Blue Jays Good News/Bad News Monday

Yesterday was something of a microcosm of the recent past for the Blue Jays. Last night’s game gave fans plenty to cheer about as they routed Texas 19 – 4, a season high for runs and hits (21). Oft-forgotten Brandon Drury hit a grand slam, everyone in the lineup had at least one hit and as usual (of late) the kids were alright…to say the least. Rookie catcher Danny Jansen hit a homer and had three hits, Cavan Biggio and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. each had two hits, with Vlad scoring three runs and Dante’s little boy, Bo Bichette, once again led the way. Hitting lead off he notched two singles, two doubles and scored three. For those keeping count, Bichette, in his third week in the “bigs” has 11 doubles already and is clipping along with a .394 average.

It was fun for fans, a middling crowd of about 16 000 at Rogers Centre plus the TV viewers, and was although extreme, indicative of recent weeks for Toronto. After an atrocious start at the plate, the Jays have begun hitting pretty well and much of that has been ignited by the youngsters – rookies Bichette, Guerrero, Biggio and Jansen as well as sophomore Lourdes Gurriel. The result is a team that on some nights looks like world beaters, other nights can be rather ordinary. Since the end of June, the Blue Jays have been an even 19 -19, largely because they’ve had 6 games of double-digit runs in that stretch and scored 206 runs – about 5.5 per game. While the team still only tops Detroit in the AL in terms of batting average (.238) and on base pct. (305), their recent run and power hitting has them 5th in the league in homers (186) and 10th, but climbing in the important category, runs scored (561.)

Yes, the blowout game was fun and good news, particularly because very few fans or players in Toronto have forgotten Roughned Odor’s cheap shot sucker punch of Jose Bautista three years back. But as usual, it would seem, the joy was tempered by another dark cloud floated over the stadium by GM Ross Atkins. Only hours before the team took the field they announced they’d given shortstop Freddy Galvis to Cincinnati on a waiver claim. The twitterverse was once again aghast and annoyed. One could almost imagine Atkins in Batman villain gear chortling “So they didn’t like getting back one second-string outfielder for two pitchers, eh? Wait til they get a load of this…”

The supposed reasoning that the team took the uncommon stance of announcing on Twitter was that they had a shortstop now in Bo Bichette and he’s playing well, so let him play. Who needs two? So they threw Galvis out on waivers and let Cinci come on by and drive him off for absolutely nothing in return. Nada.

This seems dubious wisdom to say the very least. Galvis is immensely popular in Toronto and in fact just won the team’s Heart and Hustle Award for the player “who best personifies the values” of baseball and sports, both on and off the field. It’s Galvis’ second one of those, having won Philadelphia’s two years ago as well. Galvis leads the Jays in games played this season (115 out of their 122) which is no surprise since he played every game last year and the season before and ran a league-leading 349 straight games until Charlie Montoyo sat him one day in April. Freddy had earned his time on field too; he also led the team in hits and RBI at the time (Randal Grichuk overtook him in that category in last night’s game.) All in all he was hitting .267 with 18 HR, 54 RBI and a WAR of 1.6 so far. He was also a reliable glove in the infield, leading the team with a part in 64 double plays and a high .986 fielding percentage at short.

Now, there’s no denying young Bo has been impressive since being called up from the minors. Nor that he is one of the game’s best prospects. His 11-game hitting streak upon being called up is the longest to begin a career in Jays history. He’s fast, exciting and a friend of his other young counterparts in the infield. If he keeps it up, he will be the “Bo” people think of when someone says “Bo knows baseball.”

All that doesn’t make giving away a star infielder for nothing at all sensible. Galvis is a very durable veteran – at least veteran compared to the bulk of his teammates – with a great work ethic as well as the steady hand in the field that to this point, Bo is a bit lacking in. Just as with Vladimir Guerrero, Bo is already a hitting star but at times looks a little bit overmatched in the field. That’s not meant as a knock; few 20 or 21 year-olds look like latter day Brooks Robinsons or Roberto Alomars defensively and fans should be overwhelmingly pleased with their composure and effectiveness at the plate. But it also doesn’t mean that Bichette might not learn a bit from an above-average defensive SS who is also a popular guy in the clubhouse. Nor that Galvis couldn’t continue to get some regular ABs even with Bichette playing. Consider that manager Montoyo tries to insist young players have at least one game off per week to not overwork them, that the team lacks a full-time DH and that Galvis can also play 2B or 3B.

Galvis wasn’t eligible for free agency until after next season and the team had an option for a reasonable $5.5 M for 2020. Toronto could have kept Freddy at least until the end of this season, played him probably 4 games a week without sitting Bo Bichette more than the manager already does and had important backup protection in case of injury. That would have been smart. Or they could have decided three weeks ago he was expendable and put him on the trading block. While pitchers were the preferred pick-up this past July 31, if Tampa would pledge two “players to be named later” for the Jays journeyman IF Eric Sogard and LA would give up an A-ball pitcher and a veteran reliever currently injured, in Tony Cingrani, for St. Louis journeyman Jedd Gyorko who was hitting just .196 trying to recover from a back injury, one has to imagine that some team would have made some reasonable offer for a good-hitting, hard-working veteran like Galvis.

Instead Atkins chose to do neither and Toronto gets nothing but fond memories and the insecurity of having no real viable backup for a rookie shortstop with only 15 games under his belt.

In short, the Blue Jays have been fairly good of late. But one has to suspect that’s despite the front office not because of it.

Advertisements

The Rise, Fall And Phoenix-like Re-rise Of The Blue Jays

You have to feel a wee bit bad for Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Baseball’s top prospect came up to intense pressure earlier this year, and for about two months posted decent, but quite ordinary numbers, to the dismay of adoring fans primed by the media to expect the second coming of Ted Williams. Now, since he got in the national spotlight in the All Star Game home run derby, he’s been red hot. He’s hit not one but two grand slams in the last couple of weeks, and over the past 10 games has driven in 18 while hitting well over .400. He was, deservedly, the American League Player of the Week last week. Yet seemingly, all we are hearing about in the Blue Jays world is Houston pitchers and Vlad’s teammates bad fielding. Ergo, bad decisions by General Manager Ross Atkins.

Many have termed it a “perfect storm” of problems for Toronto’s front office this past trade deadline. They traded away the team’s most popular pitcher for two minor leaguers few seem inspired by, then managed to give away a former star-starting pitcher (Aaron Sanchez), a reliable middle-inning reliever (Joe Biagini) and a sharp minor league outfielder Cal Stevenson, all for one middling (to be kind) 25 year old Houston minor league outfielder, Derek Fisher. Fans were livid. Of course, you know the rest of the story, one so wild even Hollywood would balk at it for being too unrealistic. Sanchez and Biagini (with a few pitches of help from another bullpen arm) combined on a no-hitter their first time to the mound for the Astros. The same night, Fisher makes the highlight reel after leaving the game injured after having a fly ball smack him in the face after bouncing off his closed glove. #shatkins and #fireatkins were two of the more printable trending topics in Toronto social media that night. The next day, Sanchez put a full page ad in the Toronto Sun daily paper thanking the fans and people of the city for the opportunity to pitch in the big leagues and making him feel at home. A class move.

All the while, Ross Atkins continued to throw gasoline on the fire smugly making references to “20 pitchers” who “check all the boxes” to be major league starters and glibly talking about Fisher’s impressive fielding skills. And ignoring Marcus Stroman’s comments upon arriving in New York that he had won a Gold Glove, been an All Star, pitched back-to-back 200 inning seasons and never once been spoken to, let alone congratulated by front office.

Atkins and his office cohorts don’t get it. The Blue Jays have at times set MLB attendance records, and as recently as 2016 led the league in people through the turnstiles. Last year, and to date this year, they lead the league in drop-off in attendance. The fans are speaking, loud and clear. They don’t like Atkins nor the direction he’s taking the team, which is currently on pace for its losingest season since 1979.

Former MLB commissioner Bud Selig talks of how baseball failed initially in Milwaukee in the ’60s, noting that the owner at the time was an out-of-towner who responded to falling attendance by trading away the team stars and raising prices, not “doing anything to market itself” and assuming you merely need to “open your doors” to win. Taking the crowds for granted. Or, as the column Tao of Stieb, (not written by Dave Stieb it should be noted) pointed out in a Sportsnet publication… owned by the same parent company as the Blue Jays themselves… “if you look at the end of any fallen franchise regime, losing the confidence of the fans was always a key part.” He also notes listening to Atkins is like hearing a “post-doctoral thesis” about contract control and so on and that fans aren’t willing to wait until 2024 for one single shot at winning before he decides to scrap the key parts of the team being developed now.

So what would I do if I was made GM? If I had to try to steer the Blue Jays forward from the mess they’re in now?

Well, since it’s August, the new trade deadline is passed so we wouldn’t need to be consumed with ideas for trades between now and the World Series. Which actually simplifies things. Although it doesn’t preclude watching the waiver wire… Toronto missed a chance at not re-claiming Javy Guerra, who started the season with us in the bullpen, and was DFA’d by Washington. He cleared waivers and is now back in the Nats organization.

For me, job one would be to formulate a plan for 2020 that includes taking a shot at winning. Hell, Vladdy’s starting to hit .400 and an RBI+ per game (even if only on a short run), Bo Bichette’s hitting up a storm, over the past two months Toronto’s averaging north of 5 runs a game… it’s not a stretch. IF there’s pitching that is. Not just Ross Atkins’ imaginary list of 20 kid pitchers, that is. Right now, according to MLB scouting, only one minor league Blue Jay (Nate Pearson) really projects to be an average or better MLB pitcher any year soon. And yes, some rookies like Sean Reid-Foley and Jacob Waguespack have been decent at times, and Ryan Borucki could be the real deal IF he doesn’t need Tommy John surgery (he’s seeing Dr Andrews this week due to ongoing elbow troubles), but at best that probably equals about one good spot in the rotation next year. Matt Shoemaker should be back healthy, so that’s two, Trent Thornton is a possibility. With injuries and unreliability of young pitcher’s trajectories, it’s safe to say we need at very least two solid, reliable new starters next year. I’d be looking at the list of free agents this winter and making a few calls to teams about pitchers they might want to part ways with after October. (Carlos Carrasco? Jacob Degrom? Sonny Gray?)

Then on to job two, which is re-connecting with fans. Although to do that, we might have to leapfrog to job three, which is connecting with the roster. No one’s refuted Stroman’s claims, and that’s just wrong. The GM doesn’t need to be out partying with his players or invited to the catcher’s kid’s birthday party, but he should know his players and let them know where they stand. What they’re doing well, what needs to change. I’d try to talk to each one of the guys on the roster ASAP, let them know where they stand, what the team plans for them in the future and listen to their thoughts and concerns. Make it clear that Toronto cares about them and wants the city and team to be a desirable spot for them to live and work. I’d probably start with Justin Smoak, the only real long-term veteran on team and the only major free agent after this season. I’d float him the idea of keeping him around for a few more years, and even if not getting a contract done, try to reach an agreement to talk about it before he leaves town in November. The time is right for both.

Smoak’s batting average is way down (.207) but he’s still getting on base reliably and hitting dingers (18, despite time on IL). And he’s a plus-fielder, something noteworthy when behind him are outfielders trying to catch fly balls with their face. A two year extension would solidify the infield and give a mature veteran presence in the clubhouse. And his wife Kristin helps too; she’s one of the team and the city’s biggest social media boosters and a big part of the Lady Jays help organization. Exactly the people the team can benefit from having represent them in the community.

Back to step 2. Time to be humble, tell the fans we probably messed up a bit in the past couple of years but we have some great young talent and a desire to compete with the big boys next year. to speed up that message, I’d get the team to mail out each season ticket holder something as a token of appreciation – maybe a Vlad jersey (yes, expensive, but with only about 10 000 of those fans left, the cost to them would be less than a million bucks… baseball chump change) and coupons off next season’s tickets. Then I’d pick by lottery about 200 or so such ticket holders, rent a nice community center, invite them for a nice free dinner and discussion. Tell them exactly how the team’s going to get better, have a few of the players up on the front table as well to sign autographs and take a few questions from the crowd.

Because as it stands, Toronto may only win about 62 games this year. It’s a long road from 62 wins to a playoff berth. It’s a longer, steeper road from a spot where attendance is crumbling and hashtags comparing the team management to excrement are popular to being the toast of the town once again.

The Stro Show, Away It Go…

Well if nothing else, these are interesting times for the Blue Jays and their fans. Whether or not you subscribe to the idea of the saying “may you live in interesting times” being a wicked curse is up to you.

Of course Toronto, on the positive side, called up their top-rated prospect, Bo Bichette today meaning that 3/4 of their infield is now made up of rookies whose dads were All Stars – Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Cavan Biggio being the other two. Bo promptly delivered a line drive single tonight in Kansas City in his first big league at bat.

That was facilitated by the team’s trading of Eric Sogard to Tampa; the “nerd” started the game in Toronto’s clubhouse and apparently was told to walk across the field mid-game to join his new employer.He said he was a bit confused as to who to cheer on. The Jays get back two “players to be named” from the Rays, which seems odd (if they are unknown why two?) suggesting perhaps they are players on the injured list or something which would prevent them transferring right now.

Sogard’s been popular and useful this season in his Toronto debut, but it’s not a horrible trade. Eric’s traditionally been a 25th man, a utility infielder with little hitting ability. Somehow this year he’s having a career year, hitting .300 with 10 homers already compared to his 11 before over parts of 7 seasons. Sogard would be a great veteran presence and a good bench player for 2020, but as he’s a free agent he might well walk away in fall anyway and it’s quite unlikely he will be (as a few fans on Twitter suggested) the next Jose Bautista, a career journeyman who suddenly dips into the Toronto pool and becomes a flat out superstar.

Unless you’re a bigtime fan, you might not have even noticed the Sogard deal, because hours later Toronto pulled off the biggest trade in the majors so far this July, trading their staff “Ace” Marcus Stroman to the New York Mets for two pitching prospects- Anthony Kay and Simeon Woods-Richardson. Torches are lit and the noise coming from P.O.’d Jays fans rivals that heard in Edmonton decades ago when their Oilers shipped hockey legend Wayne Gretzky south to the city of Angels.

Reaction has been over-the-top for sure, but one can’t argue with the fact that it’s a deal which does little for the Jays.

Regular readers here know I’ve been of mixed emotions about Stroman through the years. He has at times been immature, and quite frankly no one seems as impressed with Marcus Stroman’s successes as Marcus Stroman and his personal Twitter account. He gets on opponents nerves by his fist-pumping and high-energy celebrations when he gets a big out.

On the other hand… he’s a pretty good starting pitcher. He made the AL All Star team this season, and with good reason. Although low run support has kept his winning percentage below .500 (6-11 right now), he’s been strong more starts than not and his 2.96 ERA is (was) 5th best in the AL among pitchers with 60 innings logged, let alone “qualified” (ie- an inning per game team has played.) He is one of the most reliable pitchers in getting grounders, a major benefit in a division where at least three ballparks are home run hitters dreams. And don’t forget the young guy already won a Gold Glove in his career. Or that he is a favorite of other pitchers in the clubhouse and by all accounts, a good mentor, as the Toronto Star detailed this week.

In return, the Jays get the Mets top two pitching prospects. Which sounds good…except that Fangraphs consider New York’s farm system to be only 23rd best in baseball (Toronto,8th… San Diego is considered to be the top minor league system) and that even Kay is only the 4th best prospect from New York. Neither pitcher made the MLB list of 100 best prospects.

On the surface, Kay seems like the “catch”, being that he’s 24 and has been pitching in AAA this summer.Woods-Richardson is barely 18 and was only drafted last summer, and is in low-A ball. However, some Toronto sources figure Simeon is the better potential star, with a 97 MPH fastball shot from a 3/4 arm angle, and a good curveball. KAy on the other hand has what scouts deem only “average” fastballs and curve, though Toronto have said it is “a plus curveball with elite spin.” Time will tell. So far though, AAA batters haven’t made him look too elite; he’s 1-3 with a 6.61 ERA and 40 hits allowed in 31 innings after a good start to the year at AA.

The argument the management has made is essentially “it’s the best offer we had” and they pointedly say the Twins and Braves made lesser offers for Stroman, while the other team in Marcus’ hometown (Yankees) seemed to lose interest when Toronto wanted their top pitching prospect. It may be so but it misses the obvious- they didn’t have to trade Stroman!

He wasn’t going to be a free agent until the end of 2020, leaving them time to re-up him, or if things go badly next season, look for a better offer next July. Hopefully, go to the 2020 post-season with Stroman on the mound. Instead they jettison the only reliable starting pitcher they have in favor of a “back-end of the rotation” guy a year or two from now and a possible – vaguley possible – star in about 5 years, by which time they’ll probably be wanting to trade the likes of Guerrero and Bichette if they develop as expected. It’s dumb, dumb dumb. And it shows a total tone-deafness as to what the fans want. Fans who pay the freight for both the pitchers, and the office staff like Ross Atkins, mastermind of this team on pace to be the worst Toronto one since the 1970s.

So it goes. Congratulations Trent Thornton. Six months ago you were an anonymous aging minor league pitcher in the Astros organization. Now, you’re the ace of the Blue Jays staff. With 3 career wins and a 5.45 ERA and a decent record of at least going to the mound when called on this year.

For the record, the outspoken Stroman eventually tweeted apparent happiness about playing in NYC… after he threw a major,loud tantrum in the clubhouse according to both Chris Cwik of Yahoo and Rob Longley of the Toronto Sun. Say one thing for Marcus- he likes to win. He was not pleased to be shipped from one losing, fourth-place team with questionable direction to another fourth-place team with questionable direction. So,we say without sarcasm, best of luck Marcus. Hope you’re more appreciated in New York City … or at least in the New York front offices.

Sox Say Safety First

Around the house, I tend to refer to this site as “Jays blog” since obviously the content usually is largely about those ever-loving, (recently) ever-losing Blue Jays. Today though I give a tip of the cap to the other great Great Lakes city. Kudos to the Chicago White Sox.

This week the Sox became the first team in MLB to install netting from foul pole to foul pole, at their Guaranteed Rate Park. Which brings up the question when did it stop being “new” Comiskey Park but I digress. The White Sox should be praised for going the extra mile – or extra 200 feet or so as it were. The netting will surround the baselines and outfield walls from home to the foul poles and be a minimum of 30 feet high,in an attempt to prevent foul balls (or broken bats for that matter) flying into the stands and hitting fans. In 2016, Rob Manfred told teams to extend the netting, to about the first base and third bases, but despite that, fans keep getting hit and injured all too routinely.

It’s really good because now the fans are going to be more safe,” Sox rookie sensation Eloy Jimenez says. Jimenez probably feels it more than some; a foul ball he hit hit and injured a fan recently. It was the latest in a seemingly long list of such events dating back to the terrible death of an older lady last fall after she was struck in the head by a ball in L.A. Earlier this year, a two year old girl was hit hard in the head at Minute Maid Park. She suffered a fractured skull and has been having seizures since, her parents report.

Jimenez’ teammate Evan Marshall agreed wholeheartedly. “It’s a shame it wasn’t done sooner…everybody is tired of seeing people being hit. It just sucks the air right out of the game.” No need to look any further than Cubs’ outfielder Albert Almora, and his horrified reaction to hitting the foul that decked the little girl in Houston.

Most fans seemed happy about the safety precaution, although a few did gripe about the apparent diffusion of their view and the club’s infielder Tim Anderson said he didn’t like it since it would be more difficult to sign autographs. But, at least there’ll be fans there wanting autographs some might suggest.

Come on Rob Manfred. It’s time to tell the other 29 teams to follow suit (presently he says it’s up to individual clubs to decide since ball park dimensions differ,as if that would alter the need from city to city.) Let’s not wait for another dead fan to get going on this. Fans are people, who have friends, families, stories. It shouldn’t be hard to have empathy to want to ensure they are safe in the stands cheering on their teams. But if you somehow lack the ability to care, look at it as a business investment. The family of the two year old say they will be suing the Astros (even though they do appreciate how the team has reached out to them) and one expects they will win a large settlement.

What’s more, each time another fan is hit, it’s news. Seems like the Today Show spotlight another fan clutching their head and players standing around looking worried every week now; the Almora clip of the poor toddler and the Cubby in tears on the field ran on a near continuous loop on network news for days. That is not the type of publicity a sport already dealing with dropping attendance needs. Perception is reality in many ways. Sure, it’s true that even if one person gets hit by a foul ball in a crowd of 40 000, 39 999 go home safe and sound. The drive home is perhaps riskier. But the average Joe or Jane doesn’t see it that way. Witness the hysteria this summer after three people were bitten by sharks, none fatally, off North Carolina. Millions went swimming there this year and were fine, but after news reports showing people in hospital beds bleeding and sharks swimming near the coast, people reacted as if a dip in the ocean was akin to signing their own death warrant. More and more fans are beginning to have the same perception about a trip to the old ballgame.

Hockey has had plexiglass extending well above the boards for as long as anyone can remember to prevent errant pucks smacking fans in the head. They keep filling arenas and fans keep cheering. Whether it’s plexiglass or loose netting, time for baseball to do the same.

True Blue Pt. 7 – The Best Of The Blue Jays

Well, a star was born this week, in the eyes of the American media at least. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. put on quite a show at the All Star Game’s Home Run Derby, setting a new record for the event with 91 dingers. Even though he came runner-up to another rookie phenom, Pete Alonso of the Mets, USA Today declared VG “the real winner” and it was clear by and large the media and fans were rooting for our #27. It was a great reminder as to the potential this young guy holds and why with a bit of pitching help, Toronto could be back in the thick of things soon. In the meantime, let’s finish off the list of Toronto’s best-ever and today we go off field.

MANAGER:

Cito Gaston

Toronto has had 16 managers through the years, give or take. Counting them isn’t quite as simple as you might think, given several of them, including Cito, have come back for a second kick at the can, and others have been short-term or “interim” – remember Cookie Rojas, manager? No, neither do most fans (wonder if Cookie himself does?), but he was listed as manager for three days in 2001. Similarly, catcher Russell Martin is not included officially but was given the job of managing the final game last season after the Jays and John Gibbons had parted ways.

Speaking of “Gibby”, he merits consideration. He spent two tours in the Toronto dugout, has managed the second-most games and won the second-most (793), having a better than .500 record through his 11 full or partial seasons in charge. He took over from a redoubtable Carlos Tosca in 2004 and turned the season around, then came back in 2013 when surly John Farrell asked to leave town and go to his beloved Boston organization. Gibbons was a breath of fresh air, approachable and having a great balance of being easy-going and a buddy to his players with an iron fist when needed.

Likewise, Bobby Cox, who went on to greatness in Atlanta, deserves notice too, for being the manager that helped Toronto rise to greatness and in fact won the team’s only Manager of the Year award, in 1985 (the first time the Jays made the post-season.) His .549 winning percentage was best among managers who stuck around for a year or more, but his four years here don’t quite rank with Gibbons and his fellow San Antonionian – Clarence “Cito” Gaston.

Gaston was somewhat unusual among Toronto managers in coming from a pretty decent playing career. He was an outfielder from 1967-78, mostly with San Diego and Atlanta and he was a 1970 All Star, when he hit .318 with 29 home runs. All of which seemed to make him an ideal hitting instructor, which he was for the Jays for several seasons. His eye for detail and quiet nature paid dividends in the improvements in the hitting of Jesse Barfield, George Bell, Damo Garcia and others in the early years of winning. He was still doing that in spring 1989. But the team got off to a dismal start (12-24) seemed disinterested and at least a few players in the clubhouse seemed to have given up on Jimy Williams. The team asked Gaston to become manager. “When I was offered the job as manager, I didn’t want it. I was happy working as the hitting instructor,” he later told a magazine. But he got talked into it, and the Blue Jays rocketed up the division, going 77-49 the rest of the way under Cito and winning their second division title. Another followed in 1991, then ’92 and ’93, the pair of years he wears World Series rings from. By 1997, ownership had changed, the payroll had been cut and the Skydome was no longer drawing 4 million fans a year as the Jays fell from contention. He was fired in the last week of the season, replaced (also seemingly less than willingly) by pitching coach Mel Queen, who’d win four games in his managerial career.

Then, just like an old TV show found by Netflix, Cito came back. With the team heading towards the 2008 All Star break lethargic and below .500, they fired John Gibbons and brought back Gaston. Like before, he turned the team around and they went 51-35 the rest of the way and fans once again cheered. After a losing 2009 followed by a winning 2010 he retired (and yes, three years later, like the cat in the hat, John Gibbons returned to the job!).

Through the years, he not only was the longest-serving manager for Toronto, he won the most games(894) and still presides over the only two World Series championships for the team. He had a .516 winning percentage, which included time managing a great, highly paid team and other seasons with lesser-talented teams and smaller payrolls.

It would be incomplete to speak of Gaston the manager and not mention that he did have something of a chip on his shoulder. While he got along with most of his players well – particularly the veterans whom he let do their thing and shine – he at times was cranky with the press and didn’t like the MLB offices, accusing both of racism at several points during his career. While I personally don’t think that his race was the reason, it is true he didn’t get a great deal of respect on the national level during Toronto’s glory years. He never won the Manager of the Year award despite the back-to-back championships. I ascribe this to a belief that he didn’t have to “work” with a team loaded with the likes of Roberto Alomar, Paul Molitor and Joe Carter but that ignores the job of dealing with a lot of egos in the clubhouse, working around injuries and actually managing at bat by at bat through the post season to win it all. Gaston was under-rated as a manager, although Toronto has tried to rectify that by putting him on their Level of Excellence (in effect the club’s Hall of Fame.)

As a person who’s spent time in Texas and have visited the state Sport Hall of Fame in Waco, I am surprised Gaston – born and raised, and still residing in San Antonio – hasn’t been enshrined there. If you think he should be, add your name to the petition!

Bring on the “Second half” of the season!

True Blue Pt. 6 – The Best Of The Blue Jays

With the All Star break only a few days off now, we notice that the only representative of the Jays there for the actual game will be pitcher Marcus Stroman. Fitting perhaps, as while the Jays have long been classed as a “hitting machine”, historically they’re more respected for their pitching (4 Cy Youngs) than their hitting (one batting championship, two MVPs both of whom were position players.) So, carrying on, back to our ongoing look at the best Blue Jays ever. Today, more pitchers.

LEFT-HANDED STARTING PITCHER:

First, let me say I never quite understood separating southpaws from righties. After all, a good pitcher will have to face hitters on both sides of the plate and get them out, and they are doing the same thing, albeit looking at a different side of the crowd doing so. But I’ll divide the starters into left and right, because it’s customary… and gives us a chance to talk about a few more greats that way.

Jimmy Key

Watching Key in the ’80s or ’90s would bring to mind the word “unassuming.” He was quiet off the mound and didn’t blow batters away on it. As his pitching coach Al Widmar said at the height of Key’s success, he had an “average fastball.” But also “a good sinker and curveball, and he knows how to change speeds…his control is outstanding.” Key was a finesse pitcher, one who could thread a needle with his pitches and outthink hitters.

He came up as a bullpen arm in 1984, and joined the rotation the next year, being a regular up until sipping champagne after winning the ’92 World Series. He then went on to some good years with New York and Baltimore, but he logged more innings for the Canucks than the other teams combined. Through the 9 years, 8 in the starting rote, he went 116-81 with a 3.42 ERA over 1696 innings and 317 games. He also nabbed 10 saves in the ’84 rookie year.

Evidence of his finesse rather than raw power is that he only struck out 944- about 5 per 9 innings. He got the ground ball outs and relied on great infielders to let him win, and win regularly. As well as his aforementioned control. He walked a mere 404, not much more than one an outing. He was a two-time All Star, in 1985, and 1991, but surprisingly not in 1987. That year he balloted behind only Roger Clemens in Cy Young voting, going 17-8, with a league-leading 2.76 ERA through 261 innings. His WAR that year was a remarkable 7.4! On his Toronto career, it was 30. He only had one losing season here and logged 200+ innings 6 times.

He left Toronto on a high note, with the World Series, during which he won one game he started and the clinching Game 6, in which he got 4 outs from the bullpen as the game dragged to 11 innings. He had a 3.03 ERA in 7 post-season games for the Jays.

RIGHT-HANDED STARTING PITCHER

Roy Halladay

Trying to pick the best Blue Jays starting pitcher is always a great invitation to a lively debate over Molsons’ at the hot stove in Canada. Roger Clemens name usually comes up at some point, and with good reason. He easily won Cy Youngs both years he pitched for Toronto with some of the most dominant stretches we’ve ever witnessed. In all he went 21-7, 2.05 and 20-6, 2.65 in ’97-98, and led the league in wins and ERA both times as well as setting a club record with 292 strikeouts in ’97 when his WAR was a mind-boggling 11.9! Since the team struggled to win 76 that year, it suggests they would have played sub-.400 baseball had he not signed with them. But- two years does not a career make. And there’s that cloud of steroid suspicion hanging over his head not to mention the rather cold way he all but forced his way out of Canada and onto the Yankees roster for 1999 (demanding a trade while dangling a loophole in his contract that would let him walk.) Clemens may go down as the player whose popularity lagged furthest behind his talent in Blue Jays history.

Which leaves us with two options. Dave Stieb or the one I pick, “Doc.” Both were intense, both were always up for Big Games and both may have been the best pitchers of their decade.

Stieb didn’t overpower like Halladay would, being smaller (an average 6′, 180 guy) who Sporting News noted as having a good sinker, a high fastball and an “awesome slider, a curveball and a changeup and (he) isn’t afraid to throw any of them for strikes.” He was hard on himself and hard on teammates who made mistakes (Lord knows what he would have done if he had pitched in the age of social media!) … but he was outstanding.

A consummate Blue Jay, he was a cornerstone of the rotation from 1979 through an injury-shortened 1992, pitching just 4 games after that in White Sox black-and-white before retiring. Many Toronto fans will remember the post-script. Invited to the spring training in ’98 to give some pointers to young pitchers, he looked better than some of the kids when he was showing them how, and at age 40 came back and pitched out of the Jays bullpen that year!

Stieb was a 7-time All Star, and after a crazy number of no-nos lost in the 9th inning, finally authored the first (and only to this point) Jays no-hitter in 1990. That year he won 18, a career high. Many of his career numbers are best for Toronto: 175 wins (134 losses for the record), a WAR of 57, 103 complete games. From 1982 through ’85, he hurled 260+ innings a season and in that latter season, his 2.48 ERA not only led the league, it was 71% ahead of the average.

As great as all that is, I give the nod to Halladay for several reasons. While Stieb’s overall numbers in some areas are better, he pitched in an era when 250 innings wasn’t unusual for a starter, and he never quite found ways to win as effectively as Roy did. Not to mention that, while fans admired Dave and liked him, he never quite “owned” the city in the way Halladay would two decades later.

The late, great Roy Halladay was a player that could have walked out of a Hollywood script. Highs, lows, and perseverence all in one handsome package that ended in a tragedy. After debuting in 1998 to great fanfare (and a close-to no hitter in his second game), he came back down to the ground with a so-so ’99 rookie campaign followed by a 2000 that was one for the history books, it was so bad. Suffice to say a 4-digit ERA is never a good thing. Demoted to the lowest levels of the minors the following spring, he was given an ultimatum: work with us, listen to the coaches, and you’ll be a star, or else just walk away. We know which he did. By mid-summer he was back in Toronto and finished 5-3 with a 3.16 ERA. He pitched with Toronto through 2009, after which (as every Toronto fan remembers) he was traded to the Phillies where he threw a perfect game in summer, then a no-hitter in his first ever playoff game.

Through the years in Toronto, he pitched 313 games, 287 of them starts, going 148-76 with an ERA at 3.43. Subtract that infamous 2000 season and you get 144-69, 3.20, which would rank him clearly tops among starters who’d been around here for more than two years. 2047 innnings, 1495 strikeouts and a miniscule 455 walks, as well as 49 complete games helped him be a 6-time All Star with the Jays and win 20 games twice. He won the 2003 Cy Young, when he was 22-7 with a 3.25 ERA, leading the league in wins and with 266 innings. He was second in Cy balloting in 2008. Through his time in Toronto, he had 4 years with an ERA under 3.00, three 200 K years. He seemed a throwback to a different era as well. At a time when bullpens were expanding and 6 innings was denoted as the mark of a “quality” start, Doc wanted to go out and finish what he started, most times appearing aggravated if he was pulled from the game. He led the league in complete games 5 times and there were years when he single-handedly pitched more CGs than the entire staffs of half the teams in the league.

His 2.41 ERA in ’05 was 85% better than the AL average and through his years with the team, his ERA was 33% better, another reason that gave him the slight edge of Stieb who posted approximately the same ERA but did so in a lower-scoring decade. Likewise, Halladay’s innings logged stood out in the 2000s; Stieb pitched a ton as well but then every pitcher worth his salt did so! There were years Stieb was behind teammate Jim Clancy in IP, although he almost always outshone Jim.

Put it all together and statheads rate Roy’s WAR as 48.4 for Toronto, including 8.1 in 2003 alone… a year when the team won 86 total. On the team leaderboard, Halladay is second in strikeouts, wins and shutouts, third in starts and innings and second to only Roger Clemens in winning percentage. His “adjusted ERA” (comparison to average) is best among starters with 500 or more innings… and he’s first in the hearts of Toronto fans. While steely and irritable on the mound, off the field he was pleasant, great with fans and a proud resident of the city. Although there are a few who are miffed his family decided not to have him in a specific cap on his Cooperstown plaque, most recognize it as a tip of the cap to the class act that he was. He’d want to give credit to all those who helped him get where he was both in Toronto and Philly and wouldn’t want anyone to feel snubbed.

Next time out, we’ll wrap up this “best of” feature.

True Blue Pt. 5 – The Best Of The Blue Jays

With the All Star break only a week off, the Jays have already passed the halfway mark of the 2019 campaign. And while the bats have finally gotten reasonably hot with the weather of late, the pitching is still a sporting disaster by and large meaning Toronto would have to win 49 of 77 remaining games to merely finish at .500. So we’ll not spend too much time ruing over that this week, other than to point out my pick for the Blue Jays player of the month in June was Lourdes Gurriel. A short demotion to the minors seems to have done wonders for the kid brother of Houston’s first baseman Yuli. Gurriel has been shifted into the outfield and looks more at home than he did in the middle-infield and was leading the offensive charge for the team, hitting .340 with 10 home runs and a .700 slugging percentage over the month.

Now, back to our ongoing look at the best Blue Jays ever. Today, the pitchers.

RELIEF PITCHER:

Tom Henke

Gotta admit, in my mind I remember Duane Ward to be the optimal of the hundreds who’ve come and gone through the Jays’ bullpen gates over the years. And at his best, he might have been… but that best was fairly brief. And while the small middle-reliever, Jason Frasor (who leads the team with the most pitching appearances on the career, 505) deserves notice as well, the huge, 6’5” Midwesterner has to get the nod.

Henke bookended his career with stints in Texas, but rose to stardom and put in the bulk of his pitching years in Toronto blue. He was a Blue Jay from 1985 through 1992, which you’ll note also corresponds to the team’s rise to prominence. It began with their first playoff season and ended with their first World Series. While he never quite matched Oakland’s Dennis Eckersley, Henke was the “closer” for the Jays just as that role was really coming into its own and appearing to be a necessity for a team that wanted to contend. He ended up pitching in 446 games here, primarily at the end of the contest, going 29-29 (not that the won-loss record is that meaningful with late inning relievers anyway) but nabbing a club record 217 saves and striking out 644 through 563 innings. (The savvy observer will notice that that averages out to close to 1 1/3 innings per outing; it was before the age when one inning was considered the outer limits of an arm from the ‘pen). He walked just 166, giving him the best ratio of K:BB in club annals, as was his stellar 2.48 ERA – tops among pitchers with 500+ innings for the team (take that Roger Clemens! Rocket’s ERA was 2.33 in his two years here but came in four outs short of 500 innings!).

Henke was an All Star in ’87, when he pitched 72 games and led the league with 34 saves. From 1986-90 inclusively and again in 1992, he logged 50+ appearances and he had four 30 save seasons. In the post season, he held his own as well. In a total of 15 appearances, he was 2-0 with 5 saves and kept opponents to a 1.83 ERA. Notable there was that he was credited with the only two post season wins against KC in 1985! Henke’s WAR was put at 16.8 over his Toronto years, twice being over 3 in a season, which certainly adds some bona fides to his credentials.

Ward, for the record, was acquired from Atlanta mid-season 1986, and initially was the setup man for Henke. He pitched almost his whole career in Toronto, effectively having it cut short by injuries after the ’93 World Series championship. Ward came back to pitch only 4 innings after that. but when he was hot, boy was he hot! In 1993, an All Star year, he took over the closer spot and led the league with 45 saves. From 1988-93 he put in 60+ games a season and he had five 100 inning campaigns, a number that nowadays seems unfathomable. His career WAR was 10.5, with it about 3 each in ’92 and ’93.

Next time, we look to the guys ahead of Henke, Ward, Giles & Co. – the starters.