Dickey and Bunting and Numbers…Oh My!

It’s been a few weeks, but here I go again: stealing questions from Andrew Stoeten’s mail bag. Arrr!

OK, I guess this is now a thing: I highjack Andrew Stoeten’s mailbag from over on Vice.com. Call it a personal tick, an unhealthy habit, a time-wasting exercise, I don’t care, I get a kick out of doing it.

As usual, I have removed the names of the questioners (what with this being an act of theft and all) and I have not read any of Stoeten’s answers, although scrolling through the article they look long, and they even have bullet points and everything, so I suspect that he’s gone into more depth than I will, but what the heck. Here we go:

Question: what genius schedules a #bluejays off day on Victoria Day?

The same geniuses who continue to allow nepotism to dominate over competence in the hiring of umpires, who refuse to do anything to stop pitchers from throwing at hitters, who wink at the hyper-masculine queer-bashing woman-deriding culture of the clubhouse, who deify good players from the Yankees (Derek Jeter) while ignoring equally talented players from smaller markets (Craig Biggio), and who spend a year celebrating a Designated Hitter from the Red Sox because he’s cuddly (David Ortiz) while doing everything they can to erase the memory of the greatest player of all time because he’s not nice to reporters (Barry Bonds): Major League Baseball.

In case you’ve never noticed this, MLB cares about one thing, and one thing only: making money–which is “fine”, I guess, when you remember that it’s a business and that the whole point of a business is to make as much money as possible for the greedy pigs who own it. This is why all of those things I’ve listed above are not just tolerated but active policy of the owners insofar as they produce an entertaining product for the largest possible market. There’s no money to be made in holding Craig Biggio week or producing endless Barry Bonds retrospectives, nothing to be gained–monetarily–by taking on the umpires’ union over their hiring practices (and, in fact, it can be good for ratings having guys like Angel Hernandez out there every night–lots of umpshow for the mob!) or the Players’ Association over matters as paltry and minor as ethics when there’s really important stuff like revenue-sharing to work out.

And there’s literally no money to be made in New York, Boston, Florida, Southern California or the Mid-West with a Monday afternoon game in Canada. Frankly, I’m amazed that the Jays are able to manage getting their Canada Day game every year, although I suspect that’s largely because MLB is happy to get that game in Canada out of the way just in time to bring the Jays to an American city for the “real” holiday on 4 July.

Based on the trends in the first quarter of the season, which of the following events would you rate as most likely and least likely to happen by season’s end (assuming relatively good health):

Kevin Pillar > 50 walks
Justin Smoak > .850 OPS
Francisco Liriano BB/9 < 4.8
Luke Maile OPS+ > Josh Thole’s 2016 mark

Hmmm…good question: and a toughie, seeing as I left my crystal ball in my other pants. But we’ll give it a shot.

Kevin Pillar and fifty walks?

Sure, what the heck, I can see that happening. Last year he took twenty-four and the year before it was twenty-eight so it would appear to be quite a leap to ask him to double those numbers over just one season, but he’s already at fourteen after forty-six games which does project out to…*quick math*…forty-nine, so…yeah…getting all the way to fifty would be a stretch for him, even with his renewed approach at the plate. So, I dunno, maybe?

Justin Smoak and an .850 OPS?

He’s already sitting at .881 and showing no signs of slowing down. It may seem a crazy suggestion that a career .710 OPS guy could perform by 140 points above that average but, honestly, if you were asking me (and I know you weren’t, but I’m a pirate: ARR!) I’d say that, yes, Smoak is probably going to do it this year.

And believe you me, when it does happen I am totally going to troll Jonah Keri with retweet after retweet of this exchange I had with him way back in February:

He who LOLs last LOLs longest Keri!

Francisco Liriano averaging less than 4.8 walks through nine innings?

Currently at 7.3 but with a career average of 4.0, with only two years above 4.8 in his entire twelve years in the majors…I’m going to go with yes on this one too. Things may be looking ugly right now, but who knows how much of that was due to the injury he sustained in Anaheim and apparently felt through three starts. Assuming he can get healthy and stay healthy enough to pitch enough games to offset the beginning of the season I’m confident Liriano will perform to his career average and lower the current number significantly.

Luke Maile having a better than thirty OPS+ (Josh Tole’s number for 2016)?

His career average is thirty-five, but with Maile you have to use the word “career” loosely given he’s only played seventy-two games at the major league level. Still, when in doubt, trust the numbers and the numbers would suggest that on the whole he’s better than thirty so, what the heck, it’s going to happen.

Now the tough part: which of the above is the most and least likely to happen? I’d like to say that the most likely is Justin Smoak posting an .850+ OPS but that would be a lifetime number for him, just like the fifty walks would be for Pillar, whereas Liriano pitching to an average of fewer than 4.8 walks per nine innings is just a return to the norm for him, so I guess I’d have to go with that as the most likely scenario; all of which leaves Maile outdoing Thole as the least likely outcome, but honestly, they’re both terrible hitters so who cares?

Just wondering why all of a sudden the Jays think they can bunt. Well they can’t.
What’s going on?

They’ve been paying too much attention to the dummies on Twitter?

Actually, I suspect there’s a few things going on here.

The first is that certain players may be trying to put the “idea of a bunt” into the minds of the fielders, which can be a nice way of drawing them in and getting them out of the shift. A lot of the ‘bunt’ attempts this season are really just bluffs or attempted misdirections which, OK, they might not be doing much, but they are doing at least something to move the fielders around.

Second, Gibby is kind of doing the same, I think, by asking for bunts in situations where the Jays as a team have not traditionally tried for that part of the game. Again, I’m not sure it’s working in terms of generating more offense (in fact, I know it isn’t because bunts don’t work) but it seems to me at least probable that Gibby is playing the longer game here: trying to combat the perception of the Jays as a pull-happy, swing for the fences team and thus get everyone to stop playing them that way, which means getting fewer or at least not-quite-so-extreme shifts. I have no idea if it is actually accomplishing that, but I would bet you a Coke that someone in the Jays analytics department is examining that very issue…

Finally, some of them actually can bunt for a hit–Carrera, Barney, sometimes Goins–and those are just the guys who can’t reliably get on base any other way, so why not try to drop one down the line and beat out the throw? With all the injuries this season there’s been far more Carrera, Barney and Goins than is really healthy for a team, and thus more of their desperation bunts.

So, really, the bunts may actually be a bit more explainable and a bit less dumb than it would appear at first glance: with the singular, and extraordinary exception of asking Devon Travis to lay down a bunt with two men on, nobody out, and Barney, Carrera and Goins coming up behind him…oy vay, Gibby, honestly.

The Jays (horrific) stretch of games against Atlanta sorta reconnected us with Robert Allen Dickey. The Dickey for Syndegaard/d’Arnaud trade is one that you’ll often hear classified by some Jays fans in the “wish we could get that one back” category. Even given d’Arnaud’s chronic fragility and Thor’s increasingly worrisome arm issues—and certainly both are still young and talented enough that they can make the deal look more lopsided in the future—should we feel that way?

True, we didn’t get the “Cy Young” R.A. that we were hoping for. And yes, the capital of Syndergaard and d’Arnaud could have been used to pick up another player. But Dickey tallied over 800 innings for the Jays, with a decent WHIP, and all in all was a solid and durable 3-4 starter and was an above-average contributor to two pretty entertaining Jays seasons. It was a classic future vs. now kind of deal, and while we can dream of Thor hurling mighty bolts in a Jays uniform, I thought the “now” the Jays got in return makes the deal more than defensible.

Boy, are you ever wrong.

I never liked the Dickey deal: two very promising young players–one of them a pitcher who could throw that hard!–and three other prospects (that’s five young players, for those of you keeping score at home) for a one-off Cy Young Knuckleballer on the wrong side of thirty-five to pitch in the American League East?!

Now, don’t get me wrong, I liked R.A. fine and agree with your assessment of him: a perfectly serviceable middle-to-bottom of the rotation starter and a great guy: but nowhere even close to being worth what the Jays gave up to get him. A lot of Dickey defenders point out, as you do, the “win now” logic of acquiring Dickey but…huh? Am I not remembering the 2013 season correctly? The Jays finished last that year. They didn’t actually win anything until 2015 and 2016 and it wasn’t Dickey who made the difference but David Price (2015) and Aaron Sanchez (2016) who got it done for the Jays.

Yes, Dickey helped, but there are a whooooole lot of pitchers who could have contributed just as much while costing the farm system much less.

OK, so let’s go see what Stoeten had to say…

The Day The Hope Died

I want the Blue Jays to win…but I no longer think they will

I always tell my students, “Never begin an essay with a quote from the dictionary.”

From the Oxford English Dictionary:

Hope: Expectation of something desired; desire combined with expectation.

I’ve already waxed eloquent on the virtues of hope, yoking in no less a figure than William Shakespeare to lend credence to the idea that there was and remains hope for the Blue Jays this season. And there are many fans of the team I am sure who continue to hope–and more power to them I say!–but I, alas, am no longer among their number since, as the Good Book (also known as the Oxford English Dictionary) tells us, hope is a combination of two things: desire and expectation.

I still desire the Jays to make the post season, but I no longer expect it.

I can point to the exact moment I lost this expectation, and thus my hope. It was precisely three days ago when I read that Aaron Sanchez was being placed on the ten day disabled list for the third time this season.

It was the final straw–part rational (“another two starts by Bolsinger! Another indication that Sanchez is not going to be around much this season!”), part superstitious (“Another freaking injury?! The gods have it in for the Jays!”)–in a long series of blows to my expectations for the team. The first of these was, of course, the horrific start to the season; the second (at the end of hope lies the perspective from which one can anatomize its loss) was the abyssal plunge in the offensive output of Bautista, Travis and Martin, and the third, even as the first two resolved themselves, was the seemingly daily announcements of injuries. But it was this final announcement, that Sanchez is gone from the mound once again, that put paid to hope for me.

Hope: the combination of desire and expectation. Before this latest blow, my desires and my expectations were in accord: the Jays were going to the post season. They were too good not to. There were too many rational grounds to justify the knowledge that they could and would overcome their poor start, right the underperforming players, and survive the bout of injuries. But, as I said, these expectations are gone leaving me with nothing but the desire, and desire without hope of fulfillment is very poor company.

So what do I expect?

The Blue Jays will finish third in the AL East

Even with all the injuries the Jays are still a better team than the (Devil) Rays by a country mile and that will be evident by the All Star Break: the return of Tulo and Donaldson to the everyday lineup alone will accomplish that. The Jays are also, in the long run, going to be better than both the Orioles and the Yankees. I’ve already expanded on why this is, but briefly: the Jays have better starting pitching than either the Yankees or the Orioles and over the course of a full season that is going to become evident. They are also already a better offensive team than the Orioles, and the Yankees will, at some point this year, stop being the offensive juggernaut they have been so far and fall to something very close to–and perhaps even below–the Blue Jays’ level.

But that’s all going to happen slowly, and probably far too late for the Jays to overcome their deficit in the standings. They will catch up to and pass one of either New York or Baltimore–probably Baltimore and probably sometime in July or August–but not the other–probably the Yankees, who are going to be locked in a race for the AL East with the Red Sox right through September.

The Blue Jays will trade Estrada and/or Happ but not Donaldson

The trade rumours and click-baiting are flying already and while it really is too early for that, I guess I may as well contribute.

First, no the Jays are not going to trade Donaldson in July, either because they want to hang on to one of the greatest players in the game and have the benefit of his presence for another season and a half (which, as I’ve argued already, is probably worth far more than you could ever net in prospects gained from a deadline trade), or because they have decided to trade him but want to take their time about it and hear all offers and get the very best, which would only happen in the off season, or finally (and here’s where my hope has gone to live) because they are going to work instead toward signing him to a long term deal.

As I have also argued already (and holy heck, but could I cross link any more?) the Jays are going to trade from their strength, which is in their starting pitching. I’ve asked before and I’ll ask again: if you were a general manager hoping to make the post season, how much would you be willing to give up for Marco Never Loses In The Post Season Estrada? I’ll just answer that for you: a tonne of young talent. Remember what the Tigers got in the David Price deal? We’re talking that kind of a haul, because Estrada really is that good, and he’s about a zillion times better than Price in the playoffs. Happ is not nearly so good a pitcher, but he is good and very affordable and he comes with an extra year of control whereas Estrada is just a rental. If the Jays do deal Estrada I would hope (you see? I can still do that!) that they sign him back in the off season.

The Blue Jays are going to be a lot more fun to watch in August and September

By the time we get to the end of the season, the Jays will (with any luck) be more or less healthy, everyone will be playing up to (Bautista, Travis, Martin) or even beyond (Pillar, Smoak) their preseason expectations, and the angst, frenzy and chaos around “Rebuild! Tear it down! Trade Donaldson! Don’t trade Donaldson! Trade Tulo! etc etc etc” will be over so we can once again focus on the baseball.

And it will be good baseball. The Jays are going to win their fair share of games in June and July and probably go on a tear–or maybe even two–in August and September that will have a lot of people hoping that maybe, just maybe, they can catch up to the AL East leaders.

I, alas, shall not be one those dreamers. I still desire the Jays to win, but I expect I shall enjoy watching them play out the season.

 

 

A Shameful Night in Atlanta

Lots to be disgusted by in the Atlanta series…not least by the Atlanta team and Major League Baseball

There was a lot going on in Atlanta last night for Major League Baseball to be embarrassed about…a lot.

First and foremost, of course, was Kevin Pillar’s apparent use of what people have been rather euphemistically calling a “homophobic term” when what we should be calling it is hate speech. Now, I love Kevin Pillar and I deeply respect what he’s accomplished in his career, how far he’s come, and what he means to the Blue Jays and to their fan base. And I know that what he said on the field last night is a word used by a lot of (most?) ball players in the locker room all the freaking time. But I don’t care, he should be suspended, fined and made to publicly apologize to the queer community and to their allies; he should beg to be included in Toronto’s next Pride parade, and the Jays should donate a bucket-load of cash to organisations supporting queer kids at risk.

Then there was the pathetic display of grown men threatening to punch each other because they were upset. Anywhere else in the world and that sort of conduct is ridiculed and, with any luck at all, subject to criminal charges.

And then there was the even more pathetic display of someone getting a ball thrown at him in some kind of fuzzily Old Testament notion of eye for an eye justice that nobody anywhere else in the world thinks is even remotely sensible, useful or non-criminal.

There was also, as a capper, the usual furor raised by the opposing team when a Latino player dares celebrate a home run. Did that hurt yoo widdle feewings? Shut up and stop whining, especially if you’re Jace Nobody Peterson or Kurt Never Been Anyone Suzuki. Of course, the worst thing about the bat-flip flap was that people were even talking about it as a thing at all when we already had the truly significant issue of hate speech in a Major League game to contend with. Some of the dumber voices on Twitter even went so far to equate the two.

Lost in all this, however, was the particular atrocity that really should be front and centre every time a team faces Atlanta (or Cleveland for that matter) and that–of course–is the team’s offensive name and the even more openly racist conduct of their fans.

I can’t believe that the name wasn’t changed years ago. I can’t believe that the fans are still actually encouraged by the team to enact racist parody. Then again, this is an organisation and a city and a fan base at the very heart of Trump’s America so I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised at all.

But Atlanta is just one team in a larger organisation: one that has done nothing to tackle the homophobia entrenched in the game, only slightly more than nothing to address the open racism of many players and fans, and which has for decades allowed teams like Atlanta and Cleveland to keep their stupid names, mascots and antics. According to the standards apparently acceptable to Major League Baseball, I would like to suggest some names and marketing strategies for any future expansion teams:

Brooklyn Jews

Fans can be encouraged to wear brightly coloured kippahs on their heads and to brandish large foam rubber menorahs. They can sing, “Dreidl  Dreidl  Dreidl” in the seventh inning and scream “Mazel tov!” at every home run and “Oh vay!” at each strike out. They can have Half Price Shabbat Night (“Because We Like To Watch Your Shekels Too!”).

New Orleans Negroes

Fans can come in black face and sing minstrel tunes. When the opposing team is ahead they can scream out, “You watch out now, y’hear? We gunna come git you!” There can be Soul Food Night with watermelon and fried chicken.

New Jersey Ginos

The mascot can be Mario. When their pitcher strikes someone out they can scream, “Budda boom budda bing!”

If those suggestions offend you, good for you: it shows that you are a human being with a functioning brain and sense of empathy.

If those suggestions offend you, but you still support Atlanta and Cleveland keeping their names, logos and fan antics, then you really need to rethink things.

If those suggestions do not offend you then you voted for Trump, right?

 

Cathal Kelly Strikes Again

I usually ignore the foolish mutterings of Mr Kelly, but his last piece on the Blue Jays is just too foolish to ignore

I don’t mind that Cathal Kelly doesn’t know the first thing about baseball, but it really gets my goat that the clowns over at the National Pest are actually willing to pay him to write utter nonsense about it.

Usually, I’m able to treat his ravings the way I do the drunken mumblings of a homeless person: when I see him coming I simply try to smile, keep my head down and keep going, not putting a lot of stock in the bizarre string of words I catch as we pass. But thanks to Twitter (oh, my nemesis) and to the fact that a lot of people I follow on there felt it necessary to point out that he was up to it again, I fell for it…and I looked.

Oh my sweet maiden aunt.

I tried–I really did–to let it go. Honestly. But if there’s one thing that bugs me more than people who know nothing about baseball pretending to be experts, it’s people who know nothing about baseball who pretend to be experts in a vain attempt to hide their own foolishness.

So, without any further ado, I give you Mr Cathal Kelly holding forth on and holding court on Mark Shapiro’s comments last Friday:

This club does analytics on the quality of its analytics. It is hard to believe the Blue Jays failed to notice that they were constructing a roster designed to dominate baseball’s Senior Tour, if such a thing existed.

The only plausible rationale is that the team was, on some level, designed to fail. Success was always a possibility, but a long way from likely, unless everything broke perfectly. Currently, it’s just breaking, period. The fans wanted more of the same. And you know what they say about getting what you want.

One hardly knows where to begin.

Yes, of course, the Blue Jays front office knew they were signing some aging players and that this was not going to make their team any younger. Of course, this was after they tried to sign Edwin Encarnacion and Dexter Fowler both of whom, while in their 30s, are younger than Bautista, Morales and Pearce, whom Kelly holds up as “evidence” (and one must use that term loosely in relation to Mr Kelly) that the Jays were in some manner trying to make the team older. And, no, they were not trying to join the Senior Tour, because it doesn’t exist and so bringing up that mirage accomplishes what? Oh, right, I get it, Bautista and Morales and Pearce are all old! Ah, good one Cathal…

But now comes the humdinger. Having demonstrated only what everyone already knows (that the Blue Jays signed some older players) and conveniently ignored that they only did this after trying to sign some younger players, he moves immediately to the declaration that:

The only plausible rationale is that the team was, on some level, designed to fail.

“Plausible” is a great word, really. It implies that what follows is somehow the most likely or reasonable explanation without exactly stating that: it gives someone who uses it a certain amount of wiggle room. He’s not saying that he’s necessarily right, only that he could be right; that it’s possible he’s right. Of course, that’s not how Kelly is really presenting his “argument” (and one must use that term loosely in relation to Mr Kelly), he’s instead presenting the bizarre claim that the team was designed to fail as the necessary logical inference–nay! the only possible explanation!–for why the Blue Jays signed Bautista, Morales and Pearce. That’s a conclusion about the entire front office’s off-season strategizing, all the organisation’s long term planning, and this season in its entirety, drawn from one, limited, highly decontenxtualised and widely-known fact.

I gotta hand it to him: the chutzpa of the move is breath-taking. It doesn’t make his claim any less foolish, but you can only marvel at the audacity of the rhetorical gesture.

But even that’s not enough for Mr Kelly. Having produced a conclusion from a single “plausible” like an unconvincing magician pulling a rabbit from a hat, he immediately doubles down on the foolishness:

The planned self-destruction template exists locally. The Toronto Maple Leafs used the disastrous first few months of the 2014-15 season to make the case for a total restart. That’s worked out pretty well.

The “self destruction” that was “plausible” the paragraph before becomes–hey presto!–the premise of the rest of the article, as though the only question left is “How are they going to do it?” instead of “Cathal, how in the name of logic and reason do you get, Hiring Bautista, Morales and Pearce is proof positive and sufficient that there is a secret agenda, undetected by anyone but myself, to purposely tank the entire season?”

But we’re not even at my favourite part yet. It comes immediately after the above when Kelly states:

Baseball is not hockey, but the same principles apply.

“Apples are not oranges, but they still taste like oranges.” No they freaking don’t, Cathal, and saying that they do doesn’t make it any more true. It’s not even plausible that apples taste like oranges, any more than stating that baseball is not hockey but they are so alike in their “principles” that we can ignore the difference and talk about them as though they’re the same is plausible.

The middle section of this offensively foolish article comes to its painful close with a moment of apparent truth as Kelly admits:

Shapiro did not say that’s the plan on Friday…

OK, wahoo, so now we’re actually going to look at what Shapiro said? That’s good, because for going on two years now he’s been talking about building a contender, creating a sustainable model for competing, about the challenge of keeping this older team good while waiting for the young talent to mature… So, yes, by all means, let’s pay attention to what the man actually said…

…Instead, he left it to be read between the lines.

Oh…..Cathal. Cathal, Cathal, Cathal.

Do you know what’s between the lines? Blank, white paper, which is perfect, I guess, if you’re trying to tell the story you want rather than deal with the world as it may actually be.

“If”, Not “When”, Is the Jays’ Season Over?

To make the playoffs the Blue Jays will have to play as well as the Yankees and the Orioles…as it turns out, they may already be doing that

The math does not look good.

To have a legitimate shot at the playoffs, goes the current thinking, you need to win ninety games. There’s definitely some wiggle in that number: teams have made it to the post-season with fewer wins (the Giants and the Nationals both got in with eighty-seven last year while the Jays had eighty-nine) and there have been teams–even in the post second-wildcard era–who have not (the Rangers, who had ninety-one wins in 2013, and the Rays with ninety in 2012 both had to watch from the sidelines in October). But, still, ninety is a nice round number so let’s go with it.

With their record now sitting at thirteen and twenty-one, to reach ninety wins the Blue Jays would have to go seventy-seven and fifty-one for the remaining 128 games. That’s a .602 record which is…a lot to ask of a team that so far has posted just .382.

But, of course, to say that it’s going to be difficult is not the same as proclaiming it impossible. The Cubs played better than .600 ball last year, the Angels accomplished it in 2014, and in 2015 the Cubs, the Pirates and the Cardinals all bettered the .600 mark. And those were season-long records, there have been a lot of teams in the last few years who finished with an overall record just below .600 because they had a bad stretch here and there.

So, yeah, it’s possible for the Jays to pull this thing out still, but is it likely?

What it comes down to is this: are the Jays at least potentially a .600 ball club, or are they doomed to spend the rest of their season duking it out for last place in the majors with the likes of the Royals (.364), the Giants (.343) and, God help us, the Braves (.355) and the Padres (.371)?

This question will, of course, answer itself as the season unfolds and while it won’t take until September, any definitive conclusion is probably still weeks away. So all we can really do for now is to compare the Jays to the competition–in particular, to the two teams who, so far at least, have been playing better than .600 baseball in the American League East: the Yankees and the Orioles.

The Yankees

Coming into the season very few of the pundits and pressers expected the Yankees to finish above fourth in the division, but their talented core of young players and surprisingly effective starting rotation have made a lot of people around the game rethink this.

For my part, I don’t really see it continuing for the Yankees, as their success to this point has been built upon some trends that are probably not very sustainable over the long haul, first and foremost of these being the pitching of Pine Tar Pineda and Rookie Jordan Montgomery; add to that the congenital unreliability of Elder Statesman Sabathia and the fragile arm of It’s Gonna Blow Tanaka and the thought of them being able to sustain their steady run of quality starts becomes something only slightly less hazy than a pipe dream. Just about the closest thing the Yankees have to a reliable starter is Luis Severino who projects out to 3.82 ERA for the rest of the season.

As for the Yankees’ overwhelming offense through April and May: that, too, is going to have to come back down to Earth at some point since it’s been largely sustained by three guys–Aaron Hicks, Starlin Castro and Aaron Judge–who are hitting like Mike Trout, but who patently are not Mike Trout. As soon as they start to cool off and/or the league figures them out, runs are going to be a lot harder to come by in Yankees land (even in that ridiculous ballpark they were allowed to build).

But, really, none of these prognostications for the fate of the Yankees is the point; the reason I wanted to look at them was to see what a .600 team in the American League East looks like, and to ask if the Jays have any chance whatsoever of being that team.

On the pitching front, the Jays continue to have the clear advantage over the Yankees so long as everyone can get and stay healthy. While the Yankees’ starting five have clearly been performing way above expectations to this point, the Blue Jays starting rotation has been horrifically under-performing thanks to some shaky starts by Stroman and Liriano and more significantly the injuries to Happ and Sanchez.

But those are the problems that have led to this mess, and we’re trying to look into the future. Happ and Sanchez will be back in the rotation at some point: if it happens soon enough and if they can stay there, then the Jays will once again have a starting rotation at least as good as and probably much better than the Yankees have enjoyed so far this season. They’ll still be backed by a bullpen that has a lot of question marks, but of late it would seem Gibby has been doing a very good job of identifying the right guy for the right role in the middle innings, and with Osuna returning to form this should become less of a concern in the coming weeks.

On the offensive front, the Jays again compare very favourably to the Yankees if everyone can get healthy and stay healthy. Hicks and Judge and Castro are good, but are they as good as a healthy Josh Donaldson or Troy Tulowitzki? No. Add to that the bats of Kendrys Morales and Kevin Pillar, and a turnaround for just two of the struggling José Bautista, Russell Martin and Devon Travis and you would have a lineup easily as potent as the Yankees have enjoyed to this point.

I’m not saying that any of this is goingto happen, only that it very well could: and if it does, then the Jays would be as good a team as the Yankees are now…and the Yankees are a .600 team in the AL East.

The Orioles

Again, the point of this exercise is to try and look into the Jays’ future, not dissect other teams’ pasts, but to see if the Jays can be a .600 team I’m trying to figure out what it is that makes a team play .600 ball in the American League East in the first place. In the case of the New York Yankees it’s been a combination two probably-unsustainable things: good starting pitching and an overpowering offense. The Jays have a very realistic shot at having both of these things at some point in the near(ish) future.

In the case of the Baltimore Orioles, their .600 record is largely something of a mirage, built on the vagaries of an uneven schedule.

So far this season they’ve played three games against the White Sox and the Rays, and six games against the Blue Jays: that’s twelve of their thirty-three games against sub .500 teams and they’ve made the most of that, going nine and three in those games. Against the rest of their opponents they’re just thirteen and eight–so, against the really bad teams (and yes, I account the Jays in that because so far they have been terrible–but we’re looking to the future, remember?) they’ve built up a whopping .750 win ratio to offset the far more modest .590 they’ve managed against everyone else.

As they did with the Yankees, the potential Blue Jays team of the future compares reasonably well to the so-far-this-year Orioles when it comes to starting pitching…assuming, of course and as always, that the Jays’ starting rotation can get healthy and stay healthy.

Because of their ridiculous number of off-days, the Orioles have been able to limit the use of a fifth starter, meaning almost half their starts have been by Dylan Bundy (ERA 2.17) and Wade Miley (2.45). Neither of those guys is going to be able to sustain those numbers and as the season goes on they are going to get proportionally less of the total starts, giving their opponents more quality time with the likes of Kevin Gausman (6.63), Ubaldo Jimenez (6.15) and whomever else Buck Schowalter can scrape out of his bullpen. To this point, however, the Orioles have been able to present a starting rotation as good as the Yankees’ has been, and as good as the Jays’ could be.

It’s on the offensive side of things that the Orioles and the Jays present a fascinating study in contrasts. The Orioles have scored just nineteen more runs than the Jays (149 to 130) and they’ve only hit seven more home runs (43 to 36). Most interestingly: so far this year, eight of the Oriole’s twenty-two wins have been by just one run. The Jays, on the other hand, have dropped seven of their twenty-one losses by just one run. So, one third of the Oriole’s wins have been by a single run, and one third of the Jays’ losses have been by a single run.

So, the full-strength, uninjured, well-rested Orioles offense–who, by the by, have been playing more than their fair share of bad teams–have been only slightly better than the Blue Jays’ offense. In terms of runs put on the board, at least, it would seem as though the Jays are already playing as well as .600 team in the American League East.

And the crystal ball says…?

There are no such things as crystal balls, of course, and nobody can ever really know what the future may bring, but from this comparison it would seem that it does remain at least realistically possible that the Jays could, in fact, turn themselves into a .600 team…

IF Happ and Sanchez can get back into the rotation and stay there and IF Liriano can be just a bit more dependable as their fifth man then the Blue Jays will have a starting rotation that is at least as good as, if not significantly better than, the rotations of the .600 winning-ratio Yankees and Orioles, and…

IF Donaldson, Tulowitzki and Morales can get healthy quickly enough, and IF any two of Bautista, Martin and Travis can start hitting as well as they should be, then the Blue Jays will have an offense at least as good as the .600 Yankees and far better than the .600 Orioles.

So…yeah…that’s a lot of ifs, and it might be too many to ask for. But at least we can say this: it’s not a matter of when the Jays are out of the playoffs, but if.

 

Playing the Average: Smoak’s Edge

If you think Justin Smoak’s contract is a joke, you should see my tables

Starting the season there were a whole lot of people getting themselves all in a lather over the decision by the Blue Jays’ front office in May 2016 to sign Justin Smoak to a two year, $10 million contract extension. “He’s a terrible player!” these people screamed. “He’s not worth that kind of money!”

Show me the money!

Smoak’s salary this year is $4.125 million which makes him the nineteenth highest paid first baseman amongst the forty one listed at Spotrac, meaning he is making pretty darned near the dictionary definition of the Major League average salary for a first baseman. The three players just ahead of him on that list are Wil Myers (Padres, $4.5 million), Mitch Moreland (Red Sox, $5.5 million) and Mike Napoli (Rangers, $6.0 million). Just behind Smoak are four players, each making $4.0 milllion this year: Eric Thames (Brewers), John Jaso (Pirates), Yonder Alonso (A’s) and Brandon Belt (Giants).

So how does Smoak stack up? Let’s start with their slash lines, organised by batting average:

Eric Thames 0.327 0.431 1.174
Yonder Alonso 0.309 0.378 1.079
Wil Myers 0.302 0.331 0.885
Mitch Moreland 0.271 0.355 0.804
Justin Smoak 0.255 0.288 0.741
Brandon Belt 0.222 0.359 0.761
Mike Napoli 0.164 0.218 0.546
John Jaso 0.154 0.243 0.551

So: Smoak is fifth out of the eight in batting average so far this season, and sixth in both On Base and OPS. Not bad…not great, either, but for a first baseman making average money he’s performing at about an average level.

Let’s look at some power numbers, this time organised by home runs:

Player HR RBI HR/PA RBI/PA
Eric Thames 13 24 0.094 0.173
Yonder Alonso 11 27 0.097 0.239
Wil Myers 7 22 0.048 0.152
Mike Napoli 5 13 0.037 0.096
Justin Smoak 5 17 0.045 0.153
Brandon Belt 4 14 0.028 0.099
John Jaso 2 4 0.027 0.053
Mitch Moreland 2 16 0.014 0.113

Tied for fourth with Napoli in home runs, all on his own in fourth place for RBI and for home runs per plate appearance, and third in RBI per plate appearance. Once again, amongst comparably paid first basemen, Smoak is producing at an about average level in every category.

And that’s what I find the most striking, really. Amongst comparably paid first basemen, Justin Smoak stands out as almost startlingly, solidly, average. He’s not at the top of any of the stats, but he’s not at the bottom either.

But just one more table (I promise), this time comparing plate discipline and organised by strike outs:

Player SO BB SO/AB
John Jaso 16 8 0.246
Yonder Alonso 24 12 0.247
Justin Smoak 25 5 0.236
Mitch Moreland 29 16 0.246
Eric Thames 29 20 0.257
Wil Myers 40 5 0.288
Brandon Belt 41 25 0.350
Mike Napoli 42 6 0.344

Third on the list for strike outs, and worst (with Wil Myers) in terms of taking a walk, but take a closer look and you’ll notice that amongst these eight comparably-paid first basemen Justin Smoak has the best rate of strike outs per at bat. So while Smoak may not walk a lot (at least compared to comparably paid first basemen) he also is cagier than most of his peers when it comes to strike outs which means he’s putting the ball in play more often than them.

A lot of people may be surprised to learn that Justin Smoak does not, contrary to popular wisdom, strike out every time he comes to the plate. In fact, with just twenty-five strike outs so far this season he is ninety second amongst the one hundred ninety players with at least one hundred at bats so far this season making him, once again, an average player making an average salary for his position.

Now, I get it: the season is not very old and all these numbers are based on what can and should be called a truly small sample size. But so far, at least, those numbers tell an interesting story. Justin Smoak isn’t Mike Trout…but then again, nobody’s Mike Trout (unless his name was Barry Bonds). But he isn’t Joe Crummy Nobody either. He’s a genuine major league first baseman, making standard major league first baseman money.

But here’s the statistic that makes him worth every penny the Blue Jays are paying him:

Thirty-three.

Justin Smoak has appeared in thirty-three games for the Jays: that’s every game they’ve played. The only other players to pull that off in this injury nightmare of a season are Kevin Pillar, José Bautista and Kendrys Morales (whose streak is about to come an end) which makes him an extremely valuable commodity for the team.

A dependable bat and fantastic glove who can be relied on to play every game, for league average money?

Sounds like a good deal to me.

So give the guy a break, willya?

The Catch

You can certainly feel free to say “Bullsh**!” to this, but I knew Kevin had that ball all the way.

And holy fricking heck, I was even in the park to see it. Second deck, just between home and third, with a perfect view of the whole thing. And what a thing it was.

The instant the ball was struck, I turned to Pillar and he was already on the move. Even before I’d shifted my eyes from the plate to the outfield, he was already running in a dead-straight even line to where the ball was going to come down, and as the ball dipped and the crowd sighed I was already standing and getting ready to cheer because Pillar had his eye on it, and was raising his glove and I knew he was going to get that sucker because the great outfielders, the truly extraordinary ones, just have a particular way of moving–of gliding–for those last few steps before they make the eye-popping catch and Pillar was gliding across the green like he was barely touching it.

And then he flew up, and tossed out the glove and…oh my goodness, but that is why I watch baseball and shell out the outrageous amounts of money it costs to take your kids to a ballgame. Because as Pillar came down with that ball in his glove and everyone else stood up to join me and the noise rose up all around, I got to look down at my boys and to see them looking down at the field in the same way that I was, and the way everyone else there was: eyes wide and white, smiles of awe and amazement from ear to ear, and a kind of bewildered air of the surreal surrounding everything.

“Did you see that?” my younger boy asked me. “Did you see?”

“That…was incredible,” offered the elder.

My wife tore her eyes from the field to look at me. “I can’t believe what I just saw. Did he really catch that?”

Yes. Yes, he did catch that.

And I was there to see it.

God, I love baseball.