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August 9, 2005

Prospectus Today

Failing

by Joe Sheehan

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Aloha!

I'm checking in today from the North Shore of Oahu, where Sophia and I have escaped to for a week. It's a getaway--no adventures planned, nothing more strenuous than some snorkeling and signing for room charges--and one that we're enjoying. I have to say, though, that as nice as it is here, I feel weird taking a week away from my Extra Innings in August. I feel like I should come back with flowers and a heartfelt apology, maybe some extra memory for my TiVo.

Powered by two mai tais and a Chipwich--yeah, that was Sunday's "lunch"--here's what should have been Monday's column. Island time, don'tcha know…

--

Sometimes, you just have to play baseball.

Performance analysis is about the big picture. The underlying premise is that variations in performance at the major-league level from day to day or situation to situation are not predictable or reflective of a specific ability to modulate. Even game-specific applications, such as the proper use of one-run strategies or the tracking of pitch counts to guide pitcher usage, are derived from the percentages over the long term. The informed-outsider perspective is to some extent abstract, which doesn't make it less useful.

In the course of a season, though, a team has just a limited number of opportunities to make positive things happen, and they have to take advantage of them. When they don't, it doesn't matter how they look under the various microscopes, or what our models say about their performance. It's failure.

This is a long-winded way of calling out the Toronto Blue Jays. The Blue Jays, you might recall, showed up as the best AL East team in non-one-run games last week, and at one point had the best run differential in the division. Going into the weekend, the Jays were staring at a terrific chance to define their season. The Yankees, just 2 1/2 games ahead of them in crowded AL East and wild-card races, were coming to the Rogers Centre for three games. Not the $207 million version, either; the Yankees would be running Aaron Small and Al Leiter to the mound in two of the games, bracketing a Randy Johnson start. Taking two of three would be a minimum requirement; a sweep, and with it a move into second place in the division, was well within the Jays' reach.

They did the hard part: thanks to some shaky defense by the Yankees, the Jays beat Johnson on Saturday, 8-5.

What they didn't do was show up in either of the other two games, scoring four runs total and losing both of them 6-2.

Friday night, the Jays faced off against Small, who from 1999 through 2004 threw 16 2/3 major-league innings with an ERA of 8.64. He wasn't even effective at Triple-A for most of those seasons; that he was back in the major leagues at all was an indictment of the Yankees' work in the free-talent market.

The Jays simply didn't play baseball. They had first and second with one out in the first and didn't score. They then allowed Small--Aaron Small!--to retire 10 straight batters before putting together a rally in the fifth, but after having first and second with no one out, and the bases loaded with one out, they again failed to score. In the sixth, they had first and third with no one out and didn't score. In the seventh, they finally converted a leadoff double for a run, but no more. Two Yankee runs in the eighth would turn a 3-1 game into 5-1 and effectively end the night. The tally for the Jays? Nine hits, three walks, a hit batter, two GIDPs, 3-for-13 with RISP, and a loss, in the middle of a race, to Aaron Small.

Still, that Saturday win over Randy Johnson gave them a chance to salvage the series. A win Sunday would close them to within 1 1/2 games of the Yankees and keep them no worse than within six games of the Red Sox. Their opponent? Leiter, who'd been dumped by the Marlins last month, had more walks than strikeouts on the season, and has needed more than 100 pitches to get through four innings in a recent outing.

And once again, the Jays no-showed. Leiter fell behind 16 of the 26 hitters he faced, yet managed to walk just four men and allow no runs in his 5 2/3 innings. Highlights for the Jays included:

  • Shea Hillenbrand popping out on a 2-0 count with two outs and a runner on second in the first;

  • Reed Johnson first-pitch hacking against a struggling Leiter in the third, grounding into a fielder's choice with two on and one out;

  • After a five-pitch walk to Vernon Wells--at which point Leiter had thrown 11 balls and 10 strikes in the frame--Hillenbrand swung at the first pitch to end the inning;

  • Down 6-0 in the eighth, Gregg Zaun got himself tagged out trying to advance on a sac fly, ending the inning.

I suppose I could pile on here, and point to Thursday's loss in Chicago, when the Jays had the go-ahead run on second with no one out in the eighth and made six straight outs, losing thanks to an Aaron Rowand homer in the bottom of the eighth. Or I could delve into last night's nightmare, during which the Jays blew a ninth-inning lead, then had the bases loaded with one out in the bottom of the inning but couldn't score, then had first and second with no one out in the 11th and didn't score, eventually losing in the 12th.

There's some self-immolation going on here. Because of the disastrous decision to sign Corey Koskie last winter, the Jays are virtually incapable of playing their best nine guys on any given day, forced to sit someone like Aaron Hill (.274 EqA), Russ Adams (.280) or Eric Hinske (.266) so that Koskie's contract (.240) can play. Since being so rude as to come off the DL on July 26, Koskie is 11-for-48 with a double, a homer and four walks. Hill, who lost his regular status so the contract could play, is 6-for-28 with no extra-base hits or walks since Koskie's return. He recently went almost a week without getting an at-bat in a game.

The Jays did nothing to help themselves at the trade deadline, which could have been a time for them to solve this problem. Their roster wasn't likely strong enough to make them a true factor in the races, and with veterans on easily swappable contracts all over the roster, dealing away Hillenbrand, Frank Catalanotto, Miguel Batista and others would have helped them set themselves up for a push in '06 and beyond. Not doing either--adding for this year or for the future--was a lost opportunity.

This isn't about the front office, though. You can build a team using scouts or sabermetrics or Scientology, but--and heaven help me for this cliché--the game is played on the field. At some point, it's up to the players to perform. Over the last five days, with a chance to make the baseball world care, the Toronto Blue Jays spit the bit. They didn't lose because of payroll gaps or deficiencies in roster-building or a different approach to drafting. They lost because their players didn't play well.

Sometimes, you just have to play baseball. The Jays didn't.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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