Monday, April 23, 2012

Sweeps and Hutch and Stuff

Remember in your formative years when your (insert sport) team would beat up on the team comprised predominantly of the uncoordinated, asthmatic, and/or overweight kids?

That's kind of how I feel about the Jays' success in Kansas City.

Sure it feels good to assert your dominance over a team that's clearly inferior, but the results fail to provide an accurate sense of your true abilities. Don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to belittle a four-game sweep -- it's not easy to beat any team on four consecutive nights, especially on the road -- but considering how Kansas City has played over the season's first fortnight, you have to think this sweep is more a testament to their uniform ineptitude than anything else.

But that caveat aside, it's hard to find too much to complain about when you notch four Ws in as many nights. Sure, Sergio Santos went down, Adam Lind continues to struggle, and interim closer Francisco Cordero didn't inspire a whole lot of confidence in his first save appearance, but we did get a nice, longish look at Drew Hutchison.

Though his "signature command" eluded him for virtually his entire outing on Saturday, the 21-year-old did enough in his major league debut to get the win. Having said that, his erratic performance was somewhat surprising given his reputation as a strike-thrower. The former 15th-round pick walked three in just 5.1 innings, a far cry from the guy who averaged 2.2 BB/9 and 4.32 SO/BB for his minor-league career.

However, Hutchison demonstrated poise beyond his years in the face of adversity, showing no emotion after surrendering homeruns to both Alex Gordon and Eric Hosmer, respectively. Considering he'd only made six starts above the High-A level heading into Saturday, Hutch fared reasonably well in his debut; I'll attribute his tenuous command to jitters. But what really stuck out for me was his resemblance to another young Blue Jays hurler, Henderson Alvarez.

Incidentally, there appear to be a number of overt parallels between Hutchison and Henderson, not including that nominal one. Over ten starts in 2011, Alvarez threw his fastball 71.8% of the time; while he averaged over 93 mph with his heater, he missed bats just a scant 6.4% of the time, presumably due to his lack of a third pitch. Like Alvarez, Hutchison favours the fastball, and threw it almost 80% of the time in his debut. He also has a propensity to pitch to contact, missing bats on just 5.1% of his pitches on Saturday. And, perhaps most importantly, like Alvarez, Hutch has yet to develop a respectable third pitch.

Given their similarities with respect to age, makeup, repertoire, and...uh, team, it'll be fun to watch their mutual development, especially if we can somehow foist the nickname "Starsky" upon Alvarez.

And speaking of developments that are fun to watch, how about Colby Rasmus? I'd like to think our taciturn centrefielder won over some skeptics this series, hitting .357 with two homers and four RBIs. Needless to say, the Alabama Slammer is hot -- over his last 10 games, Rasmus is 13/37 (.351), and has reached base safely in all but one contest. And as exciting as those numbers are, they elicit even more giddiness when viewed in the context of his overall maturation as a hitter.

Below is Rasmus's spray chart from April 1-23, 2011. While his start to 2011 was, admittedly, stronger than that of 2012, last year he drove the ball almost exclusively to right-field.

Now, if you look at this year's spray chart, you'll notice there's no such concentration of green dots. This right-field bias appears to be gone, as his hits are distributed rather equitably throughout the ballpark so far this season.

Small sample size notwithstanding, he's hitting line drives with unprecedented frequency (26.1% of the time), and a tempered leg kick has him hitting the ball to all fields. Both of those things augur well for him, myself, and my loyal band of unabashed Rasmus boosters.

On the other side of the ball, the Blue Jays defense turned nine double plays (and one triple play) in Kansas City, and now lead the majors with an average of 1.44 twin-killings per game. Of course, this couldn't have been possible without the selfless efforts of Royals catcher Brayan Pena.

Defense is often an area of the game that gets overlooked, but the Blue Jays have done a fine job making plays behind their young rotation this year. And Kelly Johnson's backhand-glove-flip-extravaganza in the rubber match of the series was one of the more adroit displays of defensive prowess in recent memory.

While the sweep may have inflated the team's sense of self-worth, aplomb is a good thing. Onwards to Maryland. Complacency, be damned.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Colby Be Hackin'

Following last night's victory over the Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays, I enjoyed the honourable distinction of being Mike Wilner's first caller on the Blue Jays Talk.

I asked Mike if he thought John Farrell or hitting coach Dwayne Murphy might be reluctant to approach Colby Rasmus about perhaps adjusting his hitting philosophy with respect to hacking at the first pitch. Wilner assured me that neither Farrell nor Murph would have any hesitation in addressing such an issue with Rasmus, but also insisted that such a discussion is not necessary at the moment.

I don't necessarily disagree. In fact, being notorious for offering at the first pitch myself, it'd be supremely hypocritical of me to chastise someone else for doing it. And of course, the differences between the MLB and the Canadian Intercollegiate Baseball Association are negligible.

That said, Rasmus has swung at the first offering in 49% (19/39) of his plate appearances so far this season. When he has managed to put the ball in play on the first pitch, he's 0-for-8. While he does, for the most part, swing predominantly at strikes -- 16/19 first pitches he's hacked at have been in the strike zone, according to Pitch F/X -- he's also demonstrated a tendency to swing a tad indiscriminately, not taking into account the kind of pitch being thrown; 7/19 first-pitch swings have been at breaking balls or off-speed pitches.

Here are the Pitch F/X charts for your analytical pleasure.

Now, his relatively minute .200 BABIP suggests that he's been extremely unlucky at the dish thus far, and his propensity for hitting the ball the other way, especially with power, is very encouraging, so make whatever inferences you want*.

*I'll be at the game tonight; if Rasmus does anything remotely positive on a first pitch, I rescind your right to make negative inferences.

Saturday, April 14, 2012


Remember Jon Rauch? I kinda miss that guy.

As scary as the preceding sentence is, it's quickly becoming a reality.

It's entirely premature to say that the revamped Blue Jays bullpen is as ineffective a unit as that of 2011, but I can't say I'm not tempted.

Today, for the fourth time in just eight contests, the bullpen was unable to maintain the lead it inherited. And although I wish I could assign blame merely to one solitary rogue, this propensity for coughing up the lead seems to have plagued an alarming number of this team's late-inning hurlers.

First, closer Sergio Santos infamously blew his first two save opportunities as a Blue Jay, forfeiting the lead in the ninth against Cleveland on April 7, and then again two nights later against the Red Sox.

Next, geriatric southpaw Darren Oliver was unable to hold a run-one lead in the eighth inning against Baltimore last night; consequently, the Jays fell 7-5.

And finally, Casey Janssen -- who had surrendered three runs over his previous two outings -- effectively squandered a solid start from Henderson Alvarez, surrendering a game-tying, solo homerun to Wilson Betemit in the eighth inning of today's contest. The following inning, Francisco Cordero yielded a two-run moonshot to Nolan Reimold that proved to be the game's decisive blow.

Much was made of the relief renaissance that Alex Anthopoulos engineered this offseason, but what if, behind all the smoke and mirrors and rhetoric, this group of relievers is just an ineffective as last year's?

And to salt the wound, there' s a delicious irony in the fact that Frank Francisco has converted all three of his save opportunities with the Mets this year. Isn't that depressing?

The fact remains, the new pieces in the bullpen represent Anthopoulos's biggest offseason investment. So when are we going to see a return?

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Drabek Impresses in Season Debut...Again

It'd be supremely disingenuous to suggest that Kyle Drabek's impressive start tonight in any portends a year of brilliance -- he began his turbulent 2011 season with an equally dominant start against the Minnesota Twins -- but it's reason for optimism nevertheless.

Facing a Boston lineup presumably buoyed by a ninth-inning, comeback victory the night before, Drabek was virtually unhittable through his 5.1 innings of work, yielding a solitary run on three hits and three walks. Working with a 3-1 lead, he was promptly removed in the sixth after his command began to wane. I can only assume his patience was equally exhausted after having to endure an evening with Tim McClelland behind the plate.

Drabek's outing helped to relieve the pain of last night's immensely disheartening collapse conducted by Toronto's newest pariah, Sergio Santos. And of course, it goes without saying that Drabek's performance is also encouraging from a developmental perspective.

His newfound maturity was manifest tonight, as he sublimated his implosion impulse when a McClelland squeeze engendered a Jacoby Ellsbury walk to lead off the sixth inning. With his next two outings coming against the Baltimore Orioles and Kansas City Royals, respectively, it's conceivable that he pieces together an April that opens some eyes around the league.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

We Undefeated

How can anyone adequately articulate the whirlwind -- nay, the tornado -- of emotion that was Opening Day?

I’ll be the first to admit that any attempt would prove futile.

From Ricky Romero’s deplorable second inning to J.P Arencibia’s decisive, 16th-inning homerun, from Chris Perez’s remarkable 9th-inning implosion to Luis Perez’s four masterful innings of relief, the experience -- which spanned more than five hours -- was simply too emotionally jarring, too incomprehensibly transcendent to describe with the tools at my disposal.

And yet, in a way, I’m tempted to succumb to the notion that the indefatigable resilience that the Blue Jays demonstrated for 16 consecutive innings today is, to some extent, a brilliant --albeit extreme -- representation of the character this team possesses.

Allow me to demonstrate:

  • After a disastrous, 43-pitch, four-run second inning, Ricky Romero buckled down and didn’t surrender a hit for the rest of the day. But perhaps more importantly, Romero sublimated the impulse to implode emotionally and demonstratively. As Buck Martinez alluded to, this newfound maturity will be an integral component in his role as team ace.

  • Despite looking utterly helpless in his first three plate appearance, Kelly Johnson seriously manned-up in his fourth at-bat, ripping a single to centrefield off Chris Perez. He would come around to score in what would prove to be a three-run, game-tying, ninth-inning rally of epic proportions.

  • The Bullpen. Need I say more? Eleven innings. No runs. Just balls. By which I mean cojones, not, you know, errant pitches. Maybe Alex Anthopoulos was on to something when he went out and invested all that money to fortify the team’s relief corps.

  • Yes, Colby Rasmus went 0/7 today, but he did manage to sting two balls -- including an opposite-field shot that fell just shy of the warning track -- and made an absolutely sensational grab in centre-field.

  • Jose Bautista.
That being said, today's marathon was also fraught with exasperation.

For instance, Eric Thames misjudged at least two balls in left field -- one of which fell in for a double -- in what proved to be a rather disappointing inaugural Opening Day for him.

And speaking of lacklustre first Opening Days, Canadian wunderkind Brett Lawrie looked absolutely clueless this afternoon. His abysmal day at the plate notwithstanding, he looked patently uncomfortable at the hot corner all day, bobbling two balls and bouncing a throw to Adam Lind at first-base. His performance, once again, reinforced the irrelevance of Spring Training statistics.

But the most egregious transgression of the day has to go to Rajai Davis. Rather than run to first base after popping up a sacrifice bunt, he opted instead to admire the fruits of his disastrous execution, and managed to turn bad play into an atrocious one. His flagrant disregard for any semblance of baseball sense was so offensive that...well, I don't know what. It was simply inexcusable.

Nevertheless, we're 1-0, and we even got to enjoy some extracurricular activity when Luis Perez brushed back Shin-Soo Choo in the 15th inning. That's always fun.

I can’t even think of a clever way to wrap this post up. Too emotionally drained.

Fortunately, we have an off-day tomorrow.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Be Consistent: The Rasmus-Snider Paradox

The vitriol that's been spewed towards Colby Rasmus by an overwhelming number of Blue Jays fans this offseason is nothing if not perplexing.

I say this because I’m certain many of these fans quick to brand Rasmus as a prospect that never materialized also belong to the pro-Travis Snider camp. Of course, there are subtle variations in their respective pedigrees, but fundamentally, they’re astonishing similar.

Both players were drafted out of high school in first round -- Rasmus in 2005; Snider in 2006. Both players excelled in the minor leagues -- Rasmus posted an OPS of .852 in 417 minor league contests; Snider sits at .901 over 439 games. And though it’s a purely superficial observation, both players possess a kind of abrasive haughtiness that’s tolerable so long as the production is there.

And yet the dichotomy in sentiment towards the two couldn’t be more dramatic. Travis is the golden-boy who’s simply a victim of developmental mismanagement while Rasmus is the uncoachable rogue with a bad attitude and equally unsavory reputation that St. Louis was happy to dispose of.

Rasmus’ attitude has to be the source of the antipathy because no reasonable person could actually dismiss a 25-year-old with his pedigree after only a scant 140 plate appearances in a Toronto uniform. And unlike Snider, Rasmus has enjoyed more than a modicum of success at the big league level. In his age-23 season, Rasmus posted a .276/.361/.498 line, along with 23 homeruns, 66 RBIs, and 12 stolen bases. His 132 OPS+ that season ranked 13th in the National League.

Yes, his brief stint with Toronto at the end of 2011 was discouraging, but bear in mind that he was struggling with a wrist injury for much of that time, not to mention the task of acclimating himself to a new country, new clubhouse, new teammates, and a new organizational philosophy. And frankly, I surmise that it was difficult for Rasmus to endear himself so quickly to a new team considering the reputation that continually precedes him.

Looking deeper into Rasmus’ 2011 struggles, it seems as though his lack of success was, at least partially, due to some rotten luck. His BABIP (batting average on balls in play) was .267 for the season, more than 30 points below the putative league average. Upon arriving in Toronto, his BABIP dropped to a microscopic .217, indicating that he was even less fortunate north of the border. Of course, his lofty .354 BABIP from 2010 is likely not a sustainable figure, but it’s reasonable to believe that his true ability lies somewhere in between the two extremes. And while the production left something to be desired in 2011, he did manage to cut his strikeout rate down to 22.1% from 27.7% the year before.

Earlier this offseason, Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus polled a group of eight major-league general managers as to whether they’d rather have Rasmus or Cuban-defector-turned-Oakland-Athletic Yoenis Cespedes as their team’s centrefielder. Six of the eight GMs picked Cespedes. Among those who preferred the Cuban, at least two of them cited Rasmus’ character issues in their reasoning.

“I don't like the swing, and there's something about the J.D. Drew way he goes about things," one AL scouting executive said.

“I just don't buy the whole 'Tony La Russa turned this guy into a bad player' thing," said another American league front office member.

While coachability and attitude are certainly relevant attributes, the list of successful, even superstar-caliber athletes whose personalities are little less than abhorrent is an extremely extensive document.

Furthermore, the beautiful thing about computerized projections is that they don’t care about character flaws, perceived or legitimate. They don’t care if you don’t run out ground balls. They don’t care if you’re taciturn with the media. Incidentally, PECOTA predicts that Rasmus will enjoy a modest bounce-back in 2012, with a .252/.321/.442 line, along with 20 homers and 70 RBIs.

And for those insisting that Rasmus’ abysmal numbers this spring in any way portend the inevitability of an equally disappointing regular season, to you I say, it’s Spring Training.

Go look up Gabe Gross.

So for those Snider enthusiasts who are also calling for Rasmus’ conspicuously unkempt head, please note the inherent hypocrisy. You can’t reasonably support one and condemn the other. Otherwise, you’re just as inconsistent as they are.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Cecil? Don't Make Me Laff

If nothing else, Brett Cecil is selfless.

So concerned was he with ensuring the Detroit Tigers were prepared for Opening Day, he generously assumed the role of pitching machine in his final Grapefruit League appearance today.

Over his four innings of magnanimity, Cecil surrendered a staggering nine runs -- seven earned -- on 11 hits and one walk while striking out one. Consequently, his spring ERA stands at 6.48.

If, for some inexplicable reason, you reject this theory that Cecil was simply overcome by some altrusitic intention, you'll have to confront the reality that Toronto's most lambasted southpaw -- whose job security, some suggest, has become increasingly tenuous of late -- got absolutely ripped in his final spring bid to secure his place in the rotation.

At the end of last season, it seemed a foregone conclusion that Cecil would serve as Toronto's #3/4 starter in 2012. Despite a turbulent 2011 punctuated by an eight-week demotion to AAA, Cecil fashioned an ERA of 4.02 from July through September, performing just well enough to keep the skeptics and naysayers -- a contingent I, myself, belong to -- at bay.

And while many have lauded Cecil's off-season conditioning efforts, his substantially diminished midsection does little to assuage my fears about his equally diminished velocity. The always reliable Shi Davidi reported that "Cecil was mostly 86-87 in first" this afternoon, and "topped out at 88, a ball."

I've never subscribed to the notion that velocity is necessarily a prerequisite to success, but the evidence is certainly compelling me to reconsider. I mean, look at Brad Mills.

At this point, it looks like Kyle Drabek will fill the the McGowan vacancy, but I wouldn't be so quick to dismiss the possibility of awarding Aaron Laffey the job that putatively belongs to Cecil.

Frankly, with the wealth of high-ceiling arms Alex Anthopoulos has accumulated, it's conceivable that Cecil's future with this team is limited anyway. Over 65 major league starts, Cecil has hucked and guiled his way to an uninspiring 4.36 xFIP. Sure, Laffey's technically pales in comparison at 4.76 (over 126 appearances -- 49 starts), but given the current ethos of this team -- and weighing the potential upside of keeping Cecil in the rotation -- I still feel inclined to throw the guy who gives me the best chance to win tonight.

Today, I feel that guy is Aaron Laffey, not Brett Cecil. Tomorrow, I may feel differently.

But for now, it's hard to justify giving a rotation spot to a guy who bears an increasingly unsettling resemblance to a pitching machine.