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…

There’s Still Plenty Of Time Left…But Maybe Not As Much As You Think

If the Jays aren’t relevant by the end of July, they may be in the mood for some horse trading

Blue Jays 4, Orioles 6

There’s a couple of truisms about the mantra “It’s a long season” that need to be acknowledged by Blue Jays’ fans. First, it really is a long season; and second, it’s getting really boring saying and hearing that.

But here’s another point to consider about the mantra: it may not be entirely correct. In the case of the Blue Jays, at least, the season is still quite long, but perhaps not quite as long as you may think. It may, in fact, be about two months shorter than just about everyone else’s.

Here’s the situation: the Blue Jays are a fundamentally good team with the possibility of greatness, but they’ve been underperforming at an almost farcically-unsustainable level. It simply cannot and will not go on like this…it is impossible that they finish 16-146 this season, which is what they’re on pace to do.

In that sense, it’s a bit like 2015, when they were also a very good team whose position in the standings just didn’t show that, but then Alex Anthopoulos went out, and like a drunk sailor on shore leave, spent almost everything in the bank for Tulowitzki and David Price (and oddments) and…hey presto!…a winning team was born!

That’s not going to happen this year, and no it’s not because Mark Atkins and Mark Shapiro are worse at their jobs than Anthopoulos (it is my considered opinion, in fact, that they are considerably better, but that’s a different column for a different day). No, it’s not going to happen this year because the problem isn’t missing a few key pieces—they have all the pieces they need, they just aren’t hitting.

It’s also not going to happen because this is an aging team that has to be ready to replenish itself over the next couple years or risk becoming complete garbage in a division that looks to be getting stronger and stronger over the next few years (Boston is young and talented, New York is getting ready to sign Bryce Harper, Manny Machado and Josh Donaldson in the next three years). This means they can’t afford to trade away everything they’ve got in the minors, particularly at a time when there isn’t much there that’s major league or almost-major league ready. There is some great talent in the system, sure, but they’re years away for the most part and the Jays are going to need to figure out how to replace their aging core over the next two to four years while they wait to develop all those great young arms, gloves and bats scattered between low-A and AA ball.

Which brings us back to this season and how and why it is probably a whole heck of a lot shorter than you may think. For the Blue Jays, I suspect, this season could very well find it’s definitive end at 4:00 PM on 31 July.

That’s the non-waiver trade deadline, and if the Jays get to that date and they’re all but out of things…well…they can’t fix the 2017 team by trading away prospects for talent…but they can do a lot to help their future by trading away talent for major-league ready prospects…

And who would they trade? You could get a truckload of whatever you wanted for Donaldson, and while Jon Morosi has suggested the Jays would do well to trade him (and been suitably dismissed by Andrew Stoeten for doing so), I really don’t think they would: the fan backlash would be thunderous, he’s under contract for two more years and thus a key part of this bridging period I’m talking about, and…well…you just don’t trade a player like Donaldson. You just…don’t!

Tulo and Martin are already at that point of their contracts when they’re probably not worth the money they’re making, but the Jays could maybe move one of them by taking on a lot of that money themselves; Bautista would have just a couple months of control left and nobody wanted him in the off-season so it’s doubtful anyone would want him now; the team has made a commitment to Morales, and they’re not going to trade away young talent like Devon Travis…and as for the rest of the position players, you’re probably not going to get enough in return to make it worth your while.

So there’s not a lot of trade capital at the dish or in the field, but on the mound…

That’s where you can expect to see some major moves, should the Jays feel by mid-July that they are done and out of it this season.

Stroman and Sanchez are absolutely untouchable, the team has made that abundantly clear over and over again, even though it’s painfully obvious to anyone with eyes and a brain that they aren’t going anywhere.

But Francisco Liriano, Marco Estrada and J.A. Happ…

Liriano is a free agent after this year, but if he pitches like he did in his last game for another three months then a contending team would be willing to pay quite a bit to rent him.

Happ and Estrada are the real gold though: they’re making very reasonable money for what they bring, and Happ even comes with a year of control after this one. I can’t even begin to imagine what they might be able to fetch from a desperate almost-contender at the end of July. It could be the David Price trade all over again, but with the Jays on the other side of it.

Last summer teams were falling over themselves to trade whatever they could for pitchers like ancient Mr Blister Finger Rich Hill; the Red Sox gave up their number one prospect, and one of the greatest prospects in all baseball, Anderson Espinoza, for Drew Ho-Hum Pomeranz. If that’s the going rate for just-a-bit-above average what do you think Marco I Win Every Post-Game I Play Estrada and J.A. I Won Twenty Games Happ could fetch? Shop them both out to whichever two teams are desperate enough or dumb enough to empty the coffers for them (which team does Anthopoulos work for now, anyway?) and all of sudden, the next couple years in Blue Jays land look a whole lot brighter.

Of course, this year would be sunk. But then again, if things don’t turn around fast, they will be anyway…

Postscript

Oh, and yeah, the Jays lost again last night to the Orioles dropping them to one and nine on the season, which really sucks. Good pitching and crappy hitting…yadda yadda yadda…

The Movie Was Worse

It wasn’t pretty, but it could have been worse: the Jays could have been stranded in orbit with a space jellyfish

Blue Jays 8, (Devil) Rays 10

Well that was ugly. Fortunately for me I was at the movies last night (Life, kind of like the original Alien but boring, dumb and not scary) and didn’t have to watch most of it. I did check the score just as the trailers were beginning and the Jays were up two runs in the first half of the first inning. All right! So then I watch this terrible movie and check the score again and…yikes!

I guess I should get the obvious out of the way: Liriano was not good. In fact, that was just about as bad as Liriano has ever been, posting the shortest outing of his major league career (at least according to Buck Martinez as heard on the Blue Jays in 30). But even without that little nugget from Buck, it’s pretty obvious from the line just how horrific the night was…five runs on three hits and FOUR walks while managing a single out. Ick. He did get Souza Jr to strike out to lead off the inning so, that’s good…

But it wasn’t just Liriano who kind of sucked on the mound for the Jays. Nope, Howell was also his own brand of awful. I was home from the movies just in time to see him give up two more runs on two walks, two hits (without managing a single out) with just fifteen pitches which will happen when twelve of them are balls.

As all this was going on I was pondering whether or not Gibby had made the right choice in starting Saltalamacchia with Liriano pitching, given all the Pittsburgh-Pitcher-Whisperer stuff I kept reading and hearing about all spring about Martin’s “special touch” with him. This was kind of reinforced when I watched the Blue Jays in 30 recap and they showed Gibby going down to talk to Russell just before taking Liriano out of the game. But then I read this tweet from the redoubtable Andrew Stoeten:

So, well, OK then, good point, I did not know that. My apologies Gibby. For the record, I was also not so sure about the wisdom of having Smoak, Carrerra and Salty all in the lineup on the same day, but then darned if the Jays didn’t go out and score eight runs which, if you forget about the final score for a moment, is kind of awesome.

In fact, there was quite a bit of awesome in the game. Tulo showed some real signs of life with a double and a homer; Leone and Tepera were fine in relief, keeping the game in reach; Smith looked really good; and (am I really about to type this?) Loup looked really good too. I remember hearing something on the At The Letters podcast about Loup playing hurt most of last season and that he was feeling better this year…Arden Zwelling (which is a name I’ve always just wanted to type, almost as much as Saltalamacchia) and Ben Nicholson-Smith seemed pretty confident that he would be pitching better which would be huge and, well…so far so good, I guess.

Oh, and Donaldson got his first dinger, and Travis and Bautista got hits, and Pillar continues his incredible transformation into an actual hitter at the plate, and best of all they only struck out seven times which is just half as many times as the Rays. The Jays did leave sixteen men on base (to the Rays’ whopping twenty-four) but that’s more a function of having so many baserunners, which is a good thing. Yes, I sure would have liked it if more of those guys had been driven in, but it’s pretty hard to complain about a team’s offensive outing when they score eight runs…and besides, this loss is entirely on the pitching which was, like I said at the outset, pretty bad.

Not quite so bad as Life, but still, not good. What’s even better, while Life will always be a terrible movie, Liriano will have at least another thirty chances to get it right this summer.

Edit

Ran across this Tweet from Hazel Mae:

So, also unlike the movie, Liriano apparently feels remorse for being so bad and wants to improve. The only way to go from here is up, right?