Friday, September 27, 2013

A season of expectations, a season of disappointment

Kawasaki opens his arms in triumph after delivering the walk off hit.
There were happy times. Really. Photo courtesy the Flickr stream of @james_in_to.
Nobody knows nothing.

Maybe that doesn't seem like the most profound sentiment, and it probably sounded better when Socrates said something like it in his day. I am paraphrasing, mind you, and my version is certainly  lacking grammatically.

Still, it's the first thing that pops into my head when I look back on the 2013 season of the Toronto Blue Jays. Over the years, it's been something of a mantra that echoes through my mind almost constantly when I hear people talking in bold absolutes about baseball. But never more than this season.

This was supposed to be a new, refreshed and revitalized Blue Jays team. This was a team that would play in the now rather than dreaming on a future. A team that spent money and traded their top prospects on proven veterans with pedigrees who were expected to help the team win now.

The urgency to win was fueled in part by a one of the most calamitous seasons in Jays history, with a parade of injuries pile on top of homophobic eyeblack and finished off with a manager who bolted from the organization to a loathed rival. The Jays were left to pick up the pieces and restore faith in a hurry. And that's when it seemed as though the measured strategy of building from within was abandoned in favour of tactics echoing from the cheap seats.

"Spend to contend!" they said. With the Red Sox emerging from shambles and the Yankees looking old and broken down, the Jays were presented with window. This was their time. This was not a year to dwell on "five-year plans" or meaningless games in the second half of the season. It was time to go big, and put an end to two decades of futility.

And if you bought into that entire crock, it's hard to conceive of how this season could have been much more disappointing.

Even if you approached the season with some hesitancy, the acquisition of an exciting player like Jose Reyes or a reigning Cy Young winner in R.A. Dickey was enough to make the lead up to the season a dizzying delight of anticipation and hope.

But from the very opening of the season, this newly contrived squad was never seriously in the mix, nor did it ever really look quite right.

Without wanting to build narratives in hindsight, there was something unnerving on Opening Day about Dickey's reaction to a fifth-inning Asdrubal Cabrera fly ball that carried over the fence, giving Cleveland a 4-1 lead in a game that would end at that score. Dickey's immediate reaction was to throw his hands in the air, as if to suggest that he found it beyond belief that a ball like that would leave the park.

I make every effort not to give voice to my emotional reactions to those sorts of moment, if only so that I don't try to legitimize them. Those emotions are reactionary and amorphous vibes that haven't been treated with logic or contained and defined by reason. But in that moment, my raw feeling was one of dread. The Blue Jays had mortgaged two of their top three prospects to lock up a putative ace to win right away, but it turned out he was a flyball pitcher who was diminished when removed from the generous confines of Citi Field. And it wasn't going to work. Sorry about your luck.

Not that you abandon all hope after one pitch in the first game game, mind you. That anecdote likely would have faded into memory if the Blue Jays had bounced back with any degree of success early on. But those initial weeks with the newly devised roster were an ugly and awful slog. The Jays looked awful in the field, with newcomers Emilio Bonifacio and Maicer Izturis both looking ill at ease in the infield.

Josh Johnson looked lousy, picking and nibbling with offspeed and breaking pitches early in counts and getting hit hard when he came into the zone. Melky Cabrera moved like a man twice his age, stumbling in the field and pulling up lame on the basepaths.

It was hardly an auspicious start for any of the newcomers, save for Reyes, who tore into his role at the top of the Jays' lineup over his first ten games with the club, posting a .991 OPS. But in that tenth game, Reyes executed an awkward, half-aborted slide that saw him immediately drop to the ground, in pain and in tears with a severe ankle sprain.

I remember staring numbly at the television that night, caught under a wave of despair. Not even two weeks into the season, and it seemed as though 2013 was already a lost cause. It only twisted the knife deeper to know that this happened to a guy should be well-versed in the skill of sliding to steal a base.

The season wasn't over, obviously. There were still 152 games to play over the next 25 weeks. But with so little margin for error in a tough American League, it was hard to conceive of how a team that looked so lousy could turn things around.

There were high points to the season, of course. The unexpected emergence of Munenori Kawasaki - as much as an entertainer as a ballplayer - helped to fill in the gap as Reyes was convalescing. Kawasaki was the highlight of the most memorable positive moment of the season when his two-run walkoff double off Orioles closer Jim Johnson capped off a four-run ninth. Kawasaki would also play a key role in the Jays' 11-game win streak, posting a 1.018 OPS (.393 OBP, 625 SLG) at the top of the lineup over those games.

And for a brief moment in June, it seemed as though the Jays might be back on track. By the end of their winning streak, they were two games over .500 (38-36), and out of the AL East cellar by percentage points over the Tampa Bay Rays. But from there through to today, the Jays posted a 34-51 record, stumbling along with a makeshift rotation that could never quite do enough to support the mostly-okayish offense.

Last year at this time, I shrugged off the season almost entirely. There was nothing of value to be gleaned from it. It was a series of calamities and injuries and mishaps, the likes of which would be unlikely to be visited upon any one team again. There's no lesson to be learned there, aside from the fact that there are thousands of ways for plans to go astray.

Today, after a whole new set of tribulations and disappointments, I'm probably ready to say that I don't know if you can ever really learn anything monumentally insightful from how one season plays out. Sometimes, things play out the way you hope, and sometimes they don't. The difference between being a laughing stock and being in the Wild Card mix for the Jays was one lousy loss every two weeks.

I'm left after these past two seasons to think that there's no single path that teams should walk towards success. Rather, I think there are as many paths to success as there are success stories. Sometimes, that means loading up on veterans, and sometimes, it means holding onto your prospects until they blossom and provide you with depth.

The Jays were a flawed team, but every team has flaws. Next week, when we're all hunkering down to watch playoff baseball, those teams that were talented and fortunate enough to play those elusive "meaningful games" will have more flaws than you would imagine.

As Jays fans, we'll be fixated on the flaws as we attempt to understand what went wrong, and where to find those extra wins next season. But at this point, I could see the Jays adding the Matt Garza and Howie Kendrick and Brian McCann and still coming up short next season.

I don't know what the answer is. But I know that I don't know. And knowing that means I'll temper my expectations for 2014, regardless of what happens this winter.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Tao's Tweet Bag - Sporadically Answering Your Correspondence in Due Time

Letters...we get letters.

I'll confess that part of the reason that I started doing these mailbag-style posts - which I confess can be a touch hacky - is that it gave me a chance to take the pulse of the fans, and see what preoccupies them. And if you'll indulge a bit of flattery towards my Twitter followers, I find that the preponderance of notes I receive are thoughtful, considered and maybe even a bit optimistic, in spite of several disappointing seasons in succession. It actually raises my spirits. 

In this round of solicited questions, what seems to be primarily gnawing away at the soul of Blue Jays fans is the fate of one Mr. Jonathan Paul Arencibia. I doubt that these questions would raise his spirits.

Let's dig in.
No, I don't think that's the case at all. Arencibia was a first-round draft pick, a top-50 prospect according to Baseball America, and a Pacific Coast League MVP. The dude had credentials coming into his major league career.

It's also easy to forget after this awful season for the Jays' catcher - both on and off the field - that there was a time when fans were left calling on the team to shove veteran John Buck out of the way to make room for the "catcher of the future", even after his remarkable debut. If the Jays parked JPA for weeks after his debut, there's little to suggest that one game would have had any impact on the decision to keep him in the starting role through two less than stellar seasons.  
It's hard to imagine that things could go much worse for Arencibia. Hard, but not impossible.

Still, there's evidence from his first two seasons that he's not nearly this bad as an offensive player. In his first two full seasons as the starter, JPA posted a .716 OPS (.279 OBP, .437 SLG). Those figures aren't extraordinary, but the average across the league for catchers this season is a .706 OPS (.313/.393), which would place Arencibia as slightly below average for the position.

If you suppose that a full season might not even be a sample size that is sufficient to make a decision on a player's worth, then the performance in the previous season should give some pause. It could be that there is something that is ailing Arencibia this season - physically, mentally, spiritually - leading to the past year being a weird and wonky fluke. Maybe he'll return to being a sorta-average player for his position in the coming years.

But roll all of his performance to date together, and he starts to look like a fringey MLB backup, with some pop in his bat.
Some guys see taking a pitch as a passive approach. If you're asking me to play amateur psychologist, I think that Arencibia is the sort of person who wants to make things happen, not wait for things to play themselves into a situation that might be more beneficial to him.

When Arencibia defiantly defended his reputation against the slings and arrows of baseball analysts, he pointed to the work that he had done for the team, such as the charity events and the winter tour. It was, in essence: "Look at what I do for you!"

It's about action. Making stuff happen. Maybe that sort of mindset doesn't lend itself to watching a borderline pitch go by early in the count to elicit a more predictable and hittable pitch later.
Not really. With the starting pitching woes that the Jays have faced this season, it's hard to imagine them handing the full-time starting job over to a rookie next year.

Moreover, I think that the Jays have started to show themselves to be more deliberate in how they promote players through the system, allowing them to master one level before ascending to the next. I think Jimenez still has a year of work to do in Buffalo before he gets promoted, though I could see him being mixed into the catching rotation towards the end of next season.

He's here. He's controllable. He might not be this bad. He might be a deal if his numbers return to 2011-2012 levels, and he gets less than $2 Million through arbitration or pre-arb negotiation.
I think Chooch might be expensive, and while he's just 34 years old, a multi-year deal at more than $6 Million per season might end up being a poor investment.

Still, there's Ruiz's decent reputation for handling pitchers - though who wouldn't look good with that pitching staff? - and a very solid OBP. He's posting a .342 this season, .361 for his career, and a peak of .400 in 2010 followed by a .394 mark last season.

If you're talking about a two-year deal, sure. Sign him up. If he's looking for more than $7 million and four years or more, I think you have to consider other options.

McCann might be one of the more sought-after pieces in this year's free agent market, as scant as the pickings are. He is younger than Ruiz, but has a long injury history with nary a body part left unscathed. He had shoulder surgery last offseason, suffered through hamstring tightness, knee contusions, intercostal and oblique strains, not to mention laser eye surgery that didn't quite take for the first few months afterwards.

McCann's .824 OPS (.350 OBP/.473 SLG) plays very well as a catcher, though his defense isn't exactly revered. The big question you're left with if you're investing a significant portion of your payroll over the next six or seven seasons in a player like that is how much surplus value does he bring if you need to shift him to first base or DH. Could he play left field if required?

Beyond all that, I still envision McCann in a Yankee uniform. I'm not sure I'd want to see the Jays attempting to outbid them for his services.   

One of the aspects of the Jays' roster that I was dead wrong about this year was the flexibility, and to a slightly lesser extent, the depth.

With multi-positional switch-hitters throughout the roster on Opening Day, I figured that the Jays would rarely find themselves in a pinch when it came to filling the lineup card. And for all of the misery this year, I think that the number of awful and inexplicable lineups were far less than the past two seasons.

Still, the Jays probably came into the season with too many bench players on the active roster and not enough legitimate starters, especially at second base. Moreover, the depth just beneath the Major League level was pretty suspect and comprised of veteran castoffs -Andy LaRoche, Mauro Gomez, Ryan Langerhans - who might have given you a good week or two when filling in for a DL'ed starter, but weren't really an option that anyone would want to rely on.

I suppose the emergence of Munenori Kawasaki was a fun spectacle to observe, but you certainly wouldn't want the Jays to look towards 2014 with off-field entertainment value as a priority for the club.

Ultimately, I think that organizational depth is something that you develop from within, and unfortunately, the Jays had - and will continue to have - a gap year or two between their available bench spots and their better positional prospects.
No, they don't. Dickey might have a Cy Young Award glistening on his mantle, but he probably profiles as a number three. A decent, innings-eating starter who takes the ball and gives you something between a 3.70 and 4.20 ERA.

If he has a good, healthy season as a 39 year-old, Dickey might emerge as a decent number two pitcher, but as a suffering Blue Jays fan, would you want to bank on the likelihood of that eventuality?

And would you also want to bank on the health of Brandon Morrow? I love watching Morrow pitch, and when he's healthy and available to take the ball, he has the ability to be a number two starter, and maybe something more. But players don't tend to get more healthy and less fragile as years go by, so again, I wouldn't want to plan on Morrow being more than 150 innings of number three starter quality.
I'd make a terrible clairvoyant. I can barely guess what I'm going to have for lunch, and I have infinitely more data points at my disposal to make such a postulation.

But if I just balance this out to guess at what is more likely, I would be left to wonder how much payroll the Jays' front office will be playing with this offseason. With big money commitments and raises being added onto next year's books - including Mark Buehrle's $7 million bump to become the Jays' highest paid player at $19 million next year - there's a lot of 2014 fiscal capacity that's already been eaten away.

And make no mistake, number threes are still valuable commodities around baseball. Ricky Nolasco is probably a number three, and  he'll be looking to improve on the $11.5 million he made this season when he enters the free agent market.

On the other hand, who do the Jays have to dangle in order to bring a number three pitcher into the fold? Do they send one of their offensive core - Reyes, Bautista, Encarnacion, Rasmus or Lawrie - out the door to bring back an Edwin Jackson-type? Do they again attempt to speed up their contention clock by moving Aaron Sanchez or D.J. Davis or Marcus Stroman out the door?

What do I think is the most likely of those scenarios? Ugh. I'd rather not think of it.

José Bautista has two years at $14 million per season left on his current deal, with a $16 million option for 2016. That might make him a fairly attractive commodity, either in this offseason or next.

The existential question for the Jays at this point is: Do you move Bautista now, and possibly take yet another step back away from contention in 2014? And towards what end?

And while I'm not typically one to place emphasis on the intanglibles, I think that Bautista plays an important clubhouse role for the Jays that they might not be eager to part with in the short term. But if the Jays get off to a bad start in 2014 and are in the bottom half of the American League in July, I think he'd be a prime candidate to move out in order to begin the rebuild.
No, I can't. I suppose someone smarter than me or with more immediate access to advanced data sets could look at defensive metrics and the use of shifts in both the oufield and the infield and figure out how many runs the Jays are giving back by not adapting their positions before pitches are thrown.

I really don't have an answer for this, but I include it here because it's a question that bothers me occasionally as well. While I like John Gibbons' lineup construction and bullpen management - the two most evident aspects of what a manager does - I have an odd feeling that there's a level of preparation for the season and for games that isn't in place this year.

I could be dead wrong on that, but it seemed to me that they Jays came out of the gate flat, after a Spring Training that was acknowledged by those who observed these things annually as "relaxed". For years, Brian Butterfield was the field marshal in Dunedin, running camp and prepping the team for the forthcoming season. And his work with infielders was held in significant regard.

Torey Lovullo was omnipresent on the top of the dugout steps in his tenure with the Jays, directing the outfielders on where they should play batters and often being the first face that a fielder saw on his down the dugout steps after an inning, presumably looking for a clarification on why a player made the choice he did, and suggesting the correction.

I'm not close enough to the team to see what's happening this year with the coaching staff. But I think its a question worth raising.

I really like Goins. I think he's a ballplayer. But I also don't see him evolving into much more than a decent bench player or a marginal starter. He might surprise beyond that, and I love the level of athleticism that he demonstrates, but again, I wouldn't want to bet part of my 2014 success on his ability to post a .700 OPS in the Majors.

My preferred course for him would be on the bench to spell José Reyes in the field on occasion, and to get some starts at second or third if needed. I might even want to see if he could handle some games in the outfield. Maybe I'm wrong about this, but I could see his best role in the big leagues as a Hairston Brothers' style supersub.
I agree that the Jays became a big deal (BIG DEAL!) this offseason, crossing over into the mainstream culture and news, and expanded their reach into some audiences that had been away for years or that hadn't yet engaged in the sport.

Attendance figures for 2013 are promising, with the Jays showing the most year-over-year growth at the turnstiles this season. I haven't seen the ratings in a while, but I don't think they'd be terribly disappointing, given the circumstances.

Of course, Toronto being Toronto, you can almost write the stories and talking points now that will come out next season, when Blue Jays attendance goes down by 1%, or 2% or even 5%. There's a smug cynicism about the sports scene in the Centre of the Universe, and it feasts of this sort of failure.

But those sorts of declines shouldn't be surprising, nor should they be alarming. Moreover, I have a hunch that the younger cohort of new fans will appreciate the experience of diving into baseball, and won't necessarily run away at the first sign of failure.

I'm sure that Blue Jays Talk host Mike Wilner will hear many declarations from fans who will state that they're finished with this team, but I get a sense that there has been enough goodwill engendered with a new generation of baseball fans.

It might be shocking to hear an old fart say this about kids in their twenties, but I don't get the sense that those new fans feel as entitled to a winning team every year. I think they might have enough patience to stick around for a few seasons and see how it all plays out.

Here's hoping they are rewarded.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Baseball Needs a New Record Book

Darin Erstad - Short-lived record holder?
Late in the 2000 season, Darin Erstad made a valiant run at the all-time single season hits record in Major League Baseball. Every night, fans hoped that their local broadcast would break into the Anaheim Angels' game with news of Erstad's pursuit of Wade Boggs' 15 year-old record of 240 hits.

In his first at bat on the final day of the 2000 season, Erstad ripped a double to left field, tying Boggs. He ended up going 1-for-5 on the day, leaving him in that tie, and he would only share the record with Boggs for a year until Ichiro Suziki reached 242 base hits one season later.

Are you scratching your head, wondering why it is that you don't remember those momentous nights 13 seasons ago? You shouldn't, because they didn't actually play out that way. Unfortunately, baseball's record book is larded up with irrelevant and inflated stats and numbers from bygone eras where the game was profoundly different, and certainly of far inferior quality.

To be a baseball fan, is to be indoctrinated with a reverence for the most cherished numbers from the history of the game. Part of the romance of those statistics is to imagine that the game was so perfect and the rules so similar across the decades that you could place Ty Cobb or Babe Ruth on a field with Ken Griffey and Cal Ripken Jr., and their skills would play right alongside one another. That they could walk shoulder to shoulder as the very greatest of the game.

It's this affection for the misty memories of a past that came well before most of our time that leads to people defending the sanctity of the record book, and creating some of the more poisonous instincts in baseball's traditionalists.     

People long for the days of Joltin' Joe DiMaggio, and his 56-game hit streak. Or Ted Williams' .406 batting average. Or Babe Ruth's 60-homer season.

At the same time, the more recent single-season achievements - especially when it comes to home runs - are discounted or dismissed entirely because the entire "steroid era" is under suspicion by self-appointed arbiters of history.

As those types increasingly use - or withhold - their Hall of Fame votes to make the case that baseball has lost something of its purity and sportsmanship, it increasingly bothers me that baseball's record book and highest honours are being overrepresented by those who played in the most shameful era in the game's history, the Segregated Era.

(And let's not forget that there are many executives who were either actively or tacitly involved in keeping baseball segregated who have plaques in Cooperstown.)

Major League Baseball goes to some lengths to celebrate Jackie Robinson, and the eventual integration of the game. But it also glosses over the fact that some of the bygone greats piled up their achievements in leagues that were systematically racist, creating less competition for the players in that era. Does DiMaggio's hitting streak reach 56 games if the American League was integrated at the time? We'll never know, but we should never forget that pre-1947 numbers should always be regarded with a healthy dose of suspicion.

You can have as many Jackie Robinson nights as you want, and you can retire his jersey number across the game, but all of that comes off as empty sentiment when you allow the records set in a game that was unbalanced and unfair because of systematic and deliberate racism to stand.

I suppose it's possible to defend the individual players from that era, and say that they weren't actively racist and that their records still deserve recognition. But in doing that, it actively obscures the historical nature of the achievements of players from the more modern era.

When Ichiro eventually broke the single season hits record in 2004, it would have been nice to recognize the players he passed on the list who had posted incredible seasons in their own right. Boggs and Erstad and Carew, as well as Don Mattingly's 238 hits in 1986, or Kirby Puckett's 234 in 1988, or even Stan Musial's 230 in 1948, a year after the start of baseball integration.

Instead, those achievements took a backseat to totals from George Sisler or Lefty O'Doul. And while I'm sure that there are some who would step forth to defend their legacies, the preservation of the records from that era creates a record book which is less meaningful to current fans.

And it's not as though this is without precedent. The pitching stats and records from the "dead-ball" era are still preserved in so much as we can still locate them if we need to, but they are generally set aside from those in the "live-ball" era, which began in 1920. And one could argue that the distinction between those two eras is not as notable as the one between segregated baseball and integrated baseball.

Currently, the single season records for runs, doubles, runs batted in, and total bases all rest in the hands of segregated era players. But wouldn't it be more meaningful for current day fans to recognize Jeff Bagwell's integrated era record of 152 runs scored? Or Manny Ramirez's RBI record of 165?

As Blue Jays fans, we would remember Carlos Delgado's 2000 season especially fondly if we were to recall the summer in which he and Todd Helton made their run at the MLB record for doubles, with Helton's 59 still topping Delgado's 57 as the two top marks in that offensive category.

It's nice to think of baseball's vast history, and to acknowledge how the game has changed or evolved over the years. But some of the truly great performances of the past 30 years are not given their proper due when they are buried among the numbers of the segregated era.