Every single Major League team now has 30 games under their belts, which gives us enough data to start surveying the MLB landscape looking for surprises and disappointments. Fans in Boston, Kansas City, and Denver have to be thrilled with their respective teams hot starts.
However, for fans in other cities things haven’t been as bright. The Toronto Blue Jays were handed the AL East by most pundits before the season even began and they’ve fallen flat on their face out of the gate, carrying a 10-21 record that only the Houston Astros and Miami Marlins are envious of. Things are also starting to get dicey in Anaheim, where the Angels have once again stumbled in the early weeks of the season. Their supposedly vaunted offense has yet to earn its pay, thanks to its middle of the pack ranking in the AL in runs scored, and L.A.’s pitching staff minus Jered Weaver has been a disaster.
They’re not the only cities that are getting anxious about their ball club’s slow start either. Fans in Philadelphia were hoping that a once-great pitching staff led by Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, and Cliff Lee could rebound to carry the Phillies to the playoffs, but that hasn’t materialized thus far. The Dodgers were imagining themselves as the west coast Yankees with a budget to match. So far all that lavish spending has gotten them is 4th place and a struggling Matt Kemp.Even the handful of fans that attend Rays games have to feel a little nervous in the AL East watching their starting nine drop to 1-6 in games started by Cy Young winner David Price.
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:
For the better part of the last two decades the American League East has been dominated by the big fish, the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox. Recently the Tampa Bay Rays have been able to break into that triumvirate to steal a couple of playoff births and division titles. Last season brought more parity and more disturbance to the big budget empires with the Baltimore Orioles surprise run to 94 wins and a Wild Card spot, leaving only the Toronto Blue Jays out in the cold.
But this offseason, the established order in the AL East may finally be fully overthrown. The Yankees are old, injured, and cutting payroll back to a modest $189 million. The Red Sox are coming off their worst season since 1981 and they aren’t signing any of the big name players either, instead opting for character guys on short-term deals. Toronto (yes, Toronto) is ramping up payroll and making franchise-altering trades to add a staff full of pitchers, one that includes 2012 NL Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey. Tampa Bay is doing their usual thing, trading for young, unproven talent while rebuilding on the cheap. And Baltimore, well, they’ve stood pat thus far.
The sharks are circling. From the looks of it, everybody has a shot in the AL East. No other division in baseball can say that. So why don’t we take an early peak at the division race, position by position, to see where things stand?
On Wednesday evening the Miami Marlins and Toronto Blue Jays agreed to a 12 player deal that will send Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson, John Buck and Emilio Bonifacio north of the border in exchange for Yunel Escobar, Jeff Mathis, Henderson Alvarez, and a package of prospects. The size of this trade is somewhat staggering, as is the amount of salary the Marlins have been able to lop off over the last 4 months in the wake of last offseason’s unsuccessful spending spree. This particular deal isn’t quite as large as the Boston-Los Angeles waiver deadline deal, but Toronto is still agreeing to assume nearly $200 million in contracts while taking a big risk in talent. The prevailing narrative that’s currently being written around the baseball-sphere is that this is business as usual for the Marlins whereas the Blue Jays are primed to turn into an AL East powerhouse after making such a splashy move. But I disagree with that sentiment and I don’t believe that’s how things will turn out, and here are a couple of reasons why:
Every season there are some players with some alarmingly large pull tendencies. These hitters, due to the fact that they show a dominant pattern of hitting the ball in one direction, should be shifted. Bill James and John Dewan, two major players in the MLB statistical community, have speculated that any hitter that pulls the ball in one direction 80% of the time or more should be shifted, but I tend to side with a more aggressive approach, and advocate shifting or shading the defense if a hitter exhibits a pull tendency 70% or more. Some classic examples of extreme pull hitters include David Ortiz, Mark Teixeira, and Carlos Pena. All three of those hitters are classic sluggers who have put up big homerun numbers at some point in their respective careers. But other than those hitters, who in Major League Baseball is that pull-happy to warrant a shift on defense? Let’s take a look at a couple of players over the next few days, starting with right-handed hitters.
Exactly one year ago, August 8th 2011, the Tampa Bay Rays sat way back in the playoff race, a distant 10 games out of the Wild Card spot, playing solid yet uninspiring, baseball with a .522 win percentage. They finished a mind-boggling 32-17 (.653 win %) to pass Boston on the memorable final day of the season to win the Wild Card. This year’s Tampa Bay team is 57-52 (.523 win %) entering play today, while exhibiting the same good pitch/bad hit tendencies from a year ago. The Rays have also been missing quite a few key bats due to injury this season. Luckily the most important one of those injured hitters, Evan Longoria, is returning to action tonight, and could provide just the spark Tampa Bay needs to come out ahead of a crowded American League Wild Card field that features 7 teams jostling for 2 spots.