Tuesday, 28 July 2015

The LaTroy Hawkins era begins

The Jays finally made a move to upgrade their pitching, bringing in reliever LaTroy Hawkins from the Rockies, in exchange for Jose Reyes, Miguel Castro, Jeff Hoffman, and Jesus Tinoco.

Hawkins is a 42 year old righthander who throws a fastball (~93mph), slider and changeup.  He profiles as a guy who keeps the ball on the ground and doesn’t walk many hitters, and he’s actually improved his strikeout rate (to about 8 per 9 innings) this year as well.  Hawkins is equally effective against both righthanded and lefthanded hitters.  All that makes him a decent option to pitch in the 7th or 8th inning, sharing those innings with Aaron Sanchez and Brett Cecil, and helpfully pushing Aaron Loup into lower-leverage appearances.  Plus, he has closing experience (if needed) from as recently as 2014, and is said to be a great, positive guy to have in the clubhouse (if that matters to you).

I like the move, frankly.  Hawkins doesn’t cost much, and he makes the bullpen deeper, meaning the team will have less need to rely on Tepera and Loup in crucial situations.  Having a veteran presence in the bullpen probably can’t hurt, either. 

Giving up Castro and Hoffman does hurt a bit.  Hoffman has front-of-the-rotation potential, and Castro, while he may not ever become a starter, has the stuff to be an elite reliever – we saw flashes of that in April.  Getting out of Reyes’s contract is, on balance, a good thing – Jose Reyes has been unfairly maligned despite his being the best shortstop the team has had since Tony Fernandez, but he’s probably not worth $48MM over the next 2 seasons, or $66MM over the next 3.   And the thing with pitching prospects is that they’re prospects, and they fail all the time.  Maybe Jeff Hoffman turns into another Noah Syndergaard, but more likely, he doesn’t.  What is pretty certain is that LaTroy Hawkins is a good bullpen piece, and the Jays have some much-needed pitching help for the stretch run.

Monday, 27 July 2015

More speculation: Tyson Ross and Craig Kimbrel?

Spot the key words in (2) above.

It doesn’t make sense for the Blue Jays to look at rental pitchers, anymore.  I suppose that could change if the team picks up 2 or 3 games on the Yankees this week, but as it stands right now, the Jays are projected to have a 10% chance to win the division, and about a 25% chance to make the wild card game (which equates to another 12.5% chance to get through the wild-card game and actually participate in a playoff series).  Not trading the farm for Jeff Samardzija isn’t about overvaluing prospects, and it’s not about not “wasting” a great offense (just because your team does one thing well doesn’t mean it’s one player away from being championship calibre).  What it is about, is making realistic assessments about whether Samardzija, or another soon-to-be free agent, can move the needle on the 2015 season.  The Jays have played 100 games and are a .500 team.  An elite starter might win them 3-4 games more than they otherwise would, over the last 62 games of the season.  That would put the Jays at 85 wins, and on the outside looking in.  Again.  And with nothing to show for the talent given up for the rental.

What does make sense – and what I’ve tried to focus on for a little while – is picking up pitchers that would help not just this year, but in 2016 and beyond.  The Padres are rumoured to be in full sell mode – basically tearing down the team that won the last offseason (does that sound familiar at all?) – and I have written already about Padres pitchers Ian Kennedy and Andrew Cashner.  Cashner would be useful, but 2 guys who would be really useful are pitchers Tyson Ross and Craig Kimbrel.  Let’s consider what they could do for the Jays.

Kimbrel, you probably know about already.  He’s been far and away the most valuable reliever in baseball for the last few years, having put up 12 fWAR since the start of the 2011 season.  He’s 27, throws a fastball that averages 97 mph, and something called a knuckle curve.  He strikes out lots of batters and has generally kept walks and home runs down.  However, Kimbrel struggled a little early this season – he’s gotten better every month since April, but his K rate is at a career-worst 12.6 per 9 innings.  Which is still extremely good, of course.  Kimbrel is signed through 2017 – at $11MM for 2016, $13MM in 2017, and a $13MM option in 2018.

It’s great to have an overpowering closer (see:  B.J. Ryan, 2006), but spending $10MM+ per season on a reliever is something that has burned the Jays in the past (see: B.J. Ryan, 2007-2010).  Could they afford him? Yes, probably, considering that Buehrle, Romero, Izturis, and Navarro are off the books after this season.  Perhaps I’m na├»ve, but my expectation for this offseason is that the Jays will reload via free agency, replacing Buehrle, finding a reliever, and so on.  Spending money on Kimbrel would probably curtail some of that expected offseason activity, but getting Kimbrel would also allow the club to put Aaron Sanchez or Roberto Osuna back into the rotation mix, or would at least add depth to the bullpen (pushing everyone else down into lower-leverage innings).  It would address an area of need.

And so would Tyson Ross, who’d be a relatively cheap, controllable rotation piece for the next few years.  Ross is 28; he’s been a full-time starter for San Diego for 2 years now.  He struggles a little with walks (4.2 per 9 innings this year, 3.7/9 for his career), but strikes out a lot of batters and tends to induce ground balls.  He’s arbitration eligible next year and can enter free agency in 2018.

Trading for Ross or Kimbrel (or ideally, both) would mean adding a lot of salary in 2016, but if the Jays ate all the money for Kimbrel, the prospect ask might be a little less painful than it would be for, say, Carlos Carrasco.  It’d still be a lot of prospects going to San Diego, but giving up potential rotation pieces like Norris and Hoffman wouldn’t be as much of an issue, given that Kimbrel would probably free up at least one reliever (Sanchez?) to rejoin the rotation, and Ross would probably slot in as a #2 starter behind Stroman (and ahead of Dickey).  That would mean a rotation of Stroman-Ross-Dickey-Hutchison for 2016, with Sanchez and others vying for the last spot, and a bullpen core of Kimbrel-Osuna-Cecil, which could be overpowering.

C’mon Jays.  Do that, and stay away from marginal guys like Mike Leake and Ian Kennedy.

Friday, 24 July 2015

More rumours: Carrasco, Padres, Marlins pitchers?

In case you hadn't heard these rumours... or if you had, and don't know much about the pitchers involved:

There was a story on MLBTR that the Jays and Clevelands might be discussing a trade that would send Carlos Carrasco to the Blue Jays.  It's an interesting deal for Toronto in the same way that a Mike Fiers deal would be, due to the the years of control that would come with Carrasco, who's under contract for 3 more seasons plus options, at an average of about $6MM a season (excluding the option years).

So, what can Carrasco do?  Well, this is his first year as a full-time starter, but over the last season and a half, he's been worth almost 6 WAR, which sounds great.  Carrasco gets ground balls, and has struck out close to 10 batters per 9 innings while walking less than 2 per 9, over that timespan.  He throws a fastball in the 95 mph range, with a good slider, changeup and curve.

So why would the Clevelands trade him?  Carrasco's good peripheral numbers aren't reflected in his ERA (3.94), and I'm not really sure why.  He's had a little bit of bad luck with BABIP, but nothing too outlandish, and he's not noticeably worse with runners on base.  Strand rate might be the problem, and Cleveland's crummy defense probably doesn't help either.  At this point, it doesn't seem like this will happen, but if it does, Carrasco would be a nice addition for 2015 and beyond.  Better than Fiers, almost certainly (but more expensive, too).  Anyway, Cleveland is in search of offense, so a trade for Carrasco would probably involve one of Pillar or Pompey, and lots more.

The San Diego Padres are in sell mode, and they're supposed to be interested in moving starters Ian Kennedy and Andrew Cashner (they'd probably want to trade James Shields, too - no, thank you).  Kennedy makes $9MM this year, so he'd probably be the only major acquisition if the Jays got him.  He's on a 1 year deal and is a free agent after 2015, and has been the victim of a grotesquely inflated 20% HR/FB rate, which accounts for a lot of his 4.78 ERA.  Kennedy was pretty good from 2011-14, but he's a pure rental at this point, and not really a high-impact one.

I'd be more enthusiastic if the Jays got Cashner, who is under control through 2016 (arbitration eligible for the last time next season), cheaper than Kennedy, and has some upside at age 28.  He's a fastball-slider-changeup guy with a fastball in the mid-90s, he gets lots of groundballs, and he doesn't walk too many batters.  He'd cost more in prospects than Kennedy would, but he's probably the better deal at this point.

Steve Cishek is a reliever the Jays were supposed to be interested in, but it now seems like he's been traded to the Cardinals.  *shrugs*  I figure that with Sanchez headed to the bullpen, the Jays don't really have a need for non-elite relief pitchers.  Sticking with Marlins pitchers, I wouldn't be really happy if the Jays traded for Mat Latos, who is another rental (FA after this season).  Latos makes $9MM this year and hasn't been elite for a couple of seasons.  He doesn't pitch deep into games (15 starts, just 82 innings) and doesn't do anything (K's, limiting walks, ground balls) especially well anymore.  I don't like Dan Haren much, either - he'd get clobbered in the hitters parks the Jays play in.

So...  I still like Fiers, and Carrasco, and maybe Cashner.  If the team does get a rental, there's no point in adding anyone mediocre like Latos or Kennedy.  The A's took prospects from low-A ball for Kazmir, which is somewhat encouraging, even if they were high-upside prospects.   I'd just hate to see the Jays deal more than 1 from the group of Norris/Castro/Pompey/Hoffman/Sanchez/Alford for a rental.

Yeah, I know... stop me if you've heard all that before.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Sanchez, Fiers, Chamberlain: Pitching help?

Not the huge acquisition we were hoping for.

Believe it or not, but the Blue Jays have actually benefited from pretty good starting pitching over the last month - 4th in the AL in ERA, 6th in FIP, 5th in xFIP, 8th in innings pitched.  That's obviously very welcome news, but most of that value comes from Mark Buehrle and Marco Estrada.  Dickey and Hutchison continue to be unlucky, inconsistent, or bad, depending on your how generous you're feeling, and with the announcement that Aaron Sanchez will pitch out of the bullpen when he returns, the 5th rotation spot needs something better than Felix Doubront (Probably).

The Jays have made a few player moves in recent days.  Let's look at some of those moves, and some rumours, in order of their possible impact to the team.

It was a bit of  a surprise when the Jays announced that Aaron Sanchez would join the bullpen when he comes off the DL.  Sanchez looked shaky at times when starting for the Jays earlier this year, but in his last 4 starts before being DL'ed, he put up an ERA below 4 while maintaining a 17:8 K:BB ratio over 28 innings.  That K:BB ratio isn't great, but it's a lot better than early-season Sanchez was doing, and the overall results were arguably the best on the team over the timeframe in question.  Point being, Sanchez was starting to have success as a starter, and if you have the choice between 180 good innings from him as a starter or 60 good innings as a reliever, you take the starting innings, every time.  Good innings in quantity are hard to find.

So, why put Sanchez in the bullpen?  Well, it could just be a short term expediency.  The relief staff as a whole has been frustrating this year; the 'pen is full of pitchers with excellent walk and strikeout rates (Loup, Cecil, and Hendriks in particular) who have struggled in high leverage situations.  The bullpen has lost far too many close games, far more than their overall performance level would warrant.  If Aaron Sanchez can pitch like he did in 2014, the bullpen will have a solid 1-2 punch for the 8th and 9th innings in Roberto Osuna and Sanchez, allowing the team to use Cecil, Loup, Delabar and others in lower-pressure situations.

This is by no means ideal - Sanchez looks like he has the ability to start, and you don't want to make a potential starter into a reliever until he's shown that he can't be effective in the rotation.  Like I said - it's a short term expediency.  Aaron Sanchez was a great reliever in 2014 - he got tons of ground balls and didn't walk anyone.  If he can be that great reliever again over the rest of 2015, he saves the team from having to overpay for a Papelbon or K-Rod type reliever, and we don't have to worry about him experiencing growing pains as a starter in the midst of a playoff run.

Which brings us to Mike Fiers, a player the Jays have been rumoured to be in pursuit of.  Fiers is a 30 year old righthanded starter for the Brewers, who's been pretty effective over parts of  5 seasons (330 innings, 3.62 ERA/FIP/xFIP), mostly as a starter.  The reason you haven't heard much about Fiers is that he wasn't considered to be in play; even though he's 30, the Brewers control him until 2020, and he makes just the major-league minimum salary. 

Of course, the reasons why Milwaukee wouldn't want to trade Fiers are the same reasons why the Jays would be interested:  he's cheap, controllable, and effective.  He's oddly reminiscent of Marco Estrada, another pitcher from the Brewers who had some success as a starter before being acquired by the Jays.  Both are flyball pitchers, both throw a fastball about 90mph and feature a changeup (Estrada's is better, though).  Both pitchers generally do a good job of limiting walks; both strike out more than 8 batters per 9 innings for their careers.  Fiers gets a few more strikeouts, allows a few more walks, and hasn't been quite as home run-prone as Estrada.

I confess to being somewhat intrigued by Fiers.  He's not a big sexy name like Cueto or Samardzija, but he might not cost as much in prospects as those two would, just because he's not as big of a short-term upgrade.  I was never all that sold on giving up 2 top prospects for 9 weeks of a soon-to-be-free agent pitcher, for fear of unduly handicapping the Jays in 2016 and 2017.  Would Fiers be an upgrade on Doubront?  Absolutely.  Could he be part of a contending Jays team in 2016-19... again, yes.  And getting a player with 4 years of control like Fiers would soften the blow of giving up a long-term asset like Norris in trade.

Guys like Mike Fiers won`t make the Jays into a playoff team, perhaps, but at 48-47, I`d argue that no single acquisition could do that.  That segues nicely to Joba Chamberlain, who the Jays signed to a minor-league deal this week.  You may recall Chamberlain as an overhyped (of course) Yankees prospect who turned into a passable power reliever.  Chamberlain`s now 29, and has become very vulnerable to home runs over the past few years, despite not being especially prone to fly balls when pitching.  That might be bad luck, but it`s a long run of bad luck, and Joba has been giving up a lot of good contact - lots of line drives, not much soft contact - over last last 3 years.  For that reason, I don`t see him as a bullpen upgrade - the Jays are already loaded with relievers who seem to have unusually bad luck.

And besides, Aaron Sanchez is coming back to the bullpen.  That solves one problem, at least.  We`ll see if someone else - Fiers or something better - arrives over the next week to solve, or mitigate, the rotation issues, too.

Saturday, 18 July 2015

Spitballin' trades


There’s been a lot of talk about players the Jays may target (Cueto, Samardzija, Papelbon, etc) and the prospects they’d have to give up to get them (Norris, Hoffman, Pompey).  I think it’s pretty clear that nobody wants to trade multiple top prospects for rental players, but those rentals won’t come here for nothing, either.  To address that conundrum, I’m going to take a statement that Alex Anthopoulos made a few weeks ago, and run with it.  Who off the major-league roster could be traded, and what would they bring back?

Let’s start by getting this out of the way:  Bautista, Encarnacion, Reyes, Martin, and Donaldson aren’t going anywhere.  Bautista and Encarnacion have 10-and-5 rights, meaning they can’t be traded without their permission, and Reyes’ salary will keep suitors away.  The team signed Russell Martin in part because of his reputation for working with young pitchers, and the Jays still have young pitchers to be worked with.  Donaldson is a MVP calibre player at a discount price.  The only way any of these guys get traded is as a part of a huge, multiple team deal, which could happen but is so remote as to not be worth speculating about.

Conversely, guys like Smoak, Valencia and Goins could be traded, but none of them would bring back, on their own, a difference-making player for 2015 or anything more than a B prospect.

So, that leaves guys like…

Dioner Navarro:  Navarro has been rumoured to have been on the trade block for a long time, and yet, he’s still here.  The rumours got started after the Jays signed Russell Martin; Navarro indicated at that time that he wanted to be a starter and not Martin’s caddy, and there was some question whether the team would need to carry Josh Thole as Dickey’s personal catcher (instead of Navarro).  Then Navarro softened his trade demands, Martin demonstrated that he could handle knuckleballs, the terrible idea of DHing Navarro went mainstream, and suddenly, there wasn’t a rush to trade him anymore.

There are lots of good reasons why Navarro is not a good trade candidate this year.   He’s a free agent after this season, so nobody who would be a seller at the deadline would want or need him.  He’s not an impact player, having never been worth more than 2 WAR, so he wouldn't bring back much.  And frankly, trading him makes the Jays worse, because Josh Thole is replacement level at best.  So if Navarro goes, it would have to be as part of a bigger package, or for some kind of salary relief coming the Jays’ way.

RA Dickey:  Dickey hasn’t lived up to expectations this year… or ever, in his Blue Jay career (even the limited expectations for 2015 have been unmet).  His trade value has got to be pretty low.  I suppose that some team in, say, the NL West (the land of big ballparks) might be interested in him, and from the Jays perspective, that would allow them to free up some $ for other acquisitions and also to get Josh Thole off the roster.

The problem with trading Dickey is that he’s not that valuable to anyone who isn’t Toronto.  Based on how he’s played to this point he’s not an upgrade for a contender, and a seller won’t want to take on a 40 year old pitcher, even one with a market value contract.  Toronto, meanwhile, needs pitching, and if you trade Dickey, you essentially create another hole on the weakest part of the team, the rotation.  I suppose that if the team got 2 starters in trade over the next 2 weeks, Dickey could be moved, but it seems like a pretty unlikely scenario.

Marco Estrada:  Estrada is a free agent after this season, and relatively cheap (3.9MM).  The Jays aren’t going to offer him a QO, so if the club decides it is out of contention, he’s a possible trade candidate.  He’s a less likely trade candidate if the team is contending – I suppose it’s possible he could be included in a trade for a rental to replace him, but as with Dickey, the team needs pitching, and trading a mostly-effective pitcher away would be counterproductive. 

What would Estrada bring back?  Well, a year of Marco Estrada was traded for 2 years of Adam Lind last offseason, so the answer isn’t ‘nothing’.  Not a top 100 prospect, I wouldn’t think, but not garbage, either.

Mark Buehrle:  Another free agent after this season, but an expensive one.  Buehrle has been far and away the most effective starter on the Jays’ staff, so it’s hard to think of a scenario in which a contending Jays team deals Buehrle away.  If, however, the Jays fall out of contention over the next 2 weeks, then Buehrle becomes an attractive trade chip.  In terms of trade value, I’d guess he’s somewhere between Leake and Samardzija  (he’s better than the former, not as good as the latter, and more expensive than either), and he’d be a good mid-rotation piece for a contending team (Dodgers?).  Unlike, say, Samardzija, there’s no guarantee of a getting a draft pick back by keeping Buehrle to season-end and making a Qualifying Offer, as Buehrle seems likely to retire.  That makes him more likely to be traded if the next 2 weeks are a disaster.

What could the team get for Buehrle?  Think about what we’re reading about who the Jays would have to part with in a trade for Samardzija, and then adjust your expectation down by about 50%.

Kevin Pillar:  And now we’re getting into guys who would hurt more than a bit to lose.  Pillar isn’t an impact player, but he’s cheap, under control through 2020, and offers pretty good defence and (since May) a good enough bat at a premium position.  In other words, he’s valuable – more valuable than anyone higher up on this list, in my estimation.  So why would the Jays trade him?  Well, they do have a replacement on hand in the person of Dalton Pompey, who has made it back to AAA after rediscovering his batting mojo with the AA Fisher Cats.  Pompey probably wouldn’t hit as well as Pillar, and his defence is arguably a little worse, but the way the Jays hit, they can afford to carry Pompey’s bat in the 9 hole.  Anthony Alford is probably a year and a half behind Pompey, so there are some CF options for the future, too.

Trading Pillar would be a marvelous example of selling high.  Believe it or not, Fangraphs says Pillar is a 2.3 WAR player, and Baseball-Reference has him at 3 WAR.  3 WAR puts Pillar among the top 15 hitters in the AL.  Wow.  I have no idea whether Pillar on his own would bring back a Cueto or Samardzija… but I’m pretty sure his name would get a lot of conversations started.

Devon Travis:  And speaking of guys it would hurt to lose, Devon Travis!  Travis has less of a track record than, say, Pillar, but he has years and years of control left and has produced lots of value with his bat (.366 wOBA), which gets people’s attention.  And like Pillar, there’s a major-league ready replacement for Travis on hand - Ryan Goins.  The Jays could – and did – carry Goins’ bat if they had to, following a Travis trade.  Unfortunately for the Jays, Ryan Goins doesn’t have the upside of Dalton Pompey or Anthony Alford, so if you trade Travis, you’re opening up a hole at 2B that may be a sore spot for years (again).

Travis, like Pillar, would get immediate attention if he was dangled in trade, although I’m not sure how he would be valued as compared with Pillar.  Pillar has more of a track record, but his bat is worse and defensive value can fluctuate wildly.  Travis has looked solid, but his MLB track record is just 207 PA – and before that, he was only worth the underachieving Anthony Gose.  Still, if you want to get an elite starter back without giving up more than one top pitching prospect, making Travis available could do it.

But it would really, really hurt.

A consideration:  In 2016, the Jays free up $38MM in salary when Buehrle, Izturis, Navarro, Estrada and Romero come off the books.  That 38MM is reduced to $24MM when you factor in Martin’s raise and an (optimistic) $6MM salary bump for Donaldson.  They’ll need to provide raises for Saunders, Cecil, Valencia, Smoak, Loup, and Hutchison too, but those shouldn’t amount to too much, considering the seasons those guys have had, collectively.  Point being, if you deal away a Dickey or Pillar or Travis, there should be* money to bring in a replacement next season.

*  With Rogers, you never really know, do you?

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Is Devon Travis coming back to earth?

Devon Travis got off to a fantastic start in April of this season, making him an early candidate for Rookie of the Year honours.  Then he got hit in the chest by a bad hop, tried to play through the resulting inflammation, struggled through mid-May, got DL’ed, and only came back on June 26.  Since that date, he’s had a hot bat, boosting his average to .302 as of the All-Star break.

Trouble is, that .302 might be kind of hollow.  The recent underlying stats look suspicious.

Isolated Power:  April .300, May .130, June .125, July .071
BABIP:  April .339, May .220, June .357, July .500
Walk %:  April 7.9, May 6.9, June 0.0, July 4.4

In April, Devon Travis was manufacturing a ton of power, walking a decent amount, and not benefiting overmuch from batted ball luck.  In June and July, Travis has hit well over .300, but he’s done that with almost no walks and very little power.  That sparkling batting average, meanwhile, seems to be fueled by BABIPs that seem a little high (June) and ridiculously high (July).  With no power and no walks since his return, Travis’s offensive value for the last 4 weeks has been entirely BABIP-driven, and we can’t expect that to last.

There are some caveats here, of course.  First, it’s obviously a really small sample size – the 51 PA in June-July is nothing, and the 147 PA in April-May isn’t really representative either.  Devon Travis could hit 2 HR and walk twice this weekend and his 2015 BB% and ISO graphs would flatten out just from that.  Second, Travis has been hitting tons of line drives in June-July (28.6 and 26.5 LD%), which justify that BABIP to some extent (interestingly, Travis had a 19.0 LD% in May, when he was injured, but just 15.4% in April).  And finally, Travis’s K rate hasn’t spiked in June/July, versus where it was in April.  Looking at his batted ball numbers, he’s still hitting balls hard and he hasn’t gotten pull-happy.  Devon’s 24% HR/FB rate in April was probably a bit lucky, so his 0.0% rate in June/July is probably a bit unlucky too, and it’s possible things will even out in July-Sept.  As good as April was, Travis wasn’t going to hit 36 HR this year, but he’s not going to finish stuck at 7, either.

Alex Anthopoulos has stated that he’s open to trading players on the active roster for help down the stretch run.  I’d hate to see Devon Travis traded – I like him, and the Jays don’t have anyone in the system to be the 2B of the future (Ryan Goins doesn’t count).  However, Travis has a ton of trade value and a player with MLB experience (Goins) behind him on the depth chart, and the Jays would definitely be selling high if they were to deal him now.

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Trade deadline prognosis

Last year at the All-Star break (ASB), the Jays were 49-47.  This year, they’re 45-46.

This year, the Jays are 4.5 games behind the Yankees, in a virtual tie with the Orioles (4 back), Devil Rays (3.5 back) and Red Sux (6.5 back).  At last year’s ASB, the Jays were 4 back of the Orioles (52-42), while the Yankees were 5 back and the Red Sux (9.5 back) and Devil Rays (9.5 back) essentially buried.   My point being, the division isn’t as ripe for the taking as it was last year.  Yes, the Jays are only 4.5 games out of the division lead.  Trouble is, the Orioles, Rays and Sux have just about the same chances of catching NY as the Jays do.  That wasn’t the case last year, when only the Yankees and Jays were within striking range of Baltimore.  As you may recall, at last year’s deadline the Yankers went out and got Chase Headley and Martin Prado.  The Orioles went out and got Andrew Miller.  The Jays did basically nothing.

But that’s not to say they should do something now.  On the trade deadline day last year (July 31) the Jays were 60-50, 1.5 games back of BAL and 3.5 ahead of the Yankees.  They were 3 games ahead of Seattle for the second wild card.  The team isn’t positioned nearly as well this year right now, and the rest of July’s schedule (3 home to Tampa, 3@Oak, 3@Sea, 2 home to Philly and 2 home to KC) isn’t all that conducive to making up a lot of ground.

But OK.  Let’s say the Jays decide to go for it, and get Cueto or Samardzija.  What’s to stop the Orioles from getting the other one?  Or the Red Sox from doing the same thing?  The Jays aren’t operating in a vacuum here, and any move they make could easily be offset by moves made by the rest of the AL East, or by the Tigers, Twins or Astros.

The Jays need to tread carefully over the next 2 weeks.  Nobody’s going to blame them for not making a trade if, for example, they go 4-9 over the rest of July and sit 8 games back of the division and 6 games below .500 at the end of the month.  But if they go, say, 6-7, the team is going to be under some perceived pressure (from fans, media, and players) to make an all-in move to acquire a starting pitcher or two for a playoff run.  And frankly, a club that’s .500 after 100 games is not really a team that is one or two players away from being a playoff team.  What worries me is the possibility that even though there might be no available player, or two players, that could turn this year’s Jays into a World Series contender, Anthopoulos and company will take a shot anyway, because they feel they have to do it to save their jobs or placate their critics.

Let me be clear: It absolutely makes sense to trade players that could help next year and beyond for players that will help in 2015 only, if and only if the 2015 team is in a position to make a playoff run.  At .500 and bunched with the rest of the division, the Jays don’t seem like a team in position to make a run at the playoffs.  Could an arm help?  Sure.  But right now, it seems like the pressure to add an arm is not coming from positive feelings about the team’s current performance, the way it should.  It seems to me that it’s coming from a feeling of entitlement, that because the team did nothing last July, they have to do something now.  Well, the team having put aside a few million dollars for the trade deadline isn’t in itself a reason for making an acquisition.  What I want to see are trades that will make the team better in 2015 and beyond. 

Two month’s of John Cueto or Jeff Samardzija is definitely something, and it’s true that Dan Norris, or Dalton Pompey, or Castro or Hoffman or whoever, could have pro careers that amount to nothing.  But there’s no point in trading for players who won’t do anything but change an 80-win team into an 83-win team.  And at this point, the chances of Dan Norris having a serviceable career at as a #3 starter seem as good or better than the Jays’ odds of winning the division (11.8%).  Trading the future for the now just doesn’t seem like a smart bet, at this point.

Monday, 13 July 2015

July 12, 2015 - Impressions from the Ballpark

For those of you who only watch games at Skydome, this is what a baseball field is supposed to look like.

This past Sunday, while the Jays were in the process of coming back from a 7-run deficit in KC, I was in Buffalo, watching the Jays' AAA affiliate, the Bison, play the Scranton Rail Riders, the Yankee AAA club.  Over the years, I've been to hundreds of Jays games at the Skydome, a dozen or so spring training games, and a handful of Jays games in other parks (mostly Detroit).  Until yesterday, though, I had never seen a minor-league game.  It was an experience worth having.

I went to the game with 3 friends who I'd previously been to Buffalo with to watch the Bills try to play football.   If you've ever done that, know this:  going to a Bison game is exponentially easier.  The stadium, Coca-Cola Field, is less than 10 minutes from the border.  Parking is plentiful, close to the stadium, and relatively ($10) cheap.  Traffic is reasonable - the Bison don't draw 70,000 fans like the Bills do, so there's no gridlock around the stadium.  Buffalo snowstorms are unlikely during the baseball season.  On the downside (versus football), there's no tailgating, but there are plenty of good places to eat and drink around the stadium, which is in downtown Buffalo.  Of course, it's still about 2 hours from Toronto to the border, and you still need to cross the border, which can be slow.

Starting for your Buffalo Bison today, Dan Norris!  I wonder if everyone in Buffalo knows he lives in a van?  Come to think of it, a 1978 VW Westfalia would blend right in with the vintage of cars you see in Buffalo...

I kid, I kid!  Everybody was pretty friendly in Buffalo, and I saw plenty of late-model cars.  The stadium looked pretty modern too - Coca-Cola Field, formerly Pilot Field, which was also a name of a corporation.  Not only was Coca-Cola Field the first of the retro ballparks (the same designers put up Camden Yards a few years later), but it was one of the first parks I can remember to not have a non-corporate name associated with it at any time.   The latter innovation started an unwelcome trend; the former made the poor 'ol Skydome obsolete before it was even opened.  Anyway, it's a great looking park - lots of good views from all fields, plenty of good seats available, and the stadium is well maintained (i.e. everything seems to work).

Yes, people in Buffalo already know he lives in a van.

We started out by taking a few shots of the field through an open outfield gate.  I have no idea how one would do this at the Skydome.

Following that, we headed to the "Bully Hill Party Deck" bar past the right field outfield fence.  There are no true outfield bleachers in Buffalo, but the Party Deck has several tiers of picnic tables, barstools, etc.  A great spot to watch players warm up.  The only downside was the beer selection, which was just Blue and Bud Light.

The party's not quite started in the Party Deck, yet.

If you venture through the concourse under the stands, you'll find many more beer and food vendors, serving more Bud Light and the usual stadium fare - hot dogs, pretzels, pizza, popcorn, etc.  The food prices were pretty reasonable - the hotdogs were small, but they were grilled as opposed to steamed, and only $3.50.  Draft beer was $6.50 or $7.00 a cup.  Of course, with the exchange rate, that's almost $9, which isn't really a better deal than the $11.50 tall cans at Skydome.

Fortunately, once you make your way behind home plate, there's a large craft beer outlet, selling about 15 brands of local brew, also for $7.00 a cup.  That's a much better option, unless you really like Blue and Budweiser (I had a pretty good IPA).  Also around there is a concession selling beef on Weck sandwiches.  Get one.  It's $7.75, but worth it.  Juicy roast beef and pickle on a Weck bun (a soft kaiser-type bun topped with kosher salt) which was the best sandwich I've had at a ballgame for a long time.

One disappointment was the gift shops.  I was looking for a hat, and had been asked to get a women's t-shirt, and the selection was terrible.  There were two gift shops in the concourse, but going by their size, they could have been more accurately described as gift closets.  Shopping online would be a better option, aside from the shipping cost.

Anyway, the game.  The game was terrible.  The Bison got 2-hit by a chap named Luis Severino, who is apparently a top Yankees pitching prospect.  Who knew?  On the other side of the ball, Norris got charged with 6 ER on 9 hits and 2 walks over just 4 2/3 innings.  Some of that was bad luck - Norris was getting BABIPed all day, by several slow rollers towards 3B that were hits, and some weak grounders that found holes between 1B and 2B.  More troubling was the lack of strikeouts by Norris, just one on the day.  His velocity seemed fine, but there were a lot of pitches in the dirt.

We were looking forward to seeing Munenori Kawasaki, who started at 2B.  Muni didn't really impress with his range or his bat (0-3, .236 on the year), but did hang in to turn a nice DP to end the top of the 4th, while the outcome of the game was still in doubt.

Other guys you might know?  Andy Burns didn't impress at 3B, making a couple of ill-considered late throws and not turning slow rollers into outs.  Maybe not his fault, but not impressive.  Burns is 24, and the rest of the position players were all in the 26 to 29 age range (i.e. not really prospects anymore).  You might remember former Jays shortstop fill-in Jon Diaz from a couple of years ago; he was there, too.

On the pitching side, we saw Chad Jenkins (1 1/3 innings, 1 unearned run), Greg Burke, Blake McFarland and Gregory Infante after Norris.  Not really any prospects there.  At the end of the day, it was 8-1, Scranton.

Following the game, we headed to the Pearl Street Grill and Brewery, which was literally just around the corner from the stadium.  Lots of craft beer selections there too, and they make a mean Cuban sandwich.  One quibble:  If a server spills your drink on you, the place should comp you at least one drink.  I mean, that's just how these things work, right?

So at the end of the day, we saw a pretty crushing loss, but spent the day sitting in the sun drinking beer and watching baseball.  Life could be worse.  And hey, it's AAA, so it doesn't really count, right?

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Hutchison and Dickey: underlying stats

Neither of Drew Hutchison and RA Dickey have been the pitcher we’d hoped he would be this year.  In Hutchison's case, that’s hard to understand, because he’s doing a few things better than he did last year.  His groundball rate is up.  His home run rate is down.  His walk rate is a little better than it was last year, although that's counterbalanced by his strikeout rate being a little worse.  He induces more soft contact than he ever has.  If you take away sequencing and batted ball luck, he’s actually been better this year than last year (3.65 FIP and 3.80 xFIP this year, versus 3.85 and 3.82 in 2014).  

FIP and xFIP are predictive, of course, and they don’t change what we save been so far from Hutch:  Not enough innings, not enough consistency, and a crummy ERA, especially on the road.  So let’s take a look at what’s different, on the road.

Hutchison’s road walk rate is almost twice the home rate (3.64 vs 1.94).  That’s… I can’t imagine what would cause that.  His K rate (7.85 vs 8.82) is also worse on the road, but not as dramatically so.

Hutch’s HR rate is also much higher on the road (1.53 vs 0.35).  Again, I have no idea why that would be the case, as Skydome is generally considered a place that’s prone to homers.

BABIP… also worse on the road.  .426 versus .284 (despite the soft contact mentioned earlier, Hutchison has one of the highest BABIP allowed figures in the AL).  Why?

Strand rate is 57% on the road, 78% at home.  Why?

Looking at Hutch’s pitches, it seems pretty clear that his slider isn’t working the way he needs it to.  The slider was Hutchison’s best pitch in 2012 and 2014; this year, opposing batters have a .345 wOBA against the slider.  But that’s not the only issue – hitters are making better contact against Hutch’s changeup, too.  Velocity seems pretty much unchanged from previous seasons, so again, it’s hard to say what the problem is.  Blue Jays Plus notes that there’s much less drop on Hutch’s slider this year, which should make it more hittable.

In contrast to Hutchison, underlying stats can’t provide a ray of hope for RA Dickey’s season to this point.  BABIP and groundball rate are what they were last year.  K rate is down, walk rate is up, and all that adds up to FIP and xFIP scores that are pretty much where his ERA is:  5.02.  PitchFX suggests that everything seems to be moving the way it always has, and while Dickey’s velocity has been dropping gradually for years, the change between 2014 and 2015 is about 0.5 mph.  So – what’s changed, that has led to the drop in Ks and rise in BB?  Well, the contact rates posted by opposing batters are up, across the board (fastball, knuckler, eephus).  Swing rates are down versus pitches outside the strike zone, and up versus pitches in the zone.  The unpleasant implication is that Dickey can’t fool batters with his pitch repertoire the way he used to.


It’d be foolish to give up on Hutchison, and trading him for immediate help (a “rental” for the next 12 weeks) would be selling low on him.  By all appearances, he’s the victim of some bizarre luck and bad sequencing, and if the Jays could stick with Brandon Morrow at $10MM/yr through that kind of thing, they can stick with Hutch at $1MM or so for next year and 2 more years of team control after that.

Dickey, on the other hand, isn’t coming back in 2016.  Between the money, the need to either carry Thole on the roster or in Buffalo as insurance against a Martin injury, and the slow deterioration in his performance, I think the Jays will take the ~$40MM in salary they spent on Buehrle, Dickey, Romero, and Navarro and put it towards a #2 starter to front the 2016 rotation beside Stroman.  Some combination of Hutchison, Norris, Estrada (if he's brought back), and Sanchez would follow those two, with others (Hoffman? Castro? A second acquisition?) possibly in the mix as well.

The more immediate conclusion is that if the Jays were to go out and get Samardzija or Cueto, they'd still need another starter.  Right now, Buehrle and Estrada have been somewhat reliable in the rotation, the 5th spot has been in flux since since Sanchez got hurt, and everyone else has struggled.  NewAce/Buehrle don't amount to a playoff rotation on their own.

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Musical interlude

From a friend of this space... and with apologies to Jim Croce

Well the south side of Chicago
Is the baddest part of town
Pitchers when they go down there
They better best beware
Of a man named Jose Reyes

Now Jose more than trouble
He makes a lot of errors too
All the ladies call him E6
All the men call him something I cannot write in a work email without getting in trouble with HR

And it's bad, bad Jose Reyes
Baddest shortstop in the whole AL East
Badder than old Russ Adams
Lazier than Alex Rios

Now, Jose he a shortstop
And he lets balls get by him a lot
And he loses games for his pitchers
Right in front of their nose
He got a glove with a hole in it
He got bad knees too
He got $22 million in his pocket for fun He got another error in his shoes

And it's bad, bad Jose Reyes
Baddest shortstop in the whole AL East
Badder than old Russ Adams
Lazier than Alex Rios

Now yesterday at US Cellular
Jose playing the field
And in the 8th inning
Sat a Jays victory
And oo that win looked nice
But the ball was hit to Jose
And the trouble soon began
Cause Jose turned a routine ground out
Into a White Sox come back win....

And it's bad, bad Jose Reyes
Baddest shortstop in the whole AL East
Badder than old Russ Adams
Lazier than Alex Rios

Well the two teams took turns batting
And when the 9 innings were gone
The Jays looked like they would miss the playoffs For yet another year

And it's bad, bad Jose Reyes
Baddest shortstop in the whole AL East
Badder than old Russ Adams
Lazier than Alex Rios

I wish I had written that.  Fans are frustrated.  I'm frustrated.  The team had better be frustrated.  The Blue Jays have played 85 games and are 1 game above .500.  That projects to an 82-win season, which won't get it done.  Yes, the Jays' BaseRuns score suggests they're better than a .500 club, as does their Pythagorean won-loss record... but the thing is, eventually losses like Monday's will come back to haunt them.  The Jays were unlucky that the rest of the division was hot when the home side was playing well, and lucky that the Yankers/Devil Rays/Orioles were scuffling the last 3 weeks while the Jays spun their wheels.  My thinking is that somebody in this division, against all reason, is going to wind up winning 88 games, and if the Jays can't win games like Monday's more often, they won't have a chance of matching that.

The fast-approaching conundrum is what to do at the trade deadline if the Jays are still a .500 club at month-end.  The Jays have 11 road games versus 6 home games in July, after tonight.  To this point, they've been a much better team at home than on the road, so it shouldn't be too surprising if the club goes 4-7 or 5-6 on the road over the next 3 weeks.  If that happens, I don't think I want to see them deal away a Norris, Castro, or Pompey for a rental player... in fact, I won't want to see them trade anything of value for a rental.  Adding a 5-win player sounds good, but if you're at .500 with 60 games to go, that alone won't turn an 81-win team into a playoff club.  All it'll do is make the 2016 team's task harder.

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Midterm surprises and disappointments

The halfway point of a baseball season is games 81 and 82.  Most first-half recaps happen at the All-Star break, though, which is usually around game 90… so my getting a jump on midseason reviews here, after game 78, is at least as justifiable as doing a report during the all-star break.

So.. who's been better or worse than expected?

Positive surprises:

Kevin Pillar, OF:  Pillar is not, and maybe never will be, a great offensive performer.  He’s never walked much and still isn’t walking much, so a .300 OBP might be all we should expect from him.  Nonetheless, he’s exceeded expectations with the bat, and just as importantly, he’s outperformed expectations defensively and on the bases as well.  Pillar is perhaps overvalued for his defense, but even if opposing batters stop hitting balls almost out of his reach (which pad his gaudy defensive runs saved numbers), he should continue to show good range in the field and good judgment on the bases.  Put that together with his .304 wOBA and he’s got the makings of a solid 2-WAR player (if not a 3.5 WAR CF, which he’s on pace to be in 2014)

Chris Colabello, OF-1B-DH:  Colabello has had a nice first half, but unlike Pillar, what he’s doing doesn’t seem to be sustainable.  Colabello doesn’t add any value defensively or on the bases – his worth comes from his bat.  And unfortunately, what Colabello is doing with his bat is almost entirely driven by his .437 BABIP.  That .437 number is the highest BABIP in MLB, and the only other player above .400 is Dee Gordon, who is incredibly fast and much more likely to beat out infield grounders on a sustained basis than Colabello is.  Beyond the BABIP?  Walk rate is a bit down from last year, K rate at 25% (also down from 2014, but still not good) and Colabello has a decidedly mediocre ISO of .166 versus .150 and .151 in 2013 and 2014.  Chris Colabello was worth negative WAR in 2013 and 2014, and sadly, once his BABIP regresses to the mean, he should be a replacement level bat again.

Devon Travis:  Travis has been worth 1.3 WAR so far this year, which is more than Jays 2B were worth in all of 2014, 2013, 2012, and 2011.  You have to go back to Aaron Hill’s 4-WAR 2009 to find a better season for a Jays 2B.  Is Travis going to hit for the rest of the season like he did in April?  Probably not, but he’s 4-13 (.308) since coming off the DL, and he’s been fine defensively.  He’s a keeper.

Danny Valencia/Ezequiel Carrera/Justin Smoak: 346 PA, 2.0 fWAR.  If they were a single person, they’d be 4th on the team in WAR.  As it stands, they constitute the best bench the Jays have had for some time.  Valencia kills LHP, Smoak hits righties fairly well and is a solid defensive option at 1B, and Carrera can hit a bit, runs fairly well, and is a decent defender in the outfield.

Roberto Osuna:  2.02 ERA is supported by an equally impressive 2.03 FIP.  Walks just 2.5 per 9 innings and strikes out 10.6, and has been the closest thing to a sure thing in the bullpen this year. The only caveats to Osuna’s excellence are his 2.3% HR/FB rate and .247 BABIP allowed, which are unsustainably good, and the 27.9% groundball rate (which indicates too many fly balls, some of which may start turning into home runs).

Liam Hendriks:  Aussie starter-turned-reliever has been solid in middle relief, with numbers that might be less prone to regression than Osuna’s.  Hendriks has struck out 9.2 and walked just 1.5 batters per 9 innings, he gets grounders at a 50% clip, and the HR rate and BABIP aren’t outlandishly low.  We’re starting to see Hendriks in higher-leverage situations of late, which is the right way to use him.  Is the bullpen finally coming together, with half the season in the books?


Jose Reyes:  NOTE: THIS IS NOT an endorsement of any crazy-ass plan to put Ryan Goins at shortstop and make Reyes into the second coming of "Hanley Ramirez, Left Fielder".  The only reason Ryan Goins is not on the ‘disappointments’ list is because Ryan Goins is exactly what I thought he would be – a good defender who can’t hit at all (.258 wOBA).  That said, Reyes is not playing as well as one would like.  His K rate and walk rate are trending in opposite (bad) directions, and his wOBA is at just .292, versus .321 last year and a career .335.  Yes, some of that bad hitting is due to Reyes trying to play through an injury, but Reyes was just at .301 wOBA in June, and a .305 OBP doesn’t cut it for a leadoff hitter.

Dalton Pompey:  Pompey was all but handed the starting CF job before spring training started, but struggled offensively (a Goins-like .268 wOBA) and made some missteps in the field, before being sent down to AAA and now AA.  The emergence of Kevin Pillar has mitigated the effect of Pompey’s demotion.

Michael Saunders:  It’s not really fair to judge Saunders based on his 36 PA so far this season – the disappointment is in his not being able to successfully come back from knee surgery, the way we were led to believe he could.  As with Pompey, the emergence of his replacements (Colabello/Carrera) has removed some of the sting from his absence.   

RA Dickey:  I’m starting to worry that I’ve developed a visceral dislike for RA Dickey which makes it impossible for me to assess him fairly.  Here goes, anyway:  Home run rate is up.  Walk rate is up to 3.5, K rate is down to 5.6.  Yes, he’s not getting run support, but he’s not pitching well, either.  Dickey has been better in June, but that’s largely due to better strand rates and HR rates, not because his K/BB rates have materially changed for the better.  Could Dickey get better over the rest of the season?  I hope so, but I can’t see a reason why he would.

Drew Hutchison:  Hutchison is the perfect subject with which to illustrate the fundamental difference between Fangraph’s pitcher WAR and Baseball-reference’s pitcher WAR.  bWAR hates Hutchison; he’s been worth -0.1 WAR by their main measure, Runs Allowed per 9 innings.  Meanwhile, fWAR loves Hutch because of his peripherals; he’s been victimized by BABIP (.336) and performance with runners on base, and his 8.25 K rate and 2.65 walk rate are quite good.  The takeaway here is that Hutchison has been pretty bad (4.99 ERA, just 5.5 IP per start) but could be a lot better in the second half if (when?) his luck normalizes.

Aaron Loup:  Loup is the left-handed relief version of Hutchison – he’s been undone by HR rate and horrible performances with runners on base or in high leverage situations.  That sort of thing is probably random, and if or when Loup’s luck changes, the results will improve.  Going by K rate (9.3) and BB rate (1.2), this is Loup’s best year since his rookie 2012.

Brett Cecil:  Home runs and strand rate have not been kind to Cecil, and while he’s walking fewer hitters than he did in 2014, he doesn’t seem to be getting swings and misses the way he used to.  Maybe he’s tipping his pitches, maybe he’s just been unlucky, but Cecil has been demoted from the closer job twice this year, and it’s not even July.  That’s disappointing.

Numbers as of Monday night's game.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

These blown saves don't mean what you think they do

Fun fact - the Blue Jays are 33-0 when leading going into the 9th inning (Source: Baseball-Reference

The bullpen has 12 blown saves (BSv), as follows:

April 8 (Cecil, blown in 8th inning, Jays lost)
April 18 (Castro, blown in 9th inning, Jays won)
April 25 (Castro, blown in 8th inning, Jays lost)
April 27 (Osuna, blown in 8th inning, Jays lost)
May 14 (Loup, blown in 7th inning, Jays lost)
May 16 (Hendriks, blown in 6th inning, Jays lost)
May 20 (Delabar, blown in 7th inning, Jays lost)
May 26 (Loup BSv in 6th inning, Hendriks BSv in 8th inning, Jays won)
June 7 (Schultz, blown in 7th inning, Jays won)
June 15 (Cecil, blown in 11th inning, Jays lost)
June 21 (Delabar, blown in 7th inning, Jays lost)

So in short:
The Jays have blown saves in 11 games (2 BSv were in 1 game)
Of the 11 games with BSv, the Jays wound up winning 3 of them.
Of the 8 games with BSv that were losses:
1 was blown in the 11th
3 were blown in the 8th
3 were blown in the 7th
1 was blown in the 6th

The Jays don’t need a closer.  They need 2 reliable setup relievers to pitch the 7th and 8th.  

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Second tier pitching help

Because... we can't all be top tier

So, the general sentiment seems to be that the Jays should make some kind of trade to help them on the pitching front, but only if they can do it without having to give up a top prospect (i.e. don’t trade Sanchez/Norris/Hoffman/anyone like that).  We’ve all heard about the big names – the Papelbons, Cuetos and Chapmans – and what they will cost:  A ton of prospects and a ton of money.  So, who’s out there who could help the Jays now without Toronto having to mortgage the future?


Tyler Clippard (Oakland):
Good:  He’s a reliever with closing experience who was good to very good from 2010-2014.
Bad:  Clippard’s walk rate is up and strikeout rate down, this year.  Gives up a ton of fly balls, which may not play well at Skydome.  He also makes $8.3MM this year, which is a lot for a non-elite reliever.

Francisco Rodriguez (Milwaukee):
Good: owed just the pro-rated portion of 3.5MM this year.  Averaging 10 K and 2.5 walks per 9 innings.
Bad:  owed $5.5 MM next year, and either $8MM in 2017 or a $2MM buyout.  Helped by a .222 BABIP and a HR/flyball rate that is less than half of what it was from 2012-2014.  Both of those things are somewhat likely to regress.

Jeremy Jeffress (Milwaukee):
Good:  Great K rate (9.5/9) and BB rate (3.3/9) without any glaring luck-based (BABIP, strand rate, etc).  Has been a bit unlucky with home runs, which might change.  He’s on a MLB-minimum salary.
Bad:  Do we really want to go through the Jeremy Jeffress experience again?

Zach Duke (White Sox):
Good:  He’s a lefthanded reliever on a 3-year, $15MM deal, which isn’t appallingly expensive.  Has always gotten lots of ground balls.
Bad:  Has only one really good year (2014) on his resume.  Has been burned by HR this season, although that seems to be out of character for him.  Walk rate (4.1/9) is also up from Duke’s career norms, and he’s had some (unsustainable?) luck with strand rates, too.

John Axford (Colorado):
Good:  He’s a “proven closer”.  He’s cheap (MLB minimum salary).  Gets ground balls and has a decent K rate (8.3/9 innings).
Bad:  Has been lucky with BABIP, HR rate, and strand rate.  He’s also coming off 3 straight bad seasons, which makes one wonder if Axford’s 2015 numbers are sustainable.


Aaron Harang (Philadelphia):
Good:  Expiring $5MM deal for 2015, so he’s cheap.  A decent walk (2.4/9) and K (6.3/9) rate, with no major red flags lurking behind his 3.41 ERA.  Pitches a lot of innings, too.
Bad: Groundball rate is a bit low, and BABIP is a bit lucky, but not terrifyingly so.  Also, has had a terrible June after a decent run through April and May, mainly due to a jump in his HR rate.

Felix Doubront (Buffalo, AAA):
Good:  The Jays already have him, so he doesn’t cost anything.  He’s put up good numbers in AAA and was a serviceable starter for Boston in 2012-13.  Lefthanded.
Bad:  He was horrible in 2014, and he’s been a bit lucky with HR rate in Buffalo.  Has historically struggled with his walk rate and doesn’t pitch deep into games.

Scott Kazmir (Oakland):
Good:  He’s performing well without outrageous BABIP or HR luck.  8.5 K, 3.5 BB per 9 innings.  Lefthanded, which is a minor perk when playing lefty-heavy teams like NY.
Bad:  Makes $11MM, which would make him the only addition the team could likely afford.

Mike Leake (Cincinnati):
Good: 6 1/3 innings per start, 4.01 ERA.  Shouldn’t cost a fortune in prospects.
Bad:  5.5 K, 2.6 BB per 9 doesn’t impress.  HR rate is up, and he’s benefited from some BABIP luck.  At $10MM/yr, he’d eat up almost all of the free cash the Jays have.

There are others who may be on the market, like  Kyle Lohse and Matt Garza, but most of those seem either too awful or too expensive to be good trade candidates.  And for that matter, some of the guys above may not be on the market, due to their teams not wanting to throw in the towel yet, or preferring to hang onto players (e.g. Jeffress, Duke) who might be helpful in 2016 or later.  Still, there is definitely pitching help available below the top tier of impact arms.  I'm starting to feel that what the Jays really need is not an elite starter or closer (though that would help a lot), but 2 or 3 league-average relievers/mid-rotation starters.  Getting an elite closer won't, on its own, solve the 7th and 8th inning problems the Jays are having.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

June 21, 2015: Impressions from the ballpark

A full-ish house on Father's Day.

It's difficult to defend the Blue Jays' bullpen on days like today.  The agonizing way the 9th inning went makes us forget things like the 6.2 innings of 2-run relief the non-Cecil parts of the bullpen posted today, the fact that the offense had runners on second base with 0, 1, and 1 outs in the 5th, 6th, and 8th innings (respectively) and cashed no runs in those innings, and that the starting pitching, represented today by Scott Copeland, remains the biggest problem on this team.

But more on that later.  I was at today's game as a Dad's day out - my wife and son sent me to the game with a friend who is also a dad, and who was also getting a day off.  It was, despite my nascent sunburn, a perfect summer day for baseball - the predicted storm clouds never materialized, and it was sunny and hot in the right-field seats.  There was a big crowd, but the metal detector line went fairly quickly.  I wish I could say the same about the concessions - it always seems like the Skydome staff is taken by surprise every time a crowd of 35,000+ shows up.  Lineups for food and beer were ridiculous, and vendors in our very full section were hard to find.

The game started out innocently.  Copeland got through the first cleanly (thanks to a caught stealing after a single), before everything fell apart for him in the 2nd.  6 singles (most of them hard hit line drives) followed by a home run and it was 7-0.  Bo Schultz time!  At that point, I was just hoping the Jays could at least be competitive for the rest of the game, and the offense was better than that, putting up 6 runs in the bottom of the 2nd and chasing Chris Tillman.  Both starters gone in the second?  Fun.  The Jays tied it in the 3rd, took a 9-7 lead in the 4th, and the Orioles chipped away back to a tie, before the 9th inning happened.

I'm not going to waste your time with speculation about whether Brett Cecil has a closer's mentality, if his confidence is gone, or anything like that.  I have no idea what Brett Cecil is like as a person, or how his confidence is now.  Bottom line is, Cecil has been a very good pitcher for the Jays the last 2 seasons, and there are some good things about his 2015 season - his walk rate is below 3 per 9 innings, K rate per 9 is over 10.  Those are very good numbers.  Where Cecil has been getting hurt is home runs (he has an unsustainably high HR rate per flyball), situational play (he's been worse in high leverage situations) and batting splits (for some reason, lefties are killing him this year).  At least some of those things may be due to nothing more than bad luck.

I say "may" because I don't know what else to say about Cecil.  The worst part about the 9th inning, for me, was watching Cecil start off both Hardy and Davis with 2 strikes and lose both of them.  A top reliever has an 'out' pitch and Cecil's is the curveball.  It wasn't working today, and it didn't seem to be working well on Friday, either.

My own preference for closers isn't the guy with the 98 mph fastball and the unhittable breaking pitch.  It's the guy who is the same every time he pitches, who doesn't walk many batters, or turn a close game into a blowout.  In other words, it's Casey Janssen - the last 3 seasons have converted me.  Janssen's gone and he's not the pitcher he once was, anyway - and I don't think the Jays have anyone else in that mold.  Could Delabar close?  Hendriks?  Osuna?  Delabar walks too many batters, and I can't see the club giving the job to either Osuna (he's young, and they got burned this way with Miguel Castro in April) or Hendriks (too new to high-leverage situations).  I'd like to see them give Hendriks a try, but in any case, I hope they keep Cecil away from closing for a few days at least.

Last thoughts:  I'm working hard at taking a more levelheaded view of games like this.  This was a game the club trailed 7-0 in; they certainly didn't have a win stolen from them.  And consider this from the opposing perspective; if I was a Baltimore fan, I would have been throwing things at my TV watching Tillman cough up 6 runs right after being gifted a 7-run lead.  The Jays have problems, but not many teams can shrug off a big early deficit like they can.  It's the late deficits the closer creates that are getting worrisome.

Friday, 19 June 2015

The end of an era, before it really got started

What was initially thought to be a relatively minor injury will now apparently require season-ending surgery, and it looks like we are witnessing the end of an era at second base for the Jays.

Oh.  Sorry, did I scare you there?  I wasn’t talking about Devon Travis – the season-ending surgery goes to middle infielder Maicer Izturis, the forgotten man of the 2014-15 Blue Jays.

You’d be excused if you didn’t recognize Maicer from the picture above, because the guy has been pretty much invisible for the past 2 seasons.  You might recall that Izturis was horrible in 2013, but got off to a decent (.286/.324/.314) start in 2014 before he tore a knee up on the dugout stairs* and missed the rest of the season following surgery.  I expected Izturis to compete for a job in spring training this year, but he was felled by injury again, this time a groin sprain.  While rehabbing from that injury, Maicer injured his shoulder and following shoulder surgery, he’s done for 2015. 

So, the sum total of Maicer Izturis’s contributions to the Blue Jays looks like this:

2013:  107 games, 399 PA at shortstop, 3B and 2B.  .269 wOBA and -16.4 UZR for minus 2.2 fWAR, the worst mark in the AL
2014:  11 games, 38 PA, .289 wOBA
2015:  zilch.

There’s nothing much to redeem 2013 and 2014, but if there’s a silver lining to Maicer’s troubles, it’s that his 2015 spring training injury opened the door to Devon Travis.  My thoughts had been that Izturis and his guaranteed contract had a roster spot locked down, and that Ryan Goins or Steve Tolleson would wind up as the backup to Reyes and Izturis.  Izturis’ injury changed all that, as we have seen.   The Jays have a $3MM option to bring Izturis back in 2016, but I can’t imagine that they would ever exercise that, the way things are now.

So to recap, the best thing Maicer Izturis did as a Jay was get hurt in order to allow a better player to take his spot on the 25-man roster.   The Jays will have paid him $10MM over 3 seasons and gotten -2 cumulative fWAR for their money. 

Moral:  It’s not just the 9-figure contracts that can contend for ‘worst deal ever’.

* - yet another ridiculous injury for the Jays.  Dugout stairs, sprinkler heads, bunt drills.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Is "clutch" relief needed?

With the Blue Jays having climbed back into the thick of the playoff race, and the team’s offense bludgeoning opponents into submission, the trade rumours have started.  Do the Jays wants Cole Hamels?  John Cueto?  Pigface Papelbon?  Aroldis Chapman?  Tyler Clippard?  Some or all of those would be nice... but at what cost?

Naturally, you want to make whatever move does the most to make the team better.  The last offseason is a perfect illustration of this; the Jays had needs at 2B, LF, CF, and the bullpen, but I don’t think any two available players at any of those positions could have added as much value as Russell Martin and Josh Donaldson have to this point.  You want to fix weaknesses, but if you can add a superstar player, do it.  For the purposes of this post, though, I’m going to focus on pitching, which is the area of greatest need right now.  In any case, the offense will be getting reinforced when Devon Travis comes back, and maybe Mike Saunders will eventually help, too.

The Jays’ starters have an ERA of 4.62, 14th in the AL.  That’s bad.  The bullpen has an ERA of 3.51, 7th in the AL.  That’s… not all that bad, but the bullpen has blown 11 saves already, worst in the AL, and has just 8 saves and 17 holds, which are the worst and second-worst marks in the league, respectively.  So, the Jays need relievers as much as they need starters, right?  Well, let’s look at the starters first.

Sometimes, a high ERA masks decent performance that was undone by bad luck.  That’s not the case with the Jays’ rotation, though.  Blue Jay starters have the worst FIP in the AL by almost half a run.  Their xFIP (FIP with a normalized home run rate) is third worst.  They’ve got the third worst walk rate in the AL, and the second worst strikeout rate.  They’ve been a bit unlucky, perhaps, in giving up a lot of homers, but they’ve also had some BABIP luck, and they’ve actually performed better in high leverage situations (see below) than average.  That can’t be counted on to continue. 

You could make an argument that the starting pitching had a terrible April and has been better of late, but it’s not a great argument – in the past 30 days, the K and BB rates are still second-worst in the AL, and while the starters’ ERA is a middling 8th in the league, FIP and xFIP are third-worst and 5th-worst, respectively.  Losing Aaron Sanchez for an uncertain period of time doesn’t help, and the only internal help available is Dan Norris, who hasn’t exactly been tearing up the AAA circuit.  Of course you don’t want to give up too many prospects for a John Cueto-type who will only be here for 3 months, but there’s no question that the Jays could desperately use someone like him or Hamels.

Meanwhile, the Jays’ relievers are 6th in FIP, and 4th in xFIP.  They’ve actually been better than their overall ERA would suggest. Their downfall?  They’ve been bad (well, no kidding – 11 blown saves) in high leverage situations.  Their Fangraphs “clutch” score is -5.98, worst in the AL.  From Fangraphs:

Clutch measures how well a player performed in high leverage situations. It’s calculated as such:
Clutch = (WPA / pLI) – WPA/LI
In the words of David Appelman, this calculation measures, “…how much better or worse a player does in high leverage situations than he would have done in a context neutral environment.” It also compares a player against himself, so a player who hits .300 in high leverage situations when he’s an overall .300 hitter is not considered clutch.
Clutch does a good job of describing the past, but it does very little towards predicting the future. Simply because one player was clutch at one point does not mean they will continue to perform well in high-leverage situations (and vice versa). Very few players have the ability to be consistently clutch over the course of their careers, and choking in one season does not beget the same in the future.

For reference, WPA is “win probability added”.  pLI is the average leverage situation the player finds himself in.  WPA/LI is context-neutral win probability added.  As I understand it, the ‘clutch’ stat measures how a player performed in high-leverage situations relative to his performance in average-leverage situations.

As noted in the quote from Fangraphs, the thing with “clutch” – and WPA and related stats – is that it is a retrospective statistic, and not predictive.  The concept of players being either “clutch” or “not-clutch” has been largely debunked by sabermetricians over the years, and it’s easy to see that Brett Cecil and Steve Delabar were as ‘clutch’ in and 2014 as they are ‘not-clutch’ in 2015.  So, while guys like Cecil, Aaron Loup, and Roberto Osuna have had problems in close games, it’s not necessarily true that they will continue to struggle in high leverage situations.  It feels like they will… but there’s no hard evidence to suggest that this is a problem that has to be solved.  It’s more reasonable to expect that the bullpen’s performance in high-leverage situations will even out over time.  Could the team use another relief arm?  Sure, but it’s not as pressing a need as you might think from just looking at saves vs blown saves.

So the good news is – the Jays don’t need another reliever as much as one might think.  The bad news is that a Johnny Cueto or Cole Hamels will cost a ton of prospects and dollars, and even a mid-rotation starter (Scott Kazmir, say) won’t come as cheaply as a reliever would.  Hard decisions will have to be made before the trade deadline at the end of July, and you just have to know that the Yankees will make an addition if they are anywhere close to contention at this time next month.