June 9, 2010
Prospectus Hit and Run
At the outset of the 2010 season, most talk about the best team in baseball focused on the American League East, where the triumvirate of the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays towered over the field in our 2010 pre-season rankings. They'd claimed the last three AL pennants as well as two world championships in that span, after all. Thus far, the Yankees and Rays have more or less lived up to their billings, both in terms of raw winning percentage and our league-adjusted power rankings, and while the Red Sox ranked fifth in terms of the latter, another AL East team has crashed the party: the Blue Jays.
As of last Friday, the Jays ranked third in the majors with a .601 league-adjusted Hit List Factor. Perhaps buoyed by the recognition of their surprising excellence, they took two out of three from the Yanks over the weekend, tying the Sox for third in the division standings, 4.5 games behind the Rays and 2.5 behind the Yankees. Tuesday night's loss to Tampa Bay knocked them back into fourth, but theirs is hardly a shabby showing for a team coming off a 75-87 record and projected to win an AL-worst 72 games.
The Jays had finished above .500 in each of the previous three years prior to 2009, their final one under general manager J.P. Ricciardi, and while their 2008 squad ranked as the best fourth-place club of the wild-card era, they don't give out medals for that sort of thing, even in Canada. The 2009 club had gotten off to a fast start (27-14) only to play at a sub-.400 clip the rest of the way while payroll concerns dominated the discussion. Ricciardi's profligate spending on Vernon Wells (seven years, $126 million), Alex Rios (seven years, $69.8 million), and B.J. Ryan (five years, $47 million)—one performing at replacement level, the other two dumped onto the waiver wire while still owed eight-figure sums (though the White Sox rescued the Jays from paying Rios)—forced him to spend half the season marketing ace Roy Halladay, though the actual trade to Philadelphia didn't happen until assistant GM Alex Anthopoulos took the reins once the divisive Ricciardi was fired.
Coming into this season, PECOTA particularly didn't like the Blue Jays' pitching, projecting them to allow 830 runs, just five fewer than the worst-projected team, the Angels. Instead, they're allowing nearly nine-tenths of a run less (4.2 per game through Monday) and rank fourth in the league overall. Even with Halladay having moved on to greener pastures, the starters are fourth in the league in SNLVAR, led by Shaun Marcum, who ranks second in the league behind Andy Pettitte after spending all of 2009 rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. Ricky Romero, the 2005 first-round pick who became this organization's mark of shame when he didn't burst onto the major-league scene like his cohorts, ranks fourth, while Brett Cecil is 16th. All three—high draft picks taken on Ricciardi's watch—have pitched extremely well this year, with ERAs below 3.50, Support-Neutral Winning Percentages above .600, strikeout rates of at least 6.9 per nine, and strikeout-to-walk ratios of at least 2.6, not to mention no-hit bids of at least six innings.
The 28-year-old Marcum has been the team's stingiest starter in terms of run prevention (2.77 ERA) and walks (1.9 per nine); he made his no-hit bid on Opening Day, announcing his return to the majors with a flourish. The 25-year-old Romero has boosted his strikeout rate from 7.1 per nine during his solid rookie campaign to 9.1 per nine this year, leading the league in K's—not to mention wild pitches—while still generating tons of ground balls (58.2 GB%). Cecil, who was knocked around at a 5.30 ERA clip as a rookie last year, has shaved a full homer and nearly two walks per nine off his peripherals, all while boosting his strikeout rate a tick. Fourth starter Brandon Morrow, acquired in a postscript to the three-way Cliff Lee deal last December, has been more of a mixed bag, with a gaudy 5.48 ERA reflecting the three disaster starts he's thrown to counter his six quality starts. He's got the league's highest strikeout rate (10.4 per nine), but he's walking 4.9 per nine.
As for their fifth starter, the Jays took a flyer on nine starts worth of Dana Eveland before reaching the same conclusion the Brewers, Diamondbacks, and A's reached in prior years. They're currently going with Brian Tallet, a back-end lefty with less upside but also less drama, but their Triple-A Las Vegas rotation includes Marc Rzepczynski and Jesse Litsch, both of whom are rehabbing from injuries and may find themselves back in Toronto eventually. Rzepczynski, who made a strong 11-start showing with the Jays last year, suffered a broken finger during spring training and is currently getting knocked around to the tune of a 12.46 ERA through four starts. Litsch, an upstanding member of the Jays' rotation in 2007-2008, is recovering from June 2009 Tommy John surgery, one of several Jays pitchers to go under the knife on the watch of former pitching coach Brad Arnsberg, now with the Astros—a dark chapter of the team's recent history. That roll call also includes Marcum, Casey Janssen (labrum surgery costing him all of 2008 and much of 2009, now back in the bullpen), Dustin McGowan (rotator cuff and labrum surgery in July 2008, back to throwing off a mound after a March setback), and Ryan (2007 TJS amid a rapid slide from marquee free agent to sunk cost). As with Dusty Baker, assigning blame for such injuries is hardly clear cut, and in Arnsberg's case, that list must be balanced against his strong track record in developing young arms in Florida as well as Toronto.
In any event, the bullpen is less of a success story than the rotation, ranking 10th in the league in WXRL and lately the flashpoint for controversy. The Blue Jays have lost an MLB-high five games they've led going into the ninth inning, including two last week against Tampa Bay on back-to-back nights which demonstrated the limitations of the current unit as well as manager Cito Gaston. The first came when closer Kevin Gregg (0.2 WXRL, 4.69 Fair Run Average) walked five Rays hitters in the ninth and compounded his woes with a throwing error, leading to a four-run inning. Gaston had blown through set-up men Shawn Camp (1.3 WXRL, 1.61 FRA) and Scott Downs (0.3 WXRL, 4.50 FRA) in the seventh and eighth, using the righty Camp to get three quick outs on six pitches (!) and then bringing in the lefty Downs to face lefty Reid Brignac, who struck out on five pitches. With a two-run lead and an alternating sequence of hitters—righty B.J. Upton, lefty Carl Crawford, righty Evan Longoria, and lefty Carlos Peña—to lead off the Rays' portion of the ninth, Gaston made the automatic call to his perpetually embattled closer, even though Downs has demonstrated effectiveness versus hitters on both sides of the plate (.215/.281/.313 vs. lefties from 2007-2009, .236/.312/.319 vs. righties). Having also burned through his less effective middle men Janssen (-0.1 WXRL, 5.60 FRA) and Jason Frasor (-0.5 WXRL, 4.88 FRA) already, Gaston could only fidget while Gregg festered. Afterward he didn't take kindly to Mike Wilner, a reporter for the Rogers-owned radio station, questioning his decision-making process—to the point that the Rogers folks suspended Wilner for the weekend.
The next night, Gaston stuck with Marcum into the ninth protecting a 2-1 lead and having thrown 94 pitches-a defensible choice on paper given that Gregg, Downs, and Camp had all worked back-to-back days. Alas, Gaston made like a statue when Sean Rodriguez and Ben Zobrist both singled to lead off the frame, and didn't pull his starter until Brignac had doubled home the go-ahead run (the tying one scored on a sacrifice). Frasor came on and surrendered a grand slam to Crawford, and another defeat was in the books.
Still, the pitching has been effective enough, and the offense has been surprisingly potent, averaging 5.1 runs per game, fourth in the league behind their three division rivals. Though they're just 12th in batting average (.245) and 13th in OBP, the Jays are first in slugging percentage (.470), and thus fourth in TAv (.267). They've simply been clobbering opponents with the long ball, hitting an MLB-high 97 (18 more than second-ranked Boston) and yielding 39 (just two more than the Tigers and Rockies, who have played two fewer games). They project to hit 271 homers over the course of the year, which would break the record held by the 1997 Mariners. A quick top 10:
The home runs aren't part of a park-based fluke; the Jays have out-homered opponents 55-20 at home, 42-19 on the road. Jose Bautista—Jose Freakin' Bautista!—leads the majors with 18, already a career high through little more than one-third of a season; he's hitting .250/.377/.605/.326 TAv, having never slugged higher than .420 in any of his previous six campaigns. Wells is fourth in the league with 15 homers, already matching last year's total; he's hitting a robust .306/.355/.613/.325 TAv and demonstrating that while he may never live up to that contract, his off-season wrist surgery has returned him to the ranks of the productive. Alex Gonzalez (.275 TAv) and John Buck (.278) both typify the lopsidedness of the Jays' offense, with sub-.300 OBPs but slugging percentages over .500 via 12 and nine homers, respectively, with Edwin Encarnacion (.224/.317/.565/.299 TAv with eight homers) in a similar boat.
Ironically, the Jays' two top home-run hitters from last year have been the biggest drags on the offense. Aaron Hill, who hit a career-high 36 homers last year, missed half of April due to a hamstring strain and has yet to get untracked; he's hitting .186/.289/.355/.236 TAv with eight homers. Meanwhile, Adam Lind got off to a solid start in April (.286/.359/.484) but has hit just .156/.220/.289 since. He's dealing with the double-whammy of contact woes and bad luck on balls in play, striking out in 24.6 percent of his plate appearances after being at 16.8 percent over the past two years, while watching his BABIP drop from .323 last year to .247 this year.
Lind's woes typify this offense overall, as they lead the league in strikeout percentage (21.1 percent) while having the second-lowest BABIP (.271). It all starts to make a bit more sense when one realizes that their new hitting coach is Dwayne Murphy, a low-average, Three True Outcomes type who played for the A's in the 1980s. "Murph's a big believer in getting started early and letting it fly," said Wells of Murphy's style. "If you know anything about him, he didn't hold anything back at the plate. He expects the same out of us." The problem for the Jays is that while Murphy struck out 18 percent of the time in his career, he also walked 14 percent of the time. These Jays are down at 8.3 percent, with one third of the lineup—Buck, Gonzalez and the suddenly hacktastic Fred Lewis—in the vicinity of four percent, with strikeout-to-walk ratios of 4.8 or more. Ugh.
Still, the power is on. In addition to the record for homers in a season by a team, the Jays are also on pace for two other power-related records. Their .225 Isolated Power would demolish the existing record:
In addition, if they maintain their current clip, the Jays would become the first team ever to score more than half their runs via home runs. Here are the current Guillen Number standings—so named because the White Sox of recent vintage have actually been much more reliant on the long ball than their skipper's small-ball tendencies would have you believe:
And here's a historical top 20:
Now, the Guillen Number isn't something which in itself tells you whether a team is good or bad; since 1954, the correlation between winning percentage and the percentage of runs via homers is just .16. It's more descriptive than anything else, though you'll note that the upper reaches of that list include only two pennant winners and one world champion. In this case, the point is that when coupled with their low walk rate, all of the Blue Jays' potentially record-setting figures—the home run pace, the Isolated Power mark, and the Guillen Number—suggest an unsustainably one-dimensional offense, one which may struggle if and when the principals aren't able to maintain their current clip of knocking balls over fences.
That's one knock against the current Jays' chances. The other big one is the fact that they're just 5-11 (including Tuesday night's 9-0 loss to Tampa Bay) against the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays, having been outscored 84-56 in those games. Those three opponents constitute one-third of Toronto's schedule for the year, and 37 percent of their remaining schedule. Add to that an interleague slate that includes 15 games against the Rockies, Padres, Giants, Cardinals, and Phillies, five teams which are a combined 31 games above .500, and you can see that their road to any shred of a shot at a smidgen of a real chance at the postseason requires navigating what may be the toughest schedule in baseball.
So count me as skeptical. Two years ago, the Blue Jays finished as the strongest fourth-place team of the three-division era, and while they've continued their strong track record of developing young pitching, shed the millstone of Rios' contract, and returned Wells to the upright position, they're still down a Halladay. Don't expect them to fall off the map as they did last year, but particularly now that the Red Sox have gotten their bearings and the Yankees have weathered a spate of injuries, the Jays will be hard-pressed to escape fourth place again.