The Relative Importance of Defense, Luck, and Skill in Marco Estrada’s Minuscule 2016 BABIP

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Credit: Winslow Townson- USA Today Sports

One of the few good stories that have risen from the ashes of this horrible April for the Toronto Blue Jays has been the continued success of Marco Estrada. So while not much good is going on, let us take a look back at the numbers of Marco “the enigma” Estrada using some neat new tools, and maybe solve a mystery in the process.

In two full seasons since coming to the Blue Jays in November of 2014, Marco Estrada’s results on the mound have been nothing short of elite. By ERA, Estrada’s mark of 3.30 over the past two seasons is ranked 20th among major league qualifiers, nestled between Jose Quintana and Corey Kluber. He’s also been dominant in the playoffs, pitching to a 2.18 ERA in 41.2 innings and saving the 2015 Blue Jays season on a couple of different occasions. All of that is fantastic in its own right, but it’s made all the more amazing when you consider that he’s done this in the American League East with a fastball that averages under 89 mph.

The borderline paradoxical difference between Estrada’s results and his style of pitching has driven the conversation around him and explains why he’s been so underrated by the league. The reluctance to buy in to what Estrada has done has stemmed mainly from his low velocity and some pedestrian peripherals. In 2015, Marco Estrada’s ERA was ranked 17th out of 73 qualifiers, but his K% and BB% of 18.1% and 7.6%, respectively, were below average. As a result, Estrada wildly outpitched his FIP (a stat that’s similar to ERA but only includes walks, strikeouts, and homeruns while excluding batted balls in play) and posted the lowest E-F (FIP subtracted from ERA) in the league at -1.27. In 2016, most of these trends remained and Estrada outpitched his FIP again. He finished with an E-F of -0.67, 8th lowest in the league.

How has Estrada allowed so few runs with such mediocre strikeout and walk percentages? The answer, of course, is BABIP. The batting average on balls put in play against Estrada was .216 in 2015 and .234 in 2016. He led the league for both years in this category. This is undoubtedly responsible for Estrada’s great run prevention over the past couple of years, but there is much confusion and disagreement around how to interpret this.

Pitcher success driven by low BABIP is not seen as valuable compared to success resulting from good strikeout and walk percentages. BABIP is viewed by many as simply a result of random luck and the quality of the defense behind a given pitcher, and therefore not as important when evaluating pitchers as other peripherals.

However, some pitchers manage to be quite good at continually suppressing their BABIP. Max Scherzer, Jake Arrieta, and Hector Santiago all joined Marco Estrada as having BABIPs amongst the lowest thirteen in both 2015 and 2016. Tony Blengino of FanGraphs has written that Estrada has been elite at limiting grounders and line drives while inducing pop-ups at an incredibly high frequency. He argues that this batted ball profile is ideal for minimizing the likelihood of batted balls from turning into hits.

Therefore, we know that Estrada’s low BABIP is essential to his success and we know that BABIP is a mix of luck and defense, which Estrada can’t control, and the quality/type of contact that he surrenders, which he can control to some uncertain degree, but we don’t know the relative importance of these factors in suppressing his BABIP. For prediction purposes, it would be valuable to know how much of Estrada’s 2016 BABIP suppression was his own doing.

To do this, the relatively new expected batting average (xBA) feature on Baseball Savant will be utilized in a manner similar to how Craig Edwards used it in an earlier piece over at FanGraphs. The xBA feature predicts the expected batting average of batted balls in play based on their exit velocity and launch angle.  Looking at this will allow us to directly hone in on the quality of contact allowed by Estrada without luck and defence getting in the way.

The first step is to take all the balls in play (BIP), league wide, from the 2016 season with expected batting averages and to separate them into discrete intervals. Overall, around 105 000 of 120 000 balls in play had xBAs calculated for them on baseball savant. Displayed below are the numbers of balls in play as well as BABIPs for each group.

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2016 balls in play organized into xBA groups. Data courtesy of Baseball Savant.

These results follow what one would expect to see. Balls in the below .200 group rarely fell for hits and balls in the above .600 range fell for hits over three quarters of the time. The “no xBA data” group will be ignored going forward as will the sacrifice fly group since sac flies aren’t counted as BIP on baseball savant for some reason. Next, I added the same columns but only for balls in play allowed by Marco Estrada.

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Balls put in play against Estrada and the whole league separated into xBA groups. Data Courtesy of Baseball Savant.

Interestingly, Estrada had lower BABIPs in every group but one compared to the league. This means that even after accounting for quality of contact, Estrada still seems to have allowed fewer hits than the average pitcher would have on batted balls in all xBA groups, except for those batted balls with an xBA between .300 and .400. So, it appears that there must have been some good luck and/or good defense on Estrada’s side last season.

Given this, we now want to know how many extra outs Estrada gained for every xBA group and in total.

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Estrada’s extra outs gained in 2016.  Data courtesy of Baseball Savant.

Estrada gained approximately 22 outs compared to what he should have gotten with league average luck and defence. These gained outs come from all xBA groups except for the .300-.400 group where he was worse than average by about 3 outs. The group where he gained the most outs was in the .600-1.000 group. In this group, 46 of 73 balls in play landed for hits, while the average pitcher would have had 56 of those 73 fall behind them.

Some of these gained outs in the .600 and above group were probably a result of good fortune.  However, anyone who follows the Blue Jays would probably first look to their defensive star in centre field when thinking about why scorched balls found leather instead of grass (or turf).

Kevin Pillar, who became the everyday Blue Jays centre fielder around the same time that Estrada entered the Jays rotation, has been an elite defensive outfielder in the league over the past two years. In 2016, he posted an eye popping 21 DRS and 26.3 UZR/150.

Therefore, using Baseball Savant, a spray chart was generated looking at the 27 of 73 balls in play against Estrada that had an expected batting average above .600 that resulted in outs.

estrada chart 2

Balls put in play against Estrada (2016) with an xBA above .600 that resulted in outs. Chart courtesy of Baseball Savant.

Clearly, most of the outs on these hard-hit balls came in the outfield. Looking deeper, an amazing 11 of the 27 outs came via Kevin Pillar’s magic in centerfield (Pillar’s put outs are circled in red). The most memorable of these was the one with the red arrow pointing to it. I recommend that you check it out.

It appears as though Kevin Pillar’s incredible defense in centerfield and the Jays great team defence in general (they were 8th in team DRS in 2016) bought Marco Estrada a lot of extra outs on balls with a .600 or above expected batting average. It’s hard to separate good defense and luck when explaining BABIPs, but its probably fair to say that good defense played at least an equal role as good fortune in this case.

Getting back to Estrada’s’ BABIP, if we subtract those 22 gained outs, Estrada’s BABIP jumps from .234 to .281. That 47-point jump takes Estrada from having the lowest BABIP in the league to being tied with Chris Tillman for the 27th lowest BABIP among qualifiers. That is still good but not great.

The difference between the league average BABIP of .300 and Estrada’s BABIP of .234 was .066 (or 66 points). If 47 of those points came from factors outside of his control including luck and defense, then the unaccounted for 19 points of difference must have come from Estrada’s often-discussed ability to manage contact. Using our xBA groups, Estrada’s management of contact can be visualized by looking at the proportion of balls in play against him in each group and comparing to the league.

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Proportion of balls in play in different xBA groups against Estrada and the league. Data courtesy of Baseball Savant.

Estrada had nearly 10% more batted balls in the below .200 group compared to the average pitcher (51.8% vs. 42.3%). He also allowed a smaller proportion of batted balls in the .600 and higher group than the league (18.6% vs. 21.6%). Clearly, Estrada was able to induce more poor contact and consequently less hard contact than the average pitcher. It is this contact management ability of Estrada’s that is responsible for depressing his BABIP by that final 19-points below league average.

Overall, the relative importance of the different factors in lowering Estrada’s 2016 BABIP can be summed up like this:

estrada graph

Overall, this xBA based analysis of Estrada demonstrates that his 2016 BABIP suppression (below the league average) was, surprisingly, more so a product of luck and defense than contact management skill. Of course, these numbers aren’t perfect because many batted balls had no xBA, and organizing data into buckets can cause statistical noise. Also, this isn’t necessarily bad news for Estrada. The 2017 Jays defense isn’t too different than it was in 2016. Most importantly, Pillar is still patrolling centerfield. Therefore, if Estrada can manage contact similarly to how he did last year and if the Jays defense does its thing again, then it’s hard to see his BABIP rising more than 20 or so points even if his luck takes a hit, and that would still put his BABIP down amongst the league leaders once again. After five starts in 2017, his BABIP is up at .289 and he’s got a sparkling ERA of 2.70, but the sample size is too small to draw any meaningful conclusions regarding BABIP.

So, it seems like we may be in store for another fun season of Estrada putting up zeros and embarrassing opposing batters, but why we’re marvelling at him, let’s not forget to give the eight guys around him some appreciation too, because Estrada’s success really is a team effort.

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Delving into the Blue Jays Offseason Part 2: It’s Actually Been Pretty Good

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Orlin Wagner (AP Photo)

When this winter began, questions regarding the impending offseason for the Toronto Blue Jays were as numerous as they were diverse. What’s going to happen to Edwin and Jose? Is the front office going to take a step back? How much money is there to work with? Are the Jays willing to trade young assets or surrender draft picks to improve the team in the near term? What about the bullpen? The outfield? What’s with Justin Smoak? Is there a clear path to being competitive given how good the Red Sox are? Etc.

The widespread nature of the opinions and inquiries surrounding the Toronto Blue Jays was simply a testament to how complicated the team’s position was. They were coming off back to back ALCS appearances but were hemorrhaging a host of good to great players in free agency. This combined with a depleted farm system and a new management group plus a talented, but flawed, on field collection of players kept fans unsure of what the logical path was going forward. Everybody had guesses and opinions as to what was coming. I summarized mine in Part 1 of this piece written back in November: The Jays will almost certainly try to have their cake and eat it too. Translation: they’re going to use their payroll flexibility and existing talent core to try and stay competitive over the next three years by bringing in good players on short term deals through free agency or trade. Meanwhile, they’ll be building the farm system in the background so that they can field a very good, young team by the end of the decade when the big contracts expire. This strategy would maximize their competitive window, it would keep the fan base excited in the near term, and it would ensure that Shapiro and Atkins have a good chance of building something special of their own in the not so distant future.

Well it looks like that prediction was somewhat accurate (shameless self plug withstanding). At the cost of only cash plus one sandwich pick from this year’s draft, the Jays brought in Kendrys Morales, Steve Pearce, J.P. Howell, and Jose (Thank God He’s Back) Bautista. None of these players signed for more than 3 years.  In doing so, they filled vacant spots at DH and in right field, they improved their bullpen, and they greatly enhanced their first base picture by supplementing Justin Smoak with Pearce’s lefty smashing bat. All in all, that ain’t bad, especially considering how terrible this offseason has felt. The long periods of inactivity and failure to secure targeted players have made this whole winter feel unpleasant for Jays fans. However, if you analyze each move individually and objectively, there is reason to be pleased.

The most criticised move was the early November signing of Kendrys Morales. Many have argued, including Jonah Keri in a piece at CBS Sports, that Morales doesn’t offer a lot. His major lack of speed and defensive value combined with a bat that only put up a 110 wRC+ in 2016 makes one wonder how much he’ll really be able to contribute. While these points are logical, I prefer (yeah maybe because I’m biased) to feel good about some of the more positive signs. According to a post in Fangraphs by Tony Blengino, Morales’ adjusted production of 150, which is like wRC+ but includes batted ball data like exit velocities and launch angles, was ranked second best in 2016 among AL DHs to the now retired Davis Ortiz. He scalds the ball. Additionally, he spent most of his career in pitcher’s parks, including last year when he played in Kauffman stadium and still hit 30 bombs. There’s reason to be optimistic that his power will play up big time while playing half of his games at Roger’s Centre and another 30ish games at hitter friendly Fenway Park, Yankees Stadium, and Camden Yards. Plus, as a switch hitter, he offers a valuable break in the line of righties that compose the meat of the Jays lineup. There has been lots of legitimate criticism against the Jays front office for coming out strong and signing Morales to a 3 year/$33 million deal considering how much the market cratered for old, one dimensional sluggers. This criticism was intensified heavily by the Edwin saga, but hey, what’s done is done and Morales could very well be a nice addition.

As for the Steve Pearce signing, there’s not much to dislike given his positional versatility and strong bat. He SMASHED left handed pitching last year and was no slouch against righties (176 and 118 wRC+, respectively). Some people seem to project his usage a little bullishly given his injury history (no more than 102 games played in a season in his career) but that was obviously factored into his contract. He’s only being paid to be worth around 1.5 wins above replacement over the next 2 seasons. Given that he’s still rehabbing from a tendon injury in his throwing arm from last season, just keeping him at first and allowing him to play in place of the underwhelming Justin Smoak is probably the best way to use him.

As for Bautista, already much ink has been spilled about his return. So to sum it up…he’s good! He was easily the best option for the team even leaving aside the connection he has to the franchise. But he does have a pretty damn strong connection to the franchise! Much of the discourse around the left behind sluggers has had Bautista wrongly lumped in with pure home run hitters who strike out a ton and don’t walk. He easily had the highest upside of any of the remaining options and his return makes the Jays look much better from an offensive standpoint. Just take last years’ stats. If you project those numbers over 150 games, you’re looking at nearly 30 home runs with a .366 OBP and 122 wRC+. That’s great production and it doesn’t even account for the fact that Jose was playing hurt with lower half injuries for much of the year. Projection systems seem to agree that he’s due for a bounce back as Steamer has him being worth 2.6 WAR with a 130 wRC+ this season. It was a good signing.

Despite these facts, many fans will continue to think of Jose as an unfortunate consolation prize after missing out on their real target of the offseason, Edwin Encarnacion. It’s easy to see how one may feel this way given the chronology of the offseason and how crazy the Edwin contract drama ended up being. His leaving felt like a real gut punch to the city and for good reason. He went to a small market team for less than the Jays offered him…the same team that sent the Jays home in the ALCS. However, as Dave Cameron of Fangraphs argues, this might not be such a bad thing. If Edwin had taken the Jays 4 year/$80M offer and the Jays had nabbed him instead of Bautista this winter, they would have presumably then spent the money that they gave to Morales on an outfielder. For 3 years and around $33M, they likely wouldn’t have got a great player based on what outfielders have been getting paid in free agency. For example, Josh Reddick signed for over $50M on a 4 year deal. Therefore, the choice is really whether you’d rather have Bautista and Morales, or Edwin and some OKish outfielder. Well, in 2017 both options are projected to provide similar production for the same price, but the Bautista option doesn’t entail the long-term risk that the Edwin deal would have (1yr vs 4yr commitment to an old slugger). So, by that logic, Edwin’s rejection of the Blue Jays offer wasn’t so bad after all.

Lastly, the Jays signed left handed reliever J.P. Howell to a nice little 1 year/$3 million deal. Howell has had a very solid career as he’s posted a 3.79 ERA since his debut with Kansas City in 2005. This past year his numbers weren’t all that appealing as opponents slashed .277/.338/.392 against him. LHH really got to him, slashing .299/.340/.412. However, in the 3 years prior, he shut down left handed hitters, holding them to a crazy .491 OPS. In that time, his overall ERA was 2.03, facing similar numbers of both LHH and RHH. So why the drop off from elite to not good in 2016? It seemed to be mostly bad luck. His K/9, BB/9, and groundball % stayed remarkably consistent over the past 4 years. His xFIP never left the range between 3.48 and 3.59 in that span. What really jumped out in 2016 was the .370 BABIP he allowed against LHH because it never rose above .300 in the three years prior. Additionally, his HR/FB ratio rose and his strand rate dipped compared to previous years, culminating in a 4.09 ERA in 2016. Therefore, this soft tossing lefty is the textbook definition of a bounce back candidate. If he can produce anywhere close to his pre-2016 numbers, this will be a total steal for Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins.

Oh, and we can’t forget about Salty (Jarrod Saltalamacchia), whom the Jays got on a minor league deal. He brings lots of experience along with some pop against right handed pitching. He should be a suitable backup to Martin.

This offseason has felt, at times, hopeless and demoralizing for many fans of the Toronto Blue Jays. Failing to get deals done with Edwin Encarnacion and Dexter Fowler followed by a month and a half of total silence from the front office left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth, including the fans that are usually even-keeled and trusting of management. However, the late and surprising signing of a franchise icon, the addition of a slugger who smashes the ball like few others, the signing of a real MLB caliber left handed relief pitcher, and the clever pickup of an underrated and versatile offensive weapon have, when taken together, made the offseason defensible and even…dare I say…. pretty good. For it to be really good, more work must be done, but if there’s anything we’ve learned this winter it’s that having a little patience may pay off in the end.

Delving into the Blue Jays Offseason Part 1: The Big Picture

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Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

As the 2016 Major League Baseball offseason heats up, the Toronto Blue Jays are in a precarious place. Following back to back ALCS appearances, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, two franchise icons, are free agents. They are joined by seven other members of the 2016 Blue Jays as being free to negotiate and sign with any of the 29 other clubs. Brett Cecil and R.A. Dickey have already accepted offers to play for the Cardinals and Braves, respectively. As a result, the Jays have holes up and down their roster to fill prior to the start of the 2017 season. They’ve already filled the DH spot by signing Kendrys Morales for 3 years at $33M, but much work is still required. However, before getting into the details surrounding their other specific needs, it’s important to delve into all of the big picture factors surrounding the Jays this winter.

It goes without saying that any discussion about the offseason has to begin with payroll. It may be boring to talk about, and all anyone can do is speculate, but given the payroll commitments already in place and the many needs that this team has, payroll flexibility is obviously crucial to this offseason. Besides, it’s easier to have a discussion about potential scenarios and strategies if we have at least a rough understanding of the numbers involved. The Blue Jays are reported to have spent approximately $150M in payroll this past season. While many players are coming off the books, many others are getting raises for next season. The Jays currently have approximately $121M committed to 10 players for 2017. If you add in likely arbitration and pre-arbitration salaries, you’re looking at roughly $130M that will need to be paid to current Jays who are expected to be on the team next year. That leaves around $20M for Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins and President Mark Shapiro to spend to get up to last year’s payroll.

Of course, one would hope that the 2016 American League attendance leading Toronto Blue Jays would have a much larger payroll in 2017. One would hope that Rogers would come to the conclusion that paying more for a competitive team is an investment worth making, even for purely financial reasons. One would hope that they would want to avoid pissing away all of the immense enthusiasm that has erupted in the fan base over the past 16 months. Unfortunately, fans hopes have never seemed to sway the decision making processes of billion dollar corporations, and it would be surprising if that started now, despite some notable recent changes in the personnel of ownership. This is not to say that payroll won’t go up, it definitely can, and many believe that probably will…but likely not by a whole lot. I really hope I’m dead wrong though. So based on this, one wild/speculative guess would be that they’ve got about $25-30M to spend to fill their remaining holes. Of course, contracts can be moved at any time and these numbers may be far from exact, but this as good of a guess as any.

In addition to payroll, we have to factor in what managements’ vision for this team is going forward. Shapiro and Atkins inherited an aging yet talented team on the heels of its first post-season appearance in 22 years. There wasn’t a whole lot coming off the roster at the end of 2015 so their task then was pretty clear. They had to fill a couple holes in the bullpen and rotation with short term, relatively low cost players and go for it again in 2016. They did this to great effect in the rotation with the extension of Marco Estrada (credit for that one goes mostly to Tony LaCava) and the signing of J.A. Happ. Their offseason makeover of the bullpen wasn’t nearly as successful but clever in-season acquisitions of Jason Grilli and Joaquin Benoit lessened the blow (that Storen for Benoit trade does not get nearly the attention it deserves. Like that was really amazing). Anyways, they successfully lead the team to its second straight ALCS in a season that contained many remarkable moments. Shapiro and Atkins did their job well, but things won’t be as easy this time around.

As all Jays fans are sure to remember, the talent in the upper levels of the minors was all pretty much traded away or promoted to the big leagues in Alex Anthopoulos’ final two seasons. While pretty much every fan, including me, would do it all again, it doesn’t change the fact that it’s hard to field a competitive team without a bunch of low cost, young, controllable players all over the diamond. Just look at the Cubs and Red Sox. Premium talent just costs too much on the open market to fill very many spots that way. Unfortunately, the Jays now find themselves in a place where good players are leaving and internal replacement options are sparse. This is not to say the Jays farm system is bad. To the contrary, it has been getting much better and there is lots to be excited about. The problem is that most of the excitement emanates from the lower minors. Of the Blue Jays top 10 prospects, according to Baseball America, only Rowdy Tellez, Connor Greene and Anthony Alford are talked about as having a real chance of making big leagues this year, although you never really know with prospects. Even if one or more of these guys does make it up, it’d be surprising if any of them had a significant impact immediately. Dalton Pompey is also still around and may be able to provide some value. However, his .702 OPS from AAA Buffalo in 2016 doesn’t inspire an abundance of confidence. This puts the Jays front office in a tricky place going forward.

Some have suggested that the Jays should try and enter a soft rebuild phase where they trade some of their better players and stock pile young talent for a few years and then go for it when the big contracts subside and the younger players are ready to make to make an impact, probably around 2019-2020. The Jays front office has consistently stressed the importance of building a great farm system and it’s natural to assume that Shapiro and Atkins will follow some aspects of their Cleveland model of drafting and developing many young, athletic players. Even this year, they’ve implied that they want the team to be younger and more athletic (who doesn’t though?). Nevertheless, this rebuild argument misses a couple of key facts. First, the Jays still have *a lot* of excellent players. The whole rotation from last year is returning. The only difference is that Francisco Liriano is replacing Dickey, which is perfectly fine by me. The Jays still have a great infield consisting of Josh Donaldson, Russel Martin, Troy Tulowitzki, and Devon Travis, with Kendrys Morales DHing. Additionally they have Kevin Pillar who, despite his offensive shortcomings, has put up 8 wins above replacement over the past 2 seasons. Finally they’ve got one of the best young closers in the game in Roberto Osuna and they have Jason Grilli who’s coming off a fantastic 2016 in Toronto. Frankly, there’s just too much talent and upside to justify any kind of rebuild…even a halfhearted one. Secondly, the Jays aren’t a small market team and they’ll almost definitely have a top 10 payroll in 2017. That gives them the financial muscle to stay somewhat competitive even if they’re not drowning in young, talented pre-arb and early-arb players. This isn’t Cleveland.

What does all this boil down to? The Jays will almost certainly try to have their cake and eat it too. Translation: they’re going to use their payroll flexibility and existing talent core to try and stay competitive over the next three years by bringing in good players on short term deals through free agency or trade. Meanwhile, they’ll be building the farm system in the background so that the Jays can field a very good, young team by the end of the decade when the big contracts expire. This strategy would maximize their competitive window, it would keep the fan base excited in the near term, and it would ensure that Shapiro and Atkins have a good chance of building something special of their own in the not so distant future. These two tasks won’t exist perfectly in parallel. Keeping their eye to the future will lessen the chance that they’ll be able to trade for impact major leaguers or sign coveted free agents. Conversely, their desire to win now will put tight limits on the rate at which they can collect premium prospect capital and they may even have to trade some of it away. However, it’s the right strategy and it’s one that we all hope is successful. The hard part now is getting the pieces necessary to make the 2017 Jays contenders within this framework. There are many moves to be made this offseason and they may not all be the sexiest, but there’s no doubt it’ll be an exciting ride.

The 2015 Blue Jays Season: Let’s Not Forget the Early Days

(Jim Rogash/Getty Images/AFP)

(Jim Rogash/Getty Images/AFP)

2015 for the Toronto Blue Jays will go down as one of the most incredible seasons in franchise history. So whether you’re a die-hard fan who watched them since April or somebody who hopped on the wild ride in the summer months, there’s something to gain by looking back at the season that was for your Toronto Blue Jays. While this season will be remembered for the explosive mid season trades and the dominant sprint into October, we should not forget the 4 months that lead up those moments. They too were filled with many incredible moments and it was the events of these first 100 games that set the stage for the most exciting end to a season since Carter touched ’em all. So how about we take some time and look back on April to July of the Toronto Blue Jays 2015 season.

It seems like a decade ago, but it all started rather routinely. The off season got fans a little excited with the acquisitions of superstars Josh Donaldson and Russell Martin. Other additions including Michael Saunders, Marco Estrada, Devon Travis, and Justin Smoak also added some intrigue, as did the six rookies who would be breaking camp with the team. Expectations were lowered though after fluke injuries to Marcus Stroman and Michael Saunders. The season began in the Bronx on April 6 with a win highlighted by a strong start by Drew Hutchison and a Devon Travis home run. However, the Jays pushed through the first two months of the season with middling results as they bobbed over and under the .500 mark (usually under) in a fashion that we were all too familiar with. In the early going, the Blue Jays offence was looking special with a middle of the order that seemed video game-like. With help from a few unexpected sources of offence like Devon Travis and Chris Colabello, the Jays scored a lot of runs.

However, as has been the case too often for this franchise, when one part of the team is strong, the others are anything but. In this case, pitching was the problem. Dickey began the season slow as he has every year as a Blue Jay. Mark Buehrle was getting hit all over the place leading some to question whether he was finished. Sanchez was having trouble finding the strike zone and Norris was constantly walking a tight rope and struggling to get past the fifth inning. Drew Hutchison was pitching alright at home but was absolutely terrible on the road. All of this was in the shadow of what “appeared” to be a season ending injury to Marcus Stroman in spring training. However, despite this, the bullpen may have been an equally big problem. Cecil and Loup were not getting the job done and Castro’s coronation as the king of pitching was demonstrated to have been a little premature. It didn’t take very long for rookie Roberto Osuna to emerge as not just a huge part of the bullpen, but really he was the whole bullpen for a stretch.

Though, there were some highlights from the early months that shouldn’t be forgotten. There were a couple of glorious walk off home runs from Josh Donaldson. Devon Travis, a prospect with mixed reviews, came in and outperformed all the superstars around him. Chris Colabello, an independent ball veteran, made it seem possible to never find a glove with a batted ball. Kevin Pillar was producing a weekly 5 minute highlight reel by himself (not much of an exaggeration). Oh, and Jose Bautista had another couple anger fueled home runs off of Orioles pitchers. Despite all this, the early part of the season didn’t leave a good taste in the mouths of players and fans alike. At one point, Josh Donaldson famously said “This isn’t the try league. It’s the Get-it-done league”.

Around the end of May, things started feeling a little bit better though. The pitchers began to progress towards their career marks and swingman Marco Estrada was giving the Jays a fighting chance in games he started with his dynamic changeup. Bautista was returning to the field after DHing for 6 weeks following an ill-advised, heat of the moment throw during the big brush up with the Orioles in late April. The significance of this couldn’t be overstated. Bautista’s injury contributed to the reason that infielders like Colabello and Valencia were in the outfield, it meant that Justin Smoak’s bat was stuck glued to the bench, and it meant Edwin had to play first base every day and accentuate his nagging injuries. Additionally, Navarro and Reyes (yeah, remember him?) were coming off the DL. It felt like the Jays were going to go on a run. Then they went to Washington and barely lost game one of a double header. Game 2 that night was between Max Scherzer and Marco Estrada and a very bad day seemed to be a real possibility for the Jays. Then, Kevin Pillar hit two home runs off Scherzer and the Jays won game 2. Other than reminding everybody why they watch baseball, that performance seemed to jump start the Jays and they went on to win 10 more right after.

This 11 game win streak showed everyone that there really was legitimate talent on the Blue Jays roster, so when they went on to play sub .500 baseball between the streak and the all-star break, rather than throwing in the towel and saying that the team just wasn’t good, most fans pushed for specific moves to address specific holes. They had faith in the core. People understood that they needed a good starting pitcher to take the spot in the rotation that was possessed by Felix Doubront. Also, they needed bullpen arms. Other issues included shortstop and left field defense. All of this was apparent based on how the Jays were losing games. Aaron Sanchez got hurt just as he was becoming a dependable starting pitcher causing the Jays front office to throw Scott Copeland, Matt Boyd and Felix Doubront at the wall to see what sticks…nothing did. Also, misplays in left field and at shortstop were continually and frustratingly costing the Jays one or two run games. Jose Reyes was becoming a particularly strong lightning rod among the Jays fan base, especially after Blue Jays long time radio play by play announcer, Jerry Howarth, called him out for his misplays and even implied that he wasn’t serious enough on the field. Finally, no Jays fan felt at ease when a relief pitcher that could legally drink in the US was on the mound. Due to these factors, an offence that was heads and tails better than anybody else was behind in the standings to the light hitting rays and the retirement home Yankees.

But then, after another heart breaking loss to the Mariners in late July in which Ezequiel Carrera hit a home run, robbed a home run, and was tripled off all in one game, deadline week began and all hell broke loose. The events of the week that followed would set the stage for one of the greatest runs in Blue Jays history and it would ignite a fan base that had not had anything to cheer about in decades.

Decision Time: What Should the Jays do Before the Deadline?

As we enter into the final week of play before the MLB non-waiver trade deadline, the baseball world is completely awash with rumors (of varying accuracy) and opinions concerning where certain players may be heading. All of this dizzying banter can only be deciphered by spending a couple hours a day checking out twitter or more quickly at mlbtraderumors.com. After an unexpectedly lengthy period of stagnancy in the trade market, the dominoes finally began to fall on Thursday when Scott Kazmir was dealt by Oakland to Houston in a classic rental for prospects type deal. Since then, the Mets added Juan Uribe and Kelly Johnson from the Braves to inject some badly needed offence into their roster and the cardinals picked up reliever Steve Cishek to help bolster their first place team for another deep playoff run. Oh and the Royals got Cueto.

Throughout all of this action, the Blue Jays have been front and centre despite not yet making any moves. There has been a polarizing month long debate within the fan base and media about what Alex Anthopoulos should do prior to the July 31st trade deadline. Many factors have been key in determining whether the Jays should buy, buy big, sell, or stand pat. The team is currently only at .500, but they’re just 5.5 games back of the Yankees (who are much shittier than they’ve been letting on), and just 3 games back of Paul Molitor’s surprising Twins for the second wild card spot. Followers of the team seem split between either holding onto their elite pitching prospects or making a big splash for a huge addition.

The “let’s not do anything camp” has a few solid points. The Jays have battled to be a .500 team all year despite limited injury setbacks (compared to previous years). Also, there is a widely held belief that strong starting pitching is an essential component of good playoff teams but the Jay’s rotation has much to be desired and they lack a prototypical ace. Most importantly, this viewpoint is built upon unconditional love for the young starting pitching prospects that the Jays have collected over Anthopoulos’ tenure. After so many years of watching teams with good young starters like Tampa Bay and St. Louis win so many games so easily while the Jays have struggled so much to develop young starters…Romero Anyone?…the thought of having Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, Daniel Norris, Jeff Hoffman, Drew Hutchison (let’s hope he gets better on the road), and Roberto Osuna as Blue Jays over the next few years seems to tantalizing of a possibility to ignore or throw away unless the Jays were a first place team with the .500 mark well in the rear view mirror.

Though the thing is that this reasonable sounding position is narrow minded and it ignores some important facts and possibilities that can’t afford to be brushed aside. First of all, the Jays have an incredible offense. They have scored 80!!! more runs than any other team and are tops in the MLB in slugging percentage and are a close second in on base percentage and home runs. This amazingness being delivered nightly…well almost nightly…by the hitters ensures that the pitching only needs to be OKish for this team to be very good. They don’t need a rotation ERA of 3.00 to have a shot at contention. Also, there is no guarantee that this will repeat itself next year. Another advantage that the Jays have this year that they may not next year is that they play in an AL East that isn’t very good. The whole division is around or well below the .500 mark except for the Yankees who many believe are destined to come down to Earth. But next year, anything could happen, especially with the budgets of the Yankees and Red Sox, so waiting until next year might be a very poor idea for that reason. Another reason that the Jays should add at the deadline is because there is a specific area that has a ton of room for improvement. We can all agree that the Stroman-less rotation has been pretty rough this year and that it is the reason why this team, that seemingly scores at will, has such an unspectacular record. Hell…Felix Doubront is in this rotation!! Having such a weak area is a bad thing but it allows a single addition to have a maximally significant impact. This differs from last year, when there were numerous injuries and no single obvious area where the Jays were in desperate need of help. Finally, let’s be real, we are all sick of hearing about the two decade long playoff drought…longest in North American pro sports…yada yada. It’s just stupid and terrible and let’s just make the damn playoffs already. It would be awesome…so yeah. Oh and also prospects have high failure rates and reports indicate that AA goes out the door if there’s no October baseball gracing the Roger’s Centre etc etc. See I can go on and on but put simply: The Blue Jays should ADD at least one starting pitcher before the deadline. It’s the right move both emotionally and logically and it’s the most realistic outcome as well.

So now the question becomes: who should the Jays go after and how much should they give up? Well, despite my emphatic whining in the last paragraph, I don’t think the Jays should go all in and sell the whole farm for this year. Rather, I’d like to see a bold move pulled off that boosts the 2015 roster while keeping an eye to 2016 and beyond. The best case scenario would be to trade for a good starting pitcher under at least 1.5 years of control. This would give a boost to the current team as they head down the stretch but it would also bring some stability to a rotation that will likely lose Mark Burhle, Marco Estrada, and R.A. Dickey to free agency. That’s a lot of innings to be covered by young pitchers that notoriously have trouble staying healthy and commanding their pitches. In other words, we need an arm this year and next year so let’s get a guy now with some control. Also, it would be a lot easier giving up a top pitching prospect if we knew that we would be getting back meaningful term in return. Anthopoulos has already stated that control is what he’d like to go after and his trade history shows that he usually only gives up top prospect capital for multiple years of control with Josh Johnson being the lone major exception. The tough part though is that the second wildcard spot and overall league parity make teams reluctant to weaken themselves past the current season which drives up the already high prices for controllable arms. Still, reports have indicated that the Jays really are going in this direction. Ken Rosenthal of Fox sports already reported that the Jays made a push for Carlos Carrasco that didn’t get done and they have also been linked to Tyson Ross, Andrew Cashner, Mike Fiers and more. I think it’s obvious that this is the Blue Jays best case scenario but it will be tough to accomplish.

Next come the rentals. Anthopoulos has already stated that trading for guys who will be free agents after this year is his last resort. However, there are quite a few rentals out there and the Jays have been linked to many, notably Price and Samardzija. Buster Olney of ESPN linked them to Scott Kazmir before he was traded but supposedly the cost was too high and there were similar reports regarding Cueto. From all of this, it seems that the Jays are more willing to grab a rental than previously thought but they’ll of course be trying to serve up a prospect package that’s light in blue-chip pitching prospects. They do have Dalton Pompey, Matt Boyd, and Max Pentecost in the upper minors and their lower minors have some intriguing prospects as well like Anthony Alford that can be dealt. If Alex can manage to haul in a solid rental without the cost being excruciating, it’s certainly worth doing. However, it seems that at least some pain would have to be suffered to make a deal for one. Then again, pain is temporary and flags fly forever…so I know where I stand and I have a feeling that Alex agrees. Get something done soon.

Russell Martin: Is His Offense Really this Good?

Getty Images

Getty Images

The Toronto Blue Jays surprised many of their fans in November by signing Russell Martin to a mammoth contract for $82 Million over five years. It was unexpected given that the Blue Jays seemed to have many more pressing holes to fill at the time including left field, centre field, and second base as well as the bullpen. Catching seemed stable in the near term as Dioner Navarro provided a surprisingly solid 2014 season where he hit .274 with 69 RBIs in 139 games. Granted, his defence and game calling skills weren’t that good, but overall he performed as at least an average catcher. Opinions of him were pushed even higher by the nightmare season had by his predecessor in 2013 (we all know who I’m talking about), by his ability to get “clutch hits” (although many baseball fans cast aside clutch hitting as a matter of luck, it seems that they still judge players on this metric even if its subconscious), and by the sheer joy of watching him run the bases.

dioner-navarro-stole-2nd-on-the-astros-b

Important: This is not in slow motion

So when Martin came to town, the main aspects of his play that justified his contract were the skills that he had shown behind the plate in his career: His ability to handle young pitching staffs and mold them into playoff caliber squads, to keep balls in front of him, to control the running game, and to steal strikes through pitch framing. His offensive side was more of an afterthought other than the obligatory “He’ll probably get on base and hit some homers.” A big reason for this viewpoint was that Martin’s career numbers were hard to interpret and therefore it was hard to know what to expect from him. Also, the Jays have their share of elite hitters that stole the spotlight whenever the conversation turned to offense.

Year BA OBP SLG OPS
2006 0.282 0.355 0.436 0.792
2007 0.293 0.374 0.469 0.843
2008 0.280 0.385 0.396 0.781
2009 0.250 0.352 0.329 0.680
2010 0.248 0.347 0.332 0.679
2011 0.237 0.324 0.408 0.732
2012 0.211 0.311 0.403 0.713
2013 0.226 0.327 0.377 0.703
2014 0.290 0.402 0.430 0.832

Russell Martin’s numbers over his big league career, via baseballreference.com

Clearly, last season, Martin had some pretty attractive numbers. He had career highs in average and OBP while having his highest slugging percentage since his 2007 season. His wRC+ was a beautiful 140. All of his numbers seem to have dipped after his first couple years and bounce around a bit with no real trends until his big 2014 season. So let’s dig a little deeper.

His BABIP for 2014 was .336. His BABIPs for the previous 4 years were 0.287, 0.252, 0.222, and 0.266. This may make it seem as though Martin’s 2014 was helped by some good fortune. Citing his inflated BABIP, many projections (including Steamer) had him regressing to having a wRC+ of 110.

It didn’t start well this year for Martin as he stumbled out of the gate and some fans who still haven’t heard of sample size dubbed him Russell Clarkson ( a reference to the giant disaster that was the David Clarkson signing by the leafs). Well… joke’s on them. Martin picked it up and currently has a big time wRC+ of 137 with 7 home runs after just 46 games. Here’s how he ranks among catchers in some key categories (min. 100 PAs)

OBP: 7th

HR: T-4th

wRC+: 3rd

WAR: 2nd

Now that his nice offensive numbers have spread into this season, we are left wondering whether last year’s success might have been the start of an important new trend rather than just a lucky blip. Because that would be awesome and it would have major positive implications on the Blue Jays offense until 2019.

Last year, David Schoenfield of ESPN wrote about how Martin said that he had changed his two strike approach to become a tougher out. The new approach was borrowed from fellow Canadian Joey Votto, who is arguably the best on base guy in baseball. Martin began shortening up and trying to make contact above all else in two strike situations. As a result, he hit .229/.337/.276 with 2 strikes in 2014 as opposed to .137/.250/.288 in 2012 and .129/.241/.219 in 2013. It’s certainly possible that this increase in production with two strikes was to some degree, a consequence of his new approach. His numbers with two strikes this year indicate that this is somewhat continuing and again contributing to his offensive success. His BABIP for two strike counts are .333 for 3-2, .304 for 2-2, .321 for 1-2, and .412 for 0-2. That .412 average on 0-2 counts is Martin’s highest for any count other than 3-0 counts which is pretty unexpected. Compared with pre-2014 splits, Martin is getting more done with two strikes. Although luck may be partly responsible for his high BABIP (.327) again this year, his two strike approach may have elevated his true normal BABIP compared to where it’s been in the past.

Will Russell Martin’s awesome offensive production over the past 200 games continue going forward? Well he probably won’t be quite this good forever, but his improved approach at the plate means that perhaps he won’t be as far off as most predicted.

P.S. It’s unrelated, but Josh Donaldson is God.

Just Have a Little Faith – The Jays Rotation Will Get Better

GENE J. PUSKAR / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

GENE J. PUSKAR / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Wow. Finally. It took a while, but for the first time this season, the Blue Jays starting pitching put together a few good starts in a row. For a short while, the seemingly chronic spectacles of relief arms warming in the fifth inning and of offensive outbursts going to waste have been replaced by the type of pitching that is actually enjoyable to watch (only when your team does it of course).

Coming off of a lousy 3-7 road trip through Tampa Bay *cringes face*, Boston, and Cleveland, anybody who knows anything would have told you the reason why the Jays were 12-14 on the year was their starting pitching. They would have been right. For April, the Jays possessed a vomit inducing 4.78 ERA placing them second last in the league (only the Red Sox were worse). With that kind of pitching, all a good offense can do is keep you alive but there’s no way that long win streaks can be forged. This is what the Jays offense was doing.  Being two games below .500 in the weak AL East after a mere 26 games certainly isn’t terrible but if not for the bats, their record would have been similar to that of the Indians. The offense has faced some criticism after being Jekyll and Hyde earlier in the season where it seemed like they either scored 12 runs or got a run on three hits. But…consider that for April, the Jays were first in all of baseball in runs scored with 122 and that this happened with Bautista and Encarnacion both not yet producing nearly to their expected levels and with dynamic leadoff man Jose Reyes sidelined with [BREAKING NEWS] an injury. Also, the bullpen, despite all the raging by the fan base, hasn’t been that bad. They really haven’t blown very many games when you look back. No, the problem has been the starting pitching.

I’m kind of going off on a tangent here… but most experts, coaches, and broadcasters agree that starting pitching is the foundation of a good team and my time as a fan has given me no reason to argue. The Jays seem like they’ve had good lineups for a while and it never seems to get them anywhere while the Rays have been sporting a lineup consisting of: who’s that, he’s terrible, isn’t he retired, and Evan Longoria for years yet they’ve been a force to be reckoned with for the better part of a decade. Even this year, the Jays 1-6 record against the Rays has provided more evidence to the old adage “Good pitching beats good hitting.”

Anyway back to topic at hand, after that road trip the Jays came home to take on the Yankees and Red Sox. They went 4-1 in the first 5 of these six games. How was their starting pitching? Well in those five starts, the Jays rotation allowed more than one run just once. Other than in Marco Estrada’s start, the Jays rotation shut down the high powered Red Sox offense and the surprisingly not awful offense of the Yankees. There was a little bit of everything. Sanchez pitched into the EIGHTH inning. Mark Buehrle picked up a win against the Yankees for the first time since Roy Halladay was a rising star and R.A. Dickey finally had a dominant start even though he didn’t strike out anyone. On top of all that, Hutchison managed to not get lit up when staked with a commanding lead. An ERA of 2.12 through that last turn of the rotation was clearly far better than their overall ERA of 5.07 and the record reflects that. Now the question is whether this was an anomaly or a turning point. I think it’s the latter.

Although the starting pitching wasn’t going to be the strength of this team, we all know it’s far better than its looked so far. Hutchison is simply not a guy whose ERA is going to be around 7. There are lots of thoughts about why his start has been so slow including his relative inexperience and his fastball or slider. No matter what the reason, it’s important to realize that he does have a solid track record of 50 major league starts that indicate he will improve. Speaking of track records…Mark Buehrle…That is all. Dickey has had historically slow starts and there’s no reason to think this is any different. As for Sanchez, there isn’t a track record to fall back on but if you’ve been watching him, it’s clear that he’s making gains in every start and learning how to overcome his control issues bit by bit. There is reason to think he’ll improve.

All in all, the Jays rotation has not been good this year but the last time through was great and if you care to use a little logic, you’ll come to the inescapable conclusion that it’s probably going to get better from here.

Decisions on the Horizon about the Blue Jays Rotation and Outfield

sanchez 2

Well we’ve had another week of Blue Jays baseball to watch and to use to convince ourselves that the strengths of the Jays outweigh their weaknesses. Could the unconventional rotation consisting of a knuckleballer, a slopballer, and two rookies succeed? Will the gamble on rookie relievers pay off? Will the offence be pretty good, great, or amazing (my homer side may have showed with that last bit)? The homestand provided good and bad signs pertaining to all of these questions. Devon Travis has been stellar and is leading all AL second baseman and rookies in every major offensive category. Kevin Pillar has continued to make jaw dropping catches in left field, making it easier for everyone to be okay with the fact that Melky Cabrera is taking $14 Million from another team’s bank account. Pompey recovered from a rough skid to show signs of life and get his offensive numbers up into non-terrible territory (.215/.292/.385). Josh Donaldson has been the player that everyone had hoped they were getting in that Oakland trade as he hit 4 homeruns on the homestand including this walk-off bomb. Drew Hutchison threw a gem against the Orioles after two clunker starts against the same Orioles and the Braves. All of this on top of Russ Martin’s gains at the plate and the emergence of Liam Hendricks in the pen along with the continuing success of the 20 year old relievers.

It wasn’t all rosy though. Bautista and Edwin are hitting .149 and .191 respectively despite their decent power numbers. Also, the rotation’s issues have continued with RA Dickey getting off to his usual bad start. Daniel Norris is experiencing “dead arm” and hasn’t been able to go deep into ball games except for his last one (let’s hope its the start of something). Then there’s Aaron Sanchez, who’s spot in the rotation is getting a lot of attention from the media and the fan base after his command issues.

Let’s talk about Sanchez. Calling him erratic would be an understatement. He currently has a whip of 1.86 and he’s walked 12 in 14 innings. He seemingly alternates every inning between being unhittable with excellent pitch location and being unable to throw a pitch within a foot of the zone. In his last start, he walked seven batters and gave up two hits. It’s like Sanchez is the product of a lab experiment where Roy Halladay and Josh Towers were spliced into a single pitcher. His tantalizing potential and phenomenal stint last year (the one bright spot of last August) have convinced many to think that he should be given a longer leash. However, his lack of command this year and in the minors have many calling for his demotion to AAA Buffalo or to the pen. The question is how many more starts should they give him to show that he could succeed this year in the Show? Also, who would replace him in the five spot of the rotation?

I believe that he deserves at least 3 more starts to get everything together. The reason for this opinion has as much to do with Sanchez as it has to do with the Jay’s starting pitching depth in general. Simply speaking, they haven’t got much. After trading away JA Happ, Kendall Graveman, and Sean Nolin, the Jays are left pretty bare in the hurler department. After Sanchez, next on the depth chart is Marco Estrada who has had major league success including an ERA under 4.00 in 2012 and 2013 with the Brewers, but has performed better lately in a reliever’s role. Last year, as a starter, he lead the league in homeruns surrendered (29!!!!!!!!!!!!!) and now he pitches at a place where the ball flies out with ease. Also, his “stuff” and overall ceiling are lower than Sanchez’s. Todd Redmond, who was also an option to spot start, has performed badly and was designated for assignment earlier. Jeff Francis is doing alright as a mop-up guy in the pen and pushing him into the rotation at this stage in his career seems like a poor idea. How about Roberto Osuna in the rotation? It’s an interesting idea based on his fantastic performance so far this season, but he’s coming off Tommy John surgery and it appears highly unlikely that he’s going to be allowed to pitch the number of innings that he would need to pitch if he were to be a starter. Also, the thin relief core would be even thinner.

Another name that has been knocked around lately is Scott Copeland. He’s a groundball machine and has had a good start with the Bisons posting an ERA of 0.90 in 20 innings this season. That’s pretty damn good but he’s a 27 year old who has no major league experience. Overall, it’s most likely that he or Estrada would take the reins from Sanchez if he is taken out of the rotation by management. Given these unspectacular choices and Sanchez’s enormous potential for this year and beyond, I’d be really reluctant to make a change until he’s been given many, many shots. After all, the question isn’t “how good is Sanchez?” It’s actually “how good is Sanchez relative to his replacement?”

In addition to the rotation’s management, there is also genuine curiosity as to what will be made of the outfield when both Saunders comes off the disabled list (knee meniscus tear after sprinkler incident) and when Bautista returns to the field (shoulder strain making stupid throw). Wow, those are some very Toronto-like bullshit injuries. Anyway…not to use a cliché, but this is a good problem to have. Pillar has performed well so far and Pompey has been solid too. This gives the Jays four outfielders who feel that they are everyday players. Four outfielders is (ok let me do the math…) one more outfielder than can play at any given time.

The Jays can do a bunch of different things but I think the most likely scenario is that pillar becomes the fourth outfielder despite his positive start. The Jays like Saunders and he’s there to be their everyday left fielder. Pompey is seen as a high ceiling prospect within the organization and they will want to give him regular at bats to make sure he has the best chance to blossom into something special. Also, Pillar is a guy who was never figured to hold a big league job for long, certainly not as an everyday guy. Furthermore, despite his strong start, his numbers are starting to lose their early season polish as he’s posting an OPS of just .615 and a minuscule walk rate of 2.8%. His defensive numbers are still golden though as he’s leading baseball with 7 DRS (defensive runs saved). Pompey is actually outplaying Pillar with an OPS of .676 and he’s been getting on base more often. It’s true though that even if this scenario occurs, Pillar will still find his way into the lineup. They could put him in center against lefties to give Pompey a rest here and there. Also, Bautista is 34, Saunders can’t stay healthy, and the turf is turf, so I can see Pillar getting some of their starts as well. Now that Steve Tolleson is gone, this seems like the way things should/will shake out.

The Jays are in an interesting place with a few of their players so AA and Gibby will have some tough decisions to make in the coming days. Let’s all hope that they make the right ones.

Blue Jays Rookies Off to an Exciting Start

It’s been an exciting first week of baseball for the Blue Jays. They had a swell opening road trip in which they took 2 of 3 from both the Yankees and the Orioles while ruining their opening days in the process. They then returned home to be shut down offensively for 3 of 4 games against the Rays. In the other, they scored 12 runs on the power of 3 long balls. However, this season started with far more than just some wins, losses, and the usual excitement associated with winter finally giving way to the boys of summer. There has also been a huge number of interesting story lines that have captivated the Jays fan base. New big name acquisitions including Russell Martin and Josh Donaldson made their Toronto debuts, we saw Martin catch the knuckleball for the first time (he managed to avoid an Arencibiaesque nightmare), and most of all we saw the kids as they traded Buffalo and Dunedin for the bright lights of Yankees Stadium, Camden Yards, and the Rogers Centre. This, for me, was the easily the best part of watching these last 10 games. It’s been great to see the quality of the contributions from some of the younger players and to watch how good they’ve looked in all aspects of the game. So let’s review the week that was for the rookie Toronto Blue Jays.

Devon Travis

Maybe the biggest surprise amongst position players has been the unexpectedly great talent displayed by Devon Travis. Travis was acquired in the offseason from the Tigers for Anthony Gose. He was the top prospect in Detroit’s rather barren farm system. He had mixed reviews from scouts at the time including Keith Law who said “[Travis] had a great year but……. he’s old for where he played, and he’s an undersized guy without tools. Not a prospect for me, nor for any of the scouts I talked to who’d seen him.” But AA saw something in him and it looks as though he may have been right to. After going 0 for 12 to begin spring training, Travis lit it up and won the second base job (though with Izturis injured, his competition was non-existent). What has he done so far in 10 Major League games? Well, he’s managed to slash .371/.421/.657 and he’s even tied with Bautista, Encarnacion, and Pompey for the team lead in long balls. Hell, his first hit was a homerun at Yankees Stadium. I mean… seriously, who does that? Defensively, he’s dispelled the criticism leveled at him by most scouts and has shown the ability to turn double plays at lightning speed. It’s funny, watching the games so far this year has been so much nicer than in years past. I couldn’t figure out why at first but it recently donned on me that for the first time in 6 years, the sight of a Blue Jays second baseman coming up to bat isn’t causing me physical and psychological distress. So thank you for that Mr. Travis.

Dalton Pompey

He might not be hitting triples like he did in September, then again who could with that giant green sponge preventing anything from splitting the gaps (#turfgate anyone?), but the Blue Jays centre fielder is going a long way to showing us why so much confidence was placed in a kid who began 2014 in A ball. His numbers haven’t been ideal so far as he’s slashing just .158/.220/.368, but he has 2 homeruns and 5 RBIs, not to mention the defensive upside he’s shown. Also, he’s been having good at-bats and he’s been putting in extra work with Blue Jays hitting Coach Brook Jacoby. Plus he’s a local boy…so there’s that.

pompey HR gif

Ya he’ll be just fine.

Daniel Norris

We can all relate to spending the offseason wading through piles of stories about Daniel Norris’ “unique” way of life including his fondness for living in an old Volkswagen van in Walmart parking lots. They were cool at first but it’s been nice to see the focus shift to that other cool thing that he does: pitch. In his first start of the season, he gave up 3ER over 5.2 innings against the Yankees and fan favourite Alex “I Made Some Mistakes” Rodriguez. Norris pitched confidently, often using off speed pitches while behind in counts and racking up 5 strikeouts before hitting a wall in the sixth and giving up 2 solo shots, one of which to the aforementioned Yankees slugger. It was not spectacular but he hung in there and earned his first career W. Then, against the light hitting Rays, he allowed 2ER in five innings. He admitted later that he had to battle as he didn’t have his stuff working for him. The Jays lost that game because the Rays, as they always seem to do, brought up some nobody to start for them and watched as he shut down the Blue Jays bats. The next step for Norris will be making it a couple innings deeper into ballgames. So let’s all give the van stories a break, at least for a while.

Aaron Sanchez

In his two starts so far, Aaron Sanchez has shown the ability to improve. His first start did not go well. However, it was only one start and there was no reason for fans to give up on him and start losing their sanity on call in shows or in comment threads. It was Sanchez’ first career start and it was against a very good offense in Baltimore. He didn’t have command of his fastball which meant that locating his off speed pitches (what everyone was worried about going in) didn’t end up mattering a whole lot. Also, his velocity was down. However, in his next start against Tampa, he showed flashes of brilliance with his fastball sometimes getting up to a controlled 97 mph in 5.1 solid innings. We saw in the spring and last summer that fastball command is something that Sanchez can be dominant with and it will take far more than 2 starts to see what kind of pitcher he will be for the Jays over the next 6 months.

Miguel Castro

I’ll just say it. Wow. This guy has answered the prayers of the Blue Jays front office. They needed a flame throwing righty to handle some late innings in tight ball games and in came Castro, an unlikely hero who can blow batters away at 98 mph while costing the jays 1/26th of what Papelbon would have. This type of reliever has been shown to be a huge factor in team success over the past few years. If you don’t believe me, google “Kansas City Royals.” Castro has yet to allow an earned run, while giving up just 3 hits and two walks in 5.1 high leverage innings. He sort of took the closer’s job from Brett “Goggles” Cecil after just two games. By sort of, I mean that he has handled the big save opportunities, where he has gone 2 for 2, but Gibbons has also used him in a more versatile and what I would call a more intelligent manner. Rather than always keeping him for the ninth, Gibbons has used him earlier sometimes if the situation/batting order has called for it. Nobody wants to see their best reliever sitting in the pen in a sweater and watching as an inferior pitcher blows the game, simply because it is not “time yet” for the “closer”. This is one example of defying standard managerial convention that many have been waiting a long, long time for and I hope Gibbons continues thinking in this way. It’s too early to anoint Castro as a God or King just yet, but so far he’s  let everyone breathe much easier about the bullpen.

Roberto Osuna

He’s Castro’s partner in crime and fellow teammate who, at 20 years old, also can’t order a beer on the road. Weird right?  Osuna is a highly talked about prospect who is still rebuilding arm strength after being set back with Tommy John surgery. Nobody really saw him as a guy who could break camp with the team, yet he did and he hasn’t disappointed since debuting in the Bronx. His numbers mirror Castro’s. He has allowed no runs over 5 innings and he’s only allowed 3 baserunners over that span. His debut was a sight to behold. Close your eyes and imagine the least stressful in-game situation at which to debut as a relief pitcher. Osuna’s first appearance occurred in an environment completely opposite to whatever you just imagined. The Jays were down by one run in the eighth on a cold, rainy night at Yankees stadium with the bases juiced and who else but A-Roid, sorry, A-Rod coming up to the plate. This all occurring right after the experienced late inning relievers, Cecil and Loup, blew a lead. Osuna responded to this challenge with a strikeout of A-Rod, and then he popped up Stephen Drew to end the inning. That’s composure if I’ve ever seen it.

Now there’s one more player that has to be mentioned. Although he’s not a rookie, it’d be a travesty not to acknowledge the amazingness and ridiculousness of what Kevin Pillar has done so far this season. Let’s just say that there have been few Jays fans crying themselves to sleep over the absence of Michael Saunders. Pillar has slashed .282/.282/.436 so far with a home run. His discipline has been much improved as he is no longer striking himself out on pitches in the left-handed batter’s box and is instead making consistently hard contact. However, his glove is what he’s being applauded for the most. He has already made about half a dozen beautiful plays including one of the best catches in Blue Jays history in game 3 of the series against the Rays. He supermanned up the 10 foot tall left field wall at Roger’s center to take a home run away from Tim Beckham. Enjoy.

pillar catch 2

And I thought that superheroes were fictional…

The rookies have not been perfect but they’ve been pretty good and in a city that doesn’t provide sports fans with much to be excited about, these kids are doing just that.

Blue Jays – Off-Season Moves and 2015 Season Preview

It was just last October when Salvador Perez struck out to the energizer bunny of pitchers, Madison Bumgarner, to end Game 7 of the World Series and give San Francisco its third World Series Championship in 5 years. Many remember the 2014 post season that the Kansas City Royals had because of their historically great bullpen, timely bursts of power, and use of speed on the bases. Jays fans, however, were left to dwell on a more negative accomplishment. With Kansas City’s playoff appearance, the Royals left Toronto in possession of the longest current post-season drought in all of North American professional sports. It has been 21 years since Joe touched ‘em all (here it is if you haven’t watched it again this week), and since then, the Blue Jays have had as many games of baseball in October as Toronto has had Stanley Cup parades down Yonge Street (hint: zero). Yes, there have been a few exciting moments for the team and a few great players have graced downtown Toronto with their grit and skill. But in the end, October has been a time for watching the players of other teams as they play for distant cities. So the question is, “Will this year be different?”

It’s been two years since Blue Jay’s General Manager Alex Anthopoulos pulled off the big trades that left the city buzzing and left Jays fans salivating for a taste of post season glory. It didn’t happen two years ago. Then last year, despite a record setting May and a six and a half game division lead, misery again filled the concrete confines of the Rogers Centre as it seems to do every summer. However, this off season’s moves and the cast of characters that make up this team leave us with legitimate new hope and excitement for the 2015 season.

Off-Season Moves:

Alex Anthopoulos was busy early on this off-season. In late November, he signed catcher Russell Martin for 5 years at a whopping $82 Million. This was the largest free agent signing in franchise history, and sent a message to fans that the front office is serious about winning. Martin, a Canadian, is credited for having turned the Pittsburgh Pirates from major league laughing stock into a 2-time playoff team. His presence behind the plate has been thought to sharpen young pitching staffs through leadership, game calling, and a top notch ability to frame pitches. His leadership has also been said to extend through the whole clubhouse and instill a winning attitude. If the intangibles are not your thing, he brings with him some pretty nice tangibles as well. His career OBP of .354 sure looks good amongst the power heavy line up sported by the Jays. According to FanGraphs.com, he has a career wRC+ of 106 (Weighted Runs Created: a measure of total run creation by an offensive player with 100 being league average). That’s some nice, if not spectacular, offensive production for a catcher and it looks even better when you consider his 2014 numbers. He hit .291, with an OBP of .402 and a wRC+ of 140. Granted, that uptick in production was probably due in no small part to his BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play) of .336 which is almost definitely unsustainable, but he’s still projected to have a WAR of 4.3 this season. And finally, let’s not forget about his blocking skills and his ability to throw out base stealers (CS% of 40% and 39%, respectively, over the past two seasons).

AA didn’t stop there. He brought in another big name in Josh Donaldson for Brett “Glass Man” Lawrie as well as Kendall Graveman, Sean Nolin, and Franklin Baretto. Donaldson needs no introduction as he’s spent the last two seasons making the cavernous Oakland Coliseum look smaller than a T-ball diamond next to a primary school.  Over the last two seasons he hit 53 home runs with an OPS of .883 in 2013 and .798 in 2014. Defensively, he saved 31 runs in that time. Although Lawrie was also great defensively, we never saw much of it. Juan “Please Don’t Throw Him A Curveball” Francisco actually had the most time at the hot corner for the Jays last year, and well…we know how that went. Simply put, Donaldson stays on the field and Lawrie doesn’t (knock on wood). One thing Donaldson might not replace is the over-the-top personality of Brett Lawrie. 

lawrie-helmet

lawrie

But I think that might be for the best…

Another notable off-season addition is Michael Saunders. This move was a prime example of our boy genius selling high on a fifth starter, who happened to have a good second half, for a legitimate everyday left fielder with plenty of upside.

And finally, try as hard as you want but you’ll find it impossible not to love Devon Travis. Factor in that second base has been the blackest of black holes since way back when Aaron Hill was good and factor in all of the times you threw your remote at the TV after Gose struck out on a pitch meant for a cricket game and you’ll probably be able to smile about this trade. I could go on about Justin Smoak, Dan Duquette, the lack of bullpen moves, and a million other things, but I think it’s time to get into this 2015 Season Preview.

2015 Preview:

The Jays main strength is the top of their batting order. It’s rare to have 3 guys in a row who on their own could hit 30 dingers with 100 RBIs without anybody being surprised, but that’s what the Jays have in Bautista, EE, and Donaldson. A healthy Jose Reyes to set the table and an OBP machine like Martin pre-empting this “trio of doom” should score lots and lots of runs. Six through nine will be a little more interesting. Pompey and Travis each had good springs but both are rookies with a lot to prove. Then again, considering the 2014 occupants of these positions, with Rasmus in centre and Izturis/Tolleson/Lawrie/Kawasaki/Goins/Getz/God knows who else at second, the bar is set pretty low for these two rookies. Will the Smoak/Valencia platoon experiment at first base work? Who knows, but batting sixth or seventh, the pressure on them to produce won’t be too high. Overall, if this lineup stays healthy, it should be very competitive.

Man I miss watching these.

Starting pitching is a little more complicated. After posting the a 22nd ranked ERA in 2014, the starting pitching could use a little improvement and at the very least it can’t afford to get any worse. Dickey and Buehrle are a year older but we might as well expect them to do their thing (200+ IP with ERAs around 4 and hopefully around 13-15 wins). Hutchison is seen as a potential breakout candidate now that he’s another year removed from Tommy John surgery and after posting a K/9 of a whopping 10.17 in the second half of last year, thanks to this slider. Stroman’s injury means that both Sanchez and Norris will be starting. That’s another example of the Jays going with high upside/high risk youth. These guys can come out and be unhittable or they could have the all too common control issues endemic to rookie starters. Sanchez needs to show that his changeup and curveball can get hitters out, in addition to the 10,000 mile an hour sinking fastball that he showcased last year. Norris can also pitch (when he’s not being confused for a homeless dude in parking lots). He will need to have the fastball command that eluded him in his September stint and show us why he’s seen as the Jay’s top pitching prospect. The depth is scary thin so needing good health from all these guys goes without saying.

Finally, the bullpen (insert nervous swallow here). Last year, it was 25th in the league with a 4.09 ERA and key pieces Casey Janssen and Dustin McGowan were lost in free agency. Surprisingly, little was done to address the bullpen over the winter, and now the Jays are rolling out with Redmond, Estrada, Hendricks, Loup, Cecil, Castro, Osuna, and Hynes (Hendricks will probably be snuck through waivers soon, though). I’m sure that I’m not the only one who didn’t have that list on their bingo card. Cecil’s been handed the closer’s role after his two years of consistently getting outs in high leverage spots. His state of mind and curve ball will determine whether he remains there. Loup could use a lower walk rate this year after posting a career high BB/9 of 3.9 in 2014. As for Castro and Osuna (whose ages combined equal Dickey’s), the sky is the limit and if one (or both) of them could take off and cement themselves as the go to righty at the back of the pen, it could go a long way. As with the starting pitching, the talent is there for the bullpen, but the track records are lacking.

No matter what happens, this year’s Blue Jays will be a helluva fun team to watch as they take on a pretty weak AL East over the next six months. And you never know, maybe after this season is over, this horrible post-season drought will be naught but a distant memory for us fed up Toronto sports fans.