Tuesday, April 1, 2014

April 1: Blue Jays 4, Rays 2

Much better… whew!

In a season start that was absolutely dismal for the Jays, things didn’t look good with Tampa’s Cobb on the mound, undefeated at home since September 2012, against unproven Drew Hutchison, in his debut MLB game since Tommy John surgery. 

Game notes:

The Jays started off strong. Melky led the game with a single. Jose walked with one out. With two out, Adam Lind and his goatee launched a 3-1 pitch (should have been 2-2) beyond the wall in deep right-centre cashing in three.
In the 4th, Lawrie took a well-disciplined walk with one out in the top of the fourth, and advanced on a Goins ground out. Johnathon Diaz, in his 2nd MLB plate appearance, singled to right to score Lawrie. Goins managed to steal 2nd as well before Cabrera bounced out to the pitcher. 4-0 Jays after 4.
In the top of the 5th, Rasmus hit a double into the corner in right that the Jays didn’t cash, and the Jays led 4-0 until the 8th inning.
Meanwhile, Drew Hutchison threw very well. In the bottom half of the 2nd, he threw back-to-back one out walks before fielding a east 1-4-3 double play, and then retiring 8 in a row before giving up a one out double in the 5th.
In the bottom of the 5th, Diaz tripped on a routine ground ball to short, but because Loney didn’t run it out, he was able to barely record the out.
Hutchison was pulled with 1 out in the 6th, and Loup completed the 6th and 7th, and Delabar the 8th. In the 8th inning, Wil Myers doubled over Rasmus’ head, plating Matt Joyce.
Then, in the 9th with two doubles against newly minted closer Sergio Santos, including another double over Colby’s head. Sergio then walked Hanigan, and the Rays pulled a double steal, leaving the tying run at 2nd before strking out Escobar to end the game.
A well-played game for the Jays, with Adam Lind’s 3 home run being the highlight. Johnathon Diaz had a great debut, with a walk, single and RBI, and stolen base.
The only mistakes I noticed was Colby's fielding. Last year, there were games where Colby just didn't field well in centre, and this was one of those games where he should have tracked down at least one of those balls.
But overall, a good game, and the Jays are back to .500.

And so it begins, dismally so.

March 31: Blue Jays 2, Tampa 9  

Memories of 2013: With the opening bell, RA Dickey and Joses Reyes starts with an ominous harbinger of 2013.


First, comments on the broadcast. It was nice to see Buck and Tabby back together. They are not the best broadcast crew in baseball, but familiarity does have its comforts. And I was happy to see the enhanced strike zone in the broadcast though it was a bit distracting with the "through the strike zone" feature.

Though the technical difficulties that plagued SportsNet during the latter half of the game, forcing them to go to the Rays coverage, kind of says it all for this team, which was fine. When the Jays started to lose, Buck and Tabby went into their "excuse" mode to explain why the Rays were so much better than the Jays. On Opening Day.

Also interesting was the replay feature. In this game, the umps got all of the calls right. in close situations (there was three), the strategy that the coaches are using are to stall for 30 seconds to friendly question a call, get the right call from the dugout, and then ask for a replay if warranted. It seems to be far more civil than arguing, and doesn't slow the pace of the game over an argument.

I was surprised that the opening lineup featured Navarro over Lind, but clearly that is why Kratz was called up for the opener. I don't think that was a good option. I would have rather seen Adam Lind.

The game didn't start off well. Jose Reyes flies out in his first AB at the season and ends up getting injured running to first with "left hamstring tightness". In comes Ryan Goins, the lead off hitter. (Indeed, Jose Reyes is headed to the 15 day DL, with the contract of Diaz selected).

RA Dickey's knuckleball was not dancing with a double and single in the first on balls that just hung over the plate, down 1-0 after 1. In the second, he gave up another opening double followed by a walk, followed by a two out walk, and a two run single as he clearly struggled in this ball game, down 3-0 after 2. In the third, the opening walk scored through a passed ball and a sac fly. 4-0 after 3. RA had a perfect fourth. But in the fifth, Dickey gave up two walks, and a double cashed those two runs in. 6-0 after five. 

On comes Esmil Rogers in the 6th, who pitched uneventfully through the end of the game. Colby had a nice assist in the 7th to punch out Loney coming home.

Then we have the 8th inning which was a complete defensive nightmare, with Jeffress hitting the batsman with one out. Then, with Myers hitting, Jeffress fields the ball that Lawrie should have fielded, threw the ball errantly to first, and then Bautista threw a ball that missed Goins at third, and everyone scores -- 8 to 2. Jeffress fell apart with a walk, a single, sac-fly, single, hit batsman, and finally gets out of the inning scoring three.


Jays offense feeble against the Rays ace


The Jays finally got a baserunner against David Price with a walk in the top of the 3rd. 
Izturis got a base hit, but Josh Thole hit into a 5-4-3 DP, leaving the feeble Ryan Goins to ground out to first.The Jays then got into a rally in the top of the fourth with singles by Cabrera and Bautista. Edwin's 2nd plate appearance featured his classic swing of the bat into the dugout before striking out. After Navarro's fly out, Brett Lawrie had an excellent 10 pitch at bat before losing the battle to David Price and David Price retained his shutout. Josh Thole had a solid hit with two out in the 5th before Price retired 7 in a row in the 6th and 7th. Finally, Price gave up a crack as Izturis' single was followed up by a Kratz pinch hit home run. and it was 6-2 after 7. Peralta came on for Price and ended the inning. Gomes finished the game.


 All in all, Dickey looked awful, six walks, and those long balls -- three off the wall, may translate into home runs at Rogers Centre. And the offense was terribly lacking as well, with seven hits.

Certainly a dismal opening day for Jay's fans.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

And now, the 2013 pitchers (no wait, it's 2014, right?)

Not one new face -- how can we hope for anything different


One of the biggest off-season failures for Alex Anthopolous was his complete inability to replace Josh Johnson with someone who would put some serenity back into the rotation, instead electing to go with the (lack of) talent already existing on the team.

While the 'pen is seemingly loaded with talent, the starting rotation seems completely iffy, at best, with big question marks around Brandon Morrow, Drew Hutchinson, and Dustin McGowan. Meanwhile, RA Dickey's knuckler will continue to be inconsistently baffling while Mark Buehrle will be his usual #3 innings eater self.

It is this lack of a starting rotation featuring no true "ace", a decent #3, the potential of greatness never realized, and two number five starters, both of which are injury prone, will do in the Jays. Its insurance policy, once again, is the relief core, who I predict will be overtaxed and overburdened by short starts combined with Gibbons propensity to pull pitchers from games way too early.

And it will cost the Jays the season, and the only person you can fault for that is Alex. If last year wasn't going to be the year for the Jays to make the playoffs, this year is. Next year is the last year of the core of the team to be together, and they are not getting younger.

As Paul Beeston promised to its season ticket holders in 2012, "In the next five years, I would expect that we would be in it two to three times," Beeston said. 

The problem is that it will take a miracle for this rotation to hold up this year.

The Starters


RA Dickey (14-13, 224.2 IP, 4.21 ERA, 1.217 WHIP in 2013) needs to have a much better year as the ace of this club. And with a knuckler, it is really difficult to know if this year will be any better than last. The Home Run was his enemy, 23 of 35 of them at Rogers Centre, and this is what truly killed him. With the WHIP being the same as they were during his 2012 year, it is the home run at home (that should be routine fly balls) that is hurting him. We will see if he makes an adjustment, but how do you adjust a knuckleball?

Mark Buehrle (12-10, 203.2 IP, 4.15 ERA, 1.315 WHIP in 2013) was consistent. There was fear that the AL East opponents would hurt him coming over from the NL, and that fear was realized. In 16 starts against the AL east, he went 2-8 with a 5.42 ERA and a 1.45 WHIP. This number must improve if the Jays wish to compete. Against the rest, he went 10-2 with a 3.56 ERA and a WHIP of 1.25 -- very different numbers indeed.

Brandon Morrow (2-3, 54.1 IP, 5.63 ERA, injured in 2013) is one question mark for this team. After being sidelined last year by a entrapped radial nerve, his spring didn't look all that well either until his appearance against the Mets in Montreal. We all remember his potential with his incredible one hitter on August 8, 2010 when he threw 137 pitches. And we know this guy has incredible stuff. From last year and the year before, I also see that he is a very smart pitcher, using different pitches to get outs especially when he knows that one of his pitches isn't working. And that's what I love about Brandon Morrow. I actually think that if he remains healthy, that he will have an incredible year. Just remember 2012, when, before his left oblique strain in early June, he had pitched three shutouts in 10 starts. He is more than capable. 

Drew Hutchison (no action in 2013) is another question mark for the Jays. In 2012, before his Tommy John surgery, he featured #5 starter skills, going 5-3 with a 4.60 ERA. He has had a standout spring but he cannot possibly throw a full season as a SP. Still, I see some beginner's luck for Drew and a decent first half before his arm wears and the league figures him out. I expect that JA Happ or another AAA person will replace him around the all-star break.

Dustin McGowan (no meaningful action in 2013) is the final question mark for the Jays. The question mark is "why is he starting? With 4 innings of work in spring training and a maximum of 32 pitches pitched in an outing last year? For the Jays, it's a sentimental outing, a welcome back. Given the failures of Happ, Drabek, Romero, Stroman, and Rogers, I think this might be McGowan's ONLY start. Despite the obvious sentimental heartstrings being pulled, is it the best baseball move for the Jays? No. I predict Dusty to be relegated back to the 'pen (or to Buffalo) after two-three starts with a promotion from one of the Bison crews.

The relievers


Casey Janssen -- the closer. Janssen is not a hard thrower, but he's crafty and will continue to be the team's very capable closer. Going 34 for 36 in saves, he established himself as the closer in 2012 and will continue to shine. 

Brett Cecil, with last year's all-star appearance completed his transformation from starter to reliever is complete. This lefty dumfounds lefties while right-handers tend to get big hits against him but he is still effective. Brett will be used later in games against left-handed batters and will be particularly effective in games when right-handers are starting and the starting lineups of the opposition are filled with left handed bats.

Steve Delabar, now in his third year with the Jays, is a capable right handed reliever with very nasty stuff.

Jeremy Jeffress has a 100mph fastball and only remains on the roster because he it out of options. Expect to see him in Jays where the Jays are not competing in a game (win or lose) or as a situational hitter against a right hand threat.

Aaron Loup -- the wiley left-hander and his eclectic side-arm delivery continues to throw off hitters and with his 2.45 ERA last year, he will be an important part of a bridge between the starters and the closers and the relievers or when the team is down. 

Todd Redmond -- (long relief / spot starter) will likely be the #5 starter after the home opener. He started 14 games last year with 77 IP and a 4.32 ERA and did not have a terrible spring to demote him to long relief. The only reason I think Todd is not the #5 starter is because of the sentimentality of McGowan.

Esmil Rogers -- (long relief / spot starter) did not earn a starting role this spring with terrible performance. He will start in the bullpen and may return back to a starter role replacing either Dustin McGowan or Drew Hutchinson as a mid-season starter.

Sergio Santos is to be Casey's setup man with an impressive repertoire and the ability to strike out players.
 

The outliers

Look for JA Happ's return in mid-season. Kyle Drabek and Rickey Romero will need to have a string of excellent games in AAA to be promoted, and only in case of injuries to one or more of the starters. I expect Romero's return to be slow and will need to prove himself over a string of starts in Buffalo. 

Chad Jenkins, Neil Wagner, Deck McGuire, and Sean Nolin are all relievers who right now are on the outside looking in. With the relief core being as strong as they are, I don't see them advancing to the majors unless there's many injuries.

New season, same team?

Disappointment will be less as our expectations are much lower


The Toronto Blue Jays open their season tomorrow at Tampa before the Yankees come to town this weekend. I've been away for five months and it's great that baseball is back. I managed to listen to and watch some of the spring training games looking for something different. I watched the off-season moves, hoping that Alex Anthopolous and Rogers would come up with some scratch to sign a big name pitcher for 2014. 

So, what I see is the same players (save Navarro, thank God) on the same team using the same techniques to win and lose games. 

The exception this year is that our expectations were so high this year, while this year I think the fan base will be happy with anything over .500. Certainly, Rogers Media has toned down the rhetoric for this year, and that's a good thing. I think the fan base at Rogers Centre will remain steady, making no gains on 2013, while the fan base around the country will remain tied to the Blue Jays' win-loss record, with some extra interest as it looks like only one Canadian team will make the NHL playoffs.

Let's take a look at this year's roster and point out some of the questionable roster moves for opening day. This article will focus on the hitters, while the next focuses on the pitching.

Overall, this team should be hitting better than they did last year, which was absolutely abysmal. Last year featured some terrible offensive outages due to really poor seasons by Maicer, JP, and Bonifacio, bad streaks by Jose, Colby, Lind, and Lawrie compounded by injuries by most everyone on the offence, leaving them with inferior replacements like Kawasaki, Thole/Blanco, Gose, and Pillar. 

Once again, the key to this year's performance offensively will be consistency and injury avoidance. While the addition of Navarro might help the offensive performance as will a return of Melky to his former self, the team is now lacking formidable speed with the departures of Emilio (who could never get on base anyway) and Rajai Davis (a true weapon), and Anthony Gose sitting in AAA. This means that the team must attempt to move runners forward by ways of the bat. And with a three man bench and no one on the bench particularly good, late game situational hitting will be lacking.

This leads me to believe that while the numbers overall will be better, run production will suffer.

Here's my player by player analysis.

C - Dioner Navarro with a .300 / .465 / .492 slash last year and an all star 2008 (with Tampa) under his belt, this guy brings veteran experience behind the plate, which is what the pitching staff and John Gibbons needs defensively. Offensively, he comes with a caveat, in that there were years where he suffered at the plate. For example, after his all-star year with the Rays where he hit .295, he hit just .218 in the following year. So, it is unclear which Dioner we are going to get this year. Still, it's a huge improvement over the train wreck which was JP Arencibia last year. He seemed to have some power last year too, hitting 13 homers in 266 plate appearance. In Rogers Centre, playing full-time, he might have the potential to hit 20 dingers. I also like the fact that he came from Tampa, a Blue Jays rival, with some knowledge of the pitching system there.

C - Josh Thole is here to catch RA Dickey, and will figure into games only if he manages to crack .200. He was quite the batting disappointment last year, but I think part of that was the fact that he was only in games where the opposing pitcher was the team's ace (in that RA is the Blue Jays ace, and aces tend to play each other).

I am surprised that the Jays chose Thole over Kratz as the backup catcher. In the end, I think the Jays traded offense for the ability to catch and hopes that Thole can have a little bit of offense one game of five. I think it's a very tall order to push Thole into action one day out of five, and I would like to see the Jays play him in two of five games, especially if his offense shows a bit of spark.

1B/DH - Adam Lind has had an excellent spring, with Buck quoting that he was looking like the Lind of 2009. Well with the goatee, he definitely looks like the Dr. Hyde version of Lind in 2013. The issue with Lind always is his back health and his ability to stay consistent. If he can remain warm for 2014 and Gibbons uses him in every day situations (against LHP and RHP) and gives him breaks so that he can rest (using him as DH, sitting him from time to time), Lind can relive his glory from 2009.

1B/DH - Edwin Encarnacion, for a Jay, is Mr. Consistency. From oblivion three years ago when the Jays let him go to Oakland (only to be reclaimed), the former "E5" has turned into a decent first baseman sporting a .275 / .364 / .517 line over the past three years with not much in the way of injuries.

At issue here are the away National league games (against Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati) where both Edwin and Adam can't play.

2B - Ryan Goins -- The Blue Jays draftee of 2009 is the starting 2B, sporting a paltry .177 batting average over spring training. Last year, in his MLB debut, he hit .252 / .264 / .345 over 121 plate appearances, with 2 walks and 28 strikeouts. He is supposed to be excellent defensively.

I seriously question the decision of putting in Goins over Kawasaki. Now, one could point out Muni's slash last year (.229 / .326 / .308) as being worse than Goins, but that OBP is meaningful. Muni drew a heck of alot more of Pitches per Plate Appearance than pretty much anyone else in the majors. He is extremely popular with the fan base, and he is defensively capable all around the infield. One could argue that this year represents that natural progression for Goins, and that it's his time to prove himself at the MLB level. But the fan base loves Muni. He is JAPANESE!!!

The good news is that if Ryan doesn't prove himself, Muni will be on that bus from Buffalo.

SS - Jose Reyes, while defensively average, Jose is a necessary and vital piece of the Jays offense this year. Our hope is that his hamstring doesn't have any issue. His injury last year was not related to his hamstring. I hope that he improves on his already excellent .296/.353/.427 line from last year.

3B - Brett Lawrie -- We were hoping collectively that LAST year would have been the year for Brett, and looking that the downward trend year over year, we find that we have been making excuses for this man's offensive performance (at .254/.315/.397) last year. He had a terrible spring, got injured, tried 2B (stupid idea), and finally broke out after the all star break, where he had a string of 42 games hitting .324 / .384 / .507 before having a meh September. Defensively, he's a gem. If he stays healthy, it will be HIS year to show MLB his star quality. He becomes arbitration eligible next year, and the Jays are going to have to show him the money if he has a great year, which we all hopes he has. He seems to have matured and slowed down his waggle at home plate and seems to have more control.

UF - Maicer Izturis is the team's utility infielder and after a crappy year (his worst year offensively in MLB), we are all hoping that he does better. When he had regular play with Brett's injury, he managed to hit .309 / .351 / .397 over 150 plate appearance, which was pretty good. But he started off terribly and ended the season terribly as well, batting just .167 for the rest of the season over 103 plate appearances. Defensively, he is okay. 

LF - Melky Cabrera, with an undiagnosed tumour in his back and an absolute defensive liability in LF last year, the man still managed to hit .279 last year with no power. This year, he looks absolutely white hot, hitting .400 in spring training. We can only hope that Melky is the Melky of 2011 this year. We shall see if the turf in LF doesn't hurt him.

CF - Colby Rasmus was hot and cold last year, pretty much like the rest of the club, and with a strikeout rate near 30% and a propensity to look foolish against LHP, he can be a frustrating player to watch. Still, overall, he had an excellent year in 2013, batting .276 / .338 / .501. He demonstrates power. Defensively, he has moments where he is excellent, and moments of complete lapses. I'm looking forward to seeing him perform this year, and hopes that he has a consistently good year with a measure of better plate discipline.

RF - Jose Bautista has had an excellent spring, and that wrist and his violent swing hopefully will not lead to injury as it has over the last couple of years. Still, a HR every 15 or so plate appearances is not a bad thing, and his arm and defence is most helpful.

OF - Moises Sierra had an excellent 2013 in limited action as Jose's replacement last September and represents a capable 4th OF for the Jays and represents the good choice versus Gose and Pillar.

The Outsiders: Anthony Gose, Kevin Pillar, Muni Kawasaki and Kratz are the four outsiders looking in. I see all four of them in Jays uniforms at some point this year.

Next: the Pitchers.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Okay. They lost one. So what.

The best teams in baseball win games, the worst teams do too.


When you think about the best teams in baseball, you find that a 1st place team is only going win about 100 games in a season at best -- 108 is really really good. Conversely, the worst teams in baseball might get away with 60 wins -- 54 is really really bad.

So, how do bad teams win and great teams lose games?

Dumb luck

Sometimes, teams win games due to dumb luck: a caught line drive by a fielder in a exactly the right place can save two runs while a blooper to left field can score two runs, which is precisely what happened to the Jays against Colorado on June 17th. In the top of the 8th inning, Colorado had runners at 2nd and 3rd with one out and Lind made a wonderful play to catch a smoked line drive. In the bottom half of that inning, Maicer hit a bloop single to short left which plated Davis and Colby. And that's the difference between a W and a L.

Pitching miscues

You can't expect every Jays starter to go out there and have a quality start every time out. They are going to make mistakes because it is EXTREMELY difficult to pitch well every time you are on the mound. Pitching is extremely mental, but it is physical too. Sometimes your fastball cannot work because you can't connect the mind to the body. That's what happened to Esmil last night, leaving him only with a working breaking ball. It happens.

Hitting outages

What is supposed to happen when your pitching doesn't work is your batting is supposed to pick it up for you. But the bats will run into a pitcher sometimes who stymie you, or you run into a part of the lineup who is just not hitting well (Cabrera and Bautista). If Edwin and Lind have an off night as well then it becomes extremely difficult to manufacture and score runs.

Putting it all together


The fact is that the combination of the three leads to a perfectly playing team to lose 1 game of 3. What happens between winning between 1 and 2 games of 3 is a function of the team's true skill. In the case of the Blue Jays, you are looking at a team with below average infield and LF defense, an unexpectedly overperforming bullpen, an unexpectently underperforming starting rotation, and inconsistency (save Lind and Edwin) in the starting lineup. This leads to a .500 team that is susceptible to streaks.

Bringing back Lawrie and Reyes (and yes, sending down Kawasaki) will improve the IF defence dramatically and should improve the offense too. Putting Edwin at 3rd and letting Cabrera DH for a few days in a row will improve his legs so that he can play better defensively in LF and let Rajai get some playing time. The time to do this (give Cabrera's legs some rest) is now before Lawrie gets back.

The starting rotation is what it is. Lately they've been very good. RA Dickey is not going to have a good season and there's no improvement. Josh Johnson I predict will be on fire as he tries to get a monster contract. Mark Buehrle is fine. Esmil Rogers pitched only  75 innings last year and he's only good for about 8 more starts berore he will be pulled. Chien-Ming Wang has been great so far, but we'll see how he does in Boston against his AL East rivals who know him well. By that time (after the All-Star break), reinforcements in Brandon Morrow and JA Happ should be ready.

And offensively, the players need to get on a roll collectively. Bautista has been very streaky, as has Cabrera, Arencibia and Rasmus. Adding Reyes back to the front of the lineup will increase scoring opportunities and speed at the start of the lineup.

Predictions

The Jays have now shown that they are a good team. Defense has improved as Bonfacio, Reyes, and Izturis get used to the turf. Offense is very very good on most nights and will improve with the return of Reyes and then Lawrie. Starting pitching will be an issue for RA Dickey only. The bullpen I think will continue to shine. In short, if the team can score 5 runs a game and the starting pitching can leave the team with a lead after 6 innings this team will win alot of games, many more than they will lose.

My prediction now is that the playoff race for 2nd place in the AL East goes down to the wire, with the Jays fighting it out for the 2nd wild card spot between any one of the four AL east teams, with about 92 wins. The last 15 games that the Jays play are against AL East contenders and I think it's these games that will determine the playoff picture in the AL East. Look for Texas or Oakland to take a wild card spot with whoever finishes in 2nd in the AL East to take the 2nd wild card.