Last year I wrote a few blogposts on the Toronto Blue Jays. I eventually stopped because I was so pessimistic about the team and I just didn’t want to be that guy. Since 2009 I’ve been so pessimistic about them that I believed that there was simply no way they would ever win anything of consequence again. As you may have heard, I was wrong: the Jays won their division handily, beat the Texas Rangers in a dramatic ALDS, and lost to the Kansas City Royals in a six-game ALCS. It was a great year, but here’s the thing: as late as early September, I was still of the belief that it was all going to fall apart. “Sure, they look good to win the division, but you know how this is going to end. This franchise doesn’t win stuff anymore.”
So I was wrong. I had to admit it, and change my thinking, and I did.
For 2016 I no longer believe that the Jays have simply no chance to win. Quite the opposite: they’ve still got most of the impressive talent that carried them so far last year. They’ve got a good shot at winning the division again, and I don’t see why they shouldn’t do it. So I can start writing about them again.
Not that everything is all sunshine and rainbows. The Jays are not a perfect team; they have some weaknesses and issues. Plus, they spent twenty-some years missing out on the postseason, and that wasn’t an accident: this franchise was bad at getting things done, and one great run doesn’t magically fix all of that. The team is under new management now (new president Mark Shapiro, late of the Cleveland Indians; new general manager Ross Atkins, late of the Cleveland Indians; new player development adviser Eric Wedge, formerly of the Cleveland Indians), which means they have an opportunity to stop doing things wrong and start doing them right. And I do like some of the things the new regime has done. But I’ve also heard from some Cleveland fans who were overjoyed to have Shapiro and his clique out of town. So we’ll see.
But hey! Spring training has started, and I’m excited (as opposed to just generally pleased) about a baseball season for the first time since 2009: finally, a year in which I don’t think I know the ending before it’s even started. Watch this space.
Here’s a little chart showing some details of the Toronto Blue Jays starting rotation over the years.
First column: year.
Second column: where their runs/game ranked compared to the league. (I wanted to use ERA or ERA+ but R/G is what Baseball Reference had in easy-to-get form so that’s what I used.)
Third column: how many pitchers made starts for them.
Fourth column: how many starts their top five pitchers made for them.
1977 13th 11 131
1978 13th 8 132
1979 14th 13 112
1980 10th 11 118
1981 11th 8 90
1982 4th 9 147
1983 7th 8 150
1984 6th 8 153
1985 1st 10 141
1986 6th 9 140
1987 1st 11 139
1988 6th 8 133
1989 4th 12 145
1990 3rd 11 141
1991 1st 11 137
1992 8th 9 136
1993 5th 8 146
1994 6th 7 110
1995 12th 10 110
1996 6th 11 128
1997 3rd 10 135
1998 4th 9 140
1999 9th 8 140
2000 11th 12 124
2001 6th 9 123
2002 9th 13 111
2003 10th 10 134
2004 8th 11 121
2005 6th 9 135
2006 5th 12 119
2007 2nd 11 128
2008 1st 8 139
2009 11th 12 127
2010 9th 11 127
2011 11th 12 116
2012 11th 12 113
2013 13th 13 121
2014 9th 9 144
Here’s the point of this chart. Look at the 2014 team compared to the teams right before it. Obviously, it’s a big improvement. The top five guys started 144 games; that hadn’t happened since 1993. Only nine guys made starts; that’s not common for the Jays, especially these days.
Now, the pitchers who turned in this performance were mostly the same guys whom the Jays had been counting on for the past few years: R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle, Drew Hutchison, Brandon Morrow, J.A. Happ. The results hadn’t been good in 2011 or 2012 or 2013, but in 2014 they were. Once Gibbons settled on a rotation of Dickey, Buehrle, Hutchison, Marcus Stroman, and Happ, the same five guys took the ball every day and performed consistently all year. What we saw in 2014 is what it looks like when those guys pitch and everything goes according to plan.
…But it wasn’t actually that great, was it? 9th in the league in runs per game; that’s not terrible, but it’s nothing to write home about. If 9th in the league is the best you can do, then the starting rotation is not one of your team’s strong points.
Four of those guys are going to be back in the rotation this year: Dickey, Buehrle, Hutchison, and Stroman. Happ’s spot will be filled by either Daniel Norris or Aaron Sanchez, or at least that’s what it looks like right now. I think it’s quite likely that this rotation will turn in worse results than last year’s, and here’s why:
– Dickey and Buehrle are at an age when it is unreasonable to expect drastic improvements, but sudden dropoffs in performance are always a possibility
– Hutchison pitched a lot last year, after coming off an injury. He’ll be doing well just to stay healthy in 2015
– Stroman was a rookie in 2014, and was fantastic. It’s not reasonable to expect more of him than he delivered last year
– Sanchez and Norris are untried rookies. It’s possible that they could do better than Happ’s perfectly decent 2014 season, but you certainly can’t count on it
– the starting rotation was disgustingly healthy in 2014. It’s not reasonable to expect that to last
– Stroman, Hutchison, Sanchez, and Norris are all young pitchers, and young pitchers will break your heart
Now, they’re all talented pitchers, of course; I haven’t named anybody who’s not worth trying in a major league starting rotation. I wouldn’t want to point at any one of them and say, “That guy’s going to fail!” But chances are someone’s going to get hurt. Chances are someone else is going to have a disappointing year for no particular reason. And then where are the Jays going to be?
Most of the discussion this off-season about the changes the Blue Jays need to make has focused on second base and the bullpen. (And for good reason.) People haven’t mentioned the starting rotation much. But I think the rotation needs the help just as urgently.
I’ll spill the beans now for those who haven’t already guessed it: I don’t think the Toronto Blue Jays are going to go to the playoffs this year. (My pessimism runs a lot deeper than that, actually, but that’s a topic for another day.)
Some notable commenters on the Blue Jays don’t think much of this character of opinion. It seems that, if I have a negative outlook on the Jays, then I am therefore a garbage clown, which means that I
a) am stupid,
b) am a jerk who wants to spoil other people’s good times, and/or
c) derive satisfaction from the Jays’ losing, or at least from being the first one off the bandwagon.
(There is, by the way, little effort made to distinguish between someone who speaks their mind in a restrained and intelligent way and the dolts who tweet stuff like, “HAHA JAYS SUCK!!1! NICE BULLPEN GUYS LOLLLLL”.)
I’m not really interested in debating the first two points; there’s enough of my writing visible here and there on the internet that you can make up your own minds about them if you’re interested in putting in the time.
The third one I’ll touch on briefly. Yeah, there’s a little bit of satisfaction that you get when it turns out that you were right about something; I think we all know that. But I’d trade it in a second for a division title. (As for the bandwagon thing, I haven’t been on the bandwagon since 2009 at the latest, so it’s kind of an irrelevant charge at this point.)
The idea here seems to be that, if you’re an optimistic fan who is enthusiastic about his or her favourite team, you can shout that from the rooftops, but that if you have the bad taste to think it ain’t gonna happen, you should shut up and keep it to yourself.
What are the responsibilities of a baseball fan?
Legally, none; obviously. Just because you like baseball doesn’t mean you have to do anything.
But let’s say you want to take your fandom of your favourite team seriously. Is there a way to do that that you should take, as opposed to some other way? What would that involve? Maybe
– attending as many games in person as you can manage, and buying tickets from the team instead of from a scalper
– not booing the team’s players
– voting for the team’s players for the All-Star Game
– staying positive about the team’s chances
– buying and wearing team merchandise
…something like that?
I don’t really think there is even a hint of an obligation to do anything like that. Look: the one most valuable thing about baseball, the one thing that is at the base of all the billions of dollars that these teams are worth, is the fans’ interest in the game. Without that, everything else goes away. The Toronto Blue Jays depend entirely on the thousands or millions of people who take an interest in them, and they know it, or should.
So if you’re a baseball fan, your attention, your caring, is something that is very much in demand, and as such everybody wants to control it. The teams themselves want to control it, the media wants to control it, even other fans (for some reason) want to control it. But it’s yours. You control it. Nobody gets to tell you that this is what a baseball fan is and you have to be that; however you want to do it is the kind of baseball fan you are.
If, as a Blue Jays fan, I am unwilling to substitute anyone’s judgment for mine, then that’s that. And if, as a Blue Jays fan, I feel like voicing that opinion, then that also is that. And if you don’t like it, you should, because you can do the same.
So here we go: for the past 20 years, the Jays have had some talented players surrounded by enough mediocrities to hold them back from winning anything interesting. And they haven’t won anything interesting. In 2015, they will have some talented players surrounded by too many mediocrities. Why should we expect a different result?
Sometimes a baseball team is in a position where it should make moves for the short term. Sometimes it’s in a position where it should make moves for the long term. Sometimes it can do either or both.
Right now the Toronto Blue Jays should be making moves for the short term. See, most of their best players are getting up there in age. They’re going to be relying heavily on RF Jose Bautista (34), 1B Edwin Encarnacion (32), SS Jose Reyes (32), C Russell Martin (32), SP R.A. Dickey (40), and SP Mark Buehrle (36). That’s a lot of guys past their prime. They’re still good, mind you, or at least they were last year and there’s reason to believe they will be again this year. The point is not that these guys aren’t good.
But they won’t be good for too much longer. It’s a rare baseball player who’s still good at 33 years of age.*
So, if the Jays are going to win with these guys, it had better be pretty soon.
And the Jays do want to win with these guys.
So it had better be pretty soon. Like, this year, preferably.
Therefore they should be making some moves that will pay off this year, as opposed to a few years from now.
But that’s not what they’re doing.
– They’re turning centre field over to Dalton Pompey (22), who looks good, but who knows if he’s going to be able to put it together in 2015? He might need a year or two to acclimate to the major leagues.
– They solved their second base problem by trading for Devon Travis (24), who probably won’t be ready for the major leagues by the start of the 2015 season, and will get by as best they can with Maicer Izturis and Steve Tolleson and Munenori Kawasaki and Ryan Goins and Ramon Santiago until then.
– They’re going to be using some combination of Marcus Stroman (24), Drew Hutchison (24), Daniel Norris (22), and Aaron Sanchez (22) to play key roles on the pitching staff. They all looked good last year, but young pitchers will break your heart.
These are all long-term moves. They’re moves that you make because you expect them to work out well in a year or two, but not necessarily right away. But necessarily-right-away is exactly what the Jays need right now.
They need to win this year. Not because the manager and general manager are worried about their job security; that’s their problem. But because the clock is ticking on their strongest assets. This is not the year to try to get by with prospects and spare parts.
(Note: of course it’s true that veterans can let you down just as badly as young players. Their performances are somewhat more predictable in the short run, though, and you take what edges you can get.)
* Let me put it this way. Here’s a list of everybody who’s ever played for the Jays who’s going to be exactly 33 in the 2015 season (according to seasonal ages on Baseball Reference):
Only fourteen guys; I thought it would be more. Oh well. Anyway, of those fourteen, only five still have major league careers: Hill, still a regular but it looks like he’s on the downside; Janssen, still a closer but starting to show some cracks; Johnson, clearly on the downside; McGowan, who hasn’t signed with anyone at the moment and whose future is unclear; Quiroz, a bench player who had two major league at bats last year.
Of the rest, some of them are never-weres, but there are also some good players there. Guys who couldn’t make it to where Bautista, Dickey, and Buehrle are now. So, great for Bautista, Dickey, and Buehrle, but with every year it makes it a little more likely that they won’t be able to do it again the next year.
This is the club that Reyes, Encarnacion, and Martin are joining in 2016.
So my eldest son, Thing One, plays Little League baseball. Which is awesome. But I would like to say two words about the shameful lack of imagination that prevails when it comes time to name the teams.
In his first year, Thing One’s team had T-shirts that were a maroon or burgundy colour, and the kids were encouraged to come up with a name for the team having something to do with the colour. They eventually settled on the Daredevils, which doesn’t really have much to do with the colour, but never mind. Other teams in the league were called the Cardinals and Bulls, which ho hum, but also Green Crushers and Black Bullets and Frost Giants and Purple Poison Vipers, which are awesome. So that was fine.
Then the next year his T-shirt was bright red. This time the coach dragged his heels on putting any names up for a vote, even after encouraging the kids to come up with names, and eventually said, “Aah, let’s just call ourselves the Reds.” This motion did not carry, which I was grateful for, because I had thought up a bunch of red-related team names which I suggested to Thing One for his approval:
the Red Alerts
the Kings of Diamonds
the Strawberry Punch
the Valuable Rubies
the Hot Prospects
He liked the Strawberry Punch, and suggested that to his team along with one of his own devising, the Flaming Monkeys. The one that carried the day was the Red Devils, which another player contributed. (I think the recurring “devil” thing was a coincidence. Could have been worse.) And while they were discussing it, this other kid, who just happened to be hanging around, not even a baseball-playing kid, suggested the Explosive Apples, which I thought was sheer genius. Imagine the logo of a team called that: an apple with a lit fuse in place of the stem.
And now this year. The jerseys are blue, so the coach imposed Blue Sox by fiat at the start of the season, but later opened it up for suggestions, and the kids ended up voting between the Blue Eagles and the Blue Jays. “Blue Jays” carried the day, which pleased Thing One, but didn’t do much for me, despite my long-standing fandom for the Toronto Blue Jays. Because come on. Let’s unleash the imagination here, let’s come up with something that nobody else has ever used. Blue Eagles isn’t bad in that sense, but I think we can do better. Maybe:
the Sky Tyrants
the Valuable Sapphires (well, they didn’t use the idea the first time!)
the Angry Sea
the Blue Diamonds
the Ice Storm
the Jump Blues
As you may or may not know, I’m a baseball fan; specifically, a Toronto Blue Jays fan. In baseball fandom, one of the debates that won’t go away is the argument about should there or should there not be a DH in baseball.*
Here’s what I think about it. The DH doesn’t bother me a bit. I like baseball with the DH and baseball without the DH. It’s fine either way. I don’t mind watching pitchers go up to hit in the National League, and I don’t believe that American League baseball has “less strategy” than National League baseball.
If I ever attain the position of Grand Emperor of Baseball, I will have lots of things that I think need changing much more urgently than the DH rule does. I’d probably leave it the way it is.
If I, as GEoB, ever did get through my to-do list to the point where I could spend a moment on the DH rule, I would eliminate the DH. Not because it’s bad. Just because it’s asymmetrical. Infielders, outfielders, and catchers play defense and also go up to bat. Pitchers are also ballplayers and therefore should also play defense and go up to bat. It’s as simple as that.
I know there are objections to this, but they don’t bother me.
– “But pitchers can’t hit!” I know they can’t hit. So what? Same for both teams.
– “What about how the DH lets older hitters extend their careers?” The older hitters can fend for themselves.
– “What about the increased risk of pitchers getting hurt?” Injury is always a risk in baseball, and the risk in going up to bat is a lot less than the risk of being a pitcher in the first place.
– “But pitchers have importance on defense far beyond that of any position player; they shouldn’t have to hit in addition to that!” Why not? It’s not like they have to do both at the same time.
– “What about how attendance would go down with the decrease in offense?” I’d be surprised if there was any such effect, and even if there was, I could live with it.
– “The players’ union would never go for it, because it’s basically eliminating a regular position in the starting lineup from every team in the American League.” What part of “Grand Emperor” don’t you understand?
I repeat: I don’t hate the DH rule at all and I am not campaigning for its removal. This isn’t a big deal to me and I’m perfectly content with the rules the way they stand. I just think that getting rid of the rule would make baseball more orderly, a little, and if it was easy and all other things were equal, I’d do it. If not, not.
* If you don’t know what the DH is, it’s a guy who goes up to bat on behalf of the pitcher of his team, because pitchers are notorious for being bad hitters. The American League allows teams to use a DH because they figured in the 1970s that more fans would come out if there was more offense in the game. The National League does not allow the DH.