It’s strange to realize it but yesterday the Blue Jays hit the one-quarter mark of this very strange baseball season. And unless they get a lot better quickly, it will be that, one-quarter of the entire amount of games to be played in 2020 because as it stands now, any post-season berth – even in this year of vastly expanded playoffs set against dramatically shortened regular season – seems out of the question.
A weird thing about writing about baseball or any other sport is that things can change quickly… I had this column mostly done yesterday but waited to finish it up and edit and in the meantime, they played a game for the record books last night. They hit seven homers, got 18 hits,overcame an 8-run deficit… but still lost anyway, 14-11 to the Marlins. That game gave us a taste of the Jays 1-through-9 lineup we perhaps expected and hoped for this year, but not the pitching.
Even considering last night, the overall takeaway for this season’s Blue Jays squad is one of unfulfilled potential and, yes, I’ll say it, a need for changes in the coaching staff. Although they were pretty awful last night, in general the team’s pitching has been good. Starting has generally been reliable (if not eating up too many innings yet), Hyun-Jin Ryu’s been very good back to back after a couple of shaky starts to begin his Toronto career and for the most part, the bullpen’s been solid even without closer Ken Giles (on the IL.)
The rest of the game is something else though. Fielding has been shoddy at best. Although the official scorers have only charged them with 8 errors so far, leading to a .985 fielding percentage (pretty much spot on the norm for the MLB), their 13 double plays turned is barely half the number pulled off by “bad” teams such as Kansas City and Boston and the “Rdrs” number is -3. Yeah, I have very little idea what that is or how it’s calculated, but it stands for “defensive runs saved” and when it’s in the negatives, you know your defense is costing you runs and costing you games compared to an ordinary average crew. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. seems to be having a tough time adjusting to his supposedly easier new position of first base, making errors on throws and not being able to track down routine pop-ups, but the whole young infield seems shaky and the last time we saw a Blue Jays outfielder make a highlight reel catch was whenever we last saw Kevin Pillar in a Toronto uniform.
What’s killing the team’s chances though, last night’s home run derby notwithstanding, is not popups in foul territory falling out of range of our gloves. It’s hitting. Or a lack thereof. Going into last night’s game, the team’s offensive numbers were shockingly bad. A .218 batting average. Even though pitcher’s are having a good run of it so far this season (with the MLB average being a mere .235, about 25 points off the average over recent years and more surprising given that the NL is now using full-time DHs) , a .218 average is worst of any of the 10 teams in East divisions… which is to say the ones Toronto plays this year. Likewise, a dreadful .279 OBS. Their cumulative 20 doubles is half of what Atlanta’s hitters have produced. Although they clipped 16 HR before last night (now 23) only two of those weren’t solo dingers. Which leads to another issue- their .172 average with runners in scoring position. No wonder they are leaving an average of 7 men on base per game, despite their low averages yielding not many base runners. No wonder they are swinging at more first pitches than any other team in baseball, leading to fewer good pitches to hit. Bottom line – before last night’s game, they were scoring fewer runs per game than any other team. When you only average 3.14 runs a game, you’re demanding your pitchers have their absolute A-game every night to give you an outside chance of winning.
It’s much a continuation of the disappointment we felt last year when Toronto was dead last in the majors in batting average (.236) and 12th best in the AL in runs, at just under 4.5 per game. Only they’ve gotten worse in fact.
“Youth is what we’re seeing,” says GM Ross Atkins. “Hitters need to make adjustments.” They do, and they aren’t. For example, it’s quickly becoming cliched to point out that the difference between minor league Guerrero Jr – the prodigy – and major league Guerrero Jr. – the average, so-so hitter – is that in the minors he was hitting the ball hard and in the air. Now he’s hitting softer groundballs. I’m not a big fan of all the Sabermatics type stats now in vogue, but his “launch angle” is telling. Most power hitters launch the ball upwards by about 20-25 degrees. Last year Vlad upped it by 6.7 degrees. Hitting it nearly flat, parallel to the turf. This year, he’s launching it at… 6.7 degrees. Hard to hit home runs or even drill doubles into the corners when it’s a ground ball and the player is a slow runner to boot. 6.7 last year, 6.7 this year. Textbook example of not making adjustments.
And while Bo Bichette was hot last year in a limited showing and clipped 5 hits last night, staying hot this year, it’s difficult to find examples of any of the team’s young staff making adjustments and progressing forward in their hitting. Sorry to say it, but it’s time to change hitting coaches.
Guillermo Martinez might be a wonderful guy. I don’t know him. He’s only 35 so he can probably relate to some of the young players on the roster. But as a player, he was a decent glove who couldn’t hit, even in the minors where his career stalled. In fact he hit all of .201 in three years in the minor leagues, with a slugging percentage of .269. In 65 games at AA or AAA, he hit all of five extra base hits – all doubles.
Granted, there’s the old adage about “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” You don’t need to be Elton John to teach piano or Ansel Adams to instruct others on how to use a camera. But it doesn’t hurt. And as another adage says, “the proof is in the pudding.” Martinez couldn’t hit well as a player, but others who couldn’t turned into fine coaches. Guillermo though has had a year and change to get some results from the team’s hitters and hasn’t succeeded in any measurable way.
It’s time to try someone new on for size. It might be too late to salvage a real shot at the World Series this year but with 45 games left, it’s not too late to get a feel for if a new coach had the ability to coach and get results. If he can,look out AL East in 2021. If he can’t, at least they have a long winter to find someone who could.
We’re in the midst of something truly historic in baseball this year. We may be seeing the best crop of young players to come into the league ever. That’s not to say that someone new on the diamond this season is going to become the “best-ever”, but that the incredible volume of great rookies and sophomores collectively may never have been surpassed.
Almost every year, one or two kids come up and have great seasons. Many of them go onto bigger and better; some will find their way to Cooperstown a couple of decades or so down the road. This year however, the list that potentially fit that category is long, and spans at least half the teams in the Majors. It’s so amazing that players like outfielders Bryan Reynolds (with Pittsburgh) and Alex Verdugo (Dodgers) are going almost unnoticed. Reynolds is hitting .322 with 83 runs scored and 16 homers. Verdugo, .294 with a WAR of 3.1 before being shut down with a back injury last month. This week, MLB ranked him as the 10th best “young” (under 25) rookie so far this year. Makes it hard to imagine times like 2004 when Bobby Crosby of Oakland won the Rookie of the Year award with a .239 average and 70 runs scored, or 2009 NL winner Chris Coghlan from the Marlins whose career WAR was 0.2.
In a dismal season so far for Toronto, fans have been able to get excited about their rookie contingent including Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette. MLB still rank Guerrero as the best rookie, although noting he likely won’t win the Rookie of the Year and suggest his “offensive upside ranks with any prospect in recent memory”, while Bichette is ranked 5th, they point out traling only Alex Rodriguez and rookie classmate Fernando Tatis Jr. of San Diego for best slugging percentage for a rookie shortstop under 22 years old – .592.
In between the two Jays are the aforementioned Tatis (.317 with 22 HR in 83 games), Astros OF Yordan Alvaraez , (.315, 25 HR, 75 RBI in 77 games, plus 48 walks resulting in an OPS an extraordinary 78% better than league average), and Eloy Jimenez of the White Sox (28 HR.) Somehow, Pete Alonso of the Mets, with his NL rookie record 47 homers, comes in only 8th on the MLB list! Fans in cities like Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and Washington all have new faces putting in remarkable performances.
While the ranks of pitchers aren’t being filled with so many budding superstars, we can’t discard the importance of the likes of Chris Paddack of San Diego and Mike Soroka of Atlanta can’t be discarded. Soroka is considered the top rookie pitcher, a 21 year old who’s 14-5 with a 2.70 ERA and 190 innings logged for the Braves so far. His WAR is 5.6.
Compound all these players in with last year’s rookie stars – Atlanta’s Ronald Acuna, Washington’s Juan Soto and Dodgers pitcher Walker Buehler and you have a remarkable class of newcomers who are dominating the game after only a few months on the field.
This may lead to problems for the league not too far down the road. The past couple of seasons have already seen a slower market for free agents, with fewer teams bidding and some veterans who were still capable of playing fairly decently (think Dallas Keuchel, Evan Gattis) missing out entirely by the start of the year. The union is quick to call “collusion”’ savvy owners have pointed out that more and more value is being added by young, low-paid players and too many long-term contracts to veterans have come back to bite them.
The end result of this is that the next labor negotiations after 2021’s season, could be quite nasty and contentious. The union is going to be bitter, young stars are going to want a bigger piece of the pie and veterans are going to be fighting for rules to protect their ground. But that’s in the future.
For now, MLB has a unique opportunity. Never have so many young players on so many teams given their fans cause to celebrate. To root on the home team, buy new jerseys and learn a whole roster full of new names.
Basketball leaped forward in popularity with Michael Jordan; the NHL became popular in sunny Hollywood with Wayne Gretzky on ice and Tiger Woods made golf popular TV viewing for Gen X-ers. It’s been widely noted that baseball has failed to capitalize similarly on the great nature and outstanding performance of Mike Trout If it can’t sell one superstar, perhaps it can with eight or ten.
Job One for Rob Manfred this off-season should be getting together with PR consultants to figure out how to do just that. Because the MLB has a golden egg right now… they need to keep that goose healthy. If baseball can’t skyrocket in public interest by marketing Mike Trout, let’s hope it can with the combined effects of Guerrero, Tatis, Alonso, Bichette, Acuna and Alvaraez. The long-term well-being of the sport may rest on it being able to do so.
Tonight Toronto starts their last series against Boston this year, and one can expect many in the (likely small) Rogers Centre crowd will be a little envious of the Red Sox. Not so much because of the season they’re having. Although certainly far and away better than Toronto’s, at 76-68 the Beantowners are a long-shot to make the playoffs, being 8 games out of the wild card race with only 18 games left. At best, mathematically, Boston can win 94… or 14 less than they did in last season in their World Series winning campaign. No, in that Boston has a lot in common with Toronto – a lot of disgruntled fans wondering what happened to their beloved team this year. Why Toronto might be envious is that the ownership of the Red Sox said “enough is enough” and did something about it. They fired their GM (although his title strangely enough was President of Baseball operations, the club lacking anyone with the title “General Manager”) Dave Drombowski.
Drombrowski is a great baseball man with lots of years experience, and the team’s own press release laud him for three-straight division titles and the World Series. But to them, it’s “what have you done for me lately?” They decided this year has been a bust in Beantown and someone had to pay for it and who better than the man who created the roster. Dombrowski was shown the door with 3 weeks left on the sched and another year on his contract. People were surprised.
Team manager Alex Cora said “surprised, shocked honestly” when asked for his reaction. Pity poor Alex, who’ll no doubt be looking over his shoulder a bit more for the rest of September. Star JD Martinez said about the same, that he felt “probably the same reaction you guys had – just a shock.” He added, “it’s a business and that’s their call” which hardly seemed like a strong endorsement.
MLB discussing the firing on their website noted that for all the success he’d had in the past, in the off-season he chose to let Craig Kimbrel leave and not replace him with a proven closer, that he re-signed Steve Pearce who’s been injured much of the time and that he gave a massive $145M contract extension to formerly-stellar Chris Sale, who in turn has struggled with velocity and elbow issues and tossed the worst year of his career, going 6-11 with a 4.40 ERA and few runs of consecutive good games. To counter-balance, they note he also extended Xander Bogaert’s contract and the shortstop is having his best year yet.
More damning, Dombrowski did nothing much at the trade deadline, not adding any significant impact players to a team with a decidedly weak bullpen and on-again, off-again rotation. The team rewarded that by going on an 8-game losing streak.
So the Red Sox have one “off” season and decide they need a change in direction to make sure they don’t have two disappointers in a row. If only Toronto fans were so lucky. Continue reading
First note for today. Congrats to Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Number 27 played game #100 of his career Tuesday, and had his 30th multi-hit game to celebrate. As of 100 games, Vlad has 104 hits, including 23 doubles, 15 HR and has driven in 58. Add 40 walks to his .280 average and you find a .353 on base percentage, and a .469 slugging percentage. All told, OPS of .822 and a WAR of 2.2 (actually a 2.5 offensively but a slight negative defensively.) Numbers a veteran would be proud of, let alone a rookie!
As a point of reference, another player who hit the 100 game mark seven years back. Mike Trout. Trout played his 100th game, appropriately enough on July 4, 2012. He had two hits against Cleveland that day, bringing his season average to .343. However, his first 40 games, in 2011, weren’t very remarkable, so all together after 100 games, Trout had 109 hits, with 20 doubles, 3 triples, 15 HR and 52 RBI. He was hitting an even .300, with fewer walks than Vlad, and a .355 on base, .494 slugging and .849 OPS.
A .300 average and .849 OPS top a .280 one with .822 OPS… but not by that much. Point is, Guerrero’s off to a remarkable start not that different than Mike Trout was a few years ago. And now I seem to be in the minority when I argue that Trout isn’t the best player ever.
So, if Vlad can continue to be just a little bit lesser than Trout throughout his career… I think we Jays fans have reason to rejoice! And that’s without even guessing at where Bo Bichette’s numbers will be by his 100th game, probably around May of next year.
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.
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.
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!
A couple of random items before we get back to the final instalments of the Best Ever Blue Jays.
The first is reason for hope for Jays fans. A few of whom have been grumbling about a perceived lack of performance from Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Which might be reasonable if viewed through the lens of media hype and the assumption that the majors are no different than the minors. However, the two are utterly different and there is a learning curve for even the best of players coming up. Last night, #27 played in his 49th big league game (and had 3 hits plus and RBI against the Yanks). To put his first two months in context, let’s compare him to another good player through their first 40 games. That other player is Mike Trout, who logged exactly 40 games in 2011, just few enough to keep him under the bar so he could come back and win the Rookie of the Year in 2012 – which he did. Guerrero’s 40th game was back on June 14th, so we’ve backdated his stats to that game:
Most of the stats are self-explanatory, but I point out that the decimal points are missing (software quirk) and the final column is the difference between the player’s OPS and the league average that year. Trout’s N11 is negative 11… 11% below average.
We can see that Guerrero’s numbers are better in every category. Does that mean he’ll continue to outpace Mike Trout and be an even bigger star than the Angel’s OF down the road? Not necessarily. But it does mean it’s time to shut up with the complaints about Vladimir’s hitting.
Give commissioner Rob Manfred one thing. He’s not afraid to tinker with time-honored traditions of the game. Among his many changes have been alterations to the All Star Game.
He’d already eliminated the (relatively recent) incentive of the winning team getting home field advantage in the World Series. This year he’s played around with the voting procedure.
For the first time, there are two separate votes to get to the starting lineups for the AL and NL team – the initial one which has wrapped up now and another round starting tomorrow with fans picking between the top 3 at every position. Fun! (Yawn) Excitement!
If memory serves, last year there was a cap on how many times a fan could vote -35. This year, no such limit has been in place. But a funny thing happened along the way to the All Star ballpark. Fans seemed to give up caring.
Although MLB quickly seemed to edit out the total number of votes received by players, the tallies were out there and they show that so far Cody Bellinger of LA leads with 3.68 million votes. Christian Yelich and Mike Trout are the only others to log 3 million ballots this year. Last year, Jose Altuve led all vote-getters… with 4.85 million. Flip backwards like a bat in time to 2011 and you’ll recall Jose Bautista became the first Blue Jay to lead in votes… with 7.4 million.
I don’t have the time to search out the entire vote results for year, if they are even archived and add them up. But the trend seems clear. Fans can vote more than ever this year. And they are in fact voting less than they have before this decade at least. Methinks paying the players to take part in the rusty Home Run Derby isn’t the way to bring excitement back to the Mid-summer Classic.
Perhaps if fans could vote on who they wanted for MLB Commissioner people would pay attention again.
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.
A game for the ages tonight. It could be one to tell your kids about years down the road, as baseball’s present meets its future. Or at least, that’s the hope. Toronto make their way to southern California to take on the Angels thereby making a chance to see two of the most talked-about players in the game on one field. Vladimir Guerrerro Jr., meet Mike Trout!
Trout is of course, in many people’s opinion, far and away the best player in the game right now. A seven time All Star whom we suspect might have put up better than his rather excellent .307 average and 246 home runs since he first showed up in the Majors in 2011, had he been backed by a slightly better team than his Angels have been most of this decade.
Guerrero, is of course, the Blue Jays blue chip prospect, finally promoted to the Majors last week after being ranked the #1 prospect in the sport for the last two years. He’s played just 3 games thus far and tonight will be the first for him outside the friendly confines of the home crowd in Toronto.
The two seem to have a lot in common. Both are about the same size – 6’2”, around 240 pounds give or take. Both are right-handed. Both wear #27 for their team. And both entered the league young, with lots of hype and attention.
In Trout’s case, he hit “the show” at just 19, mid-season 2011, a mere two years after being drafted. Guerrero just turned 20 (meaning that technically, if he wanted to he could legally have a beer to celebrate after the game at Rogers’ Centre but not on the road!) after a fairly quick ascension through the minor league ranks, culminating in a .381 average, 75 RBI in an injury-shortened 98 games last year between levels of the minors.
So far, Guerrero’s looked fine, but not “superstar”. He’s surprisingly 1-4 in each of his first three games, making for a .250 average. He’s had one double, an important one in the 9th on Friday (his debut) when the score was tied. Brandon Drury homered later to make Guerrero’s hit the winning run. People worried about his defence but so far he’s looked at home at Third Base, making a few smooth grabs and throws and notching 6 assists so far.
Lest Toronto fans worry, should we look back at Trout’s debut almost 8 years ago? He debuted against Seattle, hitting 9th, playing Center field and wearing retro-California Angels gear. He flew out in his first at bat. He ended up going 0-3 in his first game, although like Guerrero in his first game, he hit one right to the wall that was so close to his first homer. That in fact, came 16 days later against Baltimore’s Mark Worrell.
Trout actually looked entirely ordinary that first season. He hit just .220 with a .671 OPS (which was about 11% below league average!) and 5 home runs through the 40 games the Angels ran him out to the field. Hardly the numbers of someone compared to Babe Ruth or Willie Mays. However, by the next season, 2012, his first full one, he hit .326, with 30 homers and 49 stolen bases, and hasn’t looked back to date. This year, in 26 games, he’s hitting .305 but has a phenomenal 28 walks, making for an unearthly .496 on base. He’ll be going up against veteran Clay Bucholz tonight, a pitcher he’s 5 for 10 with one home run vs. in his career.
Guerrero will be facing Griffin Canning, who’ll probably be having some butterflies in his stomach. It’s Canning’s major league debut. He’s a righty, and so far in the very limited sample, all of Vlad’s hits have been off righties, although he’s only had 2 at bats against southpaws.
So watch and enjoy. At our end, we’re hoping for some fireworks from Guerrero’s bat, but even if that doesn’t happen, it’ll be a game to remember… and worth remembering that even someone as good as Mike Trout had a learning curve at one time.
The Blue Jays have winged east and are about to open an interleague series against San Francisco tonight at the Rogers’ Centre. As it stands, the biggest ovation will probably be for one of the opponents – Kevin Pillar, the longtime Jays outfielder with the stellar glove, recently traded to the Giants. No disrespect at all to Kevin, but that should not be the case today.
More and more people are recognizing a few things about the AL East this season. Toronto isn’t all that bad, to the surprise of many. Boston isn’t as good as anyone thought or any World Series champion is expected to be. New York have a fantastic roster…on the injured list. Baltimore is bringing back 2018, which is to say rather awful and Tampa are surprisingly good, but facing a bit of adversity now. Reigning Cy Young winner Blake Snell has a broken toe and is going to miss another start or three, putting more pressure on the heavily burdened bullpen; .353 hitting Austin Meadows broke his thumb meanwhile and is gone for probably two to three weeks. No one is expecting Toronto to win the division this year, but suddenly it is also obvious that it doesn’t look like any team is going to cakewalk to the title. Which begs the question, why not go , well if not “all out” to win, at least “partly out” to try to win? Toronto currently is coming off a series sweep over Oakland and sit just 4 games out of first, closer still to a potential Wild Card spot.
Someone called “Hum and Chuck” suggested as much yesterday on Twitter and while I didn’t totally agree with all of her solution (which included biting the bullet and calling Scott Boras to get Dallas Keuchel to sign on with Toronto) her gist was spot on. Toronto isn’t totally out of the running, and with an addition or two, could make it a pretty exciting year for fans.
To start with, both Hum and Chuck and I are in agreement that there should be a nice car driven to Buffalo today to bring one Vladimir Guerrero Jr. to the north shores of Lake Ontario. If the applause for Pillar will be loud when he comes out in San Fran orange and black, imagine the cheers for the most-hyped, top-rated prospect in the game if he emerged wearing hometown blue and white!
As we’ve talked about here before, Vlad missed time in spring with an “oblique” injury, but has been playing, and playing well for some 3 weeks now. In 6 games with AAA Buffalo, he’s 8 for 21, with 2 homers and 7 RBI. That comes after last season, which you may recall won him a number of Minor League awards, hitting .381 with 78 RBI and a .636 slugging percentage over 95 games. As we also talked about, there were financial reasons to keep him demoted for two to three weeks to delay his eventual free agency down the road. That day has already come and gone. He simply cannot hit the 172 day threshold this year, ensuring thus that Toronto will control his contract for one more year than if he’d begun the season here. So what’s the holdup?
According to Toronto, it would be “reckless” to do promote him right now, because… he’s not playing enough in the minors! The weather’s been stinky in upstate New York and New England lately, and Buffalo’s had two rainouts in the last five days and thus Guerrero has had only one trip to the plate over the past weekend. The team answer inexplicably is to keep him down and send him with the Bisons to Syracuse for a 4-game series. We ask why, oh why not bring him up now,let him get his at bats at the major league level – how much more ready could he be?- and not worry about rainouts or cold weather (since although Toronto’s climate is pretty much similar to Syracuse’s, obviously Toronto has the benefit of a domed stadium). The time is right, the time is now. Bring him up and send respectable but ordinary utility guy Richard Urena back to AAA for a stretch.
Then there’s the pitching, So far, Toronto’s has been good – 88 runs allowed over 23 games – but it suffered a big blow last week when Matt Shoemaker, who’d been stellar in four starts, tore his knee up on a fielding play and announced he’ll miss the rest of the season. Rookie Trent Thornton is looking shakier by the game and clearly, to remain close to competitive, a new arm or two is needed. While the Twitter writer suggested Keuchel, who’s sat out this far into the year waiting for a big, long-term contract, we’d suggest a slightly more modest target – Gio Gonzalez.
Gonzalez was just released by the Yankees, who’d signed him to a minor league deal with an option to leave if not in the Bronx by last week. He would’ve made a modest $3 million had he made the team. Which makes one think he might be far more amenable to a one year deal that wouldn’t break a team’s bank. Why wait Blue Jays?
Gonzalez is 33, and a few years beyond his prime maybe. Nothing however, suggests he’s washed up. He started 3 games this spring at AAA, going 15 innings and 2-1. The southpaw made 32 starts last year, going 10-11 with a 4.21 ERA between Washington and Milwaukee. The year before he was a rather impressive 15-9 with a 2.96 ERA over 201 innings and a WAR of 6. He’s been nothing short of a reliable workhorse this decade, He’s made 27 or more starts and gone 170+ innings every season since 2009. With his control and stingy allowance of homers through his career, he’d be a great #4 or 5 guy in Toronto’s rotation, help save bullpen arms and perhaps add some mature wisdom to the myriad of youngsters in the clubhouse. So I say, get on that phone Ross Atkins… right after you get that Uber to Buffalo to bring Vladimir to Toronto.