Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Man in White 2 : Drop the Hammel Down

I don't think it's unreasonable to suggest that the major league baseball community isn't exactly fond of the Toronto Blue Jays.

And I'm not sure I blame them.

I mean, look at this team. They're young. They're brash. They're Canadian, kinda.

Jose Bautista seethes with entitled contempt every time he takes a borderline pitch that doesn't go his way.  Brett Lawrie has the temerity to run out -- or, more accurately, gallop out -- routine ground balls.  Yunel Escobar plays the game with an air of casual indifference.  Same goes for Colby Rasmus.

Based on purely superficial observation, this is not a particularly likeable group.

This increasingly ubiquitous distaste for the Blue Jays seemed to culminate last year when ESPN released a story -- propelled by the testimony of four anonymous major leaguers -- that accused the Jays of stealing opposing teams' signs, a nefarious scheme made possible by the efforts of a deviant known only as the Man in White.

Of course, none of the accusers could produce anything amounting to definitive evidence, and the story was essentially a smear piece with a credible masthead.

But the initial outrage that pervaded the Jays community soon subsided, and the story quickly morphed into a running gag that was lampooned by everyone from local sportscasters to the Toronto bullpen.

So when Baltimore starter Jason Hammel reignited the flames lit by that article after a poor outing against the Bluebirds on Wednesday night -- 6.2 IP, 4 ER, 9 H, 2 BB --  on one hand, it affirmed this notion that the Jays aren't well liked, and, on the other hand, reeked of a desperate attempt by a mediocre pitcher to deflect attention away from himself as his hot start continues to dissipate.

At the crux of Hammel's accusations was Toronto's aggressiveness on breaking pitches.  The disgruntled hurler insisted that "you can't take swings like that, not knowing they're coming."
But what's curious is that it wasn't the off-speed stuff that tickled the Jays' fancy tonight.  All four homeruns surrendered by Hammel came on fastballs.

How 'bout that, Tonto?

Below are the Pitch F/X strikezone plots for the quartet of dingers Hammel served up tonight.

As you can see in this first table, it was an elevated fastball, middle-in, that Edwin Encarnacion smacked over the left-field fence in the second inning.

An inning later, Rajai Davis took Hammel yard, also on an inside fastball. Hmmm...

Are we noticing a pattern yet? Anyone? Lawrie? Bueller?

And finally, the straw that broke the Hammel's back.  In all fairness, this fastball that Colby Rasmus yanked out of the ballpark was not middle-in.  It was just middle.

So, Jason Hammel, it's safe to say that your accusations are as transparent as your fastballs are ineffective.  I appreciate that this Toronto bunch can rub you the wrong way.  Hell, if I rooted for any other team, I'd probably hate them, too.  But to invoke this completely ludicrous rumour, knowing full well the gravity of those accusations, is simply unfair.  It's unprofessional.  It's juvenile.  And it's probably part of the reason why your teamed has earned a moniker as unflattering as the Baltimore OrioLOLes.

Don't hate the player.  Hate the game.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Out of Left Field

A few months back I wrote a piece commending Blue Jays management on its decision to bestow the left field job for 2012 upon Eric Thames, thereby condemning Travis Snider to yet another stint in baseball purgatory. 

More than a quarter of the way through the season, I think it's safe to say that I was wrong.

Eric Thames has not panned out.  Unequivocally.  Among qualified hitters, his -0.5 wins above replacement rating tops but a scant six other players -- interestingly enough, the slugger formerly known as Albert Pujols happens to be among that abysmal half-dozen.  Given how Thames has performed this season, the statistic is actually a misnomer.

Admittedly, I have a strong prejudice against Eric Thames.  Some people have insisted it's irrational, and, at times, I've agreed.  But as the season has rolled on, my anti-Thames bias has become increasingly empirical and decidedly less...well, biased.  Allow me to demonstrate:

  • With a 25.9 K%, his propensity for the strikeout trails only Kelly Johnson for the team lead (not including Jeff Mathis on account of at-bat scarcity and the fact that he's Jeff Mathis).
  • His tendency to chase balls outside the zone (35% O-Swing) is second only to J.P Arencibia (38%) among everyday players.  
  • His isolated power (.126) is third-worst among everyday players.
  • His .326 BABIP is almost certainly unsustainable --  league average BABIP is .267.
  • His defense. Oy.  As flawed as defensive metrics are, a -34.2 UZR/150 makes it virtually impossible to say anything remotely positive about his ability with the leather.  
I know this seems inconsistent with what I wrote earlier, but despite how I opined in March, I've never really liked Eric Thames.  You'll notice that even as I lauded the Jays for giving Thames the job out of Spring Training, my rhapsody revolved more around the organization's conscientious personnel management than Thames' abilities as a baseball player.

"Even if you don't agree with the decision, it's definitely the fair one. Thames did nothing to lose his job. The body of work isn't exactly extensive, but in 82 games last year, Thames accomplished that which has continually eluded Snider throughout his career: he came to work every day and, for the most, performed as expected. By the time October came around, Thames had a .262 average to go along with 12 homeruns and an isolated slugging percentage 70 points higher than Snider."

I stand by my assertion that it was the right decision, because, at the time, it was.  I suppose you could label it imprudent, opting to forego Take #5 at developing Travis Snider into a bona fide major leaguer in favour of a player whose ceiling is pretty unanimously considered to be lower. 
But while a moderate regression was to be expected for Thames, his performance this season has been so poor --- consistently, and on both sides of the ball -- that the slack earned through his respectable 2011 has been effectively exhausted.

Manager John Farrell had said that he needed to see at least 100 plate appearances before making any drastic decisions with respect to personnel.  Right on cue, after posting a laughable .186/.273/.314 line through 132 trips to the dish, the Blue Jays sent Adam Lind to Las Vegas last week.  There was also some speculation -- and, depending on who you ask, erroneous reportage -- that he was placed on outright waivers.  

As of 4:20 a.m on May 25, Eric Thames has had 147 plate appearances in 2012.  The organization has demonstrated a willingness to send struggling players down.  Rajai Davis has enjoyed a recent surge in playing time.  Essentially, the confluence of a number of factors seem to suggest that the writing is on the wall, or, at the very least, that the can of spray paint is in hand.

Whether or not Travis Snider (.333/.411/.604 in 26 games with Las Vegas) is worthy of a promotion is a topic for another day, but it's becoming increasingly apparent that the only thing big league about Eric Thames is the facial hair.  And perhaps the musculature.