Saturday, 19 July 2014

Impressions from Front Street



I was at last night's ballgame, but I wasn't going to make this an "Impressions from the Ballpark" post.  In brief: it was a frustrating game, a night where the Blue Jays came within 1 K of a team (batting, i.e. the bad kind) strikeout record.  A night in which Rah Dickey was mostly good, but bad when it counted, and the offense was the equal of the Texas offense (each team had 10 baserunners and 1 HR) except when it counted.  A night in which we all came prepared to (justifiably) boo the crap out of JP Strikethreebia  Arensuckula Arencibia while simultaneously dreading an improbable all too familiar turn of events in which JPA ends up the hero of the game.  Which, naturally, happened.

There was a great crowd for the game - 38,000, which seems about right for a comfortable, clear Friday night in July, except that it was against the Rangers and not, say, the Yankees or Red Sox.  As usual for Skydome, the upshot of the large crowd was an interminable wait for food and drink at the concession booths.  And the wave.  But the lineup at the food booths was worse, to the point where I didn't eat at the game, and which nicely segues to the long-promised.


Analysis of Food Options on the way to the Game

I walk to the game from Yonge & Front, usually (Union Station), and I expect a lot of you do, too.  There are certainly lots of other food options if you are willing to wander a little bit - tons of pubs (C’est What, Flatiron & Firkin, Jersey Giant), diners (Frans) and restaurants (Hot House, O&B, Spring Rolls) along Front to about Jarvis, for example.  I’m just going to focus on the spots that are actually on the way.

Chipotles



Location:  Front & University, S side
Scouting report:  Inconsistent lineups, but you usually can find a place to sit somewhere.  5 burrito options, plus burrito bowls if you’re going gluten free.  Fast food in the $10 range.  Get the chips and salsa.  Not licensed.


Loose Moose


Location:  Front between Simcoe and University, N side
Scouting report:  Licensed, pub-style place.  It’s in the basement and therefore has no patio, a significant minus.

Lone Star



Location:  Front W of Simcoe, N side
Scouting report:  Tex Mex pub food.  Another place where you’d better get there early in order to get a seat, patio or otherwise.


Jack Astors
Location:  University just N of Front, W side
Scouting report:  If you want a patio seat in nice weather or an indoor seat in bad weather, get there before 5.  Nice ambiance, licensed (duh).

Canyon Creek


Location: Front St N side, between University and Simcoe
Scouting report:  Nice steak & ribs place… think of an upscale Keg (even considering that the Keg has gotten itself some attitude lately).  More of a place to have dinner than to grab a bite on the way to the game… but if you want a “real” dinner before the game, this is the best option on Front, IMO.


Simcoe Place Food Court


Location:  Next to CBC building at Front & John, entrance on the N side of Front.

Scouting report:  Downtown food courts exist just to serve the office lunch crowd, and for that reason, you may not have a lot of luck on a weekend, or on a weekday after 5.  I'm including this one because (a) it's on the way to Skydome, and (b) it has a pretty good shwarma place.  There's a Thai place, a Subway, and a couple of other places that are open at 5:30 PM, and many others that are already closed.  

Pizza Rustica
Location: Blue Jays Way just N of Front
Scouting report:  Stone oven pizzas and Italian food just N of Front on Blue Jays Way.  Used to be pretty good, but I haven't been in a while.  If you're in a hurry, the Pizza Pizza across the street is faster, but on the other hand, it's Pizza Pizza.

Gretzky’s Oasis (patio)
Location: Blue Jays Way N of Front
Scouting Report:  Rooftop patios are A-OK in my book.  I find that this one’s more of a “young-and-after-work” crowd than a baseball crowd.  Don’t expect a table on a busy night, and you may have a hard time getting food up there, too.  Never tried to order anything non-liquid.

St Louis
Location: S side of Bremner opposite Skydome
Scouting report:  Wings and ribs joint.  Used to be great… now, with franchises popping up everywhere, it’s just okay.  On a game day, forget about getting seated and fed unless you’re there 2 hours before gametime on a weekday, 1.5 hours (or more) on a weekend.
  
Steam Whistle
Location:  Bremner and Rees… the big round building
Scouting report:  You can’t eat here, but you can get a sample of Steam Whistle Pilsner for your $10 entry fee.  Reservations recommended Monday-Thursday, not accepted Fri-Sun,  Last tour is at 5PM, first one (on weekends) is at noon.

Hot dog truck (this one)


Hot dog truck (that one)




Hot dog truck (the other one)


Location:  Front St S side, outside the Convention Centre
Scouting Report:  They're all pretty much the same, frankly, but not as good as the hot dog carts.  But if you want fries and other options to go with your sausage or hot dog, you can get them at the trucks, not the carts.

Ice cream truck



Scouting report:  Ice cream truck sells ice cream. 
Sabermetric report:  It’s served at -4 C and has a half-life in 25C weather of 11 minutes.  12 minutes, if you get the chocolate dip. 

Hot dog carts
Location:  Various.  Usually located on the on the overpass from Front S to Gate 2,on the concourse outside the Renaissance driveway off Blue Jays Way, along Front towards Blue Jay Way, Front & John, etc, etc. 

Sabermetric report:  I haven’t tried all of these, but be aware that the ones on the overpass and on the west side of the stadium have been known to jack up their prices on game days.  Default price for a hot dog in Toronto is $3, and a sausage, $4.  Yeah, paying $5 for a brat on a bun isn’t exorbitant compared to what the vultures in the Skydome charge, but it’s still a ripoff by real-world price standards.  As for which one is the best, I tend to be partial to the cheaper one on the SE corner of Front and Blue Jays Way, and the one on the SW corner of Front and John.




There are other places to go to, but if you aren't already familiar with the options, I hope this can be a starting point.  And rest assured, every one of these places is better and usually cheaper than eating in the Skydome, even if Rogers/Aramark did bring back the jerk chicken nachos this year.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Colby and Melky: Is it inevitable that they're gone?


There’s been a fair bit of talk – at Drunk Jays Fans and Bluebird Banter, notably - about the likelihood of the Blue Jays being able to bring back either of free-agents-to-be Colby Rasmus and Melky Cabrera next season, due to their being expensive.

We all know strongly suspect that Rogers is cheap, and that might mean that they won’t pursue either player, because they want to cut costs.  But assuming the club isn’t in cost-cutting mode, and just wants to stay the salary course, how tight will the dollars be next year?

The Jays’ biggest commitments in 2015 are to 6 players:  Reyes, Buehrle, Bautista, Dickey, Encarnacion and Lind.  The club is paying those 6 guys $76MM in 2014, and will need to pay them $84.5MM in 2015, an increase of $8.5MM.   That’s pretty much a fixed expense (Adam Lind’s 7.5MM next year is an option, but it would cost the team $1MM to buy him out, so I’m considering it a foregone conclusion that the team will re-up the righty-mashing Lind at the reasonable cost of $7.5MM).

There are some other options that may or may not be picked up.  If Happ returns, he gets a $1.5MM raise, to 6.7MM.  If the team buys him out, they free up $5.2MM they were paying him this year.  Brandon Morrow has a $10MM option for 2015 with a 1MM buyout.  If the team cuts him loose, they save $7MM over what they were paying him in 2014.  Sergio Santos has a $6MM option with a $750K buyout.  If the Jays keep him, that’s a $2.25MM raise; if they decline, that’s a $3MM saving.  And Dustin McGowan has a $4MM option next year with a $500K buyout – if he stays, he costs $2.5MM more than he did in 2014, and if he goes, the Jays save $1MM.

And there are non-core players with guaranteed money tied to them: Dioner Navarro, $5MM (2MM more than 2014), Maicer Izturis, $3MM, Ricky Romero, $7.5MM.  2015 is the last year that the Jays will be financing Romero’slifestyle.  Romero's a sunk cost, but Navarro and Izturis could conceivably be traded, freeing up some salary room.

So, if you assume that Happ’s and McGowan’s options get picked up, and that Morrow and Santos’s options are declined, the Jays only owe the players named above $4.5MM more than they did in 2014.  Just 4.5MM!

Naturally, there will be other raises – Lawrie, Hutchison, Cecil, Reimold, Thole, Francisco and Kratz are all in arbitration and figure to get salary increases, but I can’t see the total amount of those increases surpassing $10MM.  And on top of having to consider whether to bring back Rasmus and/or Cabrera, the team has to make a decision on Casey Janssen, who will be a free agent, too.  Rasmus, Cabrera, and Janssen are making a combined $19MM in 2014.

If the team brings none of the free agents back, they’ll actually project to have a payroll $3.5MM lower than they did in 2014.  I know, I know – if none of Rasmus/Cabrera/Janssen come back, the team will need to find replacements which will certainly push the payroll back above where it was in 2014. 

But still – if the team wants to take a hard line on payroll, re-sign only Janssen (they’re thin in the bullpen from the right side) and roll the dice with some combination of Gose/Reimold/Pillar in the 2 non-Bautista outfield spots, they’d be coming back with basically the same payroll as 2014.  And I guess they could do that.  One would hope, though, that the bean counters at Rogers would recognize that (a) salaries in pro sports will always rise, so keeping payroll constant is actually cutting payroll, relative to the league, (b) not spending in salaries will cost them in gate revenues, and (c) you can’t build a successful club by turning the money tap on and off on a 4 year cycle.   Bottom line is, the club’s commitments for 2015 payroll aren’t drastically higher than 2014’s commitments.  If, as we've been told ad infinitum, “the money (was) there” in 2014, it ought to be there in 2015, too.


Monday, 14 July 2014

Whew

It was more fun when the Jays were falling all over themselves and winning.

It’s called the All-Star Break, and for the Blue Jays, the key part is break.  This team badly needs a breather.

A lot has gone wrong in recent weeks for the Blue Jays, and as has been the case for what seems like years on end, the biggest issue has been injuries.  The Jays are without their best lefthanded (Lind) and righthanded (Encarnacion, arguably) hitters, as well as their best defender (Lawrie).  And of the guys still on the field, Reyes has a bad shoulder (accounting for a bunch of throwing errors, apparently), and both Rasmus and Bautista have been unable to field a position at times.  The club picked up (for free!) a much needed righthanded bat in Nolan Reimold, who promptly got hurt and is day-to-day.  The rotation has been decent, but the Jays have more unreliable relievers in the ‘pen than reliable ones.

In other words, it’s business as usual.  So what do we have to look forward to?

Well, for one thing, Lawrie and Encarnacion could to be back in 2-3 weeks or so.  The Jays have been forced to put out some especially putrid lineups against lefthanding pitching of late; not having to play Juan Francisco against LHP would be nice.

When Nolan Reimold is healthy, the Jays look to finally have the righthanded half of a platoon with Francisco (or when he returns, Lind).

And most importantly, the Jays will come out of the break to play what should be the easy part of their schedule.  To this point, the Jays’ opponents have had a .508 winning percentage; that’s the 3rd toughest schedule in MLB.  Baltimore’s opponents have played to a .496 winning percentage; that’s 20th in MLB.  Before July ends, the Jays will play 3 games at home to Texas (.400 winning percentage), 4 at home to Boston (.453), 3 at the Yankers (.500), 3 at Boston, and 1 at Houston (.417).  Meanwhile, the Orioles, who the Jays are 4 back of, embark on a 10 game road trip through Oakland (.621), Anaheim (.606) and Seattle (.537), and then come home to play Anaheim again.  So, yeah, the Jays could absolutely make up that entire 4-game deficit over the next 13-14 games.  


If they don’t… well, let’s cross that trade deadline bridge when we get a bit closer to it.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Cold comfort?

Keep those hamstrings warm, Colby.

The Blue Jays are not playing well, and on top of that, they’re in the middle of a road trip against teams that are playing well.  Anaheim is on an 8-2 run, as are the Devil Rays, and Oakland is the best team in the majors.  It sucks, but stretches like this will happen.  When the Jays were having a hot May, they caught Tampa and Boston in ice-cold stretches.  The tables are now turned. 

Prior to embarking on this road trip, the Jays had a 5-4 homestand in which they took two of two from the Brewers (best team in the NL) and two of three from the division rival Yankers.  Yes, losing 3 of 4 to the White Sox was disheartening, but the team wasn’t (and still isn’t) getting blown out.  The last 11 games have been played against high-scoring teams and the Jays have allowed no more than 5 runs in any of them, and either one or zero runs three times.

So what am I saying?  I’m saying that the pitching has been solid, and that the team will hit again.  Marcus Stroman has made 7 starts with an ERA of 2.08 and FIP and xFIPs in the low threes.  He looks like the real deal.  Mark Buehrle has an ERA under 3 for June/July.  JA Happ has been a little unlucky as a starter; his FIP and xFIP are in the low 4s, which would be perfectly acceptable for a 5th starter.  Rah Dickey is… well, he’s maddening, but not awful, and Drew Hutchison has probably been the Jays’ second-beat starter, with ERA, FIP and xFIP all under 4.

Provided that the pitching doesn’t fall apart – and it’s held up pretty well, thus far – there is hope for better days.  The Jays return from the all-star break to play a 3-game series at home versus the bad Texas Rangers, and then 4 more at home against the slumping Red Sox.  They then go on the road for 3 at New York, 3 at Boston, and 4 at the last-place Houston Astros.  The Jays badly need to break free of their Yankee Stadium jinx, but otherwise, these are all winnable games.  Particularly with EE (and maybe Lawrie) being back for some or all of those games.


So, better days are ahead, I think.  Right now, I’d be happy if the Jays could win 2 of the next 5 (in Anaheim and Tampa) and get a little bit of a breather over the all-star weekend.

Monday, 7 July 2014

Sooo...


Blue Jays starters have a 3.79 ERA, good for 5th in the AL.   And in the last 30 days, the offense has a wOBA of .298, which is basically like having a team of 9 Derek Jeters... circa 2014.

So… do the Jays need hitting more than pitching, right now?  YES.  And the good news is, it’ll come cheaper than Jeff Samarmalade or David Price did and would.

The last week saw the Jays add Cole Gillespie and Nolan Reimold to the roster – for free!  Both of them are right-handed outfielders, but of the two, I’d give the edge to Reimold:  He’s younger, has no discernable platoon split, and he’s familiar with the AL East.  Gillespie has a platoon split, but it’s a reverse split, and the Jays already have a lot of players (Lind, Francisco, and Rasmus) who can’t hit lefthanded pitching.  And with Encarnacion out for another 2 weeks at least, the team desperately needs someone who can hit a lefthander.

The other obvious need, which has been an obvious need for almost the whole season (even during the heyday of the Lawrie-Francisco-Tolleson 3B/2B shuffle) is second base.  And there are plenty of options – Chase Headley, Aaron Hill, Luis Valbuena, Gordon Beckham, and others, all of which look better (going forward) than the team’s current options (Muni Kawasaki and Steve Tolleson).  Better they may be, but will they be worth doing?

Let's start with the familiar.  Aaron Hill is now 32, and is having a poor season defensively and offensively.  He’s also owed a ton; about half of his $11MM salary for 2014 and $24MM more for the next 2 seasons.  Pass.

Gordon Beckham has a OBP of .302 (not far off his career OBP of .312), no power, so-so defense, and he isn't a baserunning threat.  To this point, he's not even an upgrade on Tolleson... so, no.

You might recall my making a case for Luis Valbuena back in 2012.  And in retrospect, keeping him would have been a pretty good idea; he can play some defense, his offensive stats have been trending upwards, and he's under control for 2 more years and cheap, cheap, cheap ($1.4MM this year).  Downside?  He's a lefthanded batter with a mild platoon split, and the Jays would ideally want someone who can hit lefty pitching.  We're getting warmer, though.

Chase Headley is actually a third baseman, but the thinking is that he would play 3B and Lawrie (when healthy) would move to second.  Headley is a very good defender and has been an elite hitter, but has struggled this year with a back injury.  He also makes $10MM and is a free agent after this season, and is a switch-hitter who does better against RHP.  And... he wouldn't solve the 2B problem, he'd just push Francisco to the bench and 2B would continue to be undermanned until Lawrie's return... AND he has a back problem and would be playing on the Skydome concrete turf.  So... perhaps not.

Martin Prado?  Like Hill, he's an expensive Diamondback who is owed a lot of money.  And he's a third baseman.

Brandon Phillips is also expensive and pretty overrated offensively.  However, he does hit lefthanders well, over his career (.348 wOBA).

Chase Utley hits everything and plays good defense.  He's owed $25MM for this year and next, but also has 3 vesting options at $15MM each, making him a pretty big financial commitment.  Nonetheless, bidding will be competitive if he hits the market.  Ben Zobrist also fits this description.

At the end of the day, I think that if the Jays do make a trade, it will be for an inexpensive option - which means Valbuena.  If the team can land him without giving up one or more of Sanchez/Nolin/Norris/Pompey, I'd be on board.  I can't see the Jays taking on the dollars that would go with most of the others.  Beckham would be cheap, but he's not an upgrade.

In other words, a 2B upgrade may not be in the works.  Can we go back to looking at pitching?  AJ Burnett would still fit nicely in the Jays' rotation.


Thursday, 3 July 2014

The madness of bunting

Image from Second Guesser, a lovely iPhone baseball app that you can't apparently get in Canada, via Pitchershiteighth.com.
And if I could make the image bigger, I would.

I'm not among those who'd like to see John Gibbons pilloried for his supposed failings as a manager.  There are a lot of reasons for this - I like how he uses platoons, I think he makes decent decisions with bullpen use (usually), and I don't think he can be held responsible for how his players perform (that much is true of any manager).  And it's also because I don't like sacrifice bunts, and the Jays under Gibbons don't bunt much (23rd in MLB in bunt attempts last year, and 23rd this year as well).

Gibbons and the rest of the Blue Jays coaches let me down yesterday afternoon, though, twice attempting a sacrifice bunt with none out and runners on 1st and 2nd base, and twice getting unwanted results (a double play once, and the lead runner out at 3rd, the other time).  I'd like to talk a little bit about that - I feel capable of doing so, considering that EE bailed the Jays out and despite the lousy bunt strategy and bunt execution, the Jays won today, anyway.

To be clear:  I don't like sacrifice bunts.  The reason I don't like them is encapsulated pretty well in the image above:  when you sacrifice, you give up an out in order to move the runner or runners up a base, except that research (notably by Tom Tango, in The Book) tells us that sacrificing an out to move up a baserunner usually leads to fewer runs being scored.

Bunting for hits is a whole different animal.  Over the last 2 years, Anthony "ToGo" Gose has 7 bunt hits on 14 bunt attempts.  A .500 batting average is, of course, fantastic.  Most batters are out 70% of the time they put wood on ball, and bunting for hits can be a very effective tactic.

And to be fair, sacrifice bunts can be a good idea in a couple of situations:  Where they catch the opponent unprepared in a close game, and where the team that is bunting only needs 1 run (like the home team in extra innings).  Sacrificing usually means fewer runs scored, but it can slightly raise the probability of getting one run.

So with that in mind, let's look at what the Jays did yesterday in the 7th and 9th innings.

The score was tied 4-4 in the 7th, and the Jays had runners on 1st and 2nd (Bautista and Cabrera) with none out.  With Lind due up, the Brewers made a pitching change to have a lefthander (Zach Duke) face Lind.  One of the things I like about John Gibbons is how he makes no pretense of Adam Lind and his awful career .261 wOBA against lefthanders being an everyday player.  So - in comes Darin Mastroianni to bat for Lind against Duke.  And Joey Pat Darin immediately squares to bunt.

I have four problems with this.  First, it's the 7th inning.  The Brewers will have 2 more chances to score, so playing for 1 run doesn't seem like a great idea.  Getting the first 2 runners on is how big innings get started, and the Jays have Encarnacion, Navarro and Rasmus up after Mastroianni.  Why play for 1 run, with those bats coming up?  Second, the go-ahead run was already in scoring position.  A single would give the Jays the lead, and there were 3 opportunities to get that go-ahead RBI, versus just 2 if the bunt had succeeded.  Third, this was not a 'surprise' situation - everyone could see Mastroianni planned to bunt.  And finally, it just seems odd to burn a pinch-hitter just to give himself up with a sacrifice bunt.  I'll concede that one, though, considering the state of the Jays' right-handed bench options.

Anyway.  The Brewers see Darin squaring to bunt and put on the "wheel play".  In short, the third baseman and first baseman charge to field a bunt, while the SS and second baseman move to cover 3rd and 1st base, respectively.  Meaning that a ground ball that gets by the pitcher is essentially an RBI single.  I'll give credit to Buck Martinez and Pat Tabler, the Jays' announce team, for recognizing this immediately and pointing out that Mastroianni should swing away.

Mastroianni doesn't; he bunts, and it's a poor one, which the catcher scoops up and throws to 3B to get Cabrera, and back to 1B to retire Mastroianni.  2 out, and a runner (Bautista) on second, and after an intentional walk to Encarnacion, Navarro strikes out to end the inning.  Should Mastroianni have taken the initiative to hit away, or at least, to not show bunt early?  That's a tough thing to ask a young bench player to do, but somebody - the third base coach, the manager, the bench coach - should have signalled him not to bunt if the Brewers were running the wheel play.

So, fast forward to the 9th inning.  Score's still tied, 4-4.  The Jays again have 2 on (Reyes and Cabrera) with none out.  Gose is up, having pinch-run for Bautista after the double play in the 7th.  Now, the Jays only need 1 run, but the winning run is already on second.  Gose squares to bunt, and again, the Brewers run the wheel play.  And again, the Jays leave the bunt on, Gose bunts into the defense, and the lead runner is erased at 3B.

It was bad enough that the Jays bunted their lead runner into a nonproductive out(s) once, but doing it twice is pretty much inexcusable.  Particularly with Gose, who, due to his speed, is a low double-play risk.  I know Gibbons was already ejected at that point, but somebody - Gibbons via cellphone, or another coach - should have known better than to try a failed tactic a second time.

As I said, all concerned (Gibbons, coaches, and Mastroianni and Gose, who didn't help matters by laying down two weak bunt attempts) are pretty fortunate that Encarnacion hit his walk-off HR 2 batters later.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Belated Impressions From The Ballpark, June 24


How could Tuesday night have been better?  If it had been A-Roid throwing away a bunt to cost the Yankees the game.  Or, y'know, if the Jays hadn't needed a 9th inning rally to win.

I was at Tuesday's game, which the Jays were fated to lose due to the absence of their best hitter (Bautista) and best infield defender (Lawrie) from the lineup.  Except that they had a fighting chance to win the game, with their best pitcher (Buehrle, of the 10 wins and 2.42 ERA) on the mound.  Although come to think of it, Buehrle is 1-10 lifetime against the NYYers with an ERA above 5.  With all that in mind, it's no wonder so many things went wrong that night.

To begin with, there was the "free" shirt that the first 15,000 entrants to the Dome received.  It was a nice enough shirt, with a big red maple leaf and the words "Blue Jays" on it... except for the not-unobtrusive "Honda" logo on the right sleeve.  This is a pet peeve of mine:  It's not a free shirt, it's advertising.  Honda coughs up perhaps $50,000 wholesale for the 15,000 shirts, and gets their name mentioned before and during the game in return.  The advertising value of even several thousand ordinary people walking around wearing a Honda logo has to be almost nil, so why ruin a perfectly good shirt with the ad?

It was pouring rain outside, which makes me grateful for the existence of the Skydome and its roof, and never having to endure a rainout.  But, Rogers... would it kill you to air condition the place?  Or at least circulate the air a bit?  Bad as the Skydome is with the roof closed, it's worse when it's humid inside.

On the plus side?  The concession lines were bearable where I was (in the 500s), despite a crowd of around 35,000.  Rogers still has no craft beers available at the Dome, but there's a pretty broad selection at what I call the "Wall of Beer" concessions - 15+ brands at least.  So that's something.

Other impressions?  Derek Jeter is showing his age.  I don't just mean the triple-clutch on the grounder by Encarnacion, or the botched rundown of the next batter, Rasmus.  What was really telling for me was seeing Jeter field a ball in the hole (admittedly, the hole is not very deep for Jeter these days) and just hold it.  Holding the ball instead of attempting an impossible play can be a smart move, except that in this case, Adam Lind was the batter.  Adam Lind was pinch-run for with a pitcher in Cincinnati.  Adam Lind has been limping around with a badly bruised foot for a week.  And even when healthy, Adam Lind is one of the slower Blue Jays.  It's an indictment of Jeter's defensive skills that he didn't even attempt a throw on that play.

And while we're on the subject of shortstops, I am sorry to say that I hold my breath when Reyes has to make a throw to 1st base.  I'm not saying Reyes is a defensive liability - if anything, his range factor and zone rating this year are as good or better than his career numbers, sample size be damned.  It's just... I'll breathe easier after a couple weeks go by with no throws in the dirt.

In terms of overall ambiance, I didn't notice as much cheering for the Yankees as I usually do when at a Jays-Yankers matchup.  Whether this is because fewer NYY fans were at the game than usual, or because those NY fans that were there were more reticent, or because Jays fans were more boisterous (i.e. louder), I have no idea.  But it was a nice change.

Dustin McGowan was due for a blowup, and that happened, and the Jays were due to pull out an ugly win versus the Yankees, and that happened too.  So, all's well that ends well, I guess.  See you next time.




Saturday, 21 June 2014

Ten things to like about last night's comeback.

The Toronto Blue Jays make a Canadian baseball hero look sad. Yay!

Well, that game had something for everyone.

1.  If you're a baseball historian, you'll remember that it was a June day 25 years ago in which the Jays made their biggest comeback.  I wouldn't call myself a historian, but I remember that the 10-run comeback against the Red Sux took place in a Sunday afternoon game.  I was visiting with college friends and I remember turning off the game in disgust and drinking a lot to get over it.  Last night, I turned off the game in disgust and went for a long walk.  And that might be how I would define maturity.

2.  If you believe in mascots, Munenori Kawasaki had 2 hits, a sparkling defensive play in the 7th to take away a hit that would have driven in the Reds' 10th run, and a sacrifice bunt in the 9th to put the go-ahead run (in the person of Colby Rasmus) into scoring position.  Kawasaki still isn't the answer at second base, but he was in the spotlight for several key plays last night and rose to the occasion.

3.  If you like arcane managerial moves, the Jays used 2 of their starting pitchers (Stroman and Hutchison) as pinch runners.  I can see Stroman being much, much faster than Navarro, but Hutch ran for Lind!  I guess Lind still has a sore foot, but it's gotta sting to be a non-catching position player and have a pitcher run for you.

4.  If you like the universe functioning as it should, you'll be pleased to see that Liam Hendriks' ERA now matches his FIP and xFIP pretty well.  Earlier this week, I (like everyone else) pointed out that Hendriks' two good starts were more the product of luck and defense than anything else.  And now, the ERA fits, too.

5.  But if you still believe in luck, consider that the Jays are now 3-0 in Hendriks' starts.  All he does is win!

6.  Do you believe in lineup protection?  The Reds were determined not to let J-Bau beat them, walking him 4 times, including once with the bases loaded.  Encarnacion homered after 2 of the other 3 walks Jose earned.  So much for that idea.

7.  And if you like chicken-and-egg questions, is it a coincidence that the major league leader in walks (Bautista) bats immediately before the MLB leader in home runs and RBI (Encarnacion)?  And if it isn't a coincidence, it's pretty damn impressive that Jose walks as much as much as he does, in front of EE.

8.  And if you'd like corroboration, you were probably playing second base for the Reds when last night's events went down.  If you don't like corroboration, I hope you at least like irony.

9.  If you like puns, you'll like how Juan Francisco went full ayatollah and declared a "FatJuan" on this fastball, taking it out to the opposite field.  Juan Francisco, like Muni Kawasaki, remains a flawed player, but can we at least make "Declaring a FatJuan" a thing?

10.  And lastly, if you like retribution, you'll be pleased to note that ex-Reds Francisco and Encarnacion combined to go 3-for-6 with 3 HR, a walk, and 8 RBI against their old club.  Who's your E5 now, Cincy? Plus, following the 8-run second inning, the much-maligned trio of Todd Redmond, Chad Jenkins and Sergio Santos supplied 5 innings of 1-run relief, which allowed the Jays to eventually climb back into the game.

Not into any of that stuff?  Well, we all like Blue Jay wins, obviously, but beyond that, this win should be a big confidence booster for us.  Yes, I said "us" and not "the Jays".  All too often, it feels like the umpires are squeezing the Jays, or that the team blows leads they should hold, or that the club is snakebitten when it comes to injuries and bad bounces (come to think of it, the umps may be overly hard on the Jays, but that's a subject for another post).  I have no doubt that the Blue Jays believe in themselves, but if last night's game wasn't a necessary win for the team, it might be just the thing to calm down the segment of fans who were ready to write off the season after a 3-game sweep in New Yawk.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Is the Jays' rotation for real?

Why this is called a revolver?  The cylinder doesn't revolve, it rotates.  And like the Jays rotation, it only has 3 bullets.

The 2013 Blue Jays had one of the worst starting rotations in the American League. This year, with mostly the same core performers, they have the 2nd-best ERA in the AL and lead the league in wins, with 33. So, what happened?   And more importantly, can they keep it up?

I'll start by setting some parameters.   The constants in the rotation so far have been Mark Buehrle, Rah Dickey, and Drew Hutchison.   Those three have started 43 of the Jays' 71 games played. Jah Happ and Marcus Stroman look to be in the rotation for the foreseeable future, with possible guest appearances by Liam Hendriks to give Hutch extra rest.  Dustin McGowan appears to be done with the rotation, so I won't consider him in this assessment, and Brandon Morrow is, as always, a giant question mark. 

Buehrle, Hutchison and Dickey have the lion's share of the innings so far, and unfortunately also look to have the least sustainable performances.  Buehrle and Dickey both have ERA numbers better than their FIP and xFIP's, suggesting that both of them will not pitch as well, going forward. You probably know that Buehrle has benefited from a very high strand rate and a low HR/FB ratio, and both of those should regress towards league averages.  You might not know that he's walking more batters and striking out fewer batters than he did last year. That doesn't bode well for continued good performance, either. 

Dickey, too, is walking too many batters - 4 per 9 innings, which is a Delabaresque rate.   His strand rate is normal, and the BABIP he's allowed is normal (for him).  Still, the 4.08 ERA Dickey has put up is about half a run better than his FIP and xFIP, suggesting that he's been a little lucky to have performed as well as he has.  So, if the walk rate doesn't come down, things could get ugly.

Drew Hutchison, on the other hand, seems to be putting up a sustainable performance, with one major caveat.  The good news is that he's striking out a lot of batters while doing a good job of limiting walks, and he's not benefiting from unusual batted ball rates (although his strand rate is a bit too good to be true). The caveat is his stamina. Much has been made of how much better Hutch pitches on extended rest (5+ days) as opposed to his poorer numbers on normal (4 days) rest. We've seen drops in velocity (and effectiveness) from him at times, and it's possible that Hutchison will wear down with overuse. He's already thrown more innings (82) in 2014 than he did in 2012, he's coming off Tommy John surgery, and he's never thrown more than 150 innings in a season.  

Jah Happ is another player who's outperforming his peripherals, holding a 4.05 ERA that's better than both of his FIP and xFIP. My big complaint about Jah Happ was his failure to work deep into games; even with recent improvement, he's just thrown 49 innings in 9 starts this season, or just over 5 per start.   Walks are his undoing, and his high strand rate suggests things will get worse instead of better going forward. 

Marcus Stroman has been good in his 3 starts - 18 IP, 5 ER, lots of ground balls and strikeouts, hardly any walks. Can he keep it up? Based on 18 innings, I have no idea, but I hope so. 

Liam Hendriks has made 2 starts. Two very, very lucky starts. Let's not kid ourselves; Hendriks owes great defense, BABIP luck, and an unsustainable strand rate for his gaudy ERA. Hopefully, the club won't need to press him into service too often (but see Hutchison, above).  

Brandon Morrow is Brandon Morrow. Maybe his finger was bothering him through his 6 pre-injury starts, accounting for all the walks. Maybe the bad BABIP and strand rate aren't systemic with him, despite both being recurring problems for Morrow. And maybe he'll be back in late July and provide a boost if one or more of Happ, Stroman or Hutchison falter.   Or - considering this is Brandon Morrow we are talking about - maybe not. 

So to sum up, the Jays' rotation is built around 3 vets who are outperforming their peripherals, a rookie, a 23-year old coming off surgery, and Brandon Morrow.  I'd hate to see the Jays trade the farm for a Samardzija-type pitcher, but if they don't make some kind of acquisition, things have the potential to get ugly in the rotation by August. 

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

(Soothing hand gestures)

Don't you feel better already?

Yes, the Jays went 2-4 at home versus the Cardinals and Twins, two not-very-good teams.  But take comfort in this:  The Jays lost because they didn't hit; they scored 10 runs in 6 games.  If there's one thing we know about the 2014 Blue Jays, it's that they're going to score runs, so this little skid can be considered a blip - the kind of stretch every team goes through.  And take comfort in knowing that the team got 3 "quality starts" (2 from Stroman) and only gave up 25 ER (4.16 ERA) over that 6-game stretch.  The pitching is holding together (for now, anyway) and when the hitting picks up, the Jays should be back on track.  Probably.

Monday, 9 June 2014

June 6, 2014 - Impressions from the Ballpark!


Weird, weird game, that was.  The Cardinals made every possible mistake - foolishly sending Holliday home in the first to get thrown out by Bautista, dropping a lineout in the 4th on the transfer that could have doubled off Gose at 2nd, making a couple of other errors, and walking 5 batters.  Despite all those St Louis miscues, the Jays couldn't capitalize for the longest time - loading the bases in the 1st, 4th, and 6th innings and leaving 2 runners on in the 2nd, scoring no runs.  On the way, we saw the aforementioned outfield assist at home plate, a triple play (something I've never seen live, before), and fan interference being called with the home team fielding (something I didn't think was even in the rules).

Friday was a perfect night for baseball - clear skies, comfortable weather, no humidity - and, of course, an open roof.  So on that level, it makes sense that there were 33,000 fans at the 'dome that night.  Except that this was a weeknight, non-giveaway, non-Yankee and non-Red Sux game, and the Jays had been drawing in the 15,000-20,000 games for run-of-the-mill weeknight games.  Is this crowd a sign of the fans coming out to see the 1st place Blue Jays?  There can't be that many displaced Cardinal fans in Toronto.

Anyway.  We arrived early, caught the end of Cardinals' batting practice.  I haven't seen the Jays bat before a game in years, and now I know why:  Apparently the gates open at 5:30, when the Jays have about 10 minutes left in their batting practice session.  Why prevent fans from watching their team's BP?  Beats me.

This was the third straight game that I've refrained from buying food at the Skydome - I pointed out in an earlier "Impressions" post that food prices are dramatically higher this year, and with that in mind, I'd rather give my dining business to one of the fine establishments lining the path from Union Station to the 'dome.  And yes, a post on said dining options is in the works.  But the larger-than-expected crowd highlighted another service issue that crops up far too often in the 'dome - namely, the shut-down concessions in the 500s despite there being a thirsty crowd in the upper deck.  There were long lines at the beer concessions that were open, while multiple other locations (towards the RF and LF corners) were shut.  I remember this being a problem every year at the home opener; you'd spend 2 innings in line for drinks and miss 1/4 of the game.  Is this going to be a problem every time there is an unexpected crowd over 30,000?

Of note:  There was a group of Cardinals fans sitting behind us - 5 or 6 of them bedecked in Canadian flag colours and carrying banners.  You may have heard it said that Cardinals fans are classy and knowledgeable, to which I will now respond,  Not all of them.  Sure, we had a nice discussion with one older gentleman about Mike Matheny's managerial chops and the expectations they have for Oscar Tavares.  But other than that, their repertoire was mainly chants of the same players' names, over and over, and not-so-muffled cursing at the errors the Cards were making.  If that's what knowledgeable baseball fans sound like, I'll remain happily ignorant, thanks.

Back to the game - the high point was Marcus Stroman pitching himself into jams and wriggling out of them over the first few innings, and then settling down to finish with 6 innings of 1-run ball.  So far, Stroman is living up to the billing he's been given.  The low point was some kid in the seats on the right field line interfering with a catchable ball with the Jays playing defense:


He even kind of looks like Steve Bartman, doesn't he?  Fortunately, this wasn't a Bartman situation - it wasn't the playoffs, the Jays won the game anyway, and the Jays have won a World Series in the last hundred years.  And besides, the umpires got the call right - the kid reached out of the stands for the ball, which amounts to fan interference (balls going into the stands are fair game).  So, everything's good - I'm glad the boy in the red shirt didn't wind up the goat (so to speak) of the game, when he's of an age where he perhaps couldn't be expected to know to stay away from that ball.  And that brings us back to knowledgeable fanhood:  Real fans ought to know to back away from balls hit into the seats that Jay players are lunging for, and to stick gloves in the faces of opposing fielders when they reach into the stands.  Do that right, and maybe people will overlook your cursing, chanting, and passing gas when taking in a game at the opposing team's stadium.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

The Janssen effect

Google says this is a picture of the Janssen effect, and who I am to argue with Google?



It’s come to this:  I’m so used to writing about bad things happening to the Jays, that I’m at a loss as to what to say when things are going spectacularly well.

The Blue Jays are playing well?  You knew that.  Edwin is awesome?  Bet you knew that too.  So, I’ll write about Casey Janssen, who is having a great, but odd, start to 2014.

Janssen missed the first 6 weeks of the season with a back strain, and rejoined the team on May 12.  This, after having offseason surgery on his shoulder.  I always worry a bit about pitchers coming off arm surgery in the offseason, but Janssen's obviously had a great start to the 2014 season.  Over 10 2/3 innings pitched, Janssen has an ERA of 0.00 (2.00 FIP, 3.39 xFIP) with a WHIP of 0.75 and 10 saves.  Yes, that's a stupidly small sample size, but the point is, Janssen's been effective.  More to the point, he's been a good luck talisman, for lack of a better way to put it.

Jays' record before May 12:  18-20.
Jays' record, May 12 and later: 19-4

Bullpen ERA, Mar-Apr:  3-6, 6 saves, 5.03 ERA,
Bullpen ERA, since May 6 (last 30 days): 4-2, 12 saves, 4.11 ERA.

Of course, it's ludicrous to say that Casey Janssen is the reason for the Jays going 19-4 over the last 25 days; Janssen didn't help Edwin Encarnacion hit all those home runs.  Nonetheless, it's interesting how much better the bullpen has been with him in it.  Some will tell you that's due to Janssen's leadership skills, or how the rest of the relievers are more comfortable in their roles knowing that the back end of games belongs to Janssen.  And I suppose that's at least possible, although it's much more likely that the bullpen got better because team management decided to make Esmil Rogers, Jeremy Jeffress, Neil Wagner and their 43 innings of 6.00+ ERA work somewhere else.  Regardless, it's sure nice to have Casey back there, isn't it?  There are some warning signs - Janssen's velocity seems a bit down, and he's benefiting from an absurd strand rate which almost has to come down.  But again - small sample size at work here, and the results speak for themselves.

Did I say that Janssen's had an odd start to the year?  Well, his last 2 saves took a total of 4 pitches, and despite the 0.00 ERA, he has a blown save to his (dis)credit in 2014, thanks to Jose Reyes' bad throw last week against the Royals.  You don't see stuff like that everyday.  And if Casey wants to keep throwing 3- and 1-pitch saves, that's fine with me.



Thursday, 29 May 2014

Trade Rasmus?

How could we get through games without seeing that awkward smile?

Colby Rasmus hit the DL on May 15, and the Blue Jays called up Anthony (“Tony”) (“ToGo”) Gose on the same day.  Rasmus was eligible to come off the DL yesterday (DL’ing was retroactive to May 13), but he’s likely to be gone for another week or 2, as he finishes resting his sore leg and embarks on a minor-league rehab assignment.  But that’s okay, because his replacements (Gose and Kevin Pillar) are playing well, and the Jays are 12-1 with Rasmus on the DL.  Right?

And, obviously, Colby is now superfluous... Right?

Not so fast.

To be fair, Gose is doing a lot of things right, this time up with the team.  He’s bunted 5 times and gotten 3 hits out of those bunts, which is excellent – with his speed, Gose should attempt a bunt at least once a game.  And he’s hitting a lot of ground balls, which is another way to take advantage of his speed.  He’s walking a lot – 7 in 48 PA – and making some great defensive plays (such as…).  All of which is, obviously, great – Gose is winning games with his speed and defense, as we were always told he could.  However, the walk rate is well above his career rate, and the strikeout rate of 20% is well below Gose’s career K rate of 25%+ (and that’s the minor league rate).  Throw in a BABIP of .393 (Gose is fast, but that BABIP is ludicrously high) and some regression at the plate can be expected.  As for the defense, Gose actually graded out below average in 2013 and just average in 2012, so the small sample of stellar play so far in 2013 has to be taken with a grain of salt, I believe.

Kevin Pillar has similar issues, over an even smaller sample (just 27 PA).  He’s benefited from a .429 BABIP to this point, and he doesn’t walk at all, even in the minors (less than 6% career walk rate).  There’s nothing to suggest that he’s any better now than he was in 2013.

Meanwhile, it’s easy to overlook some of the skills Rasmus brings to the table.  Obviously, everyone is aware of his power, but Rasmus has also been an average to plus defender in CF, a good baserunner (despite the lack of stolen bases) and a player who will take a walk in about 8% of his PA.  That’s not a lot of walks, but more than expected from either of Pillar or Gose, and Gose’s minor-league strikeout rate is almost the same as Rasmus’s career major-league K rate.  In other words, the strikeouts that Rasmus drives us crazy with are likely to be as frequent, or more frequent, in Gose’s plate appearances.

To this point, Rasmus’s struggles can be attributed to low BABIP (.266), the same way the successes of Pillar and Gose can be traced to high BABIPs.  Rasmus can expect his BABIP to get better; Gose and Pillar have nowhere to go but down.  So in short, we’re not likely to see the same kind of overall production (offensive and defensive) from a Gose/Pillar platoon as we would from Rasmus.  

Could Rasmus be trade bait, anyway?  Well, it’s entirely possible that a pitcher obtained in a hypothetical Rasmus trade would add more value by replacing Hendriks than the Jays would lose in downgrading from Rasmus to Gose/Pillar.  The trick will be finding a team with a pitcher who’d be an upgrade, that team being willing to trade their pitcher, the other team having a need for Rasmus, and determining which other pieces will have to be added to the deal.  With all those factors in mind, I think it would have to be a 3 (or more) team deal, and those are hard to arrange.


Lastly, all this is not to say that a Gose/Pillar platoon won’t replace Colby Rasmus in 2015.  By all appearances, Rasmus will be able to command a contract of at least 5 years at $16MM or more per season when he hits free agency.  And by all appearances, the Jays won’t want to spend that kind of money on him, particularly when they’ll also have to spend to keep Melky Cabrera.  Rasmus will likely be the biggest potential expense in the coming offseason, and the only one with an heir apparent on hand.  So even if we don't see a lot of Gose and Pillar this year, it's a good bet we will next year.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Roses.


Things are coming up that way, for the Jays.  Liam Hendriks comes up from AAA and throws effectively.  Jah Happ puts up 2 consecutive strong starts.  Esmil Rogers clears waivers, Rah Dickey throws a gem with the roof open, the club manufactures runs with its speed, and when the pitchers falter, the offense clubs opponents into submission.

After three years in which things kept going improbably wrong for the Jays, optimism is a strange feeling.  Of course things can still go wrong – the Jays still have no depth in the middle infield, Happ and whoever is in the 5th starter’s spot are shaky, and injuries could – and probably will – crop up at some point.

Hitters go through slumps, of course, but with the offense performing well (top 5 in MLB in runs scored), the biggest potential issue is the rotation.  With Brandon Morrow hurt and Dustin McGowan back in the bullpen, the Jays have very little experience and even less depth at the back of the rotation.  How do the Jays get better starting pitching?  Well, there are a few ways to accomplish this, each with problems associated with it.

1.     Trade for someone with 2 or more years of team control.

If you want a good player under team control for a couple of years (think Jeff Samardzija), you’ll have to surrender some decent talent.  Anthopoulos has made comments about not wanting to trade any more minor-league depth, so making a big trade for a high-profile name might be unlikely.  The Jays won’t want to give up any major-league talent, either – the Cubs were rumoured to want Drew Hutchison to be part of a Samardzija trade, and that wouldn’t make a lot of sense for Toronto.

Possibles:

Samardzija (Cubs) – low BABIP, low HR/FB, high strand rate, drop in K rate.  He’s due to regress, but until he does, the Cubs will want to sell high.  Under control for 2014 and 2015, FA in 2016.

Cliff Lee (Phillies) – currently injured, and will cost $25MM this season and next, with a $27.5MM vesting option in 2016.  Likely too expensive for the Jays, unless the Phillies ate some contract… which would mean giving up better players/prospects in trade.

Ian Kennedy (Padres) – was solid for 3 years in the desert, and last year might have been an aberration.  Owns a good strikeout rate but might be getting a little lucky with the HR/FB rate, which would likely change in Toronto.  Under control for 2014 and 2015, FA in 2016.

2.   Trade for a good player with an expiring deal.

If you want a good player with an expiring contract (think AJ Burnett), bidding will probably start with the equivalent of a 1st round draft pick.  The Phillies will likely make, or consider making, a qualifying offer to Burnett at the end of the year, which will get them a 1st round draft pick if he signs somewhere else... so they'll want at least that in a trade.  That said, “1st-round pick equivalent” price isn’t set in stone, as some teams with these players may factor in salary relief to their asking price, or may not be willing to make a QO.  Given the way that last year’s QOs turned out, teams might hesitate to offer those to players they can’t afford, for fear that the player might accept.

Possibles:

Burnett (Phillies) – Burnett has morphed into a serious innings eater with a high strikeout rate.  I have a suspicion that he might retire after this season, which could make the idea of a compensatory pick for him signing elsewhere, moot.

Justin Masterson (Indians) – he’s struggled with BABIP and strand rate, but his FIP and xFIP are more reminiscent of Masterson’s so-so 2012 than his strong 2013 performance.  Nonetheless, he'd be an upgrade for fewer prospects than, say, Samardzija.

James Shields (Royals) – Shields is a consistent workhorse, and isn’t as expensive as Burnett.  Still, everyone is expensive for the Royals.  Will they dump him at the deadline for salary relief?

3.  Trade for rotation filler/depth.

A lesser tier player with an expiring contract may not cost as much in trade, but he won’t add as much value, either.  Again, salary relief can factor into the cost, and the selling team wouldn’t have the expectation of a compensatory draft pick to drive up the asking price.

Possibles:

Brandon McCarthy (Diamondbacks) – being hurt by HR/FB and strand rate, but even as these normalize, his K rate and GB rate should come down, too.  Probably not the answer.

Kyle Kendrick (Phillies) – 4.65 FIP, low K rate, league average HR rate.

Jason Hammel (Cubs) – the beneficiary of a low BABIP rate.  Both he and Kendrick are probably no better than JA Happ is.

4.  Find an internal solution.

And these are the options…

Brandon Morrow
Marcus Stroman
Todd Redmond


There might be other names (e.g. Sean Nolin) who could be in this mix, but the three players named above are the most likely internal candidates to join the rotation.  Morrow might or might not be available for the rest of the season; I tend to cynically believe that the Jays won’t add a pitcher until they’re sure Morrow can’t return in July or August.  Stroman (and others, like Aaron Sanchez) have taken a step back after being touted as ready to contribute in 2013.  And there’s Redmond, whose 2013 performance (yes, small sample size) produced a FIP and xFIP of 4.40 and 4.16, which is probably as good or better than we could expect from the McCarthy/Kendrick/Hammel group.  He’d need to be stretched out (Redmond made 14 starts last year and threw just 77 innings), but I tend to believe he'll be the player to get the next crack at the rotation if and when Hendriks falters.  Given that their respective teams might not be giving up on Burnett/Shields/Masterson until close to the trade deadline, we ought to be seeing Redmond starting at some point in June or July.