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.
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.
It’s early. That we all know. But with ten or so games under the belt, fans are starting to get a sense of what the season might hold in store. If you were, for example a Red Sox fan, you could probably begin reading all the screaming articles already written about their surprisingly terrible start and would still be reading them after the Blue Jays (who share the Sox last place 3-8 record) had come to town, played the series starting today and departed.
Here in Toronto Fanland, some observations are coming into focus at this early juncture. Again, only 11 games are done but some things seem increasingly obvious. Like that the pitching so many of us thought would be a weak spot is actually a good deal better than we’d expected. But likewise, the hitting so far has been atrocious and one has to begin to wonder soon if we haven’t horribly over-estimated the ability of the position players, new hitting coach Guillermo Martinez, or both. Perhaps worst of all however, is that the fans don’t seem to be screaming the sky is falling. Neither do the players or coaches for that matter. And that, more than say, a regular outfielder and frontline catcher each having one RBI apiece so far might spell trouble for the “New Jays” and the next year or two.
Toronto is 3-8, and worse, that comes after starting the year with a 7-game home stand against the supposedly dreadfully-bad Orioles and Tigers. The pitching has been better than any of us had likely really hoped… witness low-cost free agent pickup Matt Shoemaker who will be facing off against Chris Sale today. Who would have thought that the guy out of that pair that would have yet to allow a run after 14 innings would be the Blue Jay?
But the offense… oh my. It’s almost offensive to call Toronto’s hitting “offense”. While thus far, pitching has dominated in general in the AL(the league batting average so far, a paltry .231), there’s no good way to put a positive spin on the team’s .183 average … even if that somehow tops both the Tigers and Indians! Likewise, the number that matters – the runs scored – at 29 is not an attractive number for 11 games played. Seattle has scored nearly three times that already – 85. And pundits thought the Mariners were going to tank this year. Toronto have scored over 3 runs only three times to this point; they’ve been shutout once and notched only a single run three times. Not a recipe for a winning team. Ask Marcus Stroman, who’s had three excellent starts, boasts a 2.41 ERA and yet is 0-2.
The lethargic hitting isn’t something that can be pinned on just one or two under-achievers or slow starters. To this point, of all the regulars, really only little-known shortstop Freddy Galvis (picked up from San Diego in the off-season, presumably so the Padres could open up a roster spot for Manny Machado) is hitting well. He leads the team with a .324 average, 11 hits, 6 ribbies and sports a high-quality 1.025 OPS. He also is tied with Randal Grichuk for the high of 3 homers; Grichuk however is hitting .162, half of the Galvis number. Veteran Justin Smoak is hitting exactly the Mendoza Line (.200) and has launched just one longball to date. Brandon Drury, the third baseman with the Sword of Damacles (otherwise known as Vladimir Guerrero Jr.) hanging over him isn’t doing much to lobby for regular playing time once VG2 shows up… he’s hitting .179 and has struck out 17 times out of 39 AB. Danny Jansen, the young catcher labeled as the “hitting catcher” (Reese McGuire, at Buffalo is a bit behind in development and seems to be being labeled the “defense” catcher) is managing just a .143 average and one RBI. Which is still a ways ahead of multi-positional Lourdes Gurriel, a player with average at best defensive skills but a potent bat (witness his 11 game streak of multiple hits last summer) is hitting .074. Yikes! He’s K’d 9 times but walked once, so don’t look to the on base percentage as the silver lining there. And while there are players who have speed in the lineup and a coaching staff preaching a new, feisty attitude, they’ve collectively yet to steal a base.
Obviously, there’s lots of time for these guys to turn it around and start putting runs on the board left and right. But the lacklustre start is reason for concern. As is too, just how little seems to be being said about it so far.
At first glance it might seem a good thing for the team and a credit to the fans that there seems to be little panic out there. I’m not currently in the GTA so I can’t gauge coffee shop banter, but judging from Twitter and the Toronto newspapers, there seems to be no real outrage or even anguished concern over the slow start and awful hitting. Rewind three or four years and a single strikeout with bases loaded in extra innings could unleash a torrent of anguish and anger comparable to what some invading armies face when entering a foreign land. So maybe all of us fans are maturing. Understanding the team’s not designed to win the World Series this year and are comfortable with that. It’s quite relaxing not having to worry if the team wins or loses in fact.
I don’t see it that way though. Toronto fans are too passionate, too deeply involved in the team’s hills and dales. Or else they have been. I worry – and the front office should be terrified – that the easy acceptance of the mounting losses is more than understanding, evidence of a growing indifference to the team and its management. Consider the attendance. Two years ago they led the AL and were selling out most games. Last year they were still middle-of-the-pack attendance wise, but crowds had dropped by 26%. This year, according to Fansided, attendance has dipped by 305 over the first ten days last year! The writing was on the wall when tickets were still available for opening day as the team took the field; the paragraph was completed when the attendance of 10 460 on the first Monday was the lowest for any game at the Rogers’ Centre in nine years. As that site suggests, “management seem hellbound on taking this roster down to the studs and no amount of fan revolt will change that.” And as much as fans like a drink and snack while watching, no amount of reduced-price beers and hot dogs are going to lure them back to see a team of mostly unknown players who seem to have in common only an inability to hit and a relative lack of concern over that fact.
At least fans had something to cheer about yesterday. Edwin Encarnacion hit two home runs in one inning. Uh, yeah… for Seattle. Perhaps its time for the team to retire “Ace” the jaybird mascot and replace him with a guy in a toga carrying a violin… because the ownership seem to be fiddling while their Rome burns.
Team Record – 11 – 15 (.424)
another somewhat dismal month with many on the crew looking like they’d lost heart and interest by the return from the All Star break as losses pile up and the Red Sox put on the hyperdrive to seemingly run away from the pack, including the Yankees, second best in baseball but some 5 games out in the division. The Jays languish in 4th, some 14.5 games behind the wild card teams. Three game sweep of Orioles post-All Star break was a minor highlight; Jays have owned the orange-birds this year winning 9 of 10.
Player of the Month – Lourdes Gurriel Jr.
we’re starting to see why the Jays were so eager to get this guy out of Cuba and sign him to a surprisingly large long-term contract a couple of years back. Looking more confident by the day, he showed hustle, versatility and did something no one had done in baseball since Tony Perez back in ’73- put together an 11-game streak of multi-hit games! He raised his average by over 100 points to .322, some 60 points higher than the next top hitter on the roster with over 100 at bats (which would be Kendrys Morales, believe it or not.) On the month, Gurriel had 30 hits in just 17 games,hitting .423 with 4 doubles, 4 homers adding up to a .648 slugging percentage! Unfortunately he hurt his knee on Monday and will miss most, if not all of August.
Pitcher of the Month – Ryan Borucki
it could be seen as an indictment of the many veterans on the Jays that the player and pitcher that really stood out in July were both rookies. But we’ll take it as a message of hope of better years to come! Toronto’s pitching was quite bad this past month – 142 runs allowed over the 26 games, with the opponents putting 8 or more on the board 7 times. So this kid, compared already to a skinnier Mark Buehrle was a breath of fresh air in his 5 starts, even though he still hasn’t picked up a big league win! He started 5, went 29 innings, throwing an average of 95 pitches per game. He had a 2.79 ERA in the month, but if you throw out a single bad start against the red-hot Red Sox, he was averaging nearly 7 innings a start, had 20 Ks to only 3 walks allowed and an ERA well under 2. Even though his opponents are hitting a rather solid .279 against him, his ability to keep the ball on the ground (no homers allowed thus far) is doing what matters- keeping them off the board.
Story of the Month – The trades
Expected but still disappointing, with the team well and truly out of contention, management jettisoned a lot of salary and talent, particularly when it comes to pitchers – the team’s best pitcher of the year so far, JA Happ going to the Yanks, with Canadian-born reliever John Axford off to LA, long-serving Aaron Loup over to Philly and Seung Hwan Oh sent to Colorado. For the most part, the return on them was not very inspiring, but who knows- more than one star have been developed from low-prospect minor leaguers picked up via trade. The one different breed of cat – or trade- was the surprising trade of one time superstar-in-the-making Roberto Osuna to Houston for their erstwhile closer Ken Giles and two minor league pitchers. This had everything to do with Osuna’s arrest and subsequent suspension and a realization fans wouldn’t take warmly to him … as apparently, Justin Verlander in Houston isn’t either. Most fans I’ve heard from approve of this one.