start selling. I'm not here to tell you that the Jays will hang around a wild card race with a mess of starters on the DL, but if my knowledge of 1970s crossover country hits has taught me anything, it's that you have to know when to hold 'em and know when to fold 'em.  I just don't think it's time to start selling every last piece just yet.  Maybe let's wait until we're a little closer to the deadline?  Please?

I feel awful for Morrow, Drabek and Hutchison, but you may have noticed that apart from that, I'm basically an optimist when it comes to the Toronto Blue Jays.  My reasons for that are pretty simple, when it comes right down to it:  I have a family, a job, a mortgage and a real life that all provide me with my quota of stress.  I don't need to let baseball, of all things, add to it.  When things turn negative for the team I support, I try not to get too grouchy or complain too much.  I try to take it with a bit of good humour.  A couple more wins this weekend will help with that.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Gaps and the First Sixty

There are days when I watch the Toronto Blue Jays and find it difficult to see where the gaps are.  When I watch a game where Brandon Morrow absolutely dominates a division-leading team, while the starting left-fielder with the career .381 slugging percentage ices the win with a two-run home run and the forgotten-prospect first baseman (playing DH) goes 3-for-4, I'm sorely tempted to think:  hey, maybe this can work.  Maybe we can go with what we got.

I still know that the gaps are there, though; don't get me wrong.  I know that what I'm seeing is just a decent day here and there from the guys who are filling in where there doesn't seem to be a "long-term solution" on the roster.  But how significant are the gaps, really?  Or, to look at it another way, how much different are the gaps on this team from those on the teams with which they must contend in the American League East?

There aren't any perfect teams, anywhere.  After today, the Tampa Bay Rays will continue to lead the AL East, and they routinely field a more-or-less underwhelming offensive lineup, including your Sean Rodriguezeses and Will Rhymeseses.   The Rays, of course, can pitch like crazy, and it makes them competitive in pretty much every game they play.  But the notion that it takes an All-Star at every position to win in the East isn't necessarily borne out by the teams that actually do win in the East.

In don't see much value in dwelling on the easily identifiable spots in which the Jays could stand to improve .  There may or may not be off-the-shelf solutions to those woes, either internally (a healthy Travis Snider call-up; a return to some semblance of a power stroke from Brett Lawrie), or externally (a trade for a more established, productive bat at first base; or a middle of the rotation starting pitcher to take the pressure off the young trio of Alvarez, Drabek and Hutchison).  If the Jays managed to acquire Matt Garza or Justin Morneau, for instance, I'd be pretty happy.  I'd probably over-analyze what they gave up to make those deals and fret for the future, but I'd be fired up for their first games with the team.

Even without those kinds of additions, though, the 2012 Toronto Blue Jays already feel like a better team than we've seen here for several years, and it's made for some seriously compelling baseball even in the early part of the season -- which isn't really so early anymore.  We're a full sixty games in, and despite the doom and gloom from Mike Wilner's callers after dropping a game or two, the Jays haven't been under .500 for a second yet.  The most they've found themselves out of first place in the division is five games.  The broadcast team in today's whalloping of the Atlanta Braves pointed out today that going into Game 60 in 2011, the Jays had the same 30-29 record, and for once I was compelled to agree with Buck Martinez and Pat Tabler as they expressed some degree of surprise at that fact -- that this felt like a much better team.

Yes, I'd like for them to have five more wins right now.  I could probably go back in the schedule and find where the team might have found them, but that way lies madness and despair.  Can they find those five extra wins and more in the next 60 games?  I don't know, but I'm hopeful, because this is -- like every team -- a team with strengths and flaws; but it has more of the former than the latter.  I'll remain optimistic that the next 60 games will lead to an extciting final 42.

Friday, June 8, 2012

How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Hating Eric Hinske

We're a pretty even-tempered guy on most days, and when it comes to our fandom for the game of baseball, we generally take efforts not to enjoy the game with a pitchfork in one hand and a torch in the other. If we can maintain our aura of zen when Coco Cordero has a bad outing, we can probably maintain our composure in most circumstances.

And when lapsed Blue Jays come to town after they've moved on to another team, we generally get annoyed with those who take it upon themselves to welcome those former favourites with a hearty round of boos. Those guys had their time here, and some of it was good, and then they moved on. We can't be mad at them forever, can we?

But as we looked ahead to this weekend's series in Atlanta, the name that stuck out most for us was Eric Hinske. He's nothing more than a minor contributor for them, and it's been six years since he moved on from Toronto. But the sight of his name in a boxscore ignited something bilious in our gut.

It's not right, is it? To keep on carrying some sort of grudge against him? What did he do that was so wrong?

Hisnke had a pretty great first campaign with the Jays, putting up a .279 AVG/.365 OBP/.481 SLG slash line with 24 homers, 38 doubles and a 4.7 WAR (Fangraphs) as a rookie. (Can you imagine if this year's third baseman were putting up that line today? He'd be selling more t-shirts than all the other Jays combined. Oh...wait...)

There were two somewhat minor knocks on Hinske after that first season. One was that he needed to improve against lefties, who held him to a .202 average versus his .301 mark against righties. The other was that he struck out too much, and that if he were to reach the next level, he's have to cut down on his 138 whiffs. Which is funny, because in an era in which Mark Reynolds has an everyday gig, that number of strikeouts seems rather quaint.

Over the next few seasons, Hinske struck out marginally less and hit lefties better, but in the aggregate, he never improved on his power numbers, and his defense got bad enough that he'd be moved to first base for one year and right field for his last full season with the Jays. By the time that Hinske had a decently-productive-if-injury-plagued 2006 season (.865 OPS), he was seen as dead weight, with extra emphasis on the word "weight".

(Parenthetically, indulge us for a second on this point. Hinske's .865 OPS that year trailed five other everyday Jays in that statistic - Vernon Wells, Lyle Overbay, Troy Glaus, Reed Johnson and Alex Rios. So it's hardly any wonder that people thought Hinske was mostly disposable at that point. But just two years later, an .865 OPS would have been the best mark on the team. And from 2009 through this season, it would have been good enough for second best.)  

If Hinske had simply been moved out of town and we rarely saw him, maybe he would have slipped into the annals of our minds where former players toil in obscurity. ("Orlando Hudson plays third for the White Sox, eh? Well, bully for him!") But Hinske seemed to perpetually hang around the American League East, moving to the Red Sox, then to the Rays and then a short stint with the Yankees. (Tell us how he's never been an Oriole? He seems like a natural!)

At every stop along the way, he found himself in the middle of the postseason mix, winning two World Series (in 2007 with Boston and 2009 with the Yankees), plus an American League Pennant (2008 with the Rays), and one more appearance with the Braves in 2010. To which we were always left baffled. REALLY? Eric Freaking Hinske? That guy? HIM?

He also hit five home runs in 42 games against the Jays, which doesn't seem like much on the surface, but they all stung like a stubbed toe.

So why the high levels of antipathy? Maybe it is because we expected great things out of Eric Hinske from the very start. His acquisition was at the start of the J.P. Ricciardi era, and there was a notion that his great rookie season would set the tone for the great times ahead. He fell short for a variety of reasons, including some injuries to his wrist and hands, and the devolution of his body from an athlete's tool to one that too closely resembled our own. When he failed to deliver as those teams began to sputter and underperform, it seemed like his failures were emblematic of the entire, overwhelming sense of frustration.

(Is any of this ominously echoing any sentiments you've had more recently? Because we're not looking to scare you. Honest.)

We should probably be a lot more conciliatory towards Hinske, respecting the fact that he wasn't terrible for the Jays (.774 OPS for his career in Toronto), and we should likely be happy that he's carved out a nice little niche for himself as a utility guy and pinch hitter. We dislike the tendency among Toronto sports fans to seek out whipping boys, so why should we indulge in the same?

And yet, when that stupid crew cut and goofy chin scruff show up on our TV screen this weekend, we're pretty positive that we'll toss a few coarse words in his direction. Should he get a big hit, the vulgarity will certainly spew out colourfully and in quantities. We know that it might not be right, but we'll feel better for getting those frustrations out.

Sorry, Eric.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

How's She Goin', Eh? A Glance Back at the Season Thus Far

While we were off in a deep trance for the past week or so, the Jays snuck past the one-third post of the season. And while they don't hand out participant ribbons or playoff spots for a respectable fraction of the season, it at least feels to us as though we've reached the point where we can attempt to assess what has happened without being beaten about the face and neck with large clubs marked "SMALL SAMPLE SIZE!"

(And on that: It's gotten out of hand. So stop. Yes, small sample sizes are not predictive of future performance, so if we were to tell you to expect David Cooper to end his certain-to-be Hall of Fame career with a .981 OPS because that's what he's done so far, then fine. Beat us with that stick. But we just want to look back on a week or a month or a portion of a season or a frickin' at bat for criminy's sake and say "hey, that happened", so just back off and let us have a moment of peace. You can feel smugly superior on your own time.)

With that little rant out of the way, here's a few idle observations from your delinquent blogging pal.

The Hittin': Here's the thing that confounds us about the Jays so far: They rank 10th in the AL in OBP (.314), the "dumb" stat we sometimes point to as being the most important. But while they are making lots of outs, they are still scoring 4.88 runs per game, and sit third in the league behind the Rangers and Red Sox and ahead of the Yankees.

Their .421 slugging percentage (5th in AL) and 40 stolen bases (also 5th) might point to the fact that they are just effective enough in getting their baserunners over and getting them in. Or maybe they've been fortunate so far. And if adjusted OPS is your thing, they have posted a 97 so far, which more or less means they've been below average so far.

Another of our preferred metrics is isolated power (ISO). It essentially measures how hard a team is hitting the ball, though we like it primarily because of the way that it sounds rolling off the tongue. It should really be the title of a Rush album, right? As for the Jays' power, they've posted a .173 ISO so far, fifth-best in the AL. Along the way, they've crushed 81 home runs, second-most in the AL behind the Yankees, which might explain the discrepancy between what we'd expect that they'd produce and what has been hung up on the scoreboard. Although: 77 doubles, the second-least the AL.

What we also find surprising is the fact that the Jays - in spite of what seems like endless roster moves - have used just 16 position players to this point in the season, tied for the least in the AL. On one level, that makes us wonder if they've been a bit lucky with injuries thus far - get well soon Edwin! - but considering they've had to dispatch two hitters to Las Vegas to deal with their bat-stinkiness, it's not as though they've been without struggle and strife.

And beyond those who've already paid the price for their futility, there's probably no player in whom we've been more disappointed that Brett Lawrie. It surprises us that we'd get caught up in the tidal wave of high expectations for the Jays' fiery, athletic third baseman, especially when he remains the youngest position player on the team. Ultimately, an OPS around .800 (with, let's say, a .340/.460 split) to go with15 homers and 20 steals might be a really good season for a 22 year-old. Let's not lose sight of that.

If only he weren't such a blockhead on the basepaths sometimes.
The Pitchin': Roll all of the good and the bad in together, and we probably would have called the Blue Jays' pitching somewhat average. And if you look at their staff ERA, it sits at 4.06, just below the league average of 4.03.

Their xFIP (if that's your bag) is 4.22, which puts them towards the bottom of the AL in a pack with the Royals, Twins, Indians and A's. Not exactly august company. (Though we're not even smart enough to know if it makes a lick of sense to even look at xFIP in mid season. We're sure you'll set us straight.)

They're not exactly blowing their opponents out of the batters box, sitting fourth from the bottom in strikeouts with 393. Certainly, having Henderson Alvarez and his 2.63 K/9 rate dragging down the rest of the class doesn't help. Ultimately, the Jays' entire pitching staff has been worth a grand total of two wins above replacement (if you believe Fangraphs), ahead of only the lowly Twins.

Our biggest concern at this point with the pitching staff is the fact that there aren't a lot of young arms that seem ready to beat down the door and create a log jam of talent, which is what we expected to happen after spring training. We'll dig through the state of the minor leagues in the coming days, but suffice to say that no one in their system seems likely to push Kyle Drabek out of the rotation next year, nor does there seem to be a reasonable replacement for any of the other four starters if they go down.

The bullpen has been like a sack of mixed fruit cocktail: A little mushy, a little gross, and with only so many delicious simulated cherries to go around. The two lefties - Darren Oliver and Luis Perez - have been good to great for a big part of the season, though Perez has started to see his ERA climb with a couple of lousy outings against the Mets and Red Sox. As for the rest, Jason Frasor and Carlos Villanueva are walking too many batters (5.59/9 for Frasor, 5.90 for Los Del V), and the rest of the pen is a collection of spare parts. Meanwhile, Casey Janssen has filled in admirably at closer. Coco Cordero? Not so much, but let's not ponder that overly long.

Speaking of which: Do you remember how the Jays kept Sergio Santos hidden away from sight for most of the spring? Kinda makes you wonder whether if he was messed up even before he arrived, doesn't it?

That Kenny Williams. What a prankster.

The Fieldin': Perpetual extreme shifts are cool, eh?