Monday, April 29, 2013

Winning Don't Come Easy

So, how's your dream season treating you? Are we having fun yet?

Over the first four weeks of the season, I've found myself stifling the impulse - sometimes successfully - to lecture fans like a scolding auntie. "Don't throw paper airplanes!" "Stop booing your own players!" "Cheer in anticipation, not just in reaction!" "It's early!"

Nag, nag, nag.

Mostly, though, I've tried to resist the urge to harangue fans for the manner in which they express themselves, because really, who am I to say how you should cheer on your team? Or maybe more to the point, who am I to tell you how you should express your outrage at how the season has unfolded thus far?

At the same time, it seems as if the Jays' floundering start to the schedule has made a vocal portion of the fanbase go positively loony. Observing what happens when outlandish preseason expectations collide violently with a poor start is the stuff of which Funniest Home Videos are made.

Still, if you count yourself among the patient or rational at this point, it's getting harder to maintain a position that we'll soon return to something resembling normalcy. In fact, if my Twitter interactions are any way to gauge the conversation - they're probably not, but play along - then anyone who shows something less than outright rage towards the team gets assailed as a simpleton and an apologist. 

And look: I get it. This has been one of the most disheartening starts to a season in recent memory, which is only magnified by that initial excitement. There's 20 years of pent up enthusiasm waiting to be unleashed, but over the first month, we've been treated to some underwhelming pitching, awful fielding and offense that is seemingly incapable of sustaining a rally more than once per week.

Yes, it's been some nasty-looking baseball in the early-going. But one of the things that some fans forget about baseball over the long winter is that the game is replete with negative outcomes. It's really the nature of the sport that success is often a function of just not failing.

This certainly runs counter to the way in which we discuss sports, especially in Canada. Our winter pastime is so overrun with conventional wisdom that many of us fall into the trap of addressing sports in absolute terms. "You gotta," as they say.

"You gotta catch that." "You gotta hit with runners in scoring position." "You gotta take your bat off your shoulders." "You gotta beat those teams."

But the fact is that baseball - perhaps more than any other sport - resists those absolutist tropes. Good players make bad plays. Bad players have good at bats. Bad teams beat good teams. Bad pitchers strike out good hitters. Good teams have bad weeks, and bad months, and even bad seasons.

Take, for instance, the 1986 Blue Jays. Coming off their first playoff appearance and a 99-win season, the almost identical team won 13 fewer games. They scored marginally more runs, but almost every starting pitcher had a down year the following year. Same set of people, with presumably the same skills as the year before, but lesser results. It happens.

What we've seen thus shouldn't be taken to represent what the rest of the season will look like. Though this team has far underperformed over the first weeks, there is so much more baseball to play yet, as tiresome as it is to hear that said repeatedly. I get tired of saying it. 

And we shouldn't forget that winning is a painful process in baseball. Few teams ever truly run away with a division, or clinch a playoff berth with ease. Even for the best teams, it's always a long and agonizing season, filled with bad series and bad breaks and injuries and ump shows and dunderheaded managerial decisions.

To be a baseball fan, you have to embrace the agony.

Monday, April 15, 2013

37 Jays - J.P. Arencibia is a Handsome Enigma

Who: Jonathan Paul Arencibia. Call him J.P.. Catcher. Tweeter. Bon vivant. Heartthrob. Six feet tall, 200 lbs. Bats and throws right-handed. Twenty-seven years old. Sports jersey number 9.

Provenance: Miami, Florida, where he attended Westminster Christian, the same high school as Doug Mientkiewicz...oh, and Alex Rodriguez too. Drafted by the Blue Jays with the 21st pick of the 2007 amateur draft. Made his big league debut on August 7, 2010.

Contract Status: Signed a one-year, $505,600 deal in January. Is arbitration eligible for the first time after this season. 

Back of the Baseball Card: In 242 games through from 2010 through last year, posted a .275 OBP and .433 slugging. Hit 43 taters.    

Recent Numbers: In 2012, Arencibia struck out in 29% of his plate appearances while walking in 4.8%. In 49 plate appearances this year, Arencibia has struck out 19 times and walked once. With four handsome dingers.

Injury History: Hit the DL for the first time as a big leaguer in July of 2012 after a foul ball fractured his throwing hand. Missed 43 days, ushering in the brief Jeff Mathis Era that will go down in Blue Jays catching lore.

Looking Back: One of the most popular Blue Jays in recent memory, J.P. Arencibia is one of the more maddening Blue Jays to appraise.

Arencibia reutation is as a hit-first catcher, but his bat is sketchy at best. There were 13 MLB catchers with more than 850 plate appearances in 2011 and 2012, and among that group, J.P. Arencibia ranks 13th in strikeout rate, 11th in walk rate, and 13th in on-base percentage. 

At the same time, it's problematic to get a decent metric to provide a adequate assessment of a catcher's defensive value - not to mention their game-calling - so pinning down how much JPA's squatting makes up for his whiffing is nearly impossible. There's some consensus that Arencibia is a below average receiver, though that estimation is based on the "eye test". You could probably find a slew of people to tell you that their eyes see a devilishly handsome Gold Glover behind the plate. Go figure.

What is beyond debate is that J.P. Arencibia hit home runs.Over those two seasons, he hit 41 homers, good enough for fourth on the aforementioned list of catchers, and with significantly fewer plate appearances than the three players - Matt Wieters (45), Carlos Santana (45) and Brian McCann (44) - ahead of him.

First Impressions and Looking Ahead: True to form, Arencibia has begun the 2013 season by hitting homers while striking out a lot and not walking much. Sure, it's a small sample size, but it sufficiently resembles what we've seen from him previously to ask the question again: Is Arencibia good enough behind the plate to allow the Jays to play his bat 80% of the time?

Is the plus power coupled with the maybe-okay defensive skills enough to make him a viable full player now? And what about in the future? J.P. reaches his arbitration eligibility after this year, and while few players ever end up getting to the salary arbitrator's table, those long balls would go even further when it comes cashing in through that process. If he's not the long term solution, would the Jays be willing to look for an upgrade this season?

There are few who talk as good a game as J.P.. He is a supremely confident player, and his bravado is even hard to resist for those of us hardened by the cold winds of logic or reason. Still, his results this year need to improve if the Jays are to make a serious run at the postseason.

Optimistically: In his 27 year-old season, begins to raise his offensive game to a new level, walking more and whiffing less. Meanwhile, plays a crucial role in managing the pitching staff and improves his pitch framing.

Pessimistically: Is a one-tool catcher who makes a lot of outs in the middle of the lineup.

37 Jays - Emilio Bonifacio Is What He Is...Which Is What, Exactly?

Who: Number 1 in your program - and shurely(!) in your hearts - Emilio Bonifacio. Utility infielder. Well, sorta. Also, kind of a utility outfielder, if necessary. Switch-hitter. Five-foot-eleven, 205 lbs. Age 27.

Provenance: Santo Domingo, Dominicana. Signed in 2001 as an amateur free agent by the Arizona Diamondbacks. Made his Major League debut in September 2007 with the D-Backs. Acquired by the Blue Jays from the Marlins as part of "that deal".

Contract Status: Signed a one-year, $2.6 milion deal to avoid arbitration in January. Is arb eligible after this season as well. Will become a free agent after 2014.

Back of the Baseball Card: Stole 110 bases over six seasons, including 70 over his last 915 plate appearances in 2011-12. Need more? Fine then. Has put up a vaguely respectable .329 OBP alongside a rather flimsy .343 slugging in 1878 plate appearances. Seven dingers.  

2012 Numbers: In 64 games with the Marlins, put up a .330 OBP and .316 slugging. Stole 30 bags.

Injury History: Ended his 2012 season with a sprained right knee in August. Also had surgery on his thumb last season, which sidelined him for two separate DL stints.

Looking Back and First Impressions: When the Blue Jays made their monumental deal with the Marlins, Emilio Bonifacio was a lesser but still intriguing piece of the return. It might be trite to call Bonifacio a "jack of all trades", but with his ability to hit from both sides of the plate and play almost anywhere on the diamond, his mere inclusion in the deal added to the Jays' roster flexibility. 

Coming off an injury-plagued season, it was easy to gloss over the most recent offensive output, which was less than inspiring, especially if you let your eye find the gaudy numbers under the steals column. Moreover, a career season in 2011 in which he finagled his way into a full-time role through injuries to Hanley Ramirez and Twitter-inspired demotions for Logan Morrison.

Bonifacio made the most of that opportunity, posting a .753 OPS (.360 OBP / .393 SLG), including a handsome .376 OBP as a leadoff hitter. That last note might put rest to a question for the skipper that popped up over the last two days, as the injury to Jose Reyes saw him shifted back into that leadoff role, at least temporarily.

With more opportunities to see Bonifacio over the past week, the initial impressions are much less endearing. Beyond the obvious butchery in the infield on defense, his swing seems more apt for a lumberjack competition than the top of the order for a putative contender.

Looking Ahead: With the injury to Reyes, there are holes to be plugged in the starting nine for the next three months (or more). While John Gibbons has already shown a willingness to mix up the lineup depending on the day's circumstances, Bonifacio might still angle his way into significant playing time, if not 500 plate appearances.

On one hand, that's surely good for him. Players want to play. But as author Ryan Oakley (@thegrumpyowl) noted via tweet over the weekend, Bonifacio might benefit from a relegation to the bench, where his value as a late inning replacement and pinch-runner would not be undercut by the weaknesses that are exposed in the everyday role.

"Right now, he's a monkey wrench as a hammer," Oakley argued.

Optimistically: With great opportunity comes great productivity. Bonifacio posts an OBP over .350 with enough extra bases tossed in to help the Jays stay afloat until Reyes' return.

Pessimistically: The Jays are left to rely on him, but can't find places to hide his glove in the field or his flimsy bat in the lineup.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Next Man Up

Image via
Believe it or not, I follow other sports besides baseball.  I love hockey, golf, rugby, and I can even get myself interested in soccer during World Cup or Euro time.  And like millions of other red-blooded North American males, I love football too.

There's a fascinating book called Next Man Up, written by John Feinstein, in which the author was given nearly unprecedented behind-the-scenes access to a full season of an NFL team -- the 2004 Baltimore Ravens.  The title is a reference to the philosophy that permeates football teams when it comes to injuries.  Here's how Feinstein prefaces the book and the reason for the title:
"Football is an unrelentingly punishing sport, and every NFL team prepares constantly for the likelihood -- the certainty -- that even franchise players can go down at any timeSomeone new must always be ready, trained, and primed to step in at a moment's notice.
 "In the NFL there is only one sure thingevery day, someone will have to be the Next Man Up."
In a football application, it's a cruel yet efficient philosophy.  Football is a game in which a hundred moving parts interact with one another on any given play from scrimmage, and even a dozen small individual failures within a play can still produce a successful team result, if the other team has more of those individual failures on that particular snap of the ball.  So outside of some key positions, a starter can be injured, and his small part in the offensive or defensive scheme can be assumed by an inferior player. You can lose a starting left offensive guard, and his backup might not be as capable, but you can adjust blocking schemes to ensure the center and the left tackle help him out in pass protection.  You can lose a first string wide receiver, and adjust by running the ball a bit more, or throwing more passes to other receivers.  There will be an impact on team performance, but the system is designed to absorb that impact. 

The difference in baseball, of course, is that every play on the field really only involves a few people at a time.  The outcome of each -- or more pertinently, the aggregate outcome of all of them over the season -- can be more significantly affected by the skill levels of those involved.  That is to say, 550 plate appearances from Jose Reyes are far more likely to contribute more to the success over the course of the year than the same number given to, say, Pete Kozma.  An entire area of study has in fact been dedicated to understanding and quantifying these contributions.

Replacing regular, outstanding contributors in baseball is tough, because not only are you replacing them with inferior players -- usually of the dreaded "replacement level" variety -- but the players remaining can't just cover off the gap created.  Those teammates are what they are and they contribute what they contribute.   You can't game plan your way around a significant injury by putting a greater emphasis on other talent.  You still only get to bat once out of every nine spots, and balls are still going to get hit to the area that's been vacated by the injured starter.

So what do you do if you're a baseball general manager to prepare for the eventuality of injuries to your starters?  You can't stockpile first-tier players three deep at every position throughout your organization.  Your replacement players are, more often than not, going to be replacement level.
But what you can do is endeavour to make sure the rest of the roster is as thoroughly well-constructed as possible.  You can build in versatility in the infield with veterans, perhaps not all-stars but solid major leaguers, who have played all positions in case one goes down.  You can make savvy free agent signings and secure contract extensions for run producers in the heart of your lineup, ensuring that in the largest number of spots in the order as possible, players will be getting on base, hitting for power and scoring runs.  You can remain vigilant on the waiver wire, and execute cheap acquisitions of players that can potentially fill a key role either temporarily or longer term.  You can accumulate the kind of prospect depth that allows you to trade for proven, high-level pitching talent, making your starting rotation superior to most competitors and putting your team in a better position to win games day after day.  You can bring in a manager who understands how to maximize the impact of the talent you've assembled, with smart use of platoons and the bullpen.

You're not going to prevent the worst from happening, but you can prepare for it and insulate your team from its worst potential effects.  You control what you can control, and plan for what's quantifiable.

And then, at a certain point, you leave it in the hands of the team you've assembled.  You count on what isn't quantifiable -- the mental strength to play three months without a key offensive catalyst and thrive under the challenge; the drive of your players to be better than they have been because now they need to be; the ingenuity of your manager to put the best shine possible on the gold he has, and spin a little bit more gold from the straw he has alongside it.

Three months without Jose Reyes is a brutal blow.  I'm not trying to sugarcoat it.  But all the things Alex Anthopoulos did right to prepare the 2013 Toronto Blue Jays for success are still, mostly, there.  This injury is exactly why, if you're going to make a serious push, you don't go halfway.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Patience is the hardest of virtues

(That's Axl Rose. Because he was rad back then. If only I had the photoshop skills to turn that into a Blue Jays cap... )

Confession time: 

Sometimes I hate Blue Jay fans.  Well, let me backpedal - hate is such a strong word.  Let's say that sometimes Blue Jay fans drive me crazy.

Now, before you judge me the way I have judged many (so, so many, if twitter can be believed...), I will pre-emptively and readily admit that this is probably more a character flaw of mine than yours.  I should understand that it's just human nature, it's 20 years of baseball frustrations.  It's many more than 20 years of Toronto sports fan frustrations (hey - I'm not rubbing that in - I'm from Winnipeg, man!).  It's the buildup of a winter of excitement and promise.  It's the end result of a mad promotional push by the mother corporation for this team when really, we didn't even need it.  We were already on pins and needles waiting for the first pitch.  Expectations can be a bitch.

Except... it was also only 7 games.  Seven games!  Of a one hundred and sixty two game schedule!  That's 4% of the year.  Four percent.  Who can determine anything definitively about a team after completing four percent of the schedule?  I can't.

And... again, while I can understand the frustration, and the convenient outlet twitter provides to vent that frustration, what I cannot understand is the #firegibbons crowd... mixed in with calls for the return of The Manager.  Hoooo boy.  I knew it was coming - it was always going to come - but I figured May at the earliest.  Not the first week of April.

This Toronto Blue Jays club is a very talented team.  There are holes, yes of course there are.  Thin bench.  Infield defense (especially sans Brett Lawrie, which throws the whole infield alignment out of whack).  But the talent on the roster is undeniable.  A slow start doesn't make it not so, it makes it... a slow start. 

Cy Young winners one year do not become worthless pitchers the next.  National Leaguers do not forget how to play the game when switching leagues.  Home run champs and .900 OPSers typically aren't instant dogmeat the next season, and if they are, we won't know this 7 games in.

That's not to say this all works out.  This could be a .500 team just as it might be a .600 team.  Division champs, wildcard team, or middle of the pack... we just don't know yet.

But let's wait a while to see how this all plays out before giving up on the team.  Let's have fun doing it instead of screaming for wholesale change after dropping a few series.  I'm certainly not trying to tell you how to be a fan.  I'm not your blog daddy (around these parts, that's Tao).  I am, most certainly & definitely, not trying to tell you to cheer for this team in the exact manner that I cheer for this team.  We all have our favorites, our baseball ideologies, a certain way of enjoying the game.  Sports would be boring otherwise.

I guess I'm just asking you to be reasonable.  Be reasonable!

Alex Anthopoulos put on his big boy pants in constructing the roster this winter.  Because of this, we have become fans of a potential contender.  Can't we do the same?

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

37 Jays - Dickey, The Best.

Who: Robert Allen Dickey. Right-handed starting pitcher. Knuckleballer. Cy Young Award Winner in 2012. Six-foot-two, 215 lbs. Age 38.

Provenance: Nashville, Tennessee. Attended the University of Tennessee. Drafted by the Texas Rangers with the 18th pick overall in the 1996 amateur draft. Made his MLB debut on April 26, 2001.

Acquired: Traded to the Blue Jays by the New York Mets in exchange for Travis d'Arnaud, Noah Syndergaard, John Buck and Wuilmer Becerra.

Contract Status: Signed a two-year, $25 million contract extension with the Blue Jays for the 2014 and 2015 seasons after his acquisition from the Mets. Contract has a $12 million team option for 2016 with a $1 million buyout. Slated to make $5 million this year to conclude his previous contract.

Back of the Baseball Card: While Dickey has pitched for ten seasons and 1059.1 innings, the only stats that seem pertinent are the last three seasons that he's pitched since gaining some semblance of mastery over the knuckleball: In 94 games (91 starts, 616.2 innings), Dickey compiled a 2.95 ERA with 6.8 strikeouts per nine innings and 2.2 walks per nine. Tossed eight complete games and four shutoutss

2012 Repertoire, as per Brooks Baseball: Knuckleball (85%, 77.7 MPH); Sinker (10%, 83.8 MPH); Four-seam fastball (4%, 84.6 MPH), Changeup (1%, 76.5 MPH).

Recent Injury History: Had offseason surgery to address a torn abdominal muscle. Minor injuries in 2011 to hip, plantar fascia, and fingernail.

Looking Back: At this point, you've probably read the complete biography of R.A. Dickey from every perspective, maybe even including his own best-selling autobiography. There's the troubled childhood, the lack of a ulnar collateral ligament, the Rangers stiffing him on his bonus, the long road to a mediocre career, the last ditch attempt at salvation through the knuckleball, and then success. Also, the humanitarian work, and the renaissance.

If nothing else, R.A. Dickey presents himself as a complex character, containing multitudes, and you can't blame writers for wanting to roll out endless prose on all of the facets of his life and work.

That's not to insinuate that Dickey is merely the creation of a hungry hype machine, because what he accomplished in 2012 was a stunning piece of business. He struck out 24.8% of batters he faced over that campaign, almost 10% more than he whiffed in the previous season, while dropping his walk rate to 5.8%.

In addition to the remarkable levels of success that he had, Dickey was also a workhorse, tossing 233.2 innings over the season, including a league-leading five complete games. He also led the NL in starts (33), batters faced (927), strikeouts (230) and shutouts (3).

Looking Ahead: There really isn't any precedent for a player like Dickey. And while it's true that you could probably say that about every little snowflake that ever landed on a big league field, it's exceedingly difficult to even speculate as to what the future holds for a knuckleballer who throws the pitch as hard and with as many variations as the Jays' putative ace.

In spite of the unique absence of the ligament that trips up most pitchers, there remains a different health concern with Dickey. Thirty-eight years of age is still relatively young for most men, but for an athlete whose game is predicated on maintaining an elusive feel for a specific pitch, the torsion that it takes through the midsection to float a baseball in at 80 MPH without spin is unprecedented. 

The other point of concern this season is Dickey's flyball rate, which has continued to rise as he became more effective with the Mets. Dickey's ground ball rate fell to 46.1% last season, while his percentage of line drives and fly balls went up. Moreover, his home run per fly ball rate jumped to 11.3%, and that is with the benefit of playing home games in Citi Field. How many of those balls batted into the air will find leather this season when the welcoming hands of bleacher creatures in Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park are so accommodatingly close by?

Watching R.A. Dickey pitch will be an adjustment for those Jays fans who know him primarily from the piles of bouquets that have been launched at his feet this offseason in the local press. His numbers say he is dominating, but he never quite looks the part, especially when his soft tosses catch a bit too much of the plate and get hammered.

But when the knuckleball is active and darting and dodging its way around bats, there are few pitchers who are more fun to watch.

Pessimistically: Struggles to get the right touch on the trick pitch. The transition into the AL East is tougher than expected, with designated hitters and tiny ballparks making his life difficult.

Optimistically: Gives the Jays over 220 innings of work, preserving the bullpen and befuddling hitters. Begins writing a next chapter that every Jays fan will want to read.

Hope, v2013.0

"Toronto Blue Jay fans have got to be excited about the fact their team has a chance to play meaningful baseball in September for the first time in a long, long while...." - every season preview written this winter.
Truth be told, I've come to resent the term "meaningful baseball", if for no other reason than the notion seems to imply that my devotion to this team over the last 20 years has been, well, meaningless.

I can't accept that.  I can't get behind the idea that none of it has mattered; that watching Jose Bautista crush baseballs and Roy Halladay make professional hitters look silly and Brett Lawrie go berserk in the dugout has all been a mere sideshow to the Braves' pennants and Yankee dominance, and, well... you get the picture.
Every spring brings some semblance of hope, something for fans to cling to, something to get behind and claim as victory.  Some years it might be the emergence of a developing ace, or a franchise bat, or a farm system rocketing up the rankings.  But this season, after this amazing winter, it's different.  It's the real deal, it's the not-at-all misguided belief that this club is a definite World Series contender.  We should all be excited, maybe moreso than any year post-1993.
And yet... it's tempered, for me anyway, by... hesitation?  Nervousness?  Fear?  Because with this great hope comes almost crushing expectations.  In the eyes of many, it's World Series or bust.  It's the pennant or nothing.  It's playoffs or total failure.  Grabbing a wild card spot would almost be a disappointment.
But not for me.  Not this guy. 
Do I want this club to win - and win big?  Of course.  Winning is fun.  Playoffs are fun (at least I remember them being fun).  But along the way, I'm going to enjoy watching Jose (the original Jose - Bautista, of course) mash.  I'm looking forward to Edwin's chicken wing around the paths.  Jose Reyes is going to make me smile.  Heads up - if we cross paths on the street and you're wearing a Jays cap, there's a pretty good chance your pal the Ack will give you the old 'lo viste' across the eyes.  Dickey the best, and I'm looking forward to a healthy Brandon Morrow developing into the ace of this staff.
I hope the Yankee magic is no more, and I hope that Josh Johnson shoves it down the once and now deposed President Farrell's throat on opening weekend.  (Side note - nobody is buying the "as I recall, I was traded" nonsense, John, so stop trying to sell it.  You smug prick.)  I hope we don't have to read about Joe Maddon's genius and gimmicky tshirts, and I hope Baltimore's bullpen is no better than league average, making the Orioles.... league average.
And if none of the above happens?  Well, that will indeed suck.  But those are worries for another time.
Opening day is here.  It's good to be back.