We Jays fans know how Josh Donaldson won the Most Valuable Player award last year by driving in tons of runs for the team and making highlight reel grabs at third. But if the sport listens to him, he may be the most valuable player for other reasons- even to opponents.
Donaldson has been the highest-profile, and loudest player to speak up about the ridiculous “unwritten rules” of the game and the beanball. You might recall Donaldson’s tirade last month after the Twins Phil Hughes threw a pair of back-to-back pitches at him the at bat following a Donaldson home run. Donaldson got mad, John Gibbons came out to intervene and got ejected and afterwards the MVP noted that he wasn’t all that mad at Hughes himself, but rather the Minnesota management (who no doubt instructed the pitcher to lob one at the Blue Jay in return for being “shown up”) and at the dumb, macho culture of the game in general.
“They say they’re trying to protect players… you can’t slide hard into second base. They make a rule to protect the catcher on slides at home. But when you throw a ball at somebody, nothing’s done about it.” He referenced Giancarlo Stanton who still wears a specially-adapted helmet after being smacked in the face by a pitch and added that the whole aspect could deter some kids from going into baseball, a reasonable assumption perhaps. If parents are scared to let their boys play football because of concussion risk, it’s not beyond the pail to suggest they might do the same with baseball.
The whole situation became news again this week when famously volatile KC hurler Yordano Ventura managed to drill Orioles star Manny Machado with a 98 mph fastball on his third attempt, sparking a fist to his face from the Baltimore infielder, a bench-clearing brawl and surprisingly little support from his Royals teammates who have grown tired of his distractions. While Ventura’s pitch control isn’t specatacular, it seems dubious he’d miss three in a row and drill the one player who was making him look bad that game. Particularly when we recall that it is the same Ventura who managed to provoke brawls in three successive games last year by throwing at a range of players and having personal beefs with a list including, but not limited to, Adam Eaton, Brett Lawrie, Mike Trout and, yes, our own Josh Donaldson. Baseball’s fining him after throwing at Lawrie and suspending him 7 games for starting the melee with the White Sox last year didn’t seem to do anything to suggest he needs to calm down a little on the mound, so it’s encouraging that this time around he got a 9-game suspension (compared to 4 for Machado.) Bizarrely, while playing the Orioles Ventura was shooting his mouth off in the clubhouse about planning to hit Jose Bautista with a pitch. Joey Bats didn’t respond, as far as we know, but one can imagine Kevin Pillar , ever the loyal teammate, practising up some kick boxing moves just in time for next month’s Royals-Jays series, just in case.
Since then many other players have spoken up about the need for change. As Dodgers’ Adrian Gonzalez says, “throwing a baseball at a batter on purpose is the opposite of whatever tough is.”
Of course, some of the older voices say no change is necessary, that it’s all a part of the game and “hard-nosed” baseball like it used to be played. Surprisingly, even that assumption is a bit off; the number of hit batsmen has risen considerably in the past fifty years. In the 1940s and 50s, only three years was a batter hit 20 times in a season; so far this century up to last year, only once did that not happen. Brandon Guyer of the Rays has already been plunked 15 times this year. Surprising also, National League teams (where the pitcher at times will come to the plate himself) outdo the AL ones in head-hunting. This season, NL teams average about 21 hit batsmen compared to 18 in the AL .
As for it being traditional and “hard-nosed”, so what? Rob Manfred hasn’t been afraid of other changes. He’s talking of doing away with throwing pitches for an intentional walk and , of course, he instituted the slide rule thereby stopping one of the most traditional, “hard-nosed” ways of playing the game: sliding into the second baseman to break up a double play.
Traditionalists might not like it, but change is needed. First and foremost, the “Warning” aspect has to go. There’s no way to justify the rule as it is now in which a pitcher can throw at a batter and not be disciplined but if the umpire then issues a warning, any other pitcher will be tossed for hitting any batter, intentional or not. This gives hotheads like Ventura a free pass. If we trust umpires instincts and knowledge, we allow them to throw out any pitcher, any time, if they think they are deliberately throwing at a batter. If we don’t think the umps are that savvy, we need to simply throw out any pitcher who hits a batter no matter what the circumstances. Or possibly the answer lies in making it much more pricey for a team to dare hit a batter. Making a hit-by-pitch a virtual “double” (batter gets to second base instead of first and all runners on base advance two bases) would cut down on head-hunting .
It took a leg injury to Ruben Tejada to stop aggressive slides into base. It took an injury to superstar catcher Buster Posey to make contact between a catcher and runner almost verboden. Baseball cannot wait for a career-ending or worse head injury to a batter before stopping the beanball.
So, as noted in last post, I’m fearlessly predicting a Blue Jays repeat as division champs, along with Texas in the West and Cleveland in the Central, with Detroit and either New York or Houston making the wild card. Which will lead many to ask why not KC?
The Royals have done a great job of maximizing results from their “blue collar” lineup and perhaps set off a new trend in baseball, namely putting less emphasis on the starting rotation and more on the tail-end of games, aka the bullpen, and on defense. I give them props, but don’t see the magic continuing on this season. Asking Kendrys Morales at an old 32 to repeat his 106RBI production might be a bit much– and then there’s the bullpen.
The Royals magic in their championship seasons has largely been the amazing bullpen, as we know. Now, I have no problem with Wade Davis taking over the closer’s role that he inherited last season when Greg Holland got injured. Davis is as good, if not better, than Holland was at his peak – how many pitchers could post a season with an ERA of 1-even and then improve? Exactly what Wade did last year, lowering his ERA to a microscopic .94 and allowing only 33 hits through 67 innings. Davis will be lights out. problem is, who takes over for him as a “set up”? Kevin Herrera is quite decent, but not below-one ERA good, and besides who then takes over Herrera’s spot, or (new Blue Jay) Franklin Morales? The pair combined for 139 appearances in the middle innings last year, something the R’s haven’t been able to replace with this year’s roster.
Last but not least, the Royals now have the proverbial bullseye on their backs. As reigning World Series champs and two-time AL winners, they are now the team to beat; the team other teams shake up their rotation for to make sure the “ace” pitches against them, the team the kids of the other teams want to beat for bragging rights. A KC lead in the sixth will no longer be an automatic win this year, and with a rotation of the likes of Volquez and Duffy et al, the leads may be scarcer than a year back.
As for the Astros, the trendy pick to win this season… maybe. You have to admire a team that can go from 51 wins to 86 in just two years as Houston did; you have to love tiny Jose Altuve and the intensity plus skill he plays with. Altuve’s always a decent shot to win the batting title and should notch yet another 200 hit season; Carlos Correa has a lot of pressure on his young shoulders given how high projections for him are but might measure up. He’s off to a red-hot start and could easily be the best shortstop in the league by the mid-season classic. The pitching is fine, but not legendary; no AL Cy Young winner in the past six years has matched let alone bettered his Cy season (Felix Hernandez did up his win total from 13 to 14 but did so while having his ERA jump by over a run. If I was a Houston fan, I’d be plenty happy if Keuchel could finish with 16-10, 3.20.
Moreover, it’s tough to imagine them cutting down from their AL-worst 1392 strikeouts at the plate, opposition pitchers are going to be more wise to their free-swinging ways and capitalize on it more. Or maybe it’s just me- can we really envision a championship team with “senior statesman” Colby Rasmus??
We’ll look at the road ahead for Toronto next time…
It’s been said Kansas City was the model for the early Blue Jays franchise to model themselves after. No wonder, the Royals had jumped into competitiveness quickly after their 1969 birth. By the time the Jays came about, KC was an increasingly respectible team with the likes of Steve Busby, Paul Splittorff, Al Hrabrosky and a young buck called George Brett. The early Jays tried to emulate the KC formula of smart draft picks, quality starting pitchers supplemented with a few “character” player free agents to add a bit of bop and leadership in the clubhouse- and of course, powder blue jerseys!
A lot has changed in the 35+ seasons that have passed and both teams have a couple of World Series banners to fly proudly. But the Royals can still be a bit of a role model for the Blue Jays, which is why we Toronto fans can join KC in celebrating this year’s World Series.
Not only did the Royals quick disposal of the Mets in the World Series allow for us to make a reasonable claim to be the second-best club in all of baseball this season (after all , we put up more of a fight against the best team than the NL Champs did) but it also showed a clear path for Toronto to follow for 2016. With a little guidance from that roadmap and a bit of luck it can be the Jays enjoying the champagne and a parade downtown this time next year.
Significantly, Toronto is in good shape to follow the Royals’ lead by adhering to the old Dear Abby-ism “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” KC realized they came within a few pitches of winning it all last year and did their best to return largely the same team to the field this year. Manager Ned Yost and most of the coaching staff were renewed. While they did lose their top starting pitcher (James Shields) to free agency and aging de-facto captain Billy Butler, the primary core of the team returned en masse- Guthrie, Ventura as starters, Moustakas, Cain, Hosmer, all-star catcher Perez, as well as the bullpen trio of Davis, Holland and Herrera. While they perhaps had to sacrifice a little leadership with the departure of Shields and Butler, they made up for it with Edison Volquez (who’d been close to Shields in ’14 numbers: 13-7, 3.04 with Pittsburgh in 192 innings compared to 14-8, 3.21 in 227 innings) and upgraded at DH by bringing in Kendrys Morales who seemed to have a chip on his shoulder because of nay-sayers who wrote him off after a lack-lustre season (.218, 8 HR in 98 games). Morales responded with the second-best season of his career, hitting .290 with 106 RBI.
Like last year’s Kansas City, Toronto is poised to bring back most of this year’s squad, from manager John Gibbons through the coaches to all the significant position players (Bautista and Encarnacion had their contract options picked up today and Martin, Pillar, Donaldson are already signed or arbitration-eligible) and a good chunk of the pitching. Granted, right now the Jays may lose more than one of their starting rotation but will still have the likes of Dickey, Stroman, Hutchison, Cecil, Osuna and Loup returning. If Estrada re-signs, Toronto could be just a decent free agent starter and reliever or two away from another division title with or without David Price.
Kansas City also showed that playoff experience matters. Although last year’s team were solid and gave San Fran a good battle, there’s no mistaking the added confidence and swagger of the 2015 edition. Jose Bautista showed he can step up to the plate in pressure games, one can only hope that this fall’s run will likewise boost the Jays confidence in close games next year.
The Royals have built a club well-suited to their spacious ballpark, with an emphasis on speed and outfield. Toronto is totally different but have also built a club designed to maximize performance at Rogers Centre and other East division parks, with the home run power and solid infield defense to work on the artificial turf.
2016 will be a long grind as all seasons are, but this October suggests Toronto could be having a lot more to celebrate next fall than this. But “interim” General Manager Tony LaCava had better get to work, add the piece or two of the puzzle needed because not only the Royals give an example to pay attention to. So too do the last-place Phillies who show all too well what happens when a club stagnates and fails to take advantage of success when the window for it opens!
Now that the dust has settled from the storm of July deadline trades, we have a clearer idea of who are contenders vs. those who are pretenders moving towards the playoffs. Toronto fans are ever thankful that Dave Dombrowski decided his Tigers were pretenders before he got canned; the “Price” was high but worth it.
Some races seem won already, but in this year of parity not as many as you might expect. No one’s going to catch Kansas City in the AL Central, nor would they have even without the Royals acquiring Johnny Cueto. Having the best pitching in the league helps them have the only positive run differential in the division; all that’s left to do there is scout playoff opponents and wonder if any divisional rival will finish up at or above .500. Given Minny’s inevitable swoon of late, my guess is no.
Houston faltered but didn’t collapse, their good pitching and home run power should compensate for the excessively free-swinging, strikeout-laden offense and inexperience. They’ll maintain and perhaps even bolster their current 2.5 game lead in the AL West. The question there is whether the Angels can hang onto their second place, and wild card slot, and if Texas will grow or wilt in the Dallas summer heat.
Statistically, the Angels have the second-best pitching in the league, which is more than a little surprising. Somehow, even with their outfield trade deals and the ever-present looming bats of Trout and Pujols, they’ve lost 7 of the last 10 and I don’t see them rebounding in any big way. Sitting now at 57-50 they should hang onto at least a .500 finish, but even this year that’s not going to get them into the post-season.
Texas is an interesting team. As a team it’s remarkably streaky, which mirrors most of its lineup. Recently all-star Prince Fielder has cooled off some after a torrid first half, and CF Leonys Martin earned himself a trip to the minors with his stone cold bat, but Elvis Andrus has been playing like the $120M man they thought he could be and Adrian Beltre’s healing from a thumb injury and starting to look like Beltre again. With the trade for Cole Hamels, their pitching might – just might– be adequate to keep them in enough games to slide by Anaheim in the standings. More than half their remaining games are home ones, but somehow the R’s have been winning more on the road than in Arlington this year so it’s not a surefire bonus for them. If they end up with 83 wins this year, I won’t be surprised and it will be a nice couple of steps up from last year (especially given their ace Yu Darvish missing the season.)
In the National, nobody’s likely to catch St. Louis in the Central; even without Adam Wainwright the team’s keeping the opposition to under 3 runs a game; their only worry is putting on the cruise control and having a hard time gearing back up for games that matter in October. I don’t think they’ll win 100 games, but with 97 or 98 they’ll still be tops in baseball. The Pirates are in good shape to return to the playoffs nonetheless, even if they can’t make up 6 games ground on the Cards. The big question there could be AJ Burnett’s elbow. If the team is on the up-and-up (which might be a first in MLB history) and it’s not a serious injury and he can return by Labor Day, they’ll be a solid playoff team. If Burnett’s arm- and career- are toast, Pittsburgh will turn its attention to hockey very quickly in the playoffs.
In the NL West, the Dodgers were savvy at the trade deadline but I like SF’s acquisition of Mike Leake even more. LA is better on paper but five years into this decade, I’ve learned not to under-estimate the intangibles at work by the Bay. I think the Giants will win the division- but LA will easily make the wildcard game.
In the NL East, call it the Curse of the Coddling. Washington have by far the best lineup, Bryce Harper is finally starting to merit mentioning in the same sentence as Mike Trout but something is amiss as evidenced by their second place standing. If Boston were cursed for decades for selling the Babe, maybe Washington will be cursed similarly for babying Stephen Strasburg (shutting him down entirely in September after 159 innings) in 2012, when the Pennant was theirs for the taking. New York have the pitching and the momentum, let’s give them the division by three or four over the Nats.
Which brings us to the AL East— and my next column, tonight…
What a difference a year makes. Last year’s super-hero ball club, the Clark Kents turned into Supermen, the Kansas City Royals, are quickly becoming the super-villains. The Lex Luthors. One might expect the Blue Jays to have a heated rivalry with the Red Sox (with the Farrell thing on top of being division rivals) , or the Yankees but the Royals?!
After this weekend’s games and chatter, on field and online, it seems clear that last year’s AL champions are Public Enemy #1 at Rogers Centre… unless umpire Jim Wolf owns that distinction.
For those who might have been enjoying the long weekend out of town and missed Sunday’s game, tempers flared even hotter than the August sky and benches cleared after a series of hit batters and brush backs. KC starter Edison Volquez plunked Josh Donaldson in the first inning, prompting a quick warning from umpire Jim Wolf. After Donaldson was thrown at again, with no response from Wolf, Troy Tulowitzki got drilled in the 7th by Ryan Madson. Still no discipline despite the umpire’s warning. Madson throwing inside at Donaldson yet again was more or less the final straw, causing Josh to lose his temper, John Gibbons to run out and promptly get ejected, soon to be joined in the clubhouse by pitcher Aaron Sanchez who was tossed before the ball he hit Royals hothead Alcides Escobar in the bottom of the inning with touched the dirt.
Benches cleared and while no punches were thrown thankfully, a veritable, verbal series of jabs ran back-and-forth afterwards online and on air. Volquez called Donaldson a “crybaby” and criticized his “pimping” of home runs (something few KC players could be accused of, given their lack of power!); while manager Ned Yost of the Royals had the audacity to praise the “phenomenal” job of umpiring by Wolf.
In response, Jose Bautista tweeted that he “lost a lot of respect” for Yost, prompting Yordano Ventura to call Joey Bats a “nobody” in a tweet he eventually deleted.
Bautista articulately added later on that his comments said “nothing against his managerial capabilities… he’s doing pretty good at that, obviously their record reflects it” but questioned the job of umpiring. “Why put a warning on if somebody is going to get hit with a fastball…and not be taken out of the game?”
A very good question MLB should be asking.
It’s not the first time the Royals have made enemies throwing at batters this year. Benches cleared against Oakland earlier in the season after Ventura plunked an Athletic and days later both Volquez and Ventura got suspended after a brawl with the White Sox, the latter being suspended seven games as baseball deemed him the instigator. So Royals riling up opponents by being head-hunters is hardly anything new. What is is for the umpire to seemingly condone it.
No one in the Jays organization has said it but I will- having Jim Wolf umpire while his brother Randy is an active pitcher is a bad idea. Perhaps Wolf the ump simply thought there was no intent on the pitches brushing back Blue Jays and plunking Tulo. Or forgot that he had warned both benches innings earlier. But am I the only one who has considered that if Jim’s brother, Randy , was on the Blue Jays bench that he wouldn’t have had the chance to call the game. The fact that Randy is instead toiling in Buffalo (quite well, with a 7-1 record and 2.48 ERA) while Toronto has had a revolving door of pitchers up and down may have been the farthest thing from Jim’s mind. But it sure isn’t a stretch to think that at least on a subconscious level, older bro’ Jim might be a bit angry at the jays for not promoting his little brother Randy and is letting it influence his calling the game.
A wise man once said “justice must not only be done but must be seen as being done.” Jim Wolf tossing a Jays pitcher for hitting a KC player after two Toronto players got hit by pitchers with a notorious history of throwing at players doesn’t seem just.
Nevertheless, the whole incident might be “just” the great bonding event that the team needed. Thanks Kansas City, thanks Jim Wolf. You might have been what our Clark Kents of the ball diamond needed to find the nearest phone booth…
Tuesday addendum: the league announced suspensions for Aaron Sanchez and John Gibbons today yet somehow turn a blind eye to the KC head-hunters. That’s unfair on a hundred levels… but may help cement team unity and determination even better than a trade for an All Star. So, in a roundabout way, thanks MLb!
Much has been said and written about the voting for this year’s All Star Game, and in particular, how Kansas City fans have been, well …”enthusiastic” about showing their support. As of this weekend, Royals are leading in seven of nine positions… and even Omar Infante, the veteran second baseman who sports a .217 average, no homers or stolen bases and the lowest OPS of any regular player in the league, is within striking distance of being voted in. Catcher Salvador Perez (as Sports Illustrated put it this week, “a fine player” but not the best catcher around) leads all players in votes, garnering about 4.42 million ballots so far. He’s been e-checked on close to half of all votes sent in. The fiasco shows all that’s wrong with baseball’s All Star Game… and what’s right with it!
Obviously, it’s easy to see what is wrong, or seems wrong about it. Fans voting can electronically “stuff” the ballot box and let their loyalties override their senses. KC is a good, solid, first-place team and doubtless they deserve to have some reps there in Cincinnati for the Mid-Summer Classic. Just as obvious, they shouldn’t have seven of nine starting position players and many of the current vote leaders are nowhere close to the best choices. Mike Moustakas, for instance, is a decent third baseman finally living up to his potential; so far he’s hitting .322 with 5 HR, 18 RBI and a .465 slugging percentage. Coupled with his solid glovework, that adds up to +2.5 WAR (wins above replacement , according once again to SI). However, compare that to the Jays Josh Donaldson, a Gold Glover who’s been pacing Toronto’s league-best offense with a .310 average but 16 HR, 43 RBI and a sky-high .582 slugging pct. That equals 3.5 WAR.
One can’t begrudge the Royals’ “Moose” some votes, but how in the world does he have over a million and a half more than Josh? SI advice : “vote for Donaldson.”
Likewise, first baseman Eric Hosmer of KC is a decent player having an above average year. But his .306 avg, 7 HR, 35 ribbies and .868 OPS pale beside perennial superstar Miguel Cabrera’s .320, 12/38, .985 or even Texas’ rejuvenated Prince Fielder, he of a league leading .356 average plus 10 homers and 40 RBI. Yet, i think by now you can guess who’s in line to be voted into the big game. In the outfield, Alex Rios, injured most of the year, hitting .235 with one home run and a negative WAR (meaning an average outfielder, if replacing Rios, would actually mean more KC victories) has been voted on over two million times, and many times more than the Jays Jose Bautista or Orioles Adam Jones! Apparently madness isn’t just a British ska band.
The problems with this are obvious. Unless there’s a huge pushback by fans in places like Toronto, Detroit and Dallas in the next couple of weeks (or unless fans in places like New York and Boston hold their noses and cast ballots for the likes of Miggy and Donaldson), the American League starting lineup in the All Star is going to look a whole lot like the team that lost the World Series to San Fran last fall. The lineup is going to be far from the best one available from the talent pool.
As well, with the home advantage in the World Series riding on it, it’s not inconceivable the fans’ choices might come back and bite the AL team (be it Detroit, Texas, Toronto or even, ironically, KC) on the butt in October. Do you think anyone on an American League team playing Game 7 in the World Series in St. Louis or DC this fall will forget if Omar Infante struck out with the bases loaded in the All Star game?
However,it also shows what’s right about the process. For starters, the game is primarily a showcase of talent for fans, and fans should thus have some say in who they want to see out there. Little question Miguel Cabrera is a better player than Eric Hosmer and Jose Bautista with his .400 on base pct. outranks Alex Gordon in almost every possible measurable statistic, but if more fans want to see Hosmer and Gordon, should they be denied? It’s the fans who fill the stands, and have their eyes glued to their TVs in numbers that get advertisers standing in line salivating to buy time.
Secondly, baseball has come to realize the potential for this problem and has made the game less and less dependent upon fan ballots. With the players themselves voting in backups and the manager filling in some of the bench players and pitchers, not to mention the contentious rule that every team must be represented by at least one player, there will be solid talent there and a diverse range of caps no matter how determined the western Missouri voters might be. Their choice of Sal Perez or Moose Moustakas won’t prevent Stephen Vogt or Josh Donaldson appearing in the game. Baseball gets the balance between getting fan faves and getting the best available players as closer to perfect than any other sport.
And, as much as I might be a bit loathe to admit it, it’s great to see the surge of votes for KC. For years it seemed the big-market, big-money teams (read: Yankees, Red Sox) dominated the voting. With voting now online and the power of social media, it’s obvious the playing field is leveled. I can’t help but be pleased to see the outpouring of support for their team from the people of Kansas City. The KC metro area has a population barely over two million- one tenth that of New York City! Among major league cities, only Cleveland and Milwaukee are smaller urban areas. One has to admire the passion for their team and be thrilled with what one great season can do to turn around the fortunes of a small market team that had struggled at the gate for some years. We Toronto fans can bitch about it – or get to our computers and smart phones and vote for Donaldson, Bautista, Martin and Encarnacion.
If there’s anyone to feel bad for in this whole process, it’s probably Ned Yost and his pitchers. As manager of last year’s AL champions, completing the All Star roster falls on his shoulders and given his requirements (a player from each of the 15 teams) and the resentment some fans are feeling at the stacking of the lineup with Royals, one has to think he won’t be naming any of his talented pitchers to be there. Pity him the day he walks into the clubhouse after naming his fill-ins. So c’mon down, Koji Uehara and Luke Gregorson and enjoy watching the game from the comfort of your living room, Greg Holland and Mr. Sub-One ERA, Wade Davis!