Tuesday, June 25, 2013
Munenori Kawasaki has been optioned to the AAA Buffalo Bisons. And you can take your "cheering for laundry" nonsense and stick it in your ear.
Sunday, June 23, 2013
|Photo courtesy the outstanding @james_in_to's Flickr stream.|
It would be redundant to re-hash all the super duper great things that have been happening during the Toronto Blue Jays' current 11-game (!) winning streak. They've hit the ball well, they've fielded it well, and they've pitched well. They haven't necessarily done all of those things at the same time in eleven straight games, mind you, but in instances where one of the legs of that precarious three-legged stool has wobbled a bit, the other two legs have been more than sturdy enough to keep things upright.
Good lord, it's been a blast, hasn't it? I like to think I'm generally a pleasant person regardless, and I've learned over the years that loyal support of a baseball team that usually loses more than it wins is not a good reason to allow a sunny disposition to be disturbed. Still, over the last couple of weeks, even knowing a streak like this won't last, I've gone from cheerful to being about two steps removed from skipping down the street like a giddy schoolgirl.
If you wear your fandom on your sleeve, on your head, on your desk, on the bumper of your car and everywhere else, you've probably suffered through much of the same mix of mockery and sympathy that I have since the beginning of April. "What's wrong with your boys?" they asked. "Worried yet?" they asked. You try to keep a brave face, you try to convince yourself it's early and they'd at least make things interesting at some point. But when you were honest with yourself, you accepted what seemed to be staring you in the face -- the disappointment of a likely third or fourth place finish in the monstrous American League East, by virtue of a brutal start to the season from which the team was unable to recover.
And now it's all changed. On June 21, as the season turned officially to summer, the Jays won the first game of an eventual sweep of the division-rival Baltimore Orioles, their third consecutive such sweep to open what was anticipated to be an angst-ridden ten straight within the division. They've crept to within five games of the division lead (not just the Wild Card, mind you).
There are nearly three full months ahead of us before the calendar tells us it will be fall, and the nip in the evening air reminds us playoff baseball is on its way. Three full months of streaks to begin and end, for the ebbs and flows of a long Major League Baseball season to separate the real talent from the pretenders of April and May. Injuries, substitutions, stars emerging, veterans fading away, brilliant plays and boneheaded mistakes -- all of the things that make every baseball season intriguingly unique.
It's been a helluva long time since the Jays have well and truly been in the mix to emerge at the end of a long, hot summer with a chance to experience what the fall has to offer. Yet here we are, fans riding the euphoria of the the longest winning streak in franchise history (tied, yes, I know... come talk to me tomorrow night). The caps and jerseys are worn a little more proudly; the water-cooler chatter is a little more confident. It's true that the Jays haven't won anything yet, but it sure feels better to know they haven't lost it all yet either.
Friday, June 21, 2013
|Photo courtesy @james_in_to's peerless Flickr stream.|
The Crowded Roster, Part 1: As I waited for a ride yesterday afternoon, I offered up my downtime to answer whatever was on the minds of my Twitter followers. In a fairly predictable turn of events, the most commonly offered query had to do with the roster machinations that will be required once José Reyes returns from injury next week.
(Sportsnet's Ben Nicholson-Smith has a nice rundown of the possibilities here, if you hadn't already read it.)
There really shouldn't be any angst or downside to the return of Reyes, who was by far the Jays best player in his 10 games at the start of the season. But given the unusual attachment that people have developed towards Munenori Kawasaki, the prospect of losing him from the 25-man roster seems to have created some distress.
It also offers fans an opportunity to take a running start at booting Maicer Izturis, Emilio Bonifacio or even Mark DeRosa in the ribs.
There's certainly some argument for keeping Kawasaki around, mostly fueled by his team-best 13.4 per cent walk rate. He might not hit the ball hard or often, but a .337 OBP will certainly do for a player in a bench role or a part-time second baseman. His weighted on-base average (wOBA) has been slightly above league average for shortstops (.294 versus .289), so there is certainly some value to keeping him on the roster.
While, both Izturis and Bonifacio have looked much better in the field over the past month, both continue to languish offensively, sitting at the bottom of the heap in wOBA over the past 30 days (.255 for Izturis, .242 for Bonifacio versus .289 for Kawasaki.)
What keeps this from being an easy call is the three-year deal that the Jays signed with Izturis in the offseason. The Jays obviously can't demote Izturis without designating him for assignment. The most likely situation if that were to happen - and I still think it is highly unlikely - is that no other club would step up to acquire him, and Izturis would reject a minor league assignment. At that point, any other team could step in and sign Izturis for the MLB minimum without giving up so much as a bag of balls to the Jays in return.
Meanwhile, the Jays would be stuck with paying out the remaining two-and-half years and $10 million to Izturis in the hopes that the two-month samples of both Kawasaki and Izturis portend their future value. That's something of a gamble.
If the Jays were to go the unpopular route of sending Kawasaki back to Buffalo, it would mean keeping all of their assets, and not having to worry about who the next infielder in their depth chart might be if they run into injury trouble again.
The Crowded Roster, Part 2: There's another simple solution to the conundrum above, and that's to finally - FINALLY! - do away with the 13-man pitching staff and send a reliever packing.
After all, a week or two of decent starting pitching performances has meant that some of the relievers are having to shake of dust and cobwebs from under their arms when they go to warm up. And while lefty Juan Perez would seem to be the most likely candidate to be cast off, his performance has been good enough that you almost hate to lose him.
Meanwhile, the Jays will soon find themselves in a position of finding roster spots - and rotation slots - for J.A. Happ and Brandon Morrow, should an extended period of good health ever find them. Moreover, the Jays will have to decide whether if Drew Hutchison or Kyle Drabek will get Major League innings as part of their recovery from their respective Tommy John surgeries in the later stages of the season. There is also Luis Perez, who suffered a set back last week but is likely to be the first of the TJ'ed pitchers back on the big league roster.
Having too many arms is a nice problem to have, and good lord, haven't the Jays needed the extra help over the past two years. The simple solution with controllable players like Hutchison and Drabek would be to leave them in the minors until September 1st, then shut them down for the year.
Perez - that's Luis, you understand - might pose a more difficult problem, as they may be put into a situation where his rehab time comes to an end and they need to find a way to wedge him back onto the roster.
A week ago, I might have suggested that sending Darren Oliver to a contender might be a smart way to uncloud the picture...but who really wants to give him up now, with the Jays back in a place that sort of resembles contention?
A Big Week: I don't want to put too much stock in the results over the next week, with the Jays finally squaring off against AL East counterparts. But a good result - let's say 6-4, depending on how you slice up the wins and losses - could go a long way towards mixing up the playoff picture in the division.
After years of hearing people moan longingly for "meaningful games", I hope that fans realize that the incredibly tight state of this year's AL East - coupled with the Jays' lousy start - means that almost any divisional series becomes something akin to a three or four game playoff.
If you only care about meaningful games in September, then fine...enjoy your summer off. But for those who are geared up, this could be as much fun as a Jays fan has seen in years.
Just try to contain yourself.
Monday, June 17, 2013
|Photo courtesy @james_in_to's incomparable Flickr stream.|
What's more is that Lind has posted better numbers against the same lefties who once owned him. He still only has 25 plate appearances against southpaws, but he has managed a remarkable 13 hits in those matchups, including a homer and three doubles. Obviously, small sample size disclaimers apply, but it would be hard to think of a 25 plate appearance stretch against lefties in any of the last three seasons where Lind had anywhere near this kind of success.
Perhaps the most impressive indicator in all of Adam Lind's stat lines is the sharp decline in the percentage of infield fly balls he has surrendered. In the last two seasons, Lind has posted IFFB% of 10.5% and 9.9%. But this year, with a stronger swing and fewer painful flailings, Lind has dropped that number to 1.9%, which will place him in the top 20 in baseball once he qualifies.
Moreover, Lind has raised his line drive percentage by 6.7% over last year while dropping his ground ball rate 7.6%. All of which points to the fact that he is hitting the ball harder and squaring it up more often. And you can have a lot of success that way.
WAR! Huh! Good Lord!: I'm not particularly clever - nor wise - but as I understand it, Wins Above Replacement are probably best considered at the end of a season, when looking backwards to assess what happened in a year, or over the span of several seasons.
But since they publish the running tab on these things, let's say we indulge in a bit of imprudent number regurgitation.
Most winningly-winning Blue Jay thus far? José Bautista, who has been such a bad example to the rest of the team through his unleaderly ways* that he's posted 2.5 wins above scrub level, according to the Fangraphs tabulation.
Second on the list? Colby Rasmus, who crushed three home runs over the weekend in the Texas heat, and now sits at 1.9, just ahead of Adam Lind (1.8) and Edwin Encarnacion (1.7).
In an odd and eminently notable coincidence, we find ten games of José Reyes from back in April and Muenenori Kawasaki's 53 games of emergency replacement duty tied for fifth on that list with 0.6 wins.
On the pitching side of the ledger, Brett Cecil leads all with a 0.9 mark, while Casey Janssen follows with a 0.8.
Mark Buehrle has been the most valuable starting pitcher, tied for third Steve Delabar 0.6 wins. Meanwhile, putative staff ace R.A. Dickey is tied with Juan Perez at 0.5 wins. I'm sure Dickey's philosophical about it...or at least has a good explanation.
Unexpected roster flexibility: Edwin Encarnacion has looked kinda good at third base, hasn't he?
While past experience might lead one to have apprehensions about putting EE there on a regular basis, Jays' manager John Gibbons has seemed to pick his spots well over the past few weeks, since a short bench in NL parks during interleague play pushed him to make the move.
In 61.2 innings at the hot corner, Encarnacion has fielded well enough to make you think that he might be up to the task here and there while awaiting Brett Lawrie's return. It certainly enhances the strength of the offensive lineup should the Jays need to cycle some other bats through the DH slot through the summer months.
Remember the 2013 pitching staff: It was hard to imagine the 2013 season being any worse that last year, when the Jays would require 34 pitchers to get through the schedule. Well, here we are: Not even half-way through the 2013 season and the Blue Jays have thus far employed 29 pitchers.
It's probably fair at this point to say that this emanates in part from an organizational philosophy: The end of the rotation or bullpen slots are not so much jobs that are won as much as they are temp positions that are filled on an as-needed basis. Still, it adds up to a remarkably odd and eclectic list of names that you find filling out the season's roster.
David Bush, Aaron Laffey, Justin Germano, Todd Redmond, Edgar Gonzalez, Thad Weber, Mickey Storey...heck, Ramon Ortiz seems like an organizational mainstay compared to some on that list.
It's almost enough to make you want to run a graceful, slow-motion, black-and-white "In memoriam" tribute over the strains of Sarah McLachlan's "I Will Remember You" to some of these now-departed hurlers.
Except that, you know...for the most part, we won't remember them. Only those among us who take unusual delight in the obscure would want to.
*I'm being facetious about this. Sometimes, I assume that this is obvious. But some of you might be reading my scribblings for the first time. In which case: Welcome.
Thursday, June 13, 2013
|Photo courtesy @james_in_to's stupendous Flickr stream.|
Lindsanity: The funny thing about the great start to the 2013 that Adam Lind has had is the way that so few are prepared to believe it.
I suppose it makes sense, given the long, slow turgid road that we followed in watching his decline three year death march through the wilderness following his Silver Slugger season of 2009. In the ensuing three years, Lind posted an OPS of .724, saw his effectiveness limited by back problems, and managed to find himself demoted and exposed to waivers. An ignominious fate, to be sure.
Lind might not keep up his current pace - .418 OBP, .540 SLG - as his .391 BABIP seems unsustainably high. But his walk rate is up impressively to 12.2%, over rates of 6.2%, 5.9% and 8.2% over the past three seasons. He's also dropped his strikeout rate down to 16.9%, which is not bad for a power hitting
And to the eye - well, my eye, anyways - Lind's swing looks vastly improved over recent years, as he is back to uncoiling his body through the swing and getting torque from a decent rotation of his hips, rather than the vacant, all-arms swipes of recent memory.
If nothing else, this seasons has certainly complicated the question of what the Jays do with Lind and his three club options for 2014 through 2016.
Catcher Controversy?: The two-guys-one-job discussion is ubiquitous among the sports-talk chattering class, and in large part, these so-called controversies make for easily digestible stories. There are winners and losers. It's binary, and you get to play both sides while urging fans to choose one or the other.
So forgive me if I indulge for a moment in that which I hold in disdain.
The Jays decision last week to bring Josh Thole to the Majors was swiftly followed by speculation as to when he might supplant the struggling J.P. Arencibia as the everyday catcher. And the contrast between the two couldn't be more stark.
In his better moments, Thole is a patient hitter who will get on base (.330 career OBP), take walks (9.1% BB rate) and not strike out too much (12.3% K rate). He'll also not hit the ball very hard (.071 isolated power). Arencibia makes a lot of outs (.267 OBP), strikes out a ton (29% K rate) and walks only on special occasions (5.5% career walk rate, which has steadily declined from his 7.4% rate from his first full season.) Still, Arencibia can smack a tater. A .211 isolated power and .431 SLG are not to be dismissed out of hand.
Toss all those numbers into a big pile, and you can understand how people would divide themselves into two camps. Fewer outs! More dingers! Less slap hitters! More dingers!
Oddly, for the catching position, there isn't a lot of discussion around the relative levels of defensive acumen among these two. Maybe it's because neither are particularly exceptional behind the plate, nor are they wholly awful.
Up until the last game played in Chicago, I might have suggested that Arencibia is unlikely to lose much playing time to Thole given what I perceive to be an undying mancrush that John Gibbons seemed to have on J.P.. All of those at bats in hitting third, fourth or fifth in the order must have come from some level of irrational affection, right?
But seeing JPA plugged into the seven-hole in the lineup - against a lefty, no less - makes me wonder if his last 20 games and 99 plate appearances have been bad enough to take the bloom off the rose. A .202 OBP with 29 strikeouts versus four walks will do that.
Arencibia is likely to remain the incumbent in the coming months, but don't be surprised to see Thole get starters against right-handers with decent breaking balls. And if he succeeds? Well, then we might have a real discussion on our hands for 2014.
And one last note to ponder: Thole is signed to a two-year deal that pays him $1.25 million per year, while Arencibia makes $505,000 and hits arbitration after this season. Which might make this somewhat contrived controversy a little more real by the time we get to the trade deadline.
Programming note: If you want to take me to task on either of today's whims, or just want to discuss the state of the Blue Jays, I'll be chatting on Sportsnet.ca tomorrow at 12:00 noon Eastern Time. Come on by and let me know about the bee in your ballcap.
Thursday, June 6, 2013
|Photo courtesy the outstanding @james_in_to's Flickr stream.|
I remember at various times in the not-so-distant past keeping a watchful eye on the stat lines of players such as John-Ford Griffin, or Robinson Diaz, or Brian Dopirak, or even Chad Mottola, with the full expectation that at some point they would translate their minor league excellence into a career as everyday players with the Jays.
In more recent years, the mark of the more sophisticated baseball connoisseur was the ability to scoff at such middling organizational filler and rattle off the long list of more pertinent and exciting prospects within a system and throughout the game. A new surfeit of readily available resources that rate and rank and analyze ballplayers and teams allowed us to form opinions from our couches on athletes that we might not see at the top level for years...if at all.
Actually, that last part is the one that increasingly preoccupies me. Having indulged in so-called "prospect porn" for the last few years, the one thing that increasingly impresses itself upon me is the high failure rate of prospects. And this isn't limited to your garden variety organizational filler. I'm talking about the number of "blue chip", "can't miss" prospects. The top five percentile that fill the top ends of those perpetual speculative top 100 lists based on the gaudy numbers they post against their peers in the lower, developmental levels. The players who make their way onto a Major League Baseball roster to all matter of hoopla and frantic fantasy baseball waiver wire activity.
All this new information gives us some alleged sense of knowledge on players about whom we know very little beyond the blurbs. But what has been striking over the past couple of seasons are the number of top-flight young players who simply cannot make a go of it once they face real live big leaguers.
Previously, there were players like Jeremy Hermida or Brandon Wood, who stood out because they seemed to be the exceptions as top 10 prospects who never were able to convert that promise into something more tangible. Lately, though, it seems like this list is getting longer in a hurry. This includes premier minor league players like Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer, Justin Smoak, Jesus Montero, Dustin Ackley, Gordon Beckham, and yes, Travis Snider.
This failure rate for young players is quite unlike anything you see in the other major professional sports. Basketball, hockey, and football all draft impact players from the amateur ranks and have them producing at the highest level within a year or two. They slide into the professional game seemingly by sheer virtue of their athletic prowess.
Which brings us to this month's whipping boy, Brett Lawrie.
There's little question that Brett Lawrie is an exceptional athletic specimen, and that certainly helped him push his way into the major league lineup ahead of schedule, at 21 years of age. He made the leap into MLB after just 326 minor league games. That's fewer games than it took for Roberto Alomar to make it to the big leagues. It's almost a full season less than it took for Tony Fernandez to make it and it is about half as many games as it took for Carlos Delgado to crack the premier lineup.
It probably helped that the Jays needed to show some return from their trade of opening day starter Shaun Marcum while a mixed bag of third baseman barely held the spot warm for him. Meanwhile, Lawrie posted numbers in Las Vegas that were otherworldly, and beyond what he'd ever posted before in his minor league career.
Lawrie's debut with the team in the latter stages of 2011 was something of an astrological event. New-found plate discipline and a hell-for-leather approach to all other aspects of the game made him appear to be something more than an all-star. Lawrie appeared destined to become a transcendent sports figure in Toronto, and one who brought non-baseball fans into the fold. One needed only look at the names and numbers on the backs in the crowds at the Rogers Centre to see whose stardom shone above all others.
But like those many other phenoms before him, Lawrie began to struggle as the league became more acquainted with him. In 162 games in the two seasons following his sparkling debut, Lawrie has posted a .710 OPS (.311 OBP) and an OPS+ of 91. While his defense has been sterling and continues to improve, the more difficult to master tool of hitting seemingly continues to slip away from him.
Which brings me to my point, as much as I'm talking concentric circles around it: Baseball is hard. Really hard. It's harder than we as fans realize. Even more so, harder than some players realize.
And if there is an existential quandary that is leading Brett Lawrie to mow further down into his nail beds, throw equipment hither and yon, pout intensely and point fingers at his teammates, it's might just fact that this game which he had mastered (well, somewhat) at most every level is suddenly beyond him at this point.
Okay, let's slow down for a moment. We're moving into an area of speculative, long-distance psychology, and I'll cop to being on the shakiest of ground in proceeding down this train of thought. But given that Brett Lawrie's name has been often accompanied with a question mark in recent days, indulge me for a moment as I hypothesize on what's going on in his head, and where he needs to go to get through the other side.
Here's the short form of how I think Brett Lawrie's mind works: "I want something, and if I want it bad enough, I've gotta go get it. Take it. It's mine if I want it." I base this on the "Never Surrender" tattoos, the times when he's been thrown out on the bases like a nincompoop, and often, the defiance in the post-game interviews when it all goes wrong.
All of this adds up - in my mind, anyways - to a player who attacks the game. Takes no prisoners. Lays the smack down.
But baseball is a game that doesn’t cotton to being attacked.
It requires a quiet, steady approach. A marksman’s still hand and slow heart beat, not the furious anger of a shootist. It requires patience, not haste. An ability to let the game unfold as it will. A sense of perspective, and an ability to fail with grace.
You gotta be chill, bro.
The problem with this is that Brett Lawrie has been consistently rewarded for his unbridled enthusiasm. From the fans to the front office to his own father, Lawrie's single-minded competitiveness seems to be the attribute for which he is admired and rewarded.
He became something close to a folk hero for throwing his body over barriers, regardless of the damage he caused to himself. People laugh at the notion that he pumps himself up with unhealthy amounts of caffeine in anticipation of a game, figuring that his jacked-up athlete's body will insulate him mood-altering doses of substance that affect the neurological and nervous systems.
And then we wonder he's jumping at pitches.
It could be that the most recent onslaught of negativity could provide the impetus for Lawrie to reevaluate his approach. Maybe this is a learning experience, and somehow, he can learn from the bad times and adapt his game appropriately.
It wouldn't surprise me if he does. In spite of his dude-bro exterior, I've always suspected that there is a very clever and quick mind underneath it all. I think he can adapt, and I think he can transcend from the player that he has become to the player that he could very well be.
But to get there, Lawrie has to want it. And you can't find stillness of mind with the body's hustle.
Wednesday, June 5, 2013
While I'm usually patient enough to see the season through - or at least beyond the All-Star Break - I've been known to tell people that they can ask me for my opinion on the state of the club sometime after June 1st. Sure, it's still too early, but maybe we'll have seen enough to at least discern something vaguely meaningful out of the season a third of the way in, right?
As Aaron Neville might croon in falsetto, I don't know much. But here's what I think I've gleaned about this team after 58 games.
You Can't Live Without Starting Pitching: It doesn't matter how many additions the Jays make to the roster, or how many new arms have been brought in to reinforce the pitching staff if they don't have good health.
If your pitchers are inactive (Josh Johnson, J.A. Happ, Brandon Morrow) or ineffective because of injury (again, Morrow as well as R.A. Dickey), there's no amount of pre-season optimism that can backfill the gap left by these diminished returns and absenteeism.
Whether if it is bad luck, a small sample or nagging injuries that are irritating the Jays' starters, the output has been far below expectations so far. Of the five pitchers in the rotation on Opening Day, only J.A. Happ has managed to keep his ERA below 5.00, and that's by a very slim margin indeed (4.91).
Weirdly, their best starter - in a small sample and purely based on ERA - might have been Chad Jenkins in his three unexpected starts last month. That's probably not the way they drew it up in the front office.
Don't Hold Your Breath on Ricky Romero: Without speaking in absolutes about whether if Romero's career is over - because that seems to be the perpetual question - it's safe to say that there are profound issues with the pitcher who was once the Jays' Opening Day starter.
At the end of the 2011 season, it seemed as though Romero lost something, and I wrote it off to fatigue. I also probably gave him credit for gutting it out and persevering through when he didn't have his best stuff.
But the ensuing season and this spring's near-meltdown only serve to reinforce that there is something amiss with Ricky Romero that mechanical tweaks and minor league assignments likely won't fix.
Is it an injury? He had "minor" elbow surgery in the offseason, in addition to the platelet-rich injections that he received in his knees this spring. His delivery has increasingly looked like a collection of jerky component movements, though it was never the prettiest from the outset.
I still have a suspicion that there is a shoulder issue, as Romero's release point looked to be affected at time last year, and wasn't consistent with the one he used in his better seasons.
Whatever the case, it's probably best not to expect any positive input from Romero in any role with the team any time soon.
You Can Play A Lot of Positions Without Playing Them Well: If there was one aspect of the Blue Jays that excited me in the offseason, it was the notion that the lineup would be tremendously flexible given the number of multi-position players who were acquired.
Add in the number of switch-hitters, and it seemed like a roster that could not be game-planned into submission.
The admiration of this adaptable roster probably had a lot to do with years of playing fantasy baseball, and drooling over players who were eligible to play in a number of position slots.
But what has been striking is the degree to which those players are not actually trustworthy in the field. There was a lot of noise in the defensive metrics for players like Mark DeRosa, Maicer Izturis and Emilio Bonifacio, in part because those numbers are always hard to decipher or trust, and in part because they rarely played any position long enough in any given season to give a decent sample for what their respective capabilities were.
But having seen them in action, it appears that both are best used as marginal second basemen, and in a real pinch, you might be able to swing them into short or third, but not for any amount of time. Bonifacio looked particularly out of place in the outfield, necessitating the early recall of Anthony Gose.
What was a perceived strength is probably a bit of a weakness in the longer term.
Love the Long Ball. Loathe the Long Ball: The Blue Jays are among leaders in home runs, and really, who doesn't enjoy themselves a good tater. With 73 round-trippers, the Blue Jays sit fourth in the majors.
Edwin Encarnacion, José Bautista, J.P. Arencibia and even Colby Rasmus have been around the leaderboard in homers through the first third of the season, and while that doesn't guarantee 40 bombs or anything when it comes to wins, it should put to rest some of the long-standing gripes about the lack of power that the Jays have.
It should, but it probably won't. That's the nature of gripes, I suppose.
On the other hand, the Jays' starting pitchers are all giving up home runs at a rather alarming rate. Brandon Morrow's homer-to-flyball rate has always been a chink in his armour, and one which is glossed over by nerd stats that consider the conversion rate of the former to the latter as something of a streak of bad luck.
Even if you doubt that formula, the fact that this number is climbing for Morrow (15.7%, up from a career rate of 9.7%) is not a happy development.
Among the other starters, Johnson, Dickey and Buehrle are all posting a HR/FB rate in the 13% range (13.8%, 13.5% and 13.1% respectively.)
Brett Lawrie Is An Enigma: But more on that tomorrow.