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June 24, 2013
Painting the Black
On Sunday afternoon the Blue Jays won their 11th game in a row. The win, which pushed Toronto's record to 38-36, assured them a share of fourth place and another day of an above-.500 record.
What may have seemed like small beans compared to preseason expectations amounts to large beans now. Consider this: the Jays had not spent a night this season with a better-than-.500 record until last weekend. Entering the final week in June, the Blue Jays are within three games of a Wild Card spot and five games of the American League East lead. The burden of responsibility placed on manager John Gibbons has eased. It's a good thing, too, because Gibbons has done a solid job throughout the season.
First the obvious disclaimer: Managers can only control so much. The Jays' rotation is a pitch-perfect example of the limitations of managerial influence. It wasn't Gibbons' fault his rotation traded in Josh Johnson (triceps inflammation), Brandon Morrow (strained forearm), and J.A. Happ (concussion) for Chad Jenkins, Ramon Ortiz, and Esmil Rogers by the end of May. Likewise Gibbons had nothing to do with Johnson returning in early June and seeing the rotation improve thereafter. In fact, Johnson deserves a lot of the credit for the turnaround. His numbers in his four starts since returning from the DL look a lot like what he did from 2010-2012:
It's not just Johnson fueling the rotation's improved pitching, however. Recent free-agent signee Chien-Ming Wang gave the Jays almost seven innings per pop over that stretch, Mark Buehrle allowed three runs in three starts, Esmil Rogers moved back to the rotation and pitched competently, and even old R.A. Dickey showed up for some starts, though he has alternated starts with even older R.A. Dickey. None of this necessarily has anything to do with Gibbons—he isn't a healer or anything—but it does go to show that producing personnel can make a manager look smarter than he is. Especially when that personnel makes up the rotation:
Blue Jays' Rotation Before and After Josh Johnson Returned
With that out of the way, it's time to focus on the areas where Gibbons does have influence. Start with the bullpen. Gibbons has settled on an end-game combination of Casey Janssen, Darren Oliver, and Steve Delabar. Those three have combined to allow a run every third inning while racking up 2.5 strikeouts per walk issued. Factor in the southpaw combination of Brett Cecil and Aaron Loup and the Jays have a five-deep bullpen. It's a good thing, too, because Toronto leads the league in bullpen innings thrown.
Yet the Blue Jays bullpen still ranks fourth in league-wide ERA, perhaps because Gibbons hasn't overworked his best relievers. Cecil, a former starter, entered Sunday with a team-high 39 relief innings thrown. While he ranked seventh league-wide, only two other Jays, Delabar and Loup, are within the top 50 (both tied for 20th). Compared to some other teams, like the Rockies (three within the top 11), Pirates (four within the top 35, five within the top 50), and Orioles (four within the top 32) and Gibbons' usage seems more balanced throughout his bullpen.
Gibbons also deserves some credit for his lineup construction. The Jays rank within the top half of the league in True Average, in part because Gibson has taken to batting Jose Bautista second and Edwin Encarnacion third; a decision that's been discussed here before, and seems here to stay. Those two have been just the second- and third-best hitters on the team somehow, with Adam Lind leading the way. Gibbons, again, has his fingerprints on that statistic, as he's used Lind judiciously. Lind had never faced righties in more than 76 percent of his plate appearances. This season he's at 85 percent. Unsurprisingly, Lind is posting would-be career bests or near career bests in various offensive rate categories.
Take note of some other success-in-moderation stories authored this season by Gibbons. Mark DeRosa, hailed as a clubhouse guy upon his signing, has provided four times as many homers this season as he did in the past three seasons combined. He's done so because he's faced 60 percent left-handers, as opposed to his previous career best of 46 percent. Meanwhile, Rajai Davis has started 24 games, but gone 14-for-15 on stolen-base attempts while entering games as a pinch-runner six times.
As if the 11-game winning streak didn't do enough to raise spirits and evaluations of Gibbons around Toronto, this coming week could improve morale further. Jose Reyes should return soon. Before he does, the Blue Jays will play a three-game set with the Rays, the team with which they're even with in the standings. A series win would be the perfect cap to the winning streak, and the perfect note for people to begin to sing Gibbons' redemption song.