Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Last Samurai

Photo courtesy the outstanding @james_in_to's Flickr stream.
Every now and then, I'll do a quick search through the archives and re-watch John McDonald's Father's Day home run in 2010.  If you're not familiar with the story behind it, you can do it now.  I'll wait here.

I love that moment.  In the middle of June, a Sunday afternoon that saw Jays pitching give up homers to Aubrey Huff, Freddy Sanchez and Pat Burrell in a 9-6 loss, many fans were given a poignant reminder of why for so long, they were so attached to a good-field-no-hit utility infielder.  Even knowing his bat was more likely to be knocked out of his hands than to produce runs, many of us still swooned over the surprising range and lightning-quick hands he displayed in a Jays uniform.  It was the unlikeliness and unexpectedness of that homer, the fact it came from John McDonald, that made it so special.

If you understood his limitations, you might be willing to look past them.  If you didn't, you might be easily persuaded he was a better player than he was.  When pressed into something close to full-time duty, he was frequently adequate, occasionally dazzling, and usually made us happy even in failure.  When he left because he wasn't needed anymore, as players like John McDonald inevitably do, all it did was raise questions about if he would come back.

But Toronto was shopping for something better in the middle infield, and particularly at shortstop, which had been a bit of black hole for a decade or so until Yunel Escobar landed in their laps and seemed to have put things in a more stable state.  When it was discovered last year that the words "Yunel Escobar" and "stable state" should never appear in the same sentence together, they traded up to the dynamic Jose Reyes, who promptly maimed himself.

All of which brings us to the inimitable Munenori Kawasaki.  I'm not sure Kawasaki has quite earned the "journeyman" tag the way McDonald had, given his long prior career in Japan and only one full MLB season under his belt.  Yet here he is, 31 years old and pressed into something close to full-time major league shortstop duty for the first time, in the absence of any better options.  John Gibbons, who was around during part of John McDonald's Toronto tenure, has run him out there regularly, I'm sure knowing full well that this is a player who, albeit in only 226 plate appearances entering today's game, has posted an OPS 46 points lower than our offensively-challenged Johnny Mac.

And yet, he continues to fascinate.  That's the right word, I think.  I can't say "amaze", because his actual performance falls well short of that.  I can't say "surprise", because while his numbers are a little better than what he showed last year in Seattle, we're still not within a large enough sample to determine what the mean is, and whether he needs to get better or worse to regress to it.

I'd resisted writing a post about Kawasaki, despite my enthusiasm for him.  Not to put too fine a point on it, but my enjoyment of his presence was mostly because he was a .gif-able novelty.  But as time has progressed, I didn't want to fall into a trap of thinking he's something he isn't, or make a case for him to stick around much longer than it takes for Jose Reyes' ankle ligaments to heal.

Non-baseball fan the Org Wife, on the other hand, is going to be crestfallen when, as players like Munenori Kawasaki inevitably do, he leaves because he isn't needed anymore.  She loves the guy.  Today, after he cracked a slicing double to cap a dramatic walk-off win, and then went viral with the goofiest, most charming, most incredible post-game interview you could imagine, it's hard not to find myself inching closer into the Org Wife's camp, and I suspect I'm not alone.  Something tells me in three years, I'll be searching through the archives for video of that inside-out drive into the left-centerfield gap, and that celebration.  His teammates loved it.  The fans loved it.  I loved it.  How could you not?

He's probably going to be gone soon.  It would be easier to not miss our replacement/utility middle infielders if we picked them more like the way we should pick out our neckties:  noticeable, but not memorable.  But what fun would that be?

Friday, May 17, 2013

Tao's Tweet Bag - Pertinent Questions, Flippant Answers

Well, hello chums, and welcome to the inaugural Tweet Bag of the 2013 season. Has it really taken this long into the schedule to churn out one of these posts?

Well, yes...but consider the toxicity of the conversation over the past few weeks, and you'll understand why this semi-regular post was delayed until the team managed to string together a couple of wins. I assume you'll understand. Friendsies?

Okay, on with your questions:

This question has been asked many times in recent weeks, and I tend to slough it off out of hand. I understand that there is the temptation to look at Josh Johnson like a dented can of soup on which we might be able to get a snazzy discount, but is it really worth it? Who likes dented soup?

But since you asked nicely, allow me to expand.

Firstly, it should be said that we don't really know what to make of Josh Johnson's injury because he's fully mired in it at this time. The moment of truth will come when he returns - whenever that happens - when we get to see how he looks when he's back to something resembling passable health.

If Josh Johnson returns and he's good, then you should probably kiss him goodbye. The Jays have a lot of money for the ensuing years already owed, and Johnson will be looking for more years than a reasonable team should give him. Which won't stop some damn fool team from handing him a contract for too much money and too many years.

There is a scenario where Josh Johnson misses a long stretch this season - maybe well past the point where he'd be tradeable -  where the Jays could make him a qualifying offer for one year. And if that were to come to pass and he accepted, then we can recycle this answer a year from now.

You know, you could have asked "Who's better?" That might have been nice.

But since you asked: I tend to be focused on strikeout and walk rates when evaluating players lately, and neither JPA nor Colby are especially flattered by those numbers. JPA has struck out in a third (literally, 33.3%) of his at bats, while Colby has whiffed in an astonishing 40.7% of his at bats.

Colby has managed to convert some deep counts into bases on balls, walking in 8.6% of his trips to the plate. At the same time, Arencibia has walked twice. Two times. One time in the second game of the season, and then one other time against Baltimore. But in his last 20 games, he has not let a pitcher offer him a free pass.

Maybe he's just in a hurry to get back to the dugout to put his catching gear back on.

Yes, JPA has the second best isolated power on the Jays at the moment (.257), but Colby isn't far behind (.190), and offers vastly superior defense at a premium position. So I'll say Colby. Dang.

May I have another?

I understand that Kawasaki is an endearing player, and that his various antics and rituals have led to a streak of genuine affection from a certain portion of the fanbase. People dig plucky dudes.

Moreover, there are aspects of Kawasaki's game which were lacking in the Jays' lineup early on. This includes the ability to draw a walk, of which he has 11, or nine more than JPA in less than half the plate appearances. He also has the ability to get his bat on the ball, as evidenced by a stupendous 93.2% contact rate (4th in MLB among players with 80 or more PAs).

The biggest problem, though, is that Kawasaki doesn't hit the ball hard. At all. His .279 slugging percentage lags far behind his .337 OBP, and while he's managed to swipe five bags and only get caught once, there are limits to how productive you can be slapping the ball weakly around the field.

I'm also not a huge proponent of his defensive skills, though he plays short well enough to get by.

My suspicion is that once José Reyes returns, we won't miss Kawasaki's outsized personality that much.

A few quick ones to close us out...
I really like Robinson Cano, but know this: There is no amount of money that the Jays could offer Robinson Cano that the Yankees would not match. The only team that I could envision stealing Cano away is the Dodgers, but even they have their limits.
Maybe one more start. Or two. But probably not. He's walked between the raindrops in his first two starts. Though throwing strikes is always appreciated.

I think Rogers would have to lean on the Argos to find another place to play. It's an open question as to whether if that's something they really want, or if the 10-12 dates per year are worth enough to Rogers to tolerate the inconvenience. My guess is that the successful Grey Cup might have softened their resolve to get the Argos out, if that was even on their agenda.

And that's about what we can squeeze in for today. Thanks for the questions, and apologies to those whose questions were too smart for me to answer with some diminished capacity today. Cheers, and enjoy your long weekend.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Glimmering Slivers of Light

Few wold have imagined at the outset of the season that the Blue Jays would find themselves sitting nine games under .500. Fewer still would have imagined that they would be able to find the bright side in that sad state of affairs.

And yet, the 4-3 road trip capped by a decisive and dingerlicious win over the loathsome Red Sox helps to let in the slightest glimmers of light into what has been an awfully dark season to date.

That's not to suggest that a series win and a series split against two AL East rivals constitute some sort of spectacular rolling tide of awesomeness that the Jays can ride well into October. But after spending much of six weeks mired in omnishambles, it was a relief to see something approaching the quality of team that fans anticipated in the offseason as they gazed longingly into magazine covers and replays of former glories and specially-commissioned Blue Jays documentary programming.

Even though the team has thus far fallen short of expectations, there are enough specks of light to create a very modest measure of optimism.

If you wanted to focus on the bright side, you could look at some of the impressive counting stats that the team has amassed, even through the bad times. As of the close of business on Sunday, the Jays led the Majors in homers (51) and were tied for the lead in stolen bases (29).

The Blue Jays still strike out too much  - 309 times thus far, tied for 5th worst in MLB - and don't walk as much as they could - 115 so far, tied for 16th. But both of those numbers have improved in recent weeks, giving the sense that just maybe this team isn't as bad as they've seemed.

That point might seem obvious to some, but consider the drastic measures that were being suggested by some in the initial weeks of the season when just about everything went wrong. If the foundation of the argument for firing the manager/trading José Bautista/firing the GM/moving the team to Albuquerque was that they were as bad as they seemed, then hopefully some marginal improvements and creeping back towards the mean will help to quiet those sort of entreaties.

Over the past 14 days, the Blue Jays have posted a .321 OBP, as opposed to the .294 mark they put up in April. They've also shown a better walk rate (8.8% vs. 7.5%) and strike out rate (19.4% vs. 21.8%.) Those differences aren't staggering, but over the course of a season, a percentage point or two in the right direction on those stats can lead to extra runs and - hopefully - extra wins.

The pitching is a whole other kettle of messy and unpalatable stew at this point, and the passable performances of Ramon Ortiz and Chad Jenkins don't seem like a long term strategy to help make up the lost ground and chip away at the team's deficits. But with some marginal improvements on offense and something resembling a return to good health for the rotation, maybe the Jays can chug-a-chug their way like the little engine towards a season that isn't a bitter disappointment.

How's that for optimism?

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Stop Digging

The last time I showed my face around these parts, it was to be as cautiously reassuring as possible about the lengthy injury the Toronto Blue Jays starting shortstop had just incurred.  That was a simpler time, wasn't it?  It really was early then -- a mere ten games into the season, when we all innocently believed a slow start would right itself quickly, and that despite the departure of an offensive catalyst at the top of the lineup, the remaining talent on the roster would shine through.

It's been a bit of a blur for me since, I'll confess.  Even if I hadn't watched the previous evening's loss, the day in, day out jabs from co-workers about whether I was worried yet served as reminders that the team was still struggling to string anything positive together.  I'm a guy who spends way more time than is healthy paying attention to the things that happen with this team, and it's even been hard for me to grit my teeth and shake off another series dropped.  My alternative has been to simply zone out a little bit.  I'll go play for my own softball team or get some yard work done and not feel too terribly if I've happened to choose to do so on a day when they decide to take a 10-run shit-canning.

But they do have a way of pulling you back in, do they not, these Jays?  This frustrating, fascinating team provided yet another glimpse on Sunday of just what they can bring to the table.  Brandon Morrow went eight innings and had one rough one among them, from which he escaped admirably.  They hit line drives and deep flies, they ran the bases relentlessly, and they came away with ten runs.

So, you know, "Today was a good day," he said to nobody in particular, ironically in the same manner of the spouse of a terminal patient providing comfort to visiting relatives.

But recoveries, even the unlikeliest ones, all begin with a good day.  What you're hoping for is for the good days to start outnumbering the bad days, and for the bad days to get a little more bearable each time.  One good day isn't enough, but it's better than the alternative and better still if the next day follows suit.

Jesus, that sounds pretty melodramatic just reading it back to myself, but here we are.  The 2013 Toronto Blue Jays aren't a terminal patient just yet, but the vehicle that hit them wasn't just a freakin' Smart Car making a slow right turn through the crosswalk either.  They've been thumped handily on at least four separate occasions, and when they've been close, as Jose Bautista said, every little mistake they've made seems to have cost them a game.  They consistently leave themselves very little margin for error, which can make life in the big leagues pretty difficult.

While I'm on a roll with the overwrought metaphors:  you can subscribe to the theory that they've dug themselves a bit of a hole from which they can climb out.  Maybe you're more extreme -- maybe it's a canyon  in your view, from which they may only hope to scale their way to some middling plateau.  Maybe you think they've crashed to earth with such velocity that the resulting wreckage is not only incapable of emerging from the smouldering crater it created, but that any salvageable bits should be sold for scrap.

Me?  I just want them to stop digging.