There are very few teams in baseball that possess the type of home run power that can be found north of the border in Toronto. They Jays have already gone deep 31 times in just 25 games, trailing only the Braves and Yankees in the long ball department. Prolific sluggers like Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion have plenty of power to put on a display, but it’s not just them. Catcher J.P Arencibia looks poised to set a new career high in homer this year, blasting 8 already this season to go along with 15 RBI and Colby Rasmus has used his pull-happy approach to knock 4 out of the park thus far.
But that homer-happy approach that the Blue Jays’ hitters are so fond of also has its negative effects as well. Toronto batters are hitting just .226 this season, good for last in the American League. The Blue Jays have also averaged nearly 8 strikeouts a game as a lineup which stands as the 3rd most in the AL and their hitters whiff three times as often as they take a walk. In fact, most of the Toronto hitters appear so intent on trying to hit the ball 400 feet that they have completely abandoned most good hitting practices.
Winning the battles in November, December, and January brings no guarantee that the real battles will be won on the field and the Toronto Blue Jays are about to find that out the hard way. The consensus champions of the offseason brought a whole host of new players north of the border in their quest to return to the postseason for the first time in nearly 20 years, but that doesn’t guarantee results. R.A. Dickey, Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson and others will have to prove that they mesh as well on the field as everybody seems to think they do on paper. Here are just a few of the reasons I think the Blue Jays will be watching October baseball instead of playing it:
Adam Dunn, is by all means, having a terrific bounce-back season in 2012, after living a ball player’s nightmare for most of 2011. Dunn is also just off the pace to pull off one of the oddest and rarest Triple Crowns in history, as he leads all of baseball in each of the 3 true outcomes walks (81) and strikeouts (166) and homeruns (33). That also means an astonishing 57.8% of his 491 plate appearances have ended without the ball landing in the field of play. Only a meager handful of players in baseball history have ever approached that 57.8% mark, and according to Jonah Keri, only 5 players have ever won the homer/strikeout/walks Triple Crown, with the most recent being Dale Murphy in 1985. If you were wondering, Babe Ruth has done it on 4 separate occasions and is still the only player to accomplish this feat more than once. Will Adam Dunn add his name to the list? Let’s take a look:
Another day, another wave of injuries. Such has been life for Major League Baseball this season. Three All-Star players, Jose Bautista, Joey Votto, and David Ortiz went down yesterday, and their injuries only further cloud what has become a murky playoff picture in the NL Central and AL Wild Card races. Let’s take a look at the options Cincinnati, Toronto, and Boston have in replacing a sizable amount of production in their respective lineups.
With the calendar turning over to May baseball will truly begin to heat up. We’ve had some surprises and some disappointments, and the next month of baseball will do a lot to clear up a rather cloudy picture, particularly in the AL East. Baseball’s best division has lived up to its name once again this season, producing 5 teams playing quality baseball. The AL East already looks like it could produce 3 playoff teams this year, so let’s take a look at which team has the best odds, and which has an inside track to winning the division title.
Currently every team in the AL East is sitting at or above .500, with Tampa Bay holding a slight lead at 15-8. Baltimore has been surprisingly scrappy, dominating the Blue Jays 5-1 but struggling against the Yankees dropping all 4. The Yankees were swept to start the year in Tampa, but pummeled the Red Sox in Fenway. Boston has rebounded after another slow start, going 7-1 in their last 8 games, and Toronto has feasted on a weak schedule of AL Central teams. All of these clubs have struggled with pitching except for Baltimore, which has the 8th best staff in baseball. Everyone outside of Baltimore has been an offensive powerhouse, taking 4 of the top 8 spots in runs scored, with Boston leading the pack.
If Tampa’s offense remains this potent, they immediately become the new favorites in the AL East. The Rays have a legitimately excellent pitching staff and that fact will boar its way out as the season progresses. It’s their offense that was an issue a year ago, and so far that has been the team’s real strength. Evan Longoria hit .329/.433/.561 with 4 homes and 19 RBIs and is potential MVP candidate if Josh Hamilton cools down. Carlos Pena has been one of the best free agent signings in baseball so far hitting for a .900 OPS while playing excellent defense at 1st. Matt Joyce and Luke Scott each have 5 homers, giving the Rays a nice mix of power to go with the speed of Desmond Jennings, who has stolen 6 bases.
The starting pitching is in place for a 95-win campaign if the Rays can sort out the early bullpen issues. New closer Fernando Rodney has been excellent, but the rest of the pen has been leaky. Burke Badenhop and Joel Perralta both have more than 10 appearances and still have ERAs over 7.00. The Rays may need to use former starter Wade Davis in more high leverage situations if the rest of the pen doesn’t improve. Davis has been excellent, posting a sub-2.50 ERA in 11.2 innings so far in his first season in the bullpen. Tampa also just concluded the best series victory of any team this season, defeating the Rangers in 3 games in Arlington, no easy task. The Rays are already out to an early lead, and look to be a strong contender for a playoff spot, so I’d put their odds at:
40% division title/80% playoff spot
UPDATE: Longoria has a partially torn hamstring and will miss anywhere from 4-8 weeks. This is a massive blow to Tampa Bay and will undoubtedly hurt their offense. The Rays have plenty of depth, but losing your best player is tough for any team to overcome.
Baltimore’s pitching staff has been their key to success so far, led by the impressive Jason Hammel. Hammel is 3-1 with a 1.97 ERA in 32 innings, striking out a solid 8.4 per 9. He throws a good fastball, plus slider, and a solid curve, so his success will probably continue to some degree. The other Japanese import, Wei-Yin Chen has also been pitching his socks off, posting a 2.22 ERA in 24 innings. Matt Wieters and Adam Jones have also been important to Baltimore’s success, with each hitting 6 big flies so far.
The bullpen has also done a stand-up job and has been the best in baseball, with a 2.03 ERA. Jim Johnson already has 7 saves while not allowing a run. Luis Ayala also hasn’t given up a single run in the 11 innings he has pitched, and Darren O’Day has only given up 1. However, the Orioles have struggled against the traditional powerhouses and more than likely the favorites will start to pummel Baltimore pitching, pushing the O’s back down to the cellar. Their odds:
0% division title/5% playoff spot
The New York Yankees pitching staff has been absolutely brutal so far, ranking 20th in baseball. The only reason that ranking isn’t any worse is because the Yankees bullpen has been excellent so far, ranking 3rd in baseball in ERA. CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda have both shown signs of improvement after early struggles, so their problems are probably going to be short-lived. Phil Hughes and Freddy Garcia, not so much. Garcia has already been demoted to the bullpen after being shelled for 19 earned runs in 13 innings with an astronomically bad WHIP of 2.195. David Phelps, who has saved the Yankees in long relief, gets a call-up to the rotation, where his lower 90s fastball and ability to command the strike zone should play nicely.
Phil Hughes’ stay in the rotation is also probably near its conclusion, because when you give up 5 homers in 16 innings it makes it tough to win ballgames. 40-year-old Andy Pettitte should be on his way with the next couple of weeks, and if he has anything left in the tank, it will be an improvement.
The offense has gone about business as usual, ranking 3rd in baseball in runs scored, averaging 5.45 a game. The Yankees are 1st in baseball in homers, led by Curtis Granderson’s 8, and currently have 3 hitters with an OPS above .950, led by Derek Jeter’s 1.012. The offense is always present in New York, its just a matter of how much pitching the Yankees have, and this year it should be enough to get to the playoffs. Their odds:
30% division title/75% playoff spot
The Toronto Blue Jays have been an interesting team this year. They are batting .239 as a team, yet the Jays rank 8th in baseball in runs scored. They don’t walk an outstanding number of times, nor do they steal a ton of bases, ranking near the middle of the league in both categories. They have also done all of this while Jose Bautista is slumping, hitting an abysmal .181/.320/.313, with only 3 homers. Edwin Encarnacion has been the team’s best hitter mashing for a 1.054 OPS with 8 home runs and 21 RBI, both top 3 in the American League.
The starting pitching has also been improved; with 4 starters currently ranking as better than league average, led by Kyle Drabek. Drabek has struck out 26 batters in 30 innings, an excellent rate for a starter, while posting a 2.44 ERA. He has some command issues, which could get him in trouble against the patient lineups throughout the division, so it will be interesting to see if he can keep his runs allowed down going forward. Toronto has a weak bullpen that is already dealing with injury problems, so the margin of error here is thin, but if Bautista starts producing, Toronto’s pitching won’t have to be so precise. Their odds:
15% division title/35% playoff spot
After all the early fires and panicking in Boston, the Red Sox are quietly on a nice 7-1 run. The offense has been mashing, and already leads baseball in runs scored. David Ortiz is hitting a bananas .405/.457/.726, turning the clock back to 2005. Cody Ross has stepped up big time with injuries to Carl Crawford and Jacoby Ellsberry, hitting a solid .257 with good power, slugging 5 early homers. If Kevin Youkilis and Adrian Gonzalez get going, the Red Sox lineup will turn into a pitcher’s worst nightmare. The only problem is that the pitching staff gives nearly all of Boston’s runs back.
So far the Red Sox have had the worst staff in baseball. The bullpen has been the main problem, also ranking last in baseball in ERA. Not that the starters have been any better, as only Daniel Bard ranks much above league average. Beckett and Lester have been positively mediocre, posting mid-4.00 ERAs, and Clay Buchholz has been an unmitigated disaster, posing a WHIP near 2.00 and an ERA above 8.00 in 29 innings. This kind of performance doomed the Red Sox a year ago, and it threatens to do so again. The current odds:
15% division title/30% playoff spot
Yesterday saw quite a few excellent games on Opening Day Act 2. Let’s go over a couple of games between AL East and AL Central teams.
In Detroit, the battle between Justin Verlander and Jon Lester, the aces of the Tigers, and Red Sox, lived up to the hype. Verlander picked right up where he left off, allowing only 2 hits, walking 1, and striking out 7 in 8 scoreless innings. His dominance was fueled by his curveball, which was hellacious, and he struck out 6 of the 7 batters on the pitch. Lester was no slouch either, allowing only a solitary run in the 7th before being pulled.
But almost predictably the Red Sox bullpen imploded. With the injury to Andrew Bailey and the conversion of Daniel Bard to a starter, the relief corp in Boston is ridiculously thin. In 2 innings of work, 4 pitchers combined to give up 4 hits, 1 walk, striking out nobody, and allowing 2 runs. When Vincente Padilla is the first man out of the ‘pen in a 1-0 game in the 8th, that is not a good sign.
Jose Valverde, who was a lucky 49-49 in saves a year ago, was also abysmal. He threw 1 awful inning allowing both Red Sox runs on 3 hits, but it didn’t matter. The Red Sox pen would not allow itself to be victorious on this day, and Alfredo Aceves gave up the winning hit to Austin Jackson with the bases loaded in the 9th to send the Tiger fans home happy.
In the best game of the day, the Blue Jays and Indians played an Opening Day classic, a 7-4, 16-inning brawl won by Toronto. The game appeared to be a tidy 4-1 Indian win , mostly due to the spectacular pitching of Justin Masterson, who was a Jose Bautista solo shot away from a shutout. He struck out 10 and only allowed 3 base runners over the course of 8 innings. The 9th is when things got interesting however.
In the top of the 9th, Chris Perez, the nominal closer for Cleveland, came in and immediately made the game an interesting affair. In only 2/3s of an inning he walked 2, gave up 3 hits, and allowed 3 runs to score. At his best, Perez is a mediocre closer who has had only 1 truly good season, back in 2010. The rest of the Indian’s bullpen, particularly Tony Sipp, impressed, which is a good sign. If Cleveland reshuffles their bullpen, and makes another pitcher the closer, good things will happen.
With a potential win in reach, John Farrell, Toronto’s manager, immediately got creative with his defense. In the bottom of the 9th he moved his outfield around, and put Jose Bautista at first. Bautista played the position with grace, looking comfortable, and making a few plays. In addition to his positional versatility, Bautista also did what he does best: mash the ball and get on base. He was 3-4 with 2 walks, a homer, and 2 RBIs.
The longer the game went on, the more creative Farrell got with his defense. In the 12th inning, after Cleveland loaded the bases with 1 out, Farrell made a particularly ballsy call. He decided to sub in Omar Vizquel for leftfielder Eric Thames. Then he decided that instead of positioning Vizquel in the outfield, he would put him near the base at second, shifting the shortstop Escobar into the hole. It was the rarely used 5th infielder strategy, and boy oh boy, did it totally pay off.
On the very first pitch, Asdrubal Cabrera smacked a grounder right into the hole on the left side of the infield, exactly where Escobar had been positioned. Escobar rifled the ball to second, where Kelly Johnson made the turn to complete the double play. If not for Farrell’s heady managing the game would have been over then and there, a 5-4 win for the Tribe.
The game continued into the 16th inning when JP Arencibia came up to bat with 2 runners on. Arencibia had a 1-1 count when he thought he was given the sign to bunt. He failed miserably on his bunt attempt, and was left with a 2-strike count. The next pitch, he made Cleveland pay depositing a 3-run blast into the left field seats, giving Toronto the winning runs. “For some reason, I thought I got the bunt sign,” Arencibia said. “That got me in two strikes. Then I was just trying to hit the ball. I happened to hit it hard and got it out of the park.” Either way it was an exciting game and a great way to start the season.
-Prince Fielder got a base hit in his first career at-bat as a Tiger.
-Omar Vizquel was greeted warmly by the Indian fans every time his name was announced. He also played 1st base for the second time in his illustrious career, after technically entering the game as a leftfielder.
-Colby Rasmus made an excellent diving catch in centerfield in the 5th inning, but made a near fatal mistake in the 9th. On a potentially catchable ball, he got confused, and let it skip by for a double. The play at worst would have been a single and Rasmus looked like he could not decide between making a diving attempt or picking it up on one hop. Its more boom-or-bust play out of the former highly-touted prospect.
I was looking up numbers for a discussion on teams that typically make the postseason when I noticed an interesting trend. Back in good ole’ year 2000 when runs were plentiful, 17 Major League teams scoring more than 800 runs, with 7 of those teams scoring over 900. The same year 16 players hit 40 or more home runs, led by Sammy Sosa with 50. Pitching in the majors was not for the faint of heart. Hitters were destroying the baseball, and to fans the game seemed like it was entering the future. Parks would be smaller, players would be bigger, scores would be higher, stadiums packed, contracts astronomical. A year later Bonds broke the homerun record with 73, while walking nearly as much intentionally. Baseball was forever a different game.
The steroid scandal rocked the sport shortly after and by 2003, baseball would finally have mandatory drug testing. Testing has greatly improved since 2003 and today’s game looks radically different from baseball at the turn of the century. In the last 3 years combined 13 teams have scored more than 800 and only one, the 2009 Yankees, scored more than 900. Last season two players, Jose Bautista (43) and Curtis Grander son (41), topped 40 homers. What happened? Either today’s pitchers have gotten significantly better (maybe), the sabermetric trend is greatly favoring pitchers (probably somewhat) or steroid testing has significantly affected baseball.
The numbers are backing it up, and it is showing up in the games as well. Apart from a few players, guys like Adam Dunn and Albert Pujols, the average major leaguer is smaller today. Small ball is making a comeback. In 2011 teams stole 3,279 bases, up about 350 from the 2000 season. 400 fewer errors were made last year compared to 2000 as well, which means that the value being placed by front offices everywhere on defense is grading out. Only one team in 2000, Cincinnati, converted over 70% of batted balls into outs while last year we had 10 such teams.
Today’s players are slimmer, faster, and more athletic which means more dynamic defense. Some of this movement has to be related to testing. With fewer players having unlimited power due to steroids, it means that on any given night in ballparks around the country players are flashing the leather. Fewer complete liabilities on defense are getting jobs. Gone are the days when you could go to the park and see Barry Bonds or Gary Sheffield in left, Big Mac or Greg Vaughn at first. You may still have a Prince Fielder or David Ortiz, but these guys are going to be getting DH at-bats, but every year more guys like Sam Fuld and Brett Gardner are stealing hits away.