Friday, September 27, 2013

A season of expectations, a season of disappointment

Kawasaki opens his arms in triumph after delivering the walk off hit.
There were happy times. Really. Photo courtesy the Flickr stream of @james_in_to.
Nobody knows nothing.

Maybe that doesn't seem like the most profound sentiment, and it probably sounded better when Socrates said something like it in his day. I am paraphrasing, mind you, and my version is certainly  lacking grammatically.

Still, it's the first thing that pops into my head when I look back on the 2013 season of the Toronto Blue Jays. Over the years, it's been something of a mantra that echoes through my mind almost constantly when I hear people talking in bold absolutes about baseball. But never more than this season.

This was supposed to be a new, refreshed and revitalized Blue Jays team. This was a team that would play in the now rather than dreaming on a future. A team that spent money and traded their top prospects on proven veterans with pedigrees who were expected to help the team win now.

The urgency to win was fueled in part by a one of the most calamitous seasons in Jays history, with a parade of injuries pile on top of homophobic eyeblack and finished off with a manager who bolted from the organization to a loathed rival. The Jays were left to pick up the pieces and restore faith in a hurry. And that's when it seemed as though the measured strategy of building from within was abandoned in favour of tactics echoing from the cheap seats.

"Spend to contend!" they said. With the Red Sox emerging from shambles and the Yankees looking old and broken down, the Jays were presented with window. This was their time. This was not a year to dwell on "five-year plans" or meaningless games in the second half of the season. It was time to go big, and put an end to two decades of futility.

And if you bought into that entire crock, it's hard to conceive of how this season could have been much more disappointing.

Even if you approached the season with some hesitancy, the acquisition of an exciting player like Jose Reyes or a reigning Cy Young winner in R.A. Dickey was enough to make the lead up to the season a dizzying delight of anticipation and hope.

But from the very opening of the season, this newly contrived squad was never seriously in the mix, nor did it ever really look quite right.

Without wanting to build narratives in hindsight, there was something unnerving on Opening Day about Dickey's reaction to a fifth-inning Asdrubal Cabrera fly ball that carried over the fence, giving Cleveland a 4-1 lead in a game that would end at that score. Dickey's immediate reaction was to throw his hands in the air, as if to suggest that he found it beyond belief that a ball like that would leave the park.

I make every effort not to give voice to my emotional reactions to those sorts of moment, if only so that I don't try to legitimize them. Those emotions are reactionary and amorphous vibes that haven't been treated with logic or contained and defined by reason. But in that moment, my raw feeling was one of dread. The Blue Jays had mortgaged two of their top three prospects to lock up a putative ace to win right away, but it turned out he was a flyball pitcher who was diminished when removed from the generous confines of Citi Field. And it wasn't going to work. Sorry about your luck.

Not that you abandon all hope after one pitch in the first game game, mind you. That anecdote likely would have faded into memory if the Blue Jays had bounced back with any degree of success early on. But those initial weeks with the newly devised roster were an ugly and awful slog. The Jays looked awful in the field, with newcomers Emilio Bonifacio and Maicer Izturis both looking ill at ease in the infield.

Josh Johnson looked lousy, picking and nibbling with offspeed and breaking pitches early in counts and getting hit hard when he came into the zone. Melky Cabrera moved like a man twice his age, stumbling in the field and pulling up lame on the basepaths.

It was hardly an auspicious start for any of the newcomers, save for Reyes, who tore into his role at the top of the Jays' lineup over his first ten games with the club, posting a .991 OPS. But in that tenth game, Reyes executed an awkward, half-aborted slide that saw him immediately drop to the ground, in pain and in tears with a severe ankle sprain.

I remember staring numbly at the television that night, caught under a wave of despair. Not even two weeks into the season, and it seemed as though 2013 was already a lost cause. It only twisted the knife deeper to know that this happened to a guy should be well-versed in the skill of sliding to steal a base.

The season wasn't over, obviously. There were still 152 games to play over the next 25 weeks. But with so little margin for error in a tough American League, it was hard to conceive of how a team that looked so lousy could turn things around.

There were high points to the season, of course. The unexpected emergence of Munenori Kawasaki - as much as an entertainer as a ballplayer - helped to fill in the gap as Reyes was convalescing. Kawasaki was the highlight of the most memorable positive moment of the season when his two-run walkoff double off Orioles closer Jim Johnson capped off a four-run ninth. Kawasaki would also play a key role in the Jays' 11-game win streak, posting a 1.018 OPS (.393 OBP, 625 SLG) at the top of the lineup over those games.

And for a brief moment in June, it seemed as though the Jays might be back on track. By the end of their winning streak, they were two games over .500 (38-36), and out of the AL East cellar by percentage points over the Tampa Bay Rays. But from there through to today, the Jays posted a 34-51 record, stumbling along with a makeshift rotation that could never quite do enough to support the mostly-okayish offense.

Last year at this time, I shrugged off the season almost entirely. There was nothing of value to be gleaned from it. It was a series of calamities and injuries and mishaps, the likes of which would be unlikely to be visited upon any one team again. There's no lesson to be learned there, aside from the fact that there are thousands of ways for plans to go astray.

Today, after a whole new set of tribulations and disappointments, I'm probably ready to say that I don't know if you can ever really learn anything monumentally insightful from how one season plays out. Sometimes, things play out the way you hope, and sometimes they don't. The difference between being a laughing stock and being in the Wild Card mix for the Jays was one lousy loss every two weeks.

I'm left after these past two seasons to think that there's no single path that teams should walk towards success. Rather, I think there are as many paths to success as there are success stories. Sometimes, that means loading up on veterans, and sometimes, it means holding onto your prospects until they blossom and provide you with depth.

The Jays were a flawed team, but every team has flaws. Next week, when we're all hunkering down to watch playoff baseball, those teams that were talented and fortunate enough to play those elusive "meaningful games" will have more flaws than you would imagine.

As Jays fans, we'll be fixated on the flaws as we attempt to understand what went wrong, and where to find those extra wins next season. But at this point, I could see the Jays adding the Matt Garza and Howie Kendrick and Brian McCann and still coming up short next season.

I don't know what the answer is. But I know that I don't know. And knowing that means I'll temper my expectations for 2014, regardless of what happens this winter.


NoisyFlowers said...

You're the best. You don't seem to take any comfort in your pessimism being vindicated and that makes me appreciate your prescience even more.

You haven't been very loquacious this season but you certainly have been on point. I think one of the wisest things you've done is expose the fallacy of the meaningless/non meaningless games dichotomy. There are always things to enjoy in the worst of seasons and there are always reasons to feel positively invested in a team even if it's not doing well. The type of fandom that can't appreciate that, the type of fandom that feels cheated and exploited when the team doesn't win is a bitter, miserable fandom. Even the best teams don't win all the time. The best way to be fan is ot enjoy the ride regardless.

The Ack said...

The above comment correctly dims this here upcoming assessment of mine, but... I'm broken down, man. A victim of expectations that even I could not keep in check.

I have found, these past few weeks, that I am more of a neutral observer than an invested fan during the broadcasts. A JPA strikeout? Well, of course. Dickey gives up a tater? Why would I expect otherwise?

That is the shittiest of shit attitudes, and I hate it, and I'm embarrassed to say that's how I've been feeling...but I can't help it. Totally powerless.

I know it will come back, but my deepest of fandom fears is that it will not. With an already high payroll and a depleted prospect base, what can change? A tweak here, an off the radar signing there, I guess?

Over and above the wins and losses is the notion, for me anyway, that this is not a lovable bunch of losers. I'm going to invoke terms that the statistically advanced hate, but there really does not seem to be much fight in these boys, and dare I say it... grit**. It just seems to be petulance at bad calls and shoulder shrugs at failed execution.

**(Hey, I could have used "sandpaper" for an even more loathsome hockey parallel, but I didn't. Unless I just kinda did?)

I dunno, man. I need some time away from it all. I'm completely depleted.

(now somebody go and play the world's tiniest violin for me, and all that.)

@dwbudd said...

I tend to agree with "Ack" and disagree with Noisy.

In the abstract, most of us who are not Yankee fans understand that your team cannot win every year. But 20-straight years of mediocrity?

It's one thing not to expect to win every year. And quite another when you do not win any year.

The difference is in mathematics what one describes as an inifimum limit versus supremum limit.

Agree that, to a point, 2013 appeared to be a random set of catastrophes - the injuries to the pitching staff, for example. 2014 appears to be less random.

What couple of items, related to chance, can be pointed to and say, if X or Y had not happened? Yes; Jose Reyes got hurt and missed games. Did the team play any better once he returned? I don't think so. Brandon Morrow (again) went down early and never came back. If he had been the number 2 guy, would RA Dickey have been better than a 14-13 number one?

The Blue Jays finished 11 games out of second-last place.

Worse, as Ack points out, the team was not a collection of lovable losers, but a team that at times seemed not only lacking the physical tools (the catchers hit well below .200 collectively), but in fact, incompetent and unschooled in the fundamentals. Making errors in the field, getting thrown out on the bases in incredibly stupid situations, throwing to the wrong base.

Given that the team was so dismal this year, that the payroll is not going to accommodate the money to re-animate and sign Babe Ruth, and that the prospects for the future are so thin and distant, how does one have any realistic optimism for 2014?

Bakatron said...

There was an interesting thing that Farrel said recently that the Jays didnt focus on player development and simply valued 'Tools' as opposed to creating a complete player - psychologically as well as physically.

This entire organization is a testament to that from top to bottom (coaching and players). Even though most players on the Jays right arent exactly farm grown, we simply lack the organizational depth to create replacement level players to supplement those lost to injury (and other things like whatever happenned to Ricky Romero)....

With the Red Sox in the WS, I'd love to say that they got in through luck, but thats nearly the exactly same core group of managers that we had (Farrel, Butterfield, Luvollo), and looking amazing at the same time.

Meh. I'd rather be in the WS right now.

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