On Saturday June 8, 2013, the Toronto Blue Jays defeated the Texas Rangers 4-3 in a gruelling 18-inning contest lasting five hours and 28 minutes. The game finally reached its’ conclusion when Rajai Davis drove in Emilio Bonifacio on a groundball single down the left field line after the latter had singled and advanced to third on an errant pickoff throw. This game officially tied for the longest game by innings in franchise history – with the July 28, 2005 2-1 victory over the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, also at home – although the more recent game was one out longer. However, there have been at least two longer games in franchise history by time – a 15-inning loss to Baltimore on June 19, 1998 that lasted 5:49 and a 17-inning loss to the New York Yankees at home on April 19, 2001 lasting 5:57.
The Blue Jays had 73 plate appearances in Saturday’s game, equalling the franchise record set in a 17-inning win on October 4, 1980 at Boston. Blue Jays pitchers faced 74 Texas batters, the third most in one game in franchise history; eclipsed only by 76 in both the aforementioned Boston and New York games. Blue Jays pitchers combined to throw 268 pitches, fifth most in franchise history in games where pitch count data is available and 164 strikes (third most). By comparison, the 74 plate appearances by Texas batters and the 73 batters faced represented merely the ninth highest totals in Texas history (including Washington Senators), with the records being 93 PA in a 20-inning win and 85 batters faced in a 21-inning loss, both for the Senators. The Rangers threw 260 pitches, the fifth highest total in franchise history. The 176 strikes were fourth-most. The Rangers left 17 runners on base (ninth most in franchise history), while the Blue Jays left 16 (sixth-most).
Finally, only three individuals participated in both of the 18-inning games in Blue Jays history. John Gibbons managed both of them for Toronto; Maicer Izturis went 1-for-6 with a single and sacrifice bunt for the Angels in the 2005 game and 0-for-7 with a walk on Saturday; and Pete Walker participated in the 2005 game as a Toronto player – pitching the final three innings to pick up the win – and as the Blue Jays’ pitching coach on Saturday.
Gregg Zaun was a decent player and likeable guy as a catcher with the Toronto Blue Jays from 2004 to 2009 over which span he amassed 7.2 wins above replacement according to Fangraphs. He never hit for much power (.144 ISO), but he did get on base at a .354 clip (.344 career), which was above average for a catcher, even if the run environment of that tenure was somewhat more prolific than it is now. Zaun went on to play for the Orioles, Rays and Brewers after his Toronto tenure came to an end.
When the Blue Jays failed to make the postseason in 2006, Zaun joined the Rogers Sportsnet broadcast crew as a postseason studio analyst in 2006 and has served in that capacity for every postseason since, as his teams never made the playoffs during the remainder of his playing career. Zaun retired in March 2011 after attempts to come back from an injury that wiped out much of his 2010 season were unsuccessful. In December of that year, he signed a three-year deal to expand his duties and become a full-time studio analyst on Toronto Blue Jays broadcasts.
At first, this was a rather enjoyable arrangement with Zaun providing refreshing insight; however Zaun has begun to exhibit deficiencies in his ability since 2012. Zaun has become increasingly active on Twitter (@greggzaun) and has taken to flirting with women and making misogynistic comments on a regular basis. Examples of his latest content of this type can be found here – in a wonderful compilation post from Emily Williams of Runs Batted Out.
In addition to the (much-more important) comment issues, it would appear that Zaun has an issue with modern analysis in the game. Zaun has no understanding of the value of prospects, heaping praise on the Kanas City Royals for making the Myers-Shields deal, even though the trade is fairly likely to be a heist for Tampa Bay in the end. Zaun is right in that fewer prospects work out that the analysis community would like to think, but the just pass them off as “just prospects” shows a great deal of ignorance. Zaun also attempted to portray Orioles right-hander Kevin Gausman and Blue Jays lefty Sean Nolin as essential equals as they were making their debuts on consecutive days in late May. Both prospects were recalled from the Double-A Eastern League and the comparison stops there. Gausman features an 80 fastball, which sits in the upper 90s and can be dialed up to 99+ on occasion when needed. He also feature a plus changeup and a fringe-average slider with potential for these pitches to become plus-plus and plus respectively. With that arsenal, Gausman is an ace and if the slider only reaches average, he still would project as a number two starter. Nolin, on the other hand, has none such potential. His fastball sits in the low 90s, which is merely average, and his three off-speed pitches are described by Baseball Prospectus as “average at best”, which is essentially to say fringe average (45). He is viewed with a ceiling of a number three starter, but likely becomes fringe three or average or better back end guy. Nolin is a guy. Gausman is a GUY. Hat-tip to those who get that reference.
Zaun also has a need to make controversial statements, even when they are factually wrong. When asked on a fan question segment whether he thought the American League or National League was better he said “The numbers probably won’t support me but the National League is better” giving the reasons that their pitchers hit better and that their pinch-hitters are better. Zaun was right on one count here, the numbers don’t support him.
However, the fact that he was willing to overlook this critical issue and make a clearly untenable argument is disturbing. Analysts are supposed to base their arguments on facts, not opinions. It is fine to believe that the National League style of baseball is more enjoyable, as that is matter of personal preference, but when the question clearly asked for an answer to something quantifiable, a quantifiable answer must be given and Zaun willingly ignored the data.
Zaun also demonstrates woeful understanding of basic statistical concepts, such as platoon splits and issues with advanced metrics. Zaun had this issue in regard to Adam Lind getting a start against a left-hander in the San Diego series:
The problem is that Lind isn’t one of the best nine players for the Blue Jays when they are facing left-handed pitching. Lind is 7-for-14 against LHP this year (small sample size), but has been the worst hitter in baseball against them (minimum 350 plate appearances) since the start of 2010 with a .237 wOBA and 42 wRC+ in .405 PA. However, Zaun credits his playing experience for giving him more knowledge than others:
A fellow Tweeter took a quick look at Zaun’s claim, with the reason being that if rhythm was an issue, Lind would struggle after a game off. His study has some mathematical issues, but the point Zaun makes is easily refuted:
He then goes on to make an argument against platooning Lind by saying if the Blue Jays do that, they should also platoon Bautista. The argument is absurd enough on its’ own, completely ignoring the reformation of Bautista with Toronto, but he makes it even worse by using batting average as the statistical basis for the argument. Several fans comment on the ridiculousness of the argument and the selected statistical measure, to which Zaun replies asking what statistics myself and others are using. This is a legitimate question, however his response is awful. I mentioned that I was using OBP (trying to get him to at least take a look), wOBA and wRC+. I offer him a link to the Fangraphs glossary page on wOBA and I am met with no response. Nothing. Crickets. This debate can be seen here on Twitter:
Zaun proceeds to follow this up with this disastrous math lesson with a completely incorrect answer:
Zaun completely ignores the concept of weighted averages and the fact that the .200 average against lefties still harms the team against southpaws. One cannot simply ignore platoon splits and combine them into one large sample to say everything is fine. Either Zaun fails to comprehend this basic mathematical concept, or this is another instance of Zaun willingly ignoring data to make an invalid point. Regardless of which of these scenarios is the case, both render him unfit to be a professional sports analyst and the Blue Jays need to find a replacement.
Finding this replacement should not be difficult as the best candidate may already be in house. Dirk Hayhurst has spent some time on team radio broadcasts over the last few years and blogs at the Sportsnet website. He has served as the backup studio analyst on a few occasions, most recently during on the Blue Jays’ recent west-coast road trip. Hayhurst makes some silly jokes occasionally; such as when he accused Dickey’s knuckleball of having a “moon spirit”, but he says nothing particularly outlandish. His work analyzing pitching mechanics is superb, something that no other individual on the television side of the broadcasts can offer. He gave very detailed descriptions of the mechanics of Ricky Romero and Brett Cecil with clarity and avoidance of overusing jargon. Hayhurst, while “bad at math” by his own admission, also believes that sabermetrics have a place on baseball broadcasts and makes an effort to learn about them and explain some of the common ones to fans. This is a crucial component to any broadcast, especially now that many younger, engaged and impressionable fans are viewing the games on television, computers, or smartphones. Given his pitching expertise and potential for budding expertise in advanced metrics, both areas where Zaun struggles mightily, it makes perfect sense to install him as the regular studio analyst if he is interested.
In Hayhurst the Blue Jays have a young progressive broadcaster with a wonderful understanding of pitching in terms of both strategy and mechanics. In Zaun, they have an older broadcaster, whose baseball knowledge is severely outdated and who takes controversial stances without evidential support seemingly to simply cause dissension. Add in his shameless self-promotion for his club events and inappropriate remarks toward the female fan base on Twitter and the only logical conclusion is that Hayhurst is simply the better choice.
It was a nice arrangement for a while, but Zaun has worn out his welcome and needs to be dismissed. Please give us more Hayhurst.
In typical Alex Anthopoulos fashion, the Blue Jays had a busy day of roster machinations on Friday. According to the team’s official transaction page, Henry Blanco was designated for assignment (DFA) while Anthony Gose was optioned to AAA the day before. This opened up two sports on the Jays 25-man roster and one spot on the 40-man roster. With the Henry Blanco era officially over, the Blue Jays recalled Josh Thole from AAA to take his role as the Dickey Catcher ™. In addition, Andy LaRoche had his contract selected (added to the 40-man roster) from Buffalo and was called up to take the spot of Gose and serve as a third base option with Lawrie out.
This removes Blanco and his putrid .240 wOBA/45 wRC+ from the 40-man and opens the job to someone who can actually hit a bit. Thole is a career .295/85 hitter who provides almost no power (.072 ISO) and posted a dismal .290/60 last year while fighting a concussion. However, he put up a .327/103 and .307/94 in the two years prior. Thole has hit .395/140 (.188 ISO) with a generous .345 BABIP in Buffalo. He is a definite defensive downgrade but he has caught Dickey previously with reasonable success and the bat should easily cover his deficiencies value-wise. The LaRoche recall (.367/121 in AAA) offers the Jays somebody who can actually throw across the diamond, unlike Izturis, who has to use the carpet frequently.
After the game – a tidy dismantling of the Rangers, where the bullpen retired the last 15 in a row – the Blue Jays optioned RHP Todd Redmond to AAA and activated the oft-injured and long-awaited Dustin McGowan from the 60-day Disabled List and placed him on the 25-man roster. However, a 40-man roster spot is not currently available for McGowan at the moment and the corresponding move is not yet official.
As my friend and fellow blogger @Mentoch of Blue Jays Plus points out, it would seem logical that Evan Crawford is the primary DFA candidate given his miserable 10.4% walk rate (combined A+ and AA) and disappointing 17.0% strikeout rate (AA only). Languishing in AA at the age of 26 (#AAby26 – hat tip to those who get this reference) and stuck behind three lefties on the big-league staff and a right-hander with reverse splits (Cecil, Loup, Oliver and Delabar respectively), there just is no opportunity for him to seize a role on this team.
The Jays also signed ex-Yankee staff ace and sinkerballer Chien-Ming Wang to a Minor League contract and he will be added to the rosters and start on Tuesday in Chicago against the White Sox. I do not love the matchup in that park, which while down this year, has been consistently in the top third of the league in park factors for runs and home runs since 2001 (breadth of ESPN dataset). However, this effect may be mitigated somewhat by the fact that the White Sox rank 29th in wOBA and wRC+, 28th in walk rate, 27th in ISO and 23rd in strikeout rate. In terms of batted balls, the White Sox rank fifth in line drive and flyball rates, while ranking 29th in ground ball rate. A .280 BABIP and the line drives would indicate that the Sox have been somewhat unlucky, but the flyballs would account for at least some portion of the depression. Wang has not really walked or struck out anybody in 58 AAA innings this year (4.2%/10.5%), but he will keep the ball on the ground (career 59.1 % groundball rate) and with any luck the defense will not fail on him.
UPDATE (June 11, 2013):
Stats from MLB, ESPN and Fangraphs. Roster information from http://www.mlbdepthcharts.com. Hat-tip to @mentoch of http://www.bluejaysplus.com & http://bjppodcast.blogspot.ca for suggesting Evan Crawford as a DFA candidate
In tonight’s game, J.A. Happ finished the sixth inning at 100 pitches. His team was trailing 1-0. In the top of the seventh, Rasmus singled in Encarnacion with the tying run. The score remained tied heading to the seventh-inning stretch. I figured Happ’s day was done, but then I saw this tweet from Richard Griffin:
I wondered about Dickey’s condition, but the next two minutes later he Tweets this:
I respond, bewildered and this exchange happens:
Turns out Griffin was just riffin’
A follow up tweet mentioning speculation would have been proper and helpful there. Poor Griff is not so good at this whole Twitter thing.
The Blue Jays offense was simply unable to generate any short of threat against Jose Quintana of the White Sox last night. Temporary Jose Reyes replacement Munenori Kawasaki, Edwin Encarnacion and Rajai Davis (including a double for the Blue Jays only extra-base hit) each had two hits on the night (although one of Encarnacion’s singles came off reliever Jesse Crain). Encarnacion and Kawasaki drew bases on balls from Quintana. Six hits, two walks, no runs – that was the sum total of the Blue Jays offense last night. Obviously they lost the game, by a score of 7-0 as J.A. Happ turned in what will likely be one of several clunkers from the fifth starter spot on the season.
However, this is not about Happ. It is about the offense – this woeful, anaemic, sputtering offense. The seemingly vaunted Blue Jays offense has averaged merely 3.6 runs per game (24th in MLB). There have been some big games in there, too – a 10-run game and two 8-run games. The Blue Jays have scored 54 runs, 26 of them (48.1%) have come in three games; in the other games, the Jays are averaging 2.3 runs per game. That is a mark that would put them 29th in MLB ahead of only the pitiful Miami Marlins, who are essentially a glorified Triple-A team at this point. Since Jose Reyes went down in a heap at second base last Friday night, the Jays have scored a mere 12 runs in five games, including the shutout last night (2.4 runs per game). All the blame for the struggles cannot be placed on the absence of Jose Reyes, although he was clearly the Blue Jays’ best offensive player in the early going. Jose Bautista has also been out of the lineup, since Monday, with back spasms and an ear infection. In the three games he has missed so far, The Blue Jays have scored eight runs (2.7 runs per game). Awful.
What offense has occurred is primarily being carried by two men – J.P. Arencibia and Colby Rasmus. Arencibia is off to a roaring start this season with a .361 wOBA in 57 plate appearances. Unfortunately, this is primarily driven by the five home runs he has hit (.339 ISO). Sporting a putrid trio of a 263 OBP, 1.8 BB% and a 35.1 K%, his success simply cannot be expected to continue. Rasmus has been another all-or-nothing hitter for the Blue Jays this year with four home runs of his own, (.375 wOBA, .326 ISO). These numbers are further driven up by a .368 BABIP, unsustainable for someone with his speed level (.268 career). He has mustered a more respectable .314 OBP; however strikeouts have been a major problem for him as well. Rasmus is walking 9.8% of the time, above his career rate, but this is coupled with an absurd 45.1 K%. Obviously a small sample is being analyzed here (51 PA) and regression towards his career value will occur, but what Rasmus is showing is still a cause for concern. It is enough of a concern to shield him from left-handed pitchers – meaning his powerful bat was not in the lineup tonight against Quintana and he was pinch-hit for by Rajai Davis in the seventh inning the night prior.
Unfortunately, Adam Lind suffers from even worse split issues (the worst hitter by far against southpaws since 2010), and many situations are arising where these players need to be pinch-hit for. This is where Bautista’s presence on the roster is causing a problem. The Blue Jays currently have the standard roster setup of 12 pitchers and four bench players. One of the players is backup catcher Henry Blanco, who must remain available to replace Arencibia and who wields a bat for little more than effect (career 65 wRC+). This leaves three men on the bench who are available to pinch-hit. However, despite repeated clams of Bautista returning to the lineup the following day, he has been unable to do so. This leaves two men on the bench. One must be kept behind in case of injuries, so the Blue Jays have extremely limited options. Casper Wells, an intriguing lefty-masher claimed off waivers from Seattle, was designated for assignment in order to place Ramon Ortiz (who moped up nicely giving 3.1 IP behind Happ last night) on the 40-man roster.
This is making it painfully apparent that something needs to happen with Bautista. He either needs to return to the lineup, or be placed on the disabled list. Since he last appeared in Sunday’s game, his DL stint can be back-dated to Monday, meaning that three of the required 15 days have already elapsed. Since Gibbons has been “unsure” about Bautista’s ability to pinch-hit, I am wondering if the ability to back-date a potential DL stint has been part of the reason. Using Bautista as a pinch-hitter would require him to miss three more days than he already has. The Blue Jays are seeing Andy Pettitte in the first game of the weekend Yankee series and the Yankees carry Boone Logan, a southpaw who absolutely wipes out left-handed hitters (.309 wOBA against) in their bullpen.
Without depth on the bench, the Blue Jays run the high risk of being exposed late and losing one of the few bright spots in their depleted lineup when a lefty starts. The Jays have to make a decision on Bautista tonight. Hopefully he is in the lineup and this rant is largely rendered moot, but if not, I expect a DL stint, because the Blue Jays can no longer afford to wait.
Welp. This post became largely moot in hurry. Good news (I hope).
Last night Alex Anthopoulos made an appearance on Prime Time Sports, a daily (weekday) sports discussion show that is on the air during drive time in Canada’s largest media market (Toronto area) as well as simulcast on other radio stations on the FAN Radio Network and Sportsnet One on television. On the program he discussed Thursday’s game, in which Brandon Morrow was battered en route to a 7-3 loss, the health of Brett Lawrie, Ricky Romero and concern over the sluggish start, among other things. Anthopoulos’ comments (paraphrased) will be in italics, while my comments will not.
On Lawrie’s Injury:
Anthopoulos had not heard the report that Lawrie would be out for a month and indicated that he had not heard that, and that he had read a report on Lawrie from his staff just prior to joining the show. He mentioned that Lawrie had some stiffness initially that day, but after warming up was able to execute all of his baseball activities. Naturally, he would need to get into game and get “quite a few at-bats…it’s been a while since he has played.” Anthopoulos mentioned the upcoming series with the Yankees at home (April 19) as a return date that he had envisioned, with the following Monday in Baltimore the worst case scenario. Most importantly, he emphasized he hadn’t heard anything to change that.
On Ricky Romero:
Anthopoulos told the crew that Romero has been throwing live batting practice every five days as well as bullpen sessions, but has not gotten into games yet. He expects Romero to get into games within seven to ten days. Romero could have broken camp with the big club (I don’t see how given that fact that his command was repeatedly non-existent for extended sequences, and critical games aren’t really the place to undertake major adjustment projects), but the team wanted to make sure the changes were “cemented” before bringing him back. The issues have been both physical and mental in nature owing to the unknown causal relationship between success and confidence. However, he did indicate that the problems were primarily mechanical and that mechanical adjustments have been made. As for Ricky Romero’s return to the big leagues, he said that there is no timetable and that it would be up to what the coaching staff sees of his actual stuff and command, as box score results (especially in the low Minors) are essentially useless as a performance evaluation tool.
I cannot see him returning to the Majors in the near future, especially if Happ continues to pitch well. If Happ takes the fifth spot and runs with it, I could see him spending the year in the minor leagues and being a September call-up.
On the slow start and related fan reaction:
The Jays just need to put everything together in the sense of getting good hitting and pitching performances in the same game. Anthopoulos mentions that things will “balance out” which is layman’s terms for regression to the mean. A pity more fans fail to grasp this, but #mathishard
Anthopoulos admits that Rasmus has started slow in the past, but emphasizes the basic statistical principles of regression and sample size.
The part about Rasmus slow starts seemed to be a cliché tossed out by Anthopoulos in attempt to quell misguided hatred for Rasmus. I was disappointed to see that the numbers don’t bear out what Anthopoulos actually said. Rasmus’ career wRC+ is 98 and in his four Aprils he has posted marks of 87, 207, 144 and 83 (133 career). I am willing to give Anthopoulos a mulligan on this one though, as 2012 was Rasmus’ first April with the club, making it possible that the recency effect played at least a small part in the comments, and also that he likely didn’t have Fangraphs open in front of him during the segment (unlike me, who is writing this at 6 AM).
Anthopoulos again mentions regression and sample size (in simpler terms) with regard to Rasmus. This is a concept that he seems truly intent on driving home, which is good, because it is a simple yet fundamental set of concepts which remains hard to grasp for much of the population although there is no excuse for such difficulty.
A purely quirky note on Rasmus’ strikeouts is that Rasmus’ best season (2010. 4.0 fWAR) when he posted his highest strikeout rate of his career (27.7% vs. 23.2% career).
Anthopoulos mentions that Bonifacio’s nightmare three error day came the day after he made a game saving play up the middle (sample size again), although the comparison to Alomar was a bit much. Good to know that he think Bonifacio could play some outfield if needed. That serves as a critical component to his value. I wish he could play some short, but it sounds like his infield position will be restricted to second base. Still though, a utility guy that isn’t completely useless with the stick can be a surprisingly powerful weapon. That fact that he is a burner brings him to the level of awesomeness. Fans, this (not John McDonald, nor Mike McCoy), is a super-sub.
Anthopoulos also notes the blatantly obvious fact that having Lawrie back will provide a plus defensive fixture and tremendous amount of extra flexibility as one of Izturis or Bonifacio will join the bench. Hopefully that keeps DeRosa off the field, since, as @bluejaysbatboy pointed out, he has the range of a recycling box. Makes sense, I could see him moving if the wind blew hard enough.
Anthopoulos indicated they don’t know Dickey well enough (3 years, ~600 IP), but he was impressed with what he saw, particularly in the WBC start versus the Dominican Republic, facing a juggernaut (including Reyes & Edwin) that went 8-0 en route to the tournament title. Dickey cracked a nail in the first inning on Sunday and it led to him throwing more fastballs and changeups (Pitch distribution below courtesy of Brooks Baseball). While Anthopoulos said Dickey told him that this is a relatively common occurrence and that it was no excuse, I have to think you give Dickey at least somewhat of a break (no pun intended) because when you are throwing 83 mph “fastballs” as more than an occasional surprise, the odds of success aren’t exactly overwhelming.
The Jays will carry eight relievers until Lawrie returns. Anthopoulos was very pleased with the three innings the Blue Jays got from Dave Bush on Sunday (well, insomuch as they were pitched by him and not someone else) and said that eighth spot will be a revolving door. They will return to a seven man (normal size) bullpen when Lawrie comes back and those seven will be the guys. Viewing Cecil as the seventh man, Anthopoulos likes his work so far. Cecil could become a critical cog if the velocity stays where it is now and he could rack up plenty of strikeouts. However, given the sample size, I may temper my enthusiasm somewhat for the time being.
The Blue Jays signed Miguel Batista to a dirt cheap Minor League contract (remember him?) to be a long man and spot starter in Triple-A Buffalo. Yes, Minor League teams need bodies too.
Overall, I am very pleased with Anthopoulos’ rational comments on the state of the club and brilliant methods of diffusing panic. I’m glad to know they won’t rush Romero even if Happ struggles, as the Blue Jays may only have one shot to get him right. The eight man bullpen (and resulting three man bench including Henry Blanco, he of a career 65 wRC+) is idiotic, crippling the offense while the eighth man rots, especially after an off day. The only justification I can see for this iteration of the eight man bullpen is insurance against a rainout resulting in a starter being knocked out, because the forecast in Detroit is lousy. However, even that justification is tissue paper thin and flimsy.
Oh well, the rest of this is just wonderful and only 4.3% of the season is behind us, so let’s stop panicking and enjoy the ride. OK?
For those interested, the original segment is here.
Stats from Fangraphs unless indicated.
I should have probably done this prior to Sunday, but here are my standings and wards predictions for the 2013 season:
AL MVP: Edwin Encarnacion – TOR
NL MVP: Bryce Harper – WAS
AL: Cy Young: Josh Johnson – TOR
NL Cy Young: Stephen Strasburg – WAS
AL: Rookie of the Year: Aaron Hicks – MIN
NL Rookie of the Year: Shelby Miller – STL
I am not going to predict playoff results as the sample size invites a considerable amount of randomness, but if you have any comments, feel free to share them.
I look forward to blogging and interacting with you throughout the year.
The player list for the 2013 National Baseball Hall of Fame Ballot can be found here. If I were voting, I would select the following candidates:
The links go to the players’ respective Fangraphs pages.
The dream began when Alex Anthopoulos assumed the general manager position for the Blue Jays on the morning before the Blue Jays penultimate game of the 2009 season. Marred by pitching injuries, the Blue Jays limped to a 75-87 finish. As expectations were high after a 2008 season where the Blue Jays allowed the fewest runs in baseball as a team, a failure of this magnitude seemingly warranted as major a response. On that morning, J.P. Ricciardi – whose list of notorious acts included blatantly lying to the media about the nature of an injury to star closer B.J. Ryan, attacking Adam Dunn’s character without any support on a radio call-in show (on the team and owner’s flagship radio station, no less) and utterly failing to execute a necessary trade of ace Roy Halladay during the summer of 2009 while creating a media circus in the process – was abruptly dismissed from his position and replaced by Alex Anthopoulos, his supposedly brilliant understudy.
Operating with negligible leverage, Anthopoulos orchestrated a deal that ultimately netted three of Philadelphia’s top prospects: pitcher Kyle Drabek, catcher Travis D’Arnaud, and (by way of the Athletics and then Astros) outfielder Anthony Gose. This represented a new beginning for the Blue Jays as the farm system had been left rather barren by Ricciardi’s decision to eschew scouting. However, president and CEO Paul Beeston (who was appointed three weeks after Anthopoulos – before the trade) supported Anthopoulos’ renewed focus on player development & scouting, while promising that money would be available when the time was right to spend and for the right players. The following two years were years of growth, the pain of poor on-field performance mitigated significantly by the hope of what was to come. 2012 was another season of frustration for Blue Jays fans (merely 73 wins in a year riddled with injuries), but despite this, the fans came out in the highest numbers seen in years; possibly driven by a new identity (new uniform scheme) and the sense that the future was very rapidly becoming the present.
The true watershed moment came in January 2012, when at a season-ticket holder event, Beeston said he expected the Jays to make the playoffs in two or three of the next five seasons. Now on a defined timetable, the Blue Jays needed to move. Fast. This is exactly what the Blue Jays did, trading a number of prospects (including OF Jake Marisnick, LHP Justin Nicolino and SS Adeiny Hechavarria) along with RHP Henderson Alvarez, C Jeff Mathis and SS Yunel Escobar to the Miami Marlins for RHP Josh Johnson, LHP Mark Buehrle, SS Jose Reyes, utility player Emilio Bonifacio and C John Buck. Prior to the deal, the Blue Jays had signed Maicer Izturis to play second base, replacing the injury- and strikeout-prone Kelly Johnson, to a reasonable three-year/$10 MM deal. The Blue Jays followed this move by signing outfielder Melky Cabrera, who had been suspended in 2012 for elevated levels of testosterone. This was risky, but his numbers did not indicate that he had a performance boost from the testosterone (no power spike), but had some help from a high BABIP. This left the Blue Jays having filled major holes in the rotation, second base and left field, however it was still on Anthopoulos’ mind to add depth and do anything to help cement the Blue Jays’ position as possible AL East favourites.
The starting rotation was a major problem in 2012. By Fangraphs WAR, the Blue Jays received 239 replacement-level or worse innings from starters over a span of 45 games (~28% of the schedule). Only two starters accumulated more than 1 WAR, Brandon Morrow (who only made 21 starts) and J.A. Happ, who came over from the Houston Astros on July 19 and made merely six starts before suffering a fractured foot. Starting pitchers for the Blue Jays in 2012 included re-treads Jesse Chavez and Aaron Laffey, low-grade prospects Chad Jenkins and Joel Carreno and swingman Carlos Villanueva; who started very strongly, but had a hideous final five starts with an ERA over 8.00 while showing signs of having simply run out of gas.
Villanueva, Chavez and Laffey are all gone now and Joel Carreno suffered a head injury (graphic video) in winter ball although he should be ready for spring training. This left little depth behind the starting five and it appeared that any reinforcements would have to be cobbled together from minor-league free agents. Given historic injury rates for starting pitchers and coupling that with the fact that Mark Buehrle is the only one of the quintet to avoid the disabled list due to an arm injury (he has actually NEVER been on it), it is likely that the Blue Jays will need to look elsewhere for at least some (a significant number) starting innings. A selection of minor-league free agents is not what a contending team wants to draw from, especially with the value of a marginal win (shown below – adjust the dollar values for inflation and given the new wild-cards, shift the beginning of the upward turn by ~2 wins)
being so high in the American League East (vertically stretch the bell portion of the curve). This led Anthopoulos to explore other avenues for starting pitching, and lo and behold, he found a match in a man who was one of the 2 best pitchers in the National League: R.A. Dickey of the New York Mets.
Prying Dickey away from the Mets, who control him next year for $5 MM and want to maintain a sense of respectability, will not be easy. Throw in the fact that he is a knuckleballer, which should ostensibly extend his career into his 40s, even though he will pitch at 39 in 2013 and the fact that he was the 2012 National League Cy Young Award winner and Dickey will not come cheaply. A trade has been reportedly agreed to in principle, pending a contract extension between Dickey and the Blue Jays that would send C Travis D’Arnaud and RHP Noah Syndergaard (the Blue Jays #1 and #2/3 prospects, respectively) along with C John Buck, a low-grade prospect and cash to cover Buck’s salary to the Mets for Dickey, C Josh Thole (who spent much of last year as Dickey’s personal catcher) and a low-grade prospect. If this deal occurs, the Blue Jays would likely have three years of control on R.A. Dickey and will have surrendered four of their top 5 prospects this off-season (D’Arnaud 1, Syndergaard 3, Marisnick 4 and Nicolino 5). RHP Aaron Sanchez, at number 2, would become the highest ranked prospect left in the system. This may lead some to question if this deal makes sense for the Blue Jays at all. After mulling it over and struggling with it for a few days, I finally came to an answer. This trade works for the Blue Jays for one major reason: competitive windows.
In baseball, merely one-third of the teams make the postseason compared to over half for NHL & NBA and 3/8 for NFL. Given this probability, the probability that Beeston’s prediction is correct (playoffs in any form at least 2 of the next 4 years – the original was at least 2 in 5 years, but 2012 was failure), given a binomial probability model (this has obvious issues since it assumes all teams are on an equal footing in terms of capability) is ~41 percent. Given the small number of trials, failing in 2013 greatly reduces the likelihood of this occurring (~26%). Competitive windows are also limited by the performance curves of the players, which are strongly correlated to age. Most baseball players peak between 27-31 and the begin a decline phase of varying steepness. Morrow will turn 29 mid-season, Romero will turn 29 at the end of the season, and Johnson will turn 29 in a few weeks. Three key pitchers are in the middle of their peaks. Buehrle is post-peak and a pitcher who could have an ugly demise with any further drop in velocity. Dickey is 38, but he is a complete unknown, given that his fast knuckleball is unique to the game in its’ history. On the offensive side, Encarnacion will play as 30, Reyes will turn 30 mid-season, Cabrera will turn 29 in August and Lawrie will be 23, while Bautista will turn 33 in October. However, the prospects in question are probably not ready until 2014 (although a very aggressive path with D’Arnaud could have him in the Majors by mid-2013) and will take 2-3 seasons to reach their peak (following typical curves). Given that timetable, the core of the current roster will all be in some stage of decline and possibly not productive enough to support the young players around them. Anthopoulos realizes this, and has accumulated a wealth of peak players in order to win in 2013. If adding Dickey at the expense of prospects is the final piece that pushes the Blue Jays over the top, the Blue Jays should go for it.
In Alex We Trust. This should be fun.
On the afternoon of August 14, 2012, Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos held a small press conference to announce that catcher Jeff Mathis has been signed to a two-year extension worth three million dollars and a one-year 1.5 million dollar club option for 2015. I initially wondered what the point was given the Jays’ catching depth as well as the fact that Mathis is a great defensive back-up catcher who has a horrendously weak bat (career 48 wRC+, 76 wRC+ in 2012). These numbers go as far as to cement him as the worst hitter (non-pitcher) in baseball since 2005. However, Defensive Runs Saved likes Mathis as an above-average defensive catcher (career 34 defensive runs saved). This is a profile that fits a serviceable, but not stellar back-up who does little more than catch day games after night games, with one extra start every fortnight or so.
Given the team’s catching depth and current needs, this low-cost extension could prove quite useful and open the Blue Jays to great flexibility. Viewing the roster as currently constructed, accounting for the 40-man and disabled list players the Blue Jays have three catchers for next year: J.P. Arencibia, Travis D’Arnaud and the aforementioned Jeff Mathis. Arencibia opened this year as the starter and remained in the role until breaking his hand on July 24, potentially ending his season prematurely. Arencibia’s hitting had marginally improved in 2012 (.316 wOBA and 97 wRC+ vs. .309 and 92 in 2011), but this improvement was driven by a blistering July, where he posted a .345 OBP, .415 wOBA and 189 wRC+. The rest of his year was much uglier as he hit .224/.263/.404 with a .305 wOBA. Arencibia is a poor hitter, even for a catcher, who has greater perceived value largely due to his home run and RBI totals. Travis D’Arnaud is the Blue Jays’ catcher of the future, acquired in the Roy Halladay deal. Ranked 17th in the 2012 Baseball America preseason rankings, he has shot up the list, currently residing at 8th after a strong season at Triple-A Las Vegas. With the major caveat that the Pacific Coast League is a severe hitters’ league and that Las Vegas is the second most affected park; D’Arnaud hit.333/.380/.595 with a .414 wOBA, his best strikeout rate in three years and a 31-point Isolated Power uptick (.262 from .231). Despite the environment, his BABIP only increased nine points from his Double-A year, which would seem to support that his improvement is at least partly genuine. It is quite possible that D’Arnaud could produce Arencibia-like power, but have a league-average-or-better OBP to go with it, making him one of the truly elite hitting catchers in the game. He probably will never challenge for a batting title like Mauer, but a Brian McCann type peak is certainly not out of the realm of possibility. Add in the fact that his defense has been projected anywhere from above-average to elite, compared with the average-to-below average defense Arencibia provides now and D’Arnaud has a chance to be the catcher of the mid-to-late 2010s in MLB.
The primary knock on D’Arnaud unfortunately has been his health. He caught 114 games last year at Double-A, but only 71 the year before at High-A, while missing some time mid-season upon injuring his back. This year, he only caught 67 games before tearing his right posterior cruciate ligament (PCL, knee) and he tore a thumb ligament in this past off-season playing in the World Cup of Baseball. If D”Arnaud is healthy and has a strong spring, the Jays could face a log-jam and may end up carrying three catchers. Anthopoulos hinted the D’Arnaud would DH some next year, but I don’t see any logic in having D’Aranaud in as DH, while putting the defensively inferior Arencibia behind the plate. Given John Farrell’s (ridiculous) penchant for carrying eight relievers, having three players who can play the same position and only that position primarily on a three-man bench would be terribly crippling.
The solution is to carry two of the three. D’Arnaud could start the year back in Triple-A, while Mathis backed up Arencibia, but one thing is made certain by the extension – Mathis will make the team. When D’Arnaud gets hot and/or Arencibia struggles, the Jays will be forced to carry three catchers, or trade one of Arencibia or D’Arnaud. D’Arnaud on his own would fetch more value in trade, but Arencibia’s baseball card stats would fetch considerable value either as a stand-alone, or as part of a package.
The determining factor for the Blue Jays will come down to this question: Is the increase in the value of a return on D’Arnaud vs. Arencibia greater than the increase in value that D’Arnaud can provide on the field over Arencibia. If the answer is yes, D’Arnaud will probably be shipped out after showing himself healthy, perhaps around the trade deadline, like Travis Snider this year; but if the answer is no; Arencibia will probably be shipped out mid-season, although a hot September could portend an off-season trade. Consistently rotating between fist base, designated hitter and catcher is no solution for any of the players. D’Arnaud and Arencibia both produce their best offensive value as everyday catchers, are moderately devalued at DH and severely devalued at first base. With only so many innings to go around and Mathis locked in, one of the two catchers must be on the move, as a 50-50 time share does them no good. Given his superiority in all facets of the game, I would project D’Arnaud to stay.
Travis D’Arnaud is the Blue Jays catcher of the future and while Arencibia provides some value, that value is maximized as a trading chip and in that I clearly see a swift end for him in Toronto.