Monday, 5 October 2015

Jays-Texas: Pitching matchup

A friend of the blog sent me this picture of his house with great Jays decor.  That's how you do it!

The Jays were 4-2 versus Texas this year, outscoring the Rangers 34-21.  On the one hand, the Jays never had to face Cole Hamels, and they’re 0-2 versus Yovani Gallardo, a righthanded starter who has shut the Jays out in 13 2/3 innings over 2 starts.  On the other hand, the Rangers didn’t have to face Stroman, and the Jays beat up Colby Lewis and Derek Holland, the other likely Rangers starters, in late August.

So, what’s the problem the Jays have with Gallardo?  Beats me, although Bluebird Banter makes an effort to break down Gallardo’s repertoire and how the Jays should approach his start.  From my perspective, Gallardo’s performances against the Jays scream “aberration”.  For the year, Gallardo has allowed a .303 BABIP, but his BABIP allowed versus the Jays is below .200, 3rd-best of all teams he’s faced (and best vs teams he’s played more than once).  Gallardo doesn’t strike out many batters and walks too many, and that should play into the strength of a patient team like the Jays… except that Gallardo pitched 8 1/3 innings versus the Jays on June 27, despite not cracking the 7-inning mark for the rest of the season.  For the season, 25% of the balls hit against Gallardo has been graded as hard hit, but despite the Jays having a “hard hit” rate over 35% vs Gallardo, they haven’t been rewarded with on-field results.  In other words, I think the Jays have been a bit unlucky against him.  A patient approach (as mentioned in the BBB article) should pay dividends.

Cole Hamels threw a complete game on Sunday, but hasn’t been awesome for the Rangers since coming over at the trade deadline (3.66 ERA, 3.79 FIP, 3.58 xFIP).  Solid, but not spectacular (he’s been a little more prone to HR than usual), and he’s lefthanded, which plays into the Jays’ strength.   Hamels was hit pretty hard by Detroit in his previous start, Sept 29 (6 innings, 6 ER, 2 HR).  His K rate is down since coming over from the NL, too.

Who else could pitch for the Texans?  Well, there’s Derek Holland, but he’s been kind of terrible lately (and he’s lefthanded, to boot).  Holland went 6 innings against the Jays in late August, gave up 3 HR and 4 ER, and got a no decision.   Colby Lewis, a righthander, won 17 games for the Rangers, serving as yet another example of why pitcher wins are overrated.  Lewis has a 4.66/4.17/.4.62 ERA/FIP/xFIP, which is nothing special.  Lewis is a fly ball pitcher who has gotten a bit lucky with his HR/FB rate this year.  He’s made 1 start versus Toronto, going 5 innings allowing 4 ER and 2 HR.  Lastly, there’s Martin Perez, who is another lefthanded starter but pitched well in his last 2 starts.  An unlikely option, but you never know.

On the Jays’ side, Price has faced the Rangers once, going 6 innings, allowing 5 hits, 1 walk, 8 K, 1 HR and 2 ER. Marco Estrada also pitched once, also going 6 innings with 4 hits, 3 walks, 6 strikeouts and 1 earned run.  The Rangers hit righthanded pitching well (Choo, Fielder and Moreland especially) but other than Beltre, they struggle (relatively speaking) against LHP.

I like the idea of the Jays using a Price-Dickey-Stroman-Estrada rotation for this series.  Dickey hasn’t faced the Rangers this year, but he’s had some success against them in the past, and there’s the possibility that facing the knuckleball early in the series will throw off the timing of Texas’s hitters.  More importantly, Dickey’s better in the controlled conditions of the Skydome than he is on the road.  That leaves Stroman to make a road start in the playoffs, but I’m not too worried about that, considering how Stroman handled his first start of the year in Yankee Stadium during a playoff race.  Estrada can pitch a possible game 4, and Price could start a game 5 if required.

Texas is 3rd in the AL in runs scored, but just 13th in team ERA – the depth in the rotation and bullpen isn’t especially scary.  The Rangers have a pretty solid lineup (adding Mike Napoli has been a big help) without anyone other than Prince Fielder putting up spectacular numbers.  The wild card (so to speak) is Gallardo.  If the Jays can’t solve him and face him twice, it’ll make winning a short series tough.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Calm down about Osuna

Protip: Absence of hat distinguishes shoutout to Jesus from pop fly.

Or don't calm down, if you prefer it that way.  Just about everything is going really well for the Jays, so go ahead and pick something to worry about for the purposes of creating dramatic tension.

Roberto Osuna hasn't had a great September/October.  He blew a save vs. Cleveland on September 1 (HR, ER, another hit), gave up another HR on the 6th while mopping up.  He got an 8th-inning out on the 19th vs Boston and then went double-homer-walk in the 9th with 2 outs mixed in, leaving with the tying run on base.  He gave up a meaningless solo home run to Greg Bird on the 19th in a game the Jays were leading 4-1, and got the save.  And last night, of course, he went double-out-out-walk-walk-single to blow his second save (and earn his second loss) of September/October.

That summary helps put things in perspective.  Mixed in with those 5 so-so-to-bad outings are 8 pretty good outings, with 4 saves among them.   Osuna continues to do a lot of things well - for example, his WHIP was 0.97 for the last 34 days, before tonight. Walk rate is still low.  He's getting more ground balls than ever.  What's different?  Strikouts are a little down, but the more dramatic issue is that his HR/FB rate has skyrocketed to 30% over the last month and change.  A more normal HR rate is around 10%; Osuna was below 10% for most of the year.  He was bound to regress at some point, but it's not reasonable to expect that a third of the fly balls Osuna gives up will leave the yard, going forward.  And of you take away the HRs (or normalize the HR rate), most of the ugly outings in Sept/Oct disappear.

I'm not really a pitchFx guy, but I took a look at Osuna's velocity and it's been pretty consistent.  His pitch movement charts don't show a lot of variation either.  It's possible that opposing hitters are getting a 'book' on Osuna; if that's the case, it's up to him and Martin and Navarro to adjust.  But beyond that, this doesn't seem like much more than a run of bad batted ball luck.  A more analytics-based review might say otherwise, but the sample size is pretty small regardless.

So... worry, if you want to.  I'm more irked that the Jays conceded 2 games after their division-clinching win in Baltimore.  One game, I can see; two seems, well, indulgent.  Hopefully it won't matter - the Royals could lose tomorrow and the Jays could win, or the Royals could lose their ALDS, or (perish the thought) the Jays could lose theirs.  

OK? OK. I'm off to recount the Jays' blessings (healthy Stroman, healthy Tulo, no major injuries heading to playoffs, and the best record in baseball since the ASB) and forget we ever talked about this.

Friday, 2 October 2015

The race for #1

Wednesday night was pretty amazing to watch.  The Jays routed the Orioles in Baltimore to win the division, and partied all night.  It’s a great feeling, albeit one we knew was coming a few days ago.  On top of that, the Jays have had to wait to celebrate twice already – the first time because nobody realized they had clinched a playoff berth, and the second time, because they had to wait for their B team to mail in the second half of yesterday’s doubleheader.  Anyway, the next big celebration (fingers crossed) will be an ALDS win, which will be much more spontaneous and even more awesome.

All that said, today is a new day, and there is work left to do.  The Jays are 92-67, the Royals are 92-67.  Each team has 3 games left, and the magic # for the Jays is 3 – 2 Jays wins and a Royals loss, 2 Royals losses and a Jays win, 3 wins by Toronto or 3 losses by KC, and the Jays win the top seed in the AL (the Jays are top seed if they finish tied).  The top seed is something worth shooting for, for 2 reasons:  An extra home game in the ALCS, if both the #1 and #2 seed make it that far, and the right to play the wild card winner, which will have already used its top pitcher on Oct 6, in the ALDS

It’s a matter of debate as to which potential ALDS opponent is the most favourable matchup for the Jays, and that’s something I’ll write about this weekend… probably.  But here’s what the Jays and Royals have left on their schedule:

3 @ Tampa Bay

Kansas City:
3 @ Minnesota

That set of matchups seems to favour the Jays.  Minnesota is a much better home team than Tampa is, and a better team overall, and they still have a shot at a playoff berth, sitting 1 behind Houston (and tied with Anaheim).  So they have something to play for, in other words.  For the Jays’ sake, though, we should be hoping that the Twins stay in the race right through to Sunday.  That means we should be hoping that Texas knocks off the Angels tomorrow, and that the Astros lose in Arizona on Fri-Sun.  A Minny loss and an Astro win drops them 2 behind Houston; combine that with an Angels win or two and the Twins may be playing their scrubs on Saturday and Sunday.

Okay, enough overthinking, alright?  The Jays have 3 games left; win all of them and it doesn’t matter what KC does.  Unfortunately, it’s not at all certain that they’re going to play to win those games.  Originally, David Price was scheduled to pitch today’s (Thursday's) game; the decision was made to pitch Hutchison in order that Price be available to start ALDS Game 1 next Thursday on regular rest.  Hutchison has been terrible on the road, and lost today, but ok – big picture, you want Price to be on his preferred schedule for the games that really matter.  Except that now, the scheduled starters for Friday and Saturday are Buehrle and Estrada.  Sunday’s starter is TBD.  No Price.

To me, this makes no sense.  If Price pitches Sunday, he presumably can’t start Thursday (that would be just 3 days rest).  If he doesn’t start at all over the next 3 days, he’ll have had 11 days rest since his last start (Sept 26), opening up the possibility of him being rusty for Game 1.  On top of that, you’re pitching Buehrle, who’s struggled lately, and likely Chad Jenkins or someone like that on Sunday.  Even with Estrada pitching Saturday, that doesn’t sound like a recipe for winning 2 of 3 games.  Particularly when you consider that guys who have played a lot in the field – Pillar, Donaldson, Bautista – will likely be getting some of those games off, too.

Maybe I’m overthinking this again, and maybe the Royals drop 2 of 3 or all 3 because they’re resting starters too, and none of this matters.  But the key point, for me, is that the Jays will have 3 rest days between Sunday and Thursday.  Why is there an urgent need to rest players now, when there are 3 full days of rest on the other side of the weekend?

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Who makes the postseason cut?

So, with a 5.5 game lead with 6 to go, and a magic number of 1, I feel comfortable saying that the Jays will win their division, and letting myself think about the postseason roster.

If you don’t know how the postseason roster works, here’s a quick 'n dirty primer:
-            You set a 25-player roster for each series (ALDS, ALCS, WS)
-            Once set, a roster can only be changed mid-series due to injury
-            Any players who were on the 40-man roster (or injured) on August 31 are eligible to be on a postseason roster

So in effect, the Jays can add anyone currently on the team to the postseason roster, except Darwin Barney (who got here after September 1).  This also means that the team can add or remove players who may not be the best fit for certain series (e.g. the Jays might not want Buehrle to face the Yankees, or if they make the World Series, they may want to carry an extra pinch-hitter for the NL park).

How else will postseason rosters differ from regular-season rosters?  Well, due to the off days for travel, there’s no need for a 5th starter.  In a 5 game series, there are days off between games 2 and 3 and between 4 and 5.  In a best-of-7, the off days fall between games 2 and 3, and between 5 and 6.  4 starters can go on regular rest.  This provides the opportunity to carry an extra reliever or bench player.

So, who should make the roster?  Here’s my thoughts:

Rotation (4):  Price, Dickey, Stroman, Estrada.

Who would have thought, 5 months ago, that a post-season roster for the Jays wouldn’t include Mark Buehrle?  Unfortunately for Buehrle, he’s been shaky in the second half of the season, to the tune of a 4.50 ERA, 4.41 FIP, 4.78 xFIP and less than 6 innings per start.  Yes, Estrada’s FIP and xFIP are actually worse than Buehrle’s… but I think Estrada’s results (a nifty 2.78 second-half ERA) will carry the day here.  Drew Hutchison gets to play cheerleader.

Relief (7):  Osuna, Cecil, Sanchez, Lowe, Hawkins, Hendriks, Loup

I know what you’re thinking.  Aaron Loup??  Well, Loup has actually been pretty good since his September recall.  How good?  He’s made 9 appearances totalling 3.2 innings, faced 17 batters, allowed 4 hits, 1 walk, 0 HR, and 4 strikeouts.  Yes, it’s a stupidly small sample size, but Aaron Loup has been okay in LOOGY-sized doses.  And frankly, the team would probably do well to have a second lefthander in the ‘pen, besides Cecil.  Beyond Loup, Osuna gets the 9th inning, Hendriks is the long relief man, and the other 4 pitch situationally in the 6th, 7th, and 8th.

Offense (13):  Revere, Donaldson, Bautista, Encarnacion, Tulowitzki, Smoak, Martin, Goins, Pillar, Navarro, Colabello, Pennington, Pompey

The first 9 names are your usual starters (I’m taking a leap of faith and assuming Tulowitzki will be fully recovered by Oct 8).  Navarro catches Estrada and backs up Martin.  Colabello pinch-hits and perhaps plays some 1B against LHP.  Pennington backs up Goins and Tulowitzki.  Pompey pinch-runs and serves as a defensive replacement/backup for Bautista, Revere, and Pillar.  I think the only contentious name here is Pompey – you may prefer Carrera, but the team needs some kind of 4th outfielder, I think, and Pompey provides a bit more on the bases than Carrera does.

If Tulowitzki is still hurt, then I suppose you have to carry Kawasaki and have him feign an injury when Tulo is ready to rejoin the team.

You may have noticed that there’s only 24 names above.  So who’s the 25th man?  Do the Jays need an extra bat or an extra reliever more?  I’d argue for a bat, given the off days involved in the postseason.  Just like you don’t need 5 starters, you also don’t need to worry too much about burning out relievers when they get 2 rest days in a week.  So, I’d argue for

25th man (1): Ezequiel Carrera

Carrera’s my final pick for two reasons:  He’s lefthanded, and can run a bit.  The rest of the bench is either righthanded (Colabello), or switch-hits (Pennington, Pompey, Navarro).  A lefty bat off the bench is probably more useful than another righthander (like Matt Hague would be) – the team is loaded with righty bats, and already has righthanded bench pop available in Cola.  I can see arguments made for Hague, though.  Or Kawasaki.  Hopefully not Josh T-Hole, though.

Monday, 28 September 2015

Paths not taken

There were a lot of great moves that Alex Anthopoulos and the Jays made that got them to where they are today.  Trading for Josh Donaldson, obviously.  Signing Russell Martin.  The multitude of trade deadline deals which have been uniformly successful.  Travis for Gose, Estrada for Lind.  Colabello and Smoak, and Liam Hendriks, reliever.  You know about all those, but what about the moves that weren’t made, the ones that might have seemed like a good idea at the time, but could have derailed the 2015 season?  Here’s my 10 best non-transactions of 2015.

10.  Spending $8MM on Zach Duke, or David Robertson, or any other short reliever who’d take the Jays’ money.   At the time, I doubted that the Jays really were intending to spend up to 2014's payroll level, and the realistic cynical side of me wondered if the $8MM that Alex Anthopoulos put aside for a rainy day would actually still be there when he needed it.  Well, it was.  And if the Jays had bought Zach Duke or whoever last fall, they wouldn’t have had the cash to pay for 2 months of David Price.  AA learned from his 2014 ‘payroll parameters’ experience, and that knowledge paid off at this year’s trade deadline.

9.  Trading Dioner Navarro.  I’m not sure how developed the trade market for Navarro was last offseason, but despite him being apparently surplus at the start of 2015, he’s proved his worth.  Not so much with the bat (although he’s been better than Josh Thole, for what that’s worth), but for his work with Marco Estrada.  Yes, perhaps the effect Navarro has on Estrada has been overstated, but whatever the cause, Estrada has a 3.16 ERA this year, a career best and 5th best in the AL, to go with a career high in innings.  Dickey and Buehrle have been up and down, and Price and Stroman came to the party late, but Estrada has been Mr. Consistency since mid-June.  Navarro, by all accounts, had a lot to do with that.

8. Jeff Samardzija.  At one point, the Jays were closely linked to Samardzija.  He’s been absolutely awful since the trade deadline, though, and even if he wouldn’t have cost as much in prospects as Price did, it’s unlikely that the Jays would be where they are now with the Shark holding down Price’s rotation spot.

7.  Hiring Dan Duquette as team president.  If Rogers had been stupid enough to trade Jeff Hoffman and Dan Norris (and/or Stroman) to the Orioles for the right to hire Duquette away from them, there’d be no Tulowitzki trade and no Price trade.  And on top of that, who’s to say whether the other moves made by AA this season (Revere, Hawkins, etc) would have happened under a Duquette presidency?  I don’t know what the universe would be like in the alternate timeline where Duquette become Jays president in 2014, but it’s hard to see how it could be better than the universe we are in now.

6.  Giving up on Ryan Goins.  Over the last few years, second base has been a disaster area for the Jays, and there was talk last year about the team acquiring Howie Kendrick from the Angels.  Instead, the team traded for bat-first prospect Devon Travis, who played well in stretches before being sidelined with a shoulder injury that originally occurred in late April.  At that point, the team could have overpaid for a 2B, but stuck with Goins as Travis’s replacement.  Admittedly, they may have stuck with Goins because they had no other choice, but Goins has a .261/.356/.370 line (.323 wOBA) since the all-star break, on top of his great defense.  It remains to be seen if this is the ‘real’ Ryan Goins, but it can’t be said that he’s done anything but help the team down the stretch.  Meanwhile, Kendrick has sputtered over the same timeframe.

5.  Bringing back Melky Cabrera.  Melky was decent in 2014 after an injury-hampered 2013, but even though Cabrera was healthy enough to stay on the field for all of 2015, he’s been worth exactly 0.0 fWAR this season.  Melky’s defense continues to unimpress, and his wOBA has slipped back to .309 after he put up an impressive .354 in 2014.  And the White Sox have him for 2 more years at $14MM each, same as they paid him this year.  Yikes.  At least Michael Saunders had the good sense to not take up a roster spot all year the way Melky has done.  Even in the pre-Revere days, Ezequiel Carrera, (gasp) Danny Valencia, and (double gasp, spit-take) Chris Colabello provided more value in LF than Cabrera has.

4.  Bringing back Casey Janssen.  Janssen struggled late last year, but there was some thought that this could be blamed on whatever it was Janssen ate while on vacation during the 2014 All-Star break.  However, 2015 Janssen looks a lot like 2014 Janssen in most ways, and even worse in some:  Home run rate is the same, strikeout rate almost the same, walk rate is up, groundball rate is down.  2012-13 Janssen has left the building, and the Jays are better off without the new Casey.

3.  Trading Encarnacion.  There was some muttering in May and June to the effect that the Jays should trade Encarnacion or Bautista for pitching.  Yes, this would be robbing Peter to pay Paul, but in context, it made a limited amount of sense – Edwin was not hitting much by his standards (.331 wOBA in the 1st half of the season) and the Jays did need pitching.  You can argue about whether the Jays would have been better off in the long run by dealing EE instead of Norris and Boyd, but what is inarguable is that Encarnacion has had a monster second half(.332/.427/.668, .452 wOBA).  That season-changing 21-6 August might not have happened without EE and his .554 August wOBA around.

2.   Johnny Cueto.  Back in July, the Jays were rumoured to be interested in acquiring Cueto.  As it turned out, they got David Price instead.  Price has been better than Cueto since the trade deadline, but it’s not just that… it’s that in order to get Cueto, the Jays would have had to surrender Marcus Stroman.  Instead, they gave up Dan Norris, Matt Boyd, and Jairo Labourt to get Price.  Having Stroman for the 2015 stretch run and postseason has been huge, and while Norris is a well-regarded prospect, Stroman is better than he is right now, and may always be better than Norris.  A bird in the hand is worth 2 unproven prospects, or something like that.

1.  Jonathan Papelbon.  Holy hell, what a disaster this could have been.  There had always been whispers about Papelbon being a clubhouse cancer, and considering how the Papelbon era is playing out in Washington, I’m happy that the Jays stuck with Osuna as closer, and brought in Hawkins and Lowe to set up for him.

Sunday, 27 September 2015

10 bits of trivia about the Jays' clinching a playoff berth.

1.  Longest playoff drought in MLB:  Seattle.

2.  The last time the Jays won more than 88 games was 1993, when they won the World Series.

3.  The Jays won the World Series in 1992 and 1993 with 96 and 95 regular-season wins, respectively.  In 1987 they had 96 wins and missed the playoffs entirely.

4.  The Jays currently have a runs scored-runs allowed differential of +221.  This leads the majors and is the best run differential in team history.  It's also the highest run differential since the Yankees were at +221 in 2011.

5.  There are 18 teams with longer World Series droughts than the Blue Jays, including 8 teams (Tampa, Colorado, Seattle, Washington, Milwaukee, San Diego, Houston, Texas) that have never won.

6.  There are 10 teams that have gone longer without a World Series appearance than the Blue Jays, including 2 teams (Mariners and Zombie Expos) that have never gone.

7.  The Jays are 43-19 since the All-Star break (.694), which is the best post All-Star record in team history.

8.  The Jays made the playoffs 5 times in 16 years when the AL had just 2 playoff berths for 14 teams.  They made the playoffs 0 times in 17 years when there were 4 playoff spots for 14 teams.

9.  Josh Donaldson and David Price are considered to be the front-runners for the MVP and Cy Young award, respectively.  The Jays have had 1 MVP (George Bell) and 4 Cy Young winners (Pat Hentgen, Roider Clemens twice, Roy Halladay) but have never had a MVP or Cy in a year they made the playoffs.

10.  The Jays won the AL East by 7 games in both 1991 and 1993.   They currently lead the AL by 4 games in 2015.

Friday, 25 September 2015

Enough with the hubris, already

I’ve been seeing a lot of tweets like these on my timeline:

Guys.  The Jays have not clinched yet.  Yes, they will almost certainly win the division – if the Jays go 5-4 over their last 9 games, the Yankees would need to go 9-0 to tie for the division and force a 1-game playoff in Toronto.

But... here’s the remaining schedules for both teams:

2 vs Tampa Bay
4 @ Baltimore
3 @ Tampa Bay

2 vs White Sox
4 vs Boston
3 @ Baltimore

Strength of schedule favours NY, and obviously they play 6 of their last 9 games at home, while the Jays play just 2 at home and 7 on the road.  Advantage NY.

On top of that, the Jays are 9-6 vs Baltimore for the season, and 6-8 vs Tampa.  Of course, the Tampa games were played before the Jays acquired Price, Revere, Hawkins and Lowe and got Stroman back.  Ditto for all but 3 of the earlier Baltimore games.  Meanwhile, the Yankers are 3-2 vs. Chicago, 10-5 vs Boston and 9-7 vs Baltimore.  The Devil Rays have always given the Jays fits, and a 2-4 record against Tampa could be disastrous.

So, yes, the Jays will probably win the division.  They have a real shot at the #1 seeding in the AL.  They’ll definitely make the playoffs.  But I’ll feel a lot better if the “magic number” is down to 5 or 4 by Sunday night.

Anyway.  I was at Wednesday's game, and if you didn't catch the great audio clip of Russell Martin's home run that @james_in_to posted here, go give it a listen.  Aside from that, I had a few thoughts about that game which won't make it into an 'Impressions' post.

Some stuff I thought of during Wednesday’s 4-0 nailbiter:

1.  Chris Colabello’s wOBA against righthanded pitching (.381 this year, .340 career) is no reason to keep him out of the lineup when Smoak is struggling.  And while Cola isn’t great at 1B, he's not terrible, either (-0.8 UZR/150 at 1B vs 0.3 for Smoak, similar rates for 'scoops' and double plays for both Cola and Smoak.  Defensive runs saved is where Smoak has a definite advantage).

2.  Josh Donaldson went 3-for-4 after getting 1 hit in his last 4 games.  Roberto Osuna pitched a clean 9th after giving up HR in his previous 2 appearances.  Clifton Pennington made a nice play at second base with runners on.  Way to dispel worries we had about your recent performances, guys.

3.  If Marcus Stroman can shut down the Red Sox and Yankees, 2 of the best offenses in the AL, over consecutive starts, he can start game 2 of whatever playoff series the Jays find themselves in.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Sept 21, 2015 - Impressions from the Ballpark

This might not be much of an “impressions” post, because I'm watching a tight 2-2 game on Tuesday night as I write this.  And normally I write about the amenities and provender at the 'Dome, and they haven’t changed much over the course of the season, so that's some content I won't need to write.  But the atmosphere Monday… that was something.  Standing ovations for 2-strike counts in the 3rd inning.  Roars for A-Roid strikeouts and for the Houdini acts that Price and Cecil pulled off.  This is a lot of fun!

Something I keep forgetting, so I’ll say it again:  Get there early.  The security lineups at Gates 2 and 3 were a 15-minute event, even without bags.  I got to the stadium at 6:35 and barely reached my seats for the first pitch.  Rogers needs to find some way to streamline this process.  On the plus side, beer and food lineups weren’t bad, in the 500 level.

The roof was open.  It was a nice night.  September baseball is great when your team is contending and you can sit outside in shorts comfortably in the evening.   And looking at the weather forecast, I expect the roof to be open right through the end of the last regular season homestand.  I don’t think that’s happened since 1993, either.

David Price.  What can I say about the man that hasn’t been said?  He’s made 10 starts with the Jays, averaged a hair under 7 innings per start, with a 1.95 ERA and 2.11 FIP.  He’s striking out 10.5 per 9 innings and walking just 2.2 per 9.  He fought his way out of a bases-loaded, 1-out jam in the 3rd inning with no damage.  He’s already been worth 2.7 wins by fWAR.  Huge, huge acquisition for the Jays.

As I noted last night, Brett Cecil was huge in the 8th inning, bailing the Jays out of a 2-on, none-out jam that he inherited from Aaron Sanchez.  Here’s Brett Cecil since the All-Star break:

20.2 IP, 12 hits, 2 walks, 29 strikeouts, 0 ER, 0.63 FIP, 1.34 xFIP

And here’s Aaron Sanchez as a reliever, same timeframe:

22 IP, 16 hits, 7 walks, 14 strikeouts, 1 HR, 2.86 ERA, 3.55 FIP, 3.70 xFIP  (September: 6.1 IP, 11 hits, 5 walks, 3 strikeouts, 7.11 ERA, 5.22 FIP, 4.65 xFIP, .440 BABIP, 76% groundball rate)

My point in comparing the two lines is twofold.  First, Aaron Sanchez has been BABIPed a bit this month, and he’s still getting groundballs.  The walk rate needs fixing, but he’s not suddenly irredeemably bad.  My other point is that Brett Cecil has been much better than even July/August Aaron Sanchez.  Cecil can handle and should be getting more work in the 8th inning.  And for that matter, here’s Mark Lowe, Aug-Sept:

16 IP, 12 hits, 1 walk, 12 strikeouts, 2.64 ERA, FIP 2.70ish, xFIP 3.40ish

Lowe is much better against RHP, so perhaps he should get more 8th-inning work as well.

Jays were 2-9 with RISP last night, and 1-7 in the last Red Sox game.  That’ll improve.  More runs will be scored.  Relax.


This is a picture of bacon cooking.

I like bacon, and I would venture to say that most of us would agree that bacon is pretty great.

Thank you, Brett Cecil, for saving our bacon last night.  May this night mark the end of your exile to LOOGYdom, and welcome back to the eighth inning.  Hope to see you there again, soon.

Saturday, 19 September 2015

If it ain't broke, don't break it.

I'm not normally the type to criticize the on-field management of John Gibbons.  In fact, I think he's a pretty good manager, tactically.  Gibbons understands the value of the platoon advantage.  He doesn't throw away outs constantly.  He recognizes that OBP is more important than speed at the top of the order, and he's willing to think a little bit outside the box (e.g. batting his best hitter second).

But (and you knew there would be a but), Gibbons has done a few things lately that have me a bit concerned (worried would be overstating it).  And today's game pretty much hit on all of those things.

The matchup today - Jays at home vs Boston, Dickey vs the lefthanded Wade Miley - was a game the Jays probably should have won.  Dickey's been playing well, and while Miley has been good of late too, the Jays mostly destroy lefthanded pitching.  The Jays didn't win, and while games like today's game are bound to happen, they don't always need to happen.  So let's look at what transpired.

I have a hard time, of late, understanding whether Gibbons is managing every game like a playoff game, or managing like the team has already locked up the division.  For example, today's game featured Russell Martin catching RA Dickey, instead of Josh Thole.  Thole is a terrible hitter and Russell Martin has been kind of good lately, so Martin starting makes sense on that basis.  But that's not the reason given for starting Martin - the reason was to get Martin and Dickey reacquainted with working together.  Which is fine, but Dickey has 3 starts left after this one, so why do it now?  If Martin catches Dickey today for that reason, he might as well be pencilled in for Dickey's remaining starts, or whatever rapport the two rediscover today will likely be lost by October 6.  Why not let Martin re-learn how to catch a knuckleball against Baltimore or Tampa, in the last week of the season?

But fine, okay.  Martin's catching Dickey, and that's even justifiable because Martin bats righthanded and the Jays are facing a lefthanded pitcher.  It's the kind of call that would be made in the playoffs, when you play to win every game.  And when Dickey got pulled from the game in the 7th, with a 1-run lead and having thrown only 84 pitches, that felt like playoff managing, too.  And then a whole bunch of things happened that confused me.

Mark Lowe pitched the 7th, gave up the tying run, and then got pulled after the first out in the 8th.  In came Brett Cecil to face the lefthanders - makes sense, as Lowe isn't as good against LH batters.   Cecil threw 6 pitches, struck out Ortiz and gave up a groundball single. Cecil was then replaced by Roberto Osuna to face the next batter (a righthander).

And this is what I don't understand.  Why replace Cecil, and why replace him with Osuna?  First of all, Cecil is actually better (going back to the start of 2014) against RH hitters than he is against LH ones (he's pretty good against both).  He's thrown 6 pitches.  He's eminently capable of dealing with a 2-out, runner on 1st scenario.  Second, why Osuna?  Why not the regular 8th inning guy (Sanchez) or the now-healthy (or so we are told - he hasn't pitched for 8 days now) LaTroy Hawkins?  I get that managers shouldn't be afraid to use their closers in non-save situations, but 2-out, 1-on isn't a horrible jam that requires your best arm, usually.  Was Gibbons playing to win this game, or was he trying to find out how Osuna would handle the situation?

My guess is that Sanchez wasn't used because he was used Friday - and that brings up another point:  why use Sanchez in a 6-1 game on Friday?  Maybe he needed work, but one could say the same thing about Hawkins, and if we're not sure about Hawkins' stuff coming off the forearm stiffness he's had, a 6-1 game would be a great place to test drive him.  If the Jays were treating this as a must-win game, the standard play was Sanchez (or just leave Cecil in).

Anyway, Sanchez wasn't used.  Osuna was used, he threw 2 pitches to get the last out of the 8th, and then sat for a while during the lengthy bottom of the 8th inning (7 batters, 2 pitching changes).  Maybe Osuna sitting on the bench for that long affected him, and maybe it didn't, but he was wild in the 9th, coughing up the lead.  And then, we see Sanchez in relief.

Again - why Sanchez here, and not in the 8th?  Here's my other concern - why is Gibbons changing the way he uses his relievers now, of all times?  I don't know how much there is to the idea that relief pitchers get out of their comfort zone when used in ways they're not used to.  I'm skeptical of stuff like that, usually... but let's not forget that Osuna is 20 and has never closed before as a professional, and Sanchez is 24 and has only relieved for parts of 2 seasons.  Experience-wise, they're no Ward and Henke, even if they have the same kind of ability.  Osuna's been really good in the 9th inning (29 IP, 0.62 ERA) and Sanchez has been really good in the 8th (31 IP, 1.42 ERA for his career).  I get that you might want to try them in different slots to prepare them for the postseason, but why not do that after the team has clinched?  Sanchez, you will recall, went 2 innings on Tuesday in Atlanta, and coughed up the game that time, too.

Before I forget, the bottom of the 8th featured some puzzling moves as well.  If you're going to pinch-run for Encarnacion, why not do it when he's on second base, instead of waiting for him to move station-to-station to 3B?  Why run for Colabello at 1B with Kawasaki (the potential 4th run of the inning) before running for EE (the potential 3rd run) at 2B?  There was nobody out at the time, so Colabello's lack of speed at 1B probably wouldn't come into play.  And why not pinch-hit for Goins with Smoak, since Smoak's going to come into the game anyway after Cola got pinch-ran for?  Goins is terrible against LHP, even considering his recent surge with the bat.  And Darwin Barney was available to play defense in the 9th.  Point being, if you're going to use 2 pinch runners to play for runs, you might as well use a pinch hitter instead of letting Goins face a LHP with the bases loaded.  Are you playing for runs, or aren't you?  As fate would have it, neither pinch-runner scored, and both Encarnacion's and Colabello's spot came up in the 9th inning, when the Jays needed offense badly.

Anyway - the upshot is, the Jays lost the game, and used both of Osuna and Sanchez to the point where both are probably unavailable tomorrow.  That may not matter, of course, but it's not the kind of management I've come to expect from Gibbons.   The Jays have 4 pretty decent 7th and 8th inning options (Sanchez, Cecil, Lowe, Hawkins) and a quote-unquote closer who has been great in 1-inning doses.  There's no reason to put any of them in different roles until circumstances force you to - and if you want to experiment... please, do it with an 8-run lead, or when the Jays are 4 up with 3 games to go.

Friday, 18 September 2015

Opponents and potential opponents: Fun with arbitrary end points!

As we all know, on July 28, the Blue Jays were 8 games behind the New York Yankees for the AL East division lead.  But did you know that on the same date, the Jays were 12 behind the KC Royals, who had (and still have) the best record in the American League?

Today, September 18, the Jays are just 2 back of KC (+10 games in the standings).  That’s almost as much ground as the Jays made up on NY (Toronto is now 3.5 up on NYY, or +11.5 games in the standings)

Since the All-Star break, the Jays have the best OPS and best ERA in the AL, and have scored the most runs in the AL.  Their record is 39-16 (.709), best in baseball.

Texas is 37-21 (.638) since the ASB (32-15 since July 28), and Texas has overtaken Houston in much the same way that the Jays reeled in New York.  However, Texas is just 9th in ERA since the ASB, and 5th in ERA.  Their Pythagorean record suggests that they might have been a little lucky to be where they are now.

Other teams to be a little worried about?

Well, Boston, despite shutting down half their pitching staff, is 25-19 since July 28, and has scored the second-most runs in the AL.  And on top of that, their Pythagorean record suggests that they’ve played better than their record shows.  So, that’s something to worry about as the Jays kick off their weekend series against the Beaneaters.

On the NL side, Chicago and the Mets have been absolutely unconscious.  The Mets playing well is good news for the Jays – while the Jays play better-than-you-think-they-are Boston, the Yankees will be battling the Mets, who like the Jays may have aspirations of snagging a higher seed in the playoffs.

Who’s not hot?  Well, the Royals are just 25-22 since July 28 and have allowed more runs than they’ve scored.  It’s the opposite story for Houston, which has an even worse record (21-25) but a .532 Pythagorean winning percentage.  Still, neither team is playing well heading into the playoffs… or in Houston’s case, the hoped-for playoffs.  And if you want to look at possible World Series matchups, the St. Louis Cardinals have a very good 28-18 record since July 28, but their Pythagorean record is a lot worse than that.  Bottom line, the Cards are not playing as well as they were earlier in the season.

At the player level?  David Ortiz has a better OPS since the ASB than Josh Donaldson, second in the AL only to Encarnacion’s 1.158.

Pitching wise, it’s a good news/bad news story for the Blue Jays – among those AL pitchers with 40+ IP since the ASB, Price is 1st in ERA, Estrada is 2nd, and Dickey is 9th (and Buehrle is 48th, and Hutchison, 59th, out of 71).  If you prefer more predictive stats, Price is 1st in fWAR (and FIP), Dickey is 8th, Estrada 41st, Buehrle 44th, and Hutchison 62nd… of 65.  So let’s cross our fingers that Marcus Stroman pitches well in his remaining 3 (?) starts this season, and the Jays don’t have to find a way to hide more than 1 of Estrada, Buehrle and Hutch in a postseason rotation.

Monday, 14 September 2015

Trivia for an off day

AL East race update: On August 17, I took a look at the schedules for the Jays and Yankees ahead of their series this past weekend.  At that time, it looked like the Yankees might have had the easier slate, having 16 home games versus just 6 road games, compared with the Jays hitting the road for 11 of their 20 games.  However, the Jays went 14-6 over their 20 games versus 13-9 for NY, and when you couple that with taking 3 of 4 over the weekend, the Jays have gone from 0.5 games down in the standings to 3.5 up.  Good stuff.  So, let’s see what the schedule has left for both teams:

3 @ Atlanta
3 vs Boston
3 vs NYY
3 vs Tampa Bay
4 @ Baltimore
3 @ Tampa Bay

3 @ Tampa Bay
3 @ NY Mets
3 @ Jays
4 vs Chicago Sox
4 vs Boston
3 @ Baltimore

Jays have 19 games, 9 at home and 10 on the road.  Yanks have 20 games, 8 at home and 12 on the road.  Advantage Jays.  If you take away the opponents they have in common, the difference is the Jays have 3 at home with Tampa Bay, 3 at Atlanta and an extra game at Baltimore, while the Yankees have 3 at the Mets, 4 at home to the White Sox and an extra game at Boston.  That adds up to a .444 strength of schedule for the Jays, and .512 for New York.  Again, advantage Jays.  I’d add that that the Jays get to play the Yankees 3 times at home, except that the Jays are 8-2 at NYY, but only 3-3 vs NY at Skydome.

Don’t get me wrong, Troy Tulowitzki is a huge loss for the Jays - he's a great defender, and probably the best hitting middle infielder in baseball.  He was, however, hitting just .232/.314/.368 since coming over from Colorado.  For reference, Ryan Goins is .239/.308/.343.  Yes, Tulo will play much better in the long run (and Goins will probably play much worse), but it’s not as if Tulo’s bat was carrying the team to where they are now.  Getting Marcus Stroman back and seeing him pitch 5 decent innings is probably a bigger gain for the Jays than Tulo’s injury is a loss for them.

Attendance trivia:  If you wanted tickets for those 9 remaining home games, says that they are sold out.  If that’s true, and a sellout at the Skydome is about 46,000 fans*, the Jays will finish the season averaging 34,343 fans.  That would be the highest attendance since 1995 (the club drew 31,316 per game in 2013, the only other time over 30,000 since the 1990s).

With 3 weeks to go in the season, the Jays are a cinch to have 3 players over 100 RBI for the year.  No other team in MLB looks to have more than two, and no team has had more than 3 since the 2003 Barves.

Jays pitchers have the second-best BABIP allowed in the majors (.281).  Is it luck, pitching ability, or defense?   Probably a little of all 3, since the Jays don’t grade out that well overall in either pitching or defense.

Lastly, tomorrow is the 1 month anniversary of the Jays’ last losing streak of more than 1.

*ESPN says Skydome holds 49,000, but they haven’t cracked 47,000 since the opener.  So… I have no idea what the joint holds.

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Stuff to worry about

Yeah, I know.  Jays just took the first 3 of a 4-game series in the Brawwnx.  They came into NY up by 1.5 games, and will leave town no worse than 3.5 up, with 19 games left.  That's pretty damn amazing, and I should shut up and enjoy this weird sensation called 'winning'.

And yet, Troy Tulowitzki.  Cracked scapula.  Gone "indefinitely".  There are 3 weeks left in the season, which is precious little time in which a cracked bone, which is what this is, can heal.  As I see it, the Jays have 3 options at SS for the postseason:
- Get Tulo healthy, which is obviously the best option
- Use Goins at shortstop and activate Devon Travis in the hope that the team can clinch the division in the final week and get him some at-bats in which to regain his timing, and drop him into the 2B job
- Use Goins at shortstop and Cliff Pennington at 2B (with occasional cameos by Muni Kawasaki?).

That 3rd option is the most likely one, I think, and it's also the most depressing one.  Goins has been hitting well, but there's a very good chance that he turns back into Ryan Goins once pitchers realize that he's stopped chasing pitches out of the strike zone, and adjust.  As for Pennington, his career batting line is .246/.313/.343 (.293 wOBA).  That's better than Goins, and as we saw today, he's very good defensively.  But he's no Tulo.

On top of that, Edwin Encarnacion left the game with an apparent hand injury.  Hopefully it's not something that keeps him out of tomorrow's game (edit: it's a recurrence of his previous finger injury, and it might keep him on the bench tomorrow).

The Jays seem to have given themselves a bit of breathing room this weekend (which may be needed, with the sudden spate of injuries), and that's great, but take a look at the reliever use today:

Francis                                                50 pitches
Sanchez                                              27
Loup                                                   23, plus 18 Friday
Lowe                                                   23, plus 8 Friday
Osuna                                                 20
Hendriks                                             18
Schultz                                                13
Delabar                                               10
Tepera                                                 10
Cecil                                                   7, plus 24 Friday

On top of that, LaTroy Hawkins threw 22 pitches on Friday.  So who's available tomorrow?  Well, Chad Jenkins hasn't pitched yet, and Hawkins could probably go, but otherwise... Osuna, Hendriks, Tepera, Delabar, and Schultz look like the options if Dickey doesn't throw a complete game.  Plus Hutchison, I guess?   Outside of Osuna, not exactly a confidence-inspiring group.  Off day on Monday, though!

And most importantly - Marcus Stroman ran and dove and covered first, and didn't break!

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Checking out the opposition

"Checking out..." ahh, nevermind.  

The Jays go to New York starting tomorrow night, leading the Yankees by 1 1/2 games with 23 games remaining.  Obviously, these are 4 pretty big games, although only a sweep either way would be season-altering.  Nonetheless, we as Jays fans haven't been in this situation for over 20 years, so I put together a quick primer on the Yankees' pitching that the Jays will face over the weekend, for your reading pleasure:

Luis Severino:  In 6 starts since being called up, he has a nifty 2.04 ERA, but a less nifty 3.97 FIP and 3.77 xFIP.  The ERA can be explained by two things – a 90.9% strand rate (league average is closer to 70%) and a .261 BABIP allowed.  Sounds like he may be due for regression, were it not for Severino’s 31.3% rate for inducing soft contact, and 19.4% infield fly ball rate.  Both of those are well above league average and suggest that the BABIP may not be all luck.  Then again – small sample size (6 starts).

Other things you should know:  Severino has a good K rate of 8.66 per 9 innings, but just a so-so walk rate (3.57 per 9).  Oh, and he has been a little homer prone (12.9% of his fly balls have gone for home runs).  So if the Jays can be patient at the plate versus Severino and put some balls in the air, they have a good chance at success, one would think.

Ivan Nova:  Probably the worst of the 4 starters the Jays will see this weekend, Nova can induce ground balls, but that’s about all that he does well.  Over 13 starts, Nova has a 4.50 ERA that is almost matched by a 4.69 FIP and 4.60 xFIP.  He walks too many (3.04/9) and strikes out too few (5.47/9).

Other things you should know:  Nova has worse-than-normal splits versus opposite-handed hitters, so expect to see Smoak, Goins, and maybe Carrera in the lineup (Navarro, another switch hitter, will likely start due to Estrada pitching for the Jays).  Lefty hitters at Yankee Stadium?  Sounds like a plan!

Michael Pineda:  Pineda is the opposite of Severino, in that his ERA (4.15) is much worse than his FIP and xFIP (3.10, 2.90).  Pineda owns a sparkling 8.84/1.21 K/BB ratio, but unlike Severino, he has a so-so record for inducing soft contact and doesn’t induce a lot of infield fly balls, so the .334 BABIP may not be all bad luck.  Like Severino, he’s given up a lot of home runs per fly ball.

Other things you should know:  Pineda has given up just 2 ER in 14 innings (2 starts) versus the Jays this year.  He’s been hit hard recently (19 ER over his last 28 innings, covering 5 starts) but if he’s on, he’s a tough matchup for Stroman.

Masahiro Tanaka:  Tanaka’s been massively prone to home runs (1.46 per 9 innings, 13th worst in MLB out of 95 pitchers with 130+ innings).  He’s also been BABIP-lucky, without soft contact or infield fly numbers to support it not being all luck.  Otherwise, he’s got a very good K/BB rate and could be another tough matchup.

Other things you should know:  Tanaka’s only complete game of the season came against the Jays in Toronto on August 15.  

The bullpen:  The Yankees aren’t just Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller – Chasen Shreve has been pretty good, too (1.99 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 10.1 K per 9).  Beyond them, it’s not quite as impressive a list, and the Jays are probably deeper overall, with Sanchez, Hawkins, Osuna, Hendriks and Cecil all possessing ERA’s of 3 or under as Blue Jays.  The Jays just don’t have a weapon like the Betances-Miller monster the Yankees can run out in the 7th-9th innings.

Other things you should know:  The Jays have hit Chasen Shreve and Branden Pinder pretty hard this year, and have scored 2 runs in 4 games against Betances… which is actually pretty good.

OK - let's forget about the lousy series in Boston and enjoy these next 4 games; meaningful games in September apparently don't come around too often.  Buehrle and Hutch have been the weak links in the rotation of late, so with them not scheduled to pitch, the pitching matchups should be fairly close for the entire series.

Monday, 7 September 2015

Musical chairs in the rotation

There really is a musical chairs world championship, and I am told this is a picture from it.

Marcus Stroman is coming back to the Blue Jays, and to hear him tell it, he’s coming back strong (or if you prefer, “#STROng”).  And by almost all accounts, he’s coming back to start, not to relieve.  So who’s the odd man out when (as expected) he rejoins the rotation late next week?

A few days ago, I was planning to say things like "this is a good problem to have", that is, having 6 decent starting pitchers and having to pick one to drop.  Then Hutchison hit the 6th-inning wall like he was doing earlier in the year, and Buehrle threw his 3rd clunker in his last 4 starts, and to top it all off, Stroman got kind of bombed by a Triple-A roster.  All of a sudden, it's more a question of whether the Jays will have 4 reliable arms to make a playoff rotation with.

There’d been some talk about putting Stroman into a 6-man rotation, with the idea being to get Buehrle some rest, and perhaps to keep Price and Dickey fresh.  And that makes sense, except that the Jays are in a playoff race.  The team needs to go with its best pitchers if they want to have their best shot at winning the division and avoiding having to play the sudden-death wild card game.   And besides, it doesn’t make sense to trade top prospects for 2 months of David Price and then not pitch him as often as is humanly possible.  

David Price:         7 starts             5-1 record         10.37 K/9          2.15 BB/9          2.15 ERA          2.33 FIP
RA Dickey:          10 starts           7-0 record         5.56 K/9            1.72 BB/9          2.78 ERA          3.52 FIP
Drew Hutchison:   8 starts             5-1 record         6.5 K/9            1.97 BB/9          4.53 ERA          4.89 FIP
Marco Estrada:     10 starts             6-3 record       6.27 K/9            2.83 BB/9        2.69 ERA          4.52 FIP                       
Mark Buehrle:        9 starts             4-2 record         3.23 K/9            1.19 BB/9          4.58 ERA          4.59 FIP

Price and Dickey keep their rotation spots – that much should be obvious.  Hutchison, I’m not sure about, although he had been pitching better before Friday's game, without the benefit of unusual luck.  On the other hand, Estrada has been getting by with smoke and mirrors… he’s benefiting from a .184 BABIP allowed since the break, to go with an 86% strand rate.  In other words, he’s been getting a bit lucky, and it shows in his FIP and xFIP (5.13) scores.

And then there’s Mark Buehrle, who by various accounts is suffering from dead arm, or lingering ailments, or just fatigue.  For whatever reason, Buehrle has the worst ERA and second-worst FIP on the team since the break, and has been striking out just over 3 batters per 9 innings.  That’s not a recipe for success without unusual luck to go with it.

Finally, the wild card is Stroman, the man who everyone assumed would be the team's ace.  Stroman's thrown a bunch of simulated games, plus 2 rehab starts against minor-league hitters (1 good, one bad).  Is he ready to face the Yankees next weekend?  He says yes... but what else is he going to say?  Observers liked how his pitches were moving, but normally, a pitcher makes about a half dozen spring starts before he gets into games that count.  Do the Jays count on Stroman's abilities and competitiveness to offset the rust?  I think they have to.  Cliche'd as it is to say it, you have to go with your best players when in a playoff hunt.  Besides, the alternatives (Buehrle, Hutch) aren't really compelling at this point.

So if Stroman's in, who's out?  I don’t like the idea of taking Buehrle out of the rotation – he’s a classy player and it would sting to take away his shot at another 200-inning season.  But I think they should do it - as it stands, he's due to face the Yankees twice, and even when healthy, Buehrle has struggled against NY.  At this point, I don't think Stroman could be worse than Buehrle was today, and when in top form Stroman has a much higher ceiling than Buehrle does, at this point.

Frankly, I don’t think Gibbons would drop Buehrle – it’s more likely that Hutchison (who has already been skipped once in the rotation) or Estrada (less likely - although his recent numbers look less sustainable than one would like) would be the odd man out.  I suppose it’s also possible that the Jays could go with some sort of hybrid rotation, with Price and perhaps Dickey going on normal rest, and the others rotating through the other starts, skipping Buehrle against NY and skipping Hutchison on the road.  And who knows – Stroman might get bombed again in his first start back, rendering moot the question of who he should replace. 

Regardless of what happens in September, the Jays will go with no more than 4 starters come playoff time.  The challenge before then will be maximizing the chances to win games (and the division) up to the end of the regular season, while simultaneously evaluating which 4 men give the Jays the best chance to win in the postseason.

Thursday, 3 September 2015

The forgotten man of the bullpen

The Jays did a lot of well-received things around the trade deadline, and one of those things was the bolstering of the bullpen.  Between moving Aaron Sanchez back to the relief corps when he came off the disabled list, and acquiring Mark Lowe and LaTroy Hawkins, the Jays suddenly had three good options to set up for Roberto Osuna in the 9th inning.  And the bullpen arms who had been the incumbents – Tepera, Loup, Delabar, Hendriks – were either shuffled to the back of the depth chart or sent to the minors.

And Brett Cecil, apparently, was included in that group.  Cecil was removed from the closer role following a few rough outings in June, in which saves were blown and suggestions were made that he might be tipping his pitches.  But check out Brett Cecil since July 1:

17.2 IP, 0.00 ERA, 11 hits (0 HR), 2BB, 17K
FIP in July and August: 1.58 and 1.22

That’s pretty fantastic work, but it’s mostly work done in the 6th and 7th innings, or in blowouts.  Does Brett Cecil merit another chance to throw high-leverage innings, and be the setup man in close games?

At first glance, those numbers suggest that he does.  And even if you look at his overall line for 2015, Cecil’s done some things very well.  His walk rate is a career-best 2.74 per 9 innings, much better than the 4.56/9 he surrendered last year.  His strikeout rate, while a little down from 2013 and 2014, is still a very good 9.9 per 9 innings. Cecil still gets a lot of ground balls.  His HR rate is a bit up, and as noted, he had a rough month of June (10 ER in 10 innings).  But other than in June, he’s been pretty effective.

So if the Jays decide to use Cecil more, where should they use him?  That’s the tricky part.  Much was said about Cecil being the only lefthander in the bullpen after Aaron Loup was sent down in early August, but Brett Cecil is somewhat unsuited to the “lefty out of the bullpen” or LOOGY role.  For the last year and a half, Brett Cecil has been better against righthanders than against lefties, and so he’s not a great option against the David Ortiz’s of the world – certainly not as good of an option as a lefthander with more typical splits would be.  Small sample sizes apply, but Osuna has been better against LH batters than Cecil has, and ditto for Hawkins and Schultz.  Cecil has been better against lefty batters than Aaron Sanchez (this year) has been, so perhaps Cecil’s role should be to pitch the 8th inning where 2 or more lefthanders are scheduled to bat?

The Jays have a lot of ‘nice problems’ due to a plethora of starting and relief options, and we shouldn’t lose any sleep due to Brett Cecil’s lack of use.  Still, he remains a solid relief option, and probably better than Sanchez against LHB.  Something to think about, come playoff time.

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Mythbusting the 2015 Blue Jays

One of the fun things about a pennant race is that it gets people talking about the Blue Jays – people who otherwise wouldn’t pay attention to the team.  One of the less fun things about success is the way it induces people – usually fans of other teams – to make up reasons, out of thin air, why the Jays will fail.   One of my co-workers doesn’t follow baseball, but (sadly for him) has a number of friends who are Yankees fans, and my colleague was hearing all kinds of negative things about the Jays from them.  Success, of course, breeds haters… so if you hear detractors make the statements below, you’ll have some ammunition with which to rebut them.  Or in some cases, you'll know to change the subject where there’s some truth to the myth.

The Jays offense relies on the home run and can’t string hits together and win without homers:  FALSE

To be fair, every good offense relies to some extent on home runs.  However, while the Jays have hit more home runs than anyone else, they’ve also scored more runs than anyone else, and their ratio of home runs to runs scored is actually lower than the same ratio is for many other contenders.  For example, the Jays have scored 14% more runs than the Yankers have (720 runs versus 630) but Toronto has only outhomered NY by 8% (184-171).  They’ve scored 26% more runs than Houston, but hit just 2.8% more homers.  They’ve outscored the Dodgers by 35% but outhomered them by 18%.  I wasn’t able to find the percentage of runs each team scores on homers, but the ratio of runs scored to home runs suggests that the Jays aren’t as reliant on HR as other teams might be (looking at you, Houston).

As for stringing hits together, the Jays have a .335 OBP, 1st in the majors, and a .266 batting average, 5th in the majors.  They’re able to get on base and turn over the lineup as good or better than anyone in the league.

The Jays can’t play small-ball:  FALSE

They’re 1st in the majors in ‘productive outs’ (advancing a runner with none out, or scoring a runner with a sac fly or groundout) percentage.
They have scored runners from third base with less than 2 outs 56% of the time, 5th best in the majors
They advance runners from 2B to 3B with none out 60% of the time, second best in the majors.
They’re in the upper half of the league in bunt hits and infield hits.
And while they are middle-of-the-pack in stolen bases (17th - which makes sense, because why risk outs on the bases when you have their power?), when the Jays wants to steal, they’re good at it, with a 77.4% success rate, good for 4th in the majors.


Well, they’re 5th in the AL in ERA and 8th in FIP for the season.  Of the teams likely to go to the playoffs in the AL, only the Astros (3.49) have a much better FIP than the Jays’ 3.98.  The Yankees (3.84) and Royals (3.93) are in the same ballpark as Toronto, while Texas (4.41) and  Minnesota (4.23) are worse.  But never mind season stats – at the start of the season, the Jays had a lot of question marks in the rotation (Norris, Sanchez) and bullpen (Castro, Loup, Francis).  Since the all-star break, the Jays are second in both ERA and FIP in the AL, and have just 4 blown saves in 40 games, compared with a league-worst 14 blown saves in 91 games in the first half.

The Jays can’t win close games:  TRUE, KIND OF

That is to say, they haven’t won close games… but I’m not sure that they can’t win them.  The Blue Jays are 13-24 in 1 run games, while other contenders are better (Yankees are 21-21, Royals are 22-12, Astros are 19-21).  And it’s not as if the Jays have been better since the all-star break; they’re just 3-5 in 1 run contests since then.   That said, the Jays don’t get blown out much – they’re 31-6 in games decided by 5 or more runs.  NY is just 21-16 in those games, KC is 20-10, Houston is 18-9, Minnesota is 17-20, Texas is just 15-21.  Is it luck, chance, or some mythical ‘clutchiness’ that hurts their 1-run record?  Beats me, but a win is a win, and with the new back end of the bullpen, there’s no obvious reason why the Jays wouldn’t be able to hold a lead in a tight game now.

The Jays blow too many leads:  TRUE

Any blown lead is too many.  However, the Blue Jays have 30 blown leads and 31 comeback wins, which isn’t great.  By contrast, the Yankees have 24 blown leads and 33 comebacks.  Houston has 23 blown leads and 34 comebacks, and KC has 20 blown leads and 35 comebacks.  The Jays certainly have the offense to put together comebacks, but the blown leads are worrying, even if most of them occurred in April-June.

The Blue Jays aren’t clutch:  FALSE – HITTING WISE, ANYWAY

They have an .848 OPS with RISP, 1st in the majors.  Doesn’t get much more clutch than that.  But on the other hand, the bullpen hasn’t been ‘clutch’ – they were worst in the majors according to Fangraphs in the first half, and are just 10th in the AL in the second half.

As I finish up typing this post, the Jays are winning a game 3-2 which, if they can close it out, would contradict three of the myths:
- winning a 1-run game
- scoring runs without homers (3 sac flies)
- scoring runs and preventing runs in clutch situations
- playing small ball (2 stolen bases set up the go-ahead run)
- outpitching an opponent for a win

So, if your debating opponent doesn't know what recency bias is, have at 'im (or, 'er').