Atkins Should Have Asked The Magic 8 Ball About Pitching

Last night’s 7-3 loss to Baltimore is all too typical of the Blue Jays of late. Taking on a possible Wild Card rival (and let that sink in – the new look Orioles are a mere 1.5 games behind Toronto right now) , they fell behind early, never really looked highly motivated or able to get back in it, committed a couple of errors and slipped further behind in the race. Whatever momentum and enthusiasm new manager John Schneider brought with him last month seems to have evaporated. And also typical last night, another bad start from Yusei Kikuchi.

Kikuchi’s become a bad joke this year, somehow looking far worse than his 4-7, 5.25 record would suggest. He falls behind early and often, walks far too many, and when he does bear down and throw a hard strike…it’s too oft left right in the middle of the plate for some power hitter to knock into the fifth deck. Even the team’s own website, usually eternally optimistic (as you’d expect for a promotional device for the team) today lament that his ongoing troubles may “force the hand” of the team and manager John Schneider says clearly “everything is on the table…it’s more urgency than patience right now. The season’s getting short.”

That it is, but John’s options are rather limited, something many a fan is pointing out…and pointing a finger at GM Ross Atkins for. Toronto was expected to trade for Reds’ ace Luis Castillo. Seattle got him instead. Toronto was expected to trade for Oakland star Frankie Montas. He went to the Yankees after some reports prematurely already reported a trade to the Jays. Instead, Atkins picked up low-profile young pitcher Mitch White from the Dodgers.

Now, White has an upside, not the least is his youth and fact that this is only his second full season in the majors. He could be a very reliable member of the rote down the road. But he hardly seems like the answer for a team with real playoff aspirations but a struggling (to be generous) set of starting pitchers. Thankfully Ross Stripling is expected off the IL by the weekend, and he’s done yeoman work switching from the bullpen to rotation. But, it’s still hard to be excited for the prospect’s of the team with the current pitching lineup. Which leads many to blame Atkins. But is that fair? Let’s look at how the year’s progressed and how much of it was entirely predictable.

The Jays began the year touting a rotation of Jose Berrios, Kevin Gausman, Hyun Jin Ryu, Alek Manoah and the aforementioned Kikuchi. They pointed to Stripling or minor leaguer Nate Pearson as being obvious additions to the rotation if necessary.

Well, first off, Ryu’s been a non-factor and is now recuperating from Tommy John surgery. In six games he struggled, lasted just 27 innings and had an ERA of 5.67. Few were utterly surprised. At age 35, Hyun is not coming into his prime and let’s face it – he has a reputation for being oft-injured. The fact that he wasn’t in 2020-21 might be the outlier, not the fact he’s out for a season now. He missed all of 2015 and almost all of ’16 from surgery too. And it was well-noted his results and fastball velocity (at best one of the lowest in the league) had begun to drop off in the second half of last year. Sorry Mr. Atkins, Ryu’s inability to contribute this year is VERY PREDICTABLE. It was foolish to pencil him in as a #3 starter.

Kevin Gausman was the big free agent splash in the off-season, coming off a career best year with San Francisco. All things considered, Gausman’s delivered. He’s not quite matching last year’s numbers, but at a 3.16 ERA (despite a weird 8-9 won/lost record) and career best rates of walks allowed (1.5 per 9 innings) and homers given up (one per 18 innings), he’s done all that can be expected. As team scribe Keegan Matheson points out, he’s deserved better. For instance on the weekend’s loss to Cleveland, Cavan Biggio let a “soft fly ball” drop in, in a hole in right field and what would have been a second out was instead an inning-prolonging RBI double. Gausman was pegged as the #2 guy on a star rotation, and thankfully, he’s delivered.

Even better than Gausman has been All Star Alek Manoah. Currently he’s sixth in MLB pitchers in WAR (3.3) and sixth in innings pitched in the AL. At 12-5, 2.56 he’s easily the best “#4 starter” in the AL this year and deserving his placement in the All Star game. But, there are a few clouds on the Manoah horizon. Namely, this is only his second pro season. Last year, his first as a professional, he threw 146 innings, 35 of them in his very short minor league career. This year he’s already up to 137, and if things remain as we hope, he’s going to be around 200 before the playoffs begin. I’m not a big believer in “babying” pitchers or limiting innings counts unnecessarily but it does seem to be a bit of a stretch for him to so greatly exceed his entire pro career total innings this year and be effective. In his last three starts, the ERA has risen quietly from 2.24 to its current 2.56 and he’s giving up more hits than before. Signs point to the big youngster starting to tire out a little … just at the point where his contribution is more important than ever. That’s a real problem, and one that should have been PREDICTABLE.

Then there’s Berrios. If Gausman was the big free agent, Berrios was the big “news” of the off-season, with the team signing him to a 7 year, $131M deal based on how impressed they were with his personality and two months he pitched here in 2021. It seemed reasonable. Berrios is smart, strong, and had career numbers that seemed to be slowly, but constantly, improving. And at age 28, he should be in his peak form for the next two or three years.

Instead, Berrios has been terrible. Inexplicably terrible. His 5.61 ERA is among the worst of any regular pitchers anywhere this year, and is worst among MLB’s so-called “qualified pitchers” (which is increasingly meaningless as fewer and fewer pitchers hurl enough innings to “qualify”). His 26 HR given up are worst in baseball too. Now, what’s weird is that nothing too much jumps out as being awful, or awfully different for Berrios this year than in the past. Baseball America still today note he has a “93-95 MPH fastball” and some scouts are still measuring his best pitches at 98, and that his slider is “sharp.” He’s throwing the same four pitches with about the same frequency as before, and his velocity is considered “league average” but his “chase rate” is 85th percentile…which is to say he’s getting batters to swing at a lot more bad pitches than most. Yet somehow, when he’s missing, he’s missing by a few inches and they’re slugging the ball. The exit velocity off his bat is 90.5 MPH, worse than average, and higher than the last two years and when they do connect, the ball is flying higher. His ground ball rate (of batted balls) is only 37%, the lowest since his rookie year of 2016. To say it’s frustrating is an understatement; it’s hard for pitching coach Pete Walker to tweak the problem when nothing appears to be an obvious problem. Put it down to bad luck and while Berrios bad results are UNPREDICTABLE , the basic concept of at least one star pitcher under-performing during the season should have been PREDICTABLE.

Which leaves us with Mr. Kikuchi. Let me say that, like fired manager Charlie Montoyo, Kikuchi the man seems like a decent, nice enough chap. Like manager Montoyo he also seems incapable of getting the job done. For every vaguely encouraging game, there have been several worse and worse yet ones from him. Since coming back from the IL with a “surprise” neck stiffness, he’s gone out four times. He’s not gone past 5 innings in any of them and has walked eight, given up five home runs and 15 hits in 17 innings for a 5.72 ERA. On the season, he’s averaging less than 4 1/3 inning per start and opponents are hitting .357 off him. That’s a career worst for him, but it is worth noting his best opponents average was a poor .314. Put another way, batters have always hit him hard and feasted when he was on the mound. Likewise, his home runs allowed are career worst but he’s not yet posted good numbers of that while in the majors. Maybe his ERA being 5.25 might be head-turningly bad, but it is worth pointing out it’s only been below 5 once in his three previous years. All in all, Kikuchi’s failure this year is of unexpected depths but should be rather PREDICTABLE. Thinking he was going to be a repeat Robbie Ray, a Cy Young winner out of thin air after being among the league’s least effective pitchers, was clearly the bad line of thinking, not those who thought he wasn’t going to pan out.

My bottom line – the way it’s going, Toronto is going to have trouble even picking up one of the three wild card spots. And should they do so, a rotation of Berrios, Gausman and a tired out Manoah (with perhaps Stripling when a fourth is needed) doesn’t fill me with confidence for October. Nate Pearson has never filled me with confidence but is still being bandied about as a possible “addition”, but with him on the 60-day IL with a lat injury (after being on the injured list with mono) and having pitched only 7 innings in the minors this year make it seem a very long stretch to expect anything more than an inning or two out of the bullpen from him in ’22.   Maybe I’ll be proven wrong; if so I’ll be a happy camper. But if I’m proven right … it’s time for the organization to replace Ross Atkins. The fact that the starting rotation has not been up for the job in 2022 is very PREDICTABLE.


    • Dave

      Ya, Stripling has been worth his weight in gold. Which he’ll get & more in free agent market this winter. Hmm,gold about $1200 an ounce =$19000 a pound more or less, 200 pound dude= 3.8 million. He’ll get more than his weight in gold…

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