Wednesday, June 5, 2013

What Have We Learned So Far?

In recent years, when the Blue Jays invariably get off to an underwhelming start, folks ask me: At what point does a bad start become a bad season? Is this really this bad? Or is it even worse than it seems?

While I'm usually patient enough to see the season through - or at least beyond the All-Star Break - I've been known to tell people that they can ask me for my opinion on the state of the club sometime after June 1st. Sure, it's still too early, but maybe we'll have seen enough to at least discern something vaguely meaningful out of the season a third of the way in, right?

As Aaron Neville might croon in falsetto, I don't know much. But here's what I think I've gleaned about this team after 58 games.

You Can't Live Without Starting Pitching: It doesn't matter how many additions the Jays make to the roster, or how many new arms have been brought in to reinforce the pitching staff if they don't have good health.

If your pitchers are inactive (Josh Johnson, J.A. Happ, Brandon Morrow) or ineffective because of injury (again, Morrow as well as R.A. Dickey), there's no amount of pre-season optimism that can backfill the gap left by these diminished returns and absenteeism.

Whether if it is bad luck, a small sample or nagging injuries that are irritating the Jays' starters, the output has been far below expectations so far. Of the five pitchers in the rotation on Opening Day, only J.A. Happ has managed to keep his ERA below 5.00, and that's by a very slim margin indeed (4.91).

Weirdly, their best starter - in a small sample and purely based on ERA - might have been Chad Jenkins in his three unexpected starts last month. That's probably not the way they drew it up in the front office.

Don't Hold Your Breath on Ricky Romero: Without speaking in absolutes about whether if Romero's career is over - because that seems to be the perpetual question - it's safe to say that there are profound issues with the pitcher who was once the Jays' Opening Day starter.

At the end of the 2011 season, it seemed as though Romero lost something, and I wrote it off to fatigue. I also probably gave him credit for gutting it out and persevering through when he didn't have his best stuff.

But the ensuing season and this spring's near-meltdown only serve to reinforce that there is something amiss with Ricky Romero that mechanical tweaks and minor league assignments likely won't fix.

Is it an injury? He had "minor" elbow surgery in the offseason, in addition to the platelet-rich injections that he received in his knees this spring. His delivery has increasingly looked like a collection of jerky component movements, though it was never the prettiest from the outset.

I still have a suspicion that there is a shoulder issue, as Romero's release point looked to be affected at time last year, and wasn't consistent with the one he used in his better seasons.

Whatever the case, it's probably best not to expect any positive input from Romero in any role with the team any time soon.

You Can Play A Lot of Positions Without Playing Them Well: If there was one aspect of the Blue Jays that excited me in the offseason, it was the notion that the lineup would be tremendously flexible given the number of multi-position players who were acquired.

Add in the number of switch-hitters, and it seemed like a roster that could not be game-planned into submission.

The admiration of this adaptable roster probably had a lot to do with years of playing fantasy baseball, and drooling over players who were eligible to play in a number of position slots. 

But what has been striking is the degree to which those players are not actually trustworthy in the field. There was a lot of noise in the defensive metrics for players like Mark DeRosa, Maicer Izturis and Emilio Bonifacio, in part because those numbers are always hard to decipher or trust, and in part because they rarely played any position long enough in any given season to give a decent sample for what their respective capabilities were.

But having seen them in action, it appears that both are best used as marginal second basemen, and in a real pinch, you might be able to swing them into short or third, but not for any amount of time. Bonifacio looked particularly out of place in the outfield, necessitating the early recall of Anthony Gose.

What was a perceived strength is probably a bit of a weakness in the longer term.

Love the Long Ball. Loathe the Long Ball: The Blue Jays are among leaders in home runs, and really, who doesn't enjoy themselves a good tater. With 73 round-trippers, the Blue Jays sit fourth in the majors.

Edwin Encarnacion, José Bautista, J.P. Arencibia and even Colby Rasmus have been around the leaderboard in homers through the first third of the season, and while that doesn't guarantee 40 bombs or anything when it comes to wins, it should put to rest some of the long-standing gripes about the lack of power that the Jays have.

It should, but it probably won't. That's the nature of gripes, I suppose.

On the other hand, the Jays' starting pitchers are all giving up home runs at a rather alarming rate. Brandon Morrow's homer-to-flyball rate has always been a chink in his armour, and one which is glossed over by nerd stats that consider the conversion rate of the former to the latter as something of a streak of bad luck.

Even if you doubt that formula, the fact that this number is climbing for Morrow (15.7%, up from a career rate of 9.7%) is not a happy development.

Among the other starters, Johnson, Dickey and Buehrle are all posting a HR/FB rate in the 13% range (13.8%, 13.5% and 13.1% respectively.)

Brett Lawrie Is An Enigma: But more on that tomorrow.

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