Well here we are, rapidly approaching the one-third mark of the season already! We’ve noted here there’s been a bit of a sense of …ennui, perhaps is the word about our Blue Jays. The fact that they’re still ahead of Baltimore in the standings isn’t quite reason enough for fan exuberance, or trips through the Rogers’ Centre turnstiles. However, since the Blue Jays are still our team (and quite likely yours if you’re reading this) and May’s a beautiful month where the landscape changes by the day, let’s look at five things to be happy about in the changing landscape of the Blue Jays, this fifth month of 2019. Starting with…
Nerd power. Very few took notice when the Blue Jays signed veteran infielder Eric Sogard to a minor league deal last winter. Why should they? The small 32 year-old has been around in the majors since 2010, but hasn’t really made much of an impression other than to earn the nickname “nerd”, largely on account of his thick glasses. Last year he was a part of the almost World Series-bound Brewers, but he hit an anemic .134 in 55 games with them. Indeed, his career average as of this year’s opener was .239 with 11 homers in 1576 at bats. Few expected him to even crack the Toronto lineup, with Lourdes Gurriel and Devon Travis ahead of him for the second base job. However, Devon’s ongoing knee issues and Gurriel’s bad fielding backed with a surprising lack of hitting soon got Eric up and playing second. Lo and behold, the good-natured little grinder is clipping along hitting .295 with 4 homers and a .511 slugging percentage in 24 games. Certainly a small sample, but that’s way ahead of his previous best, a .429 slugging, way back in ’10. Jays fans have begun to get behind the nerd, who just might remind some a little of another hard-working middle infielder we all loved, John MacDonald.
The Knuckleballer Even a serious fan looking in on Saturday’s game might have been taken aback, with a mystery southpaw with a hard to spell name on the mound for the Jays. A few might vaguely remember the name – Ryan Feierabend. The 33 year old was picked up almost unnoticed in the off-season, after pitching in a low-level Korean league last year! He first pitched in the Majors in 2006, he last pitched (a mere 7 innings) out of the Texas bullpen five years back. Ryan’s last major league start was late in 2008, for Seattle. He now features a 85 mph sinker and most noteworthy, a knuckleball, making him the fourth knuckleballer ever to toss for T.O. (behind Phil Neikro- briefly – , Tom Candiotti and recently, RA Dickey). A fellow lefty knuckleballer, Wilbur Wood who pitched from ’61 to ’78 called in to the broadcast to say “hi” and tell people that knuckleballs are like any other pitch- “it has to have movement to have success.” On Saturday, Ryan had some movement but it wasn’t fooling too many White Sox. He went 4 innings, gave up 7 hits including a home run but did manage a pick-off at first base and some 70% of his pitches were strikes. He also managed another rarity. The game was called mid-way through the fifth, due to rain, making him the first pitcher since Steve Trachsel in 2006 to hurl a 4-inning complete game! “For me, a veteran player, I think it’s all about keeping after it… hoping there are more opportunities ahead.” With a guy who’s been willing to wait 11 years for his shot at starting a game again, fans can hope along with him!
Number Six At times we’ve criticized Marcus Stroman (and his attitude) here before, but so far this season, he’s been someone to cheer. By far the most consistent member of the starting rote he’s been pitching close to as well as he ever has (rather curiously since he’s throwing fewer ground balls than ever before – 1.4 per flyball, about half the rate he had last year). He’s gone 10 starts, 7 of them “quality”, and lasted 58 innings, 11th best in the league. Not Doc Halladay let alone Dave Stieb-type innings loads, but at a little better than 5 2/3 innings per start, pretty good by today’s standards and about a half inning more per game than last year. Despite giving up more flyballs this year,only 3 have left the yard, and his K:BB rate is good (2.7 strikeouts per walk) which all leads to a very solid 2.95 ERA. Unfortunately, a league-low 1.5 run support (1.5 runs scored by team per 9 innings pitched) has meant his record is an unsightly 1-6. But to his credit, the oft-short tempered and loud-mouthed pitcher has taken it in stride, not calling out or insulting his teammates and says “it’s a long season and my guys are going to be there for me.” No criticism for that attitude, and we sure hope he’s right and the team start to put a few runs on the board for him soon.
Bubbling Under In Buffalo – we have one hot young player with a Hall of Fame father in the lineup now, soon we might have two. Cavan Biggio, son of Astros’ great Craig Biggio, has been promoted to AAA Buffalo and his estimation in the eyes of the organization keeps rising. In 2018 at AA, he hit a solid .252 with 26 homers and 20 steals. This year, at the higher level, he’s at .310 with 28 bases on balls resulting in a .436 on base percentage, plus 6 homers and 26 RBI. What’s more, he’s showing a bit of his dad’s versatility. Originally billed as a second baseman, he’s still done that job half the time this season… but he’s also played first, third, left and right field and has only commit 2 errors, both at second base. While his path to second base may not be direct this year (if “Nerd power” keeps producing or Gurriel shows the promise he had last year in Toronto while in Buffalo, there’d be little reason to promote him quickly) his versatility could mean he might show up right behind the other Hall of Famer’s kid, in left field, soon.
The Face …of the organization, even before he made the big league roster.Vladimir Guerrero Jr. He’s here at last, and that alone is reason to cheer. Vlad is shining the spotlight on Toronto baseball again like no one has since Jose Bautista was chasing 50 home runs. That is good, and he’s holding up well, smiling for the press. But hey, here’s something more. In case you haven’t noticed, VG2 is starting to quickly make adjustments to tough big league pitching. As of a few days back, he was facing fewer pitches in the strike zone than any other regular in the AL, Mike Trout included, and he did swing wildly at ones down low too often in the first few games. But hey… check out his last 8 games (6 of which have been against the Chisox through a weird scheduling twist). In those games, he’s been 10 for 27 with his first 4 home runs and 9 RBI to boot. Two of his longballs have been to straight away center, showing he can bash with the best of them when he sees something in his wheelhouse. Overall, his average is .235 and he is still hitting more groundballs than he did in the minors but the numbers are on their way up. With some six weeks to go before All Star time, all bets are off as to who Toronto’s representative will be…but if Vlad keeps hitting like he has been in the last eight games, don’t bet against it being young #27!
Five things to feel good about even if the score doesn’t turn our way against Boston this holiday Monday.