Jay Break

Ah, the All-Star break.

It means different things to different people. For players it means recognition, bonuses and mysterious ailments. To fans it means the Home Run Derby and a game played with the best of the best–or at least the best of the best from Opening Day through June 2006 that actually decide to participate

To Barry Bonds it means a countdown to a Grand Jury indictment. To the FOX network it means giving a 14-year-old computer whiz with ADHD a six-pack of Jolt Cola and letting him loose in the production truck to see what happens. To the media it means telling us what’s wrong with the All-Star game and grousing about players who turn down the honour in favour of some R&R.

To me it means I get the chance to catch up with the little voices inside my head.

And yes dear readers (both of you), those little voices have informed me that deep down inside you really want an update on your favourite team (yes, favoUrite team)–the Toronto Blue Jays.

Oh I realize that you may root for the Cardinals, Yankees, Red Sox, Devil Rays (just kidding) or Cubs, but I think if you do some honest introspection you’ll find there’s a Blue Jays fan just begging to get out somewhere inside you.

That’s my story and I’m sticking with it.

The Jays are five games out of first. Barring an epic collapse on the part of the Tigers or White Sox it looks for all intents and purposes that if Toronto wants to be invited to the post season dance they’ve got to take the AL East.

Offense is not the problem this year so we’re not going to spend a lot of time dwelling on it. We’ll let the numbers speak for themselves. Using OPS as a blunt instrument we see that the Jays are pretty strong at most positions:

Pos        Line           Division Rank         Teams ahead
C    .292/.354/.458             2                   Balt
1B   .307/.375/.513             1                   ---
2B   .215/.269/.291             5*                  ALL 
SS   .306/.359/.438             3                  Balt/NY
3B   .228/.320/.447             3                  NY/BOS
LF   .341/.451/.492             2                   BOS
CF   .322/.385/.602             1**                 --- 
RF   .328/.387/.599             1**                 ---
DH   .304/.349/.492             2                   BOS

*worst in AL
** best in AL

For those of you rubbing your eyes and wondering why SS looks better than you might think and the hot corner looks a bit worse, don’t forget that Troy Glaus has played a bit at short this year which skewers the numbers a tad.

Where the Jays have struggled this year is from the mound. Toronto have had two consistent bright spots: Roy Halladay and closer B.J. Ryan. With their numbers taken out of the equation the rest of the rotation has an ERA of 5.46 (which would rank 26th in MLB and fourth in the AL East ahead of Baltimore) and the bullpen weighs in at 5.06 (which would rank 27th in MLB and worst in the AL East).

Also a concern is that absent Ryan’s numbers the rest of the bullpen is coughing up close to five walks per nine innings pitched (4.64/9 IP). Since we last checked in here’s how the rest of the bullpen/setup corps have fared (relievers with less than nine IP in 2006 excluded):

Pitcher     IP     H  ER  BB   K
Rosario     19.6  16  11  14  18
Downs       16.0  16   9   9  13 
Speier      14.3  13   6   8  18
Frasor      14.0  14   6   5  18
Tallet      12.6   8   7  11  13
Schoeneweis 12.0  12   7   4   5
Walker       6.3  13   5   5   5
Chulk        6.0  10   5   0   5
Totals     101.0 102  56  56  95

That’s an ERA of 5.63.

They give up about a hit an inning which is acceptable. Their K/9 IP is second best in the AL but they’ve walked almost six batters per nine innings pitched (since the first of May) which is ghastly. Those free runners the bullpen is giving up are coming around to score. The Jays are almost tied for second-worst in the AL in relief walks allowed and are tied for second in the AL in relief HR surrendered. Only Baltimore is worse in these categories within the division.

Ouch.

The solution to the Jays relief woes is simple–stop walking so many batters. That way when the ball leaves the yard it minimizes the damage. Of course execution is another matter…

Their H/IP and K/9 IP indicate that they’ve got the arms to do the job but those arms have got to improve their command. Let’s look at the starters minus Halladay. We’ll expand the sample size a bit and use the whole season since–due to injury/effectiveness–the Jays have tried seven different pitchers behind their ace:

Pitcher     GS    IP    H  ER  BB   K
Lilly       18  101.6  99  46  52  95
Janssen     14   77.3  82  41  15  39
Towers      12   54.3  86  55  15  29
Chacin      10   51.3  54  32  23  28
Burnett      6   35.3  42  18   7  34
Taubenheim   7   30.6  34  17  15  22
Downs        3    9.0  16  10   4   8
Totals      70  359.6 413 219 131 255

Here’s how they stack up against their peers:

Stat    Ratio   In AL  In AL East
BB/9    3.28     10th      4th
 K/9    6.38      4th      2nd
BB/K    1.95     10th      4th
WHIP    1.51     12th      4th

Translation: If Roy Halladay gets hurt even the Devil Rays have better starting pitching.

Everybody is waiting for the return of Gustavo Chacin, but when you look beyond his W-L record you see that he gives up over a hit an inning, walks over four batters (and two dingers) per nine innings pitched, and averaged a smidge over five innings per start. That’s not a rotation’s savior by a long shot.

Something else that makes me want to break out my Jann Arden CD collection and slit my wrists is this: A “six-inning pitcher” has a somewhat negative connotation yet none of these guys even qualify as that. Lilly, Janssen and Burnett are averaging 5.6 IP per start and that’s it.

So after mucking around for five-and-change innings, manager John Gibbons gets to turn over the game to a bullpen whose specialty is giving up walks and ‘taters and praying to his deity of choice that the ghosts of Tony Castillo and Joey McLaughlin don’t decide to do a cameo.

Now you begin to understand why I’m so fond of our offense and am tickled the Jays are doing so well this season.

And this year I’m hoping youth will be served. We’re beginning the dog days of summer and the average age of the Jays five main starters is just shy of 28, whereas the Yankees come in just south of 33 and the Red Sox are pushing 36. All three clubs have issues with their rotation (plus the Red Sox ‘pen–while it looks O.K. this year: 3.99 ERA–isn’t much better without Jonathan Papelbon … 4.72 ERA absent their closer) and I think if the Jays’ relief corps can just cut their walks there will be significant improvement in that department.

The Blue Jays have better pitching than they have shown this year and will most likely fare better in the second half while I think the long season will have a higher toll on the Red Sox and Yanks.

Wishful thinking? Possibly.

The saving grace in this is that with so many teams still in contention there won’t be a lot of Grade A starting pitching available. Teams are talking about guys like future Hall-of-Famer-but-not-so-hot-in-the-present Greg Maddux, Livan Hernandez, and Cory Lidle. There’s a decent chance the teams in the AL East will have to dance with the folks that brung ‘em–at least on the pitching side of the ledger.

Gibbons will have to be daring. Sticking with Ty Taubenheim and Josh Towers too long cost the Jays 9-14 wins. Had Toronto won a third of those games they’d be nipping at Boston’s heels. When you’ve got someone who’s almost a ‘guaranteed loss night’ due to start you really have nothing to lose by tossing a Dustin McGowan in here, a Scot Schoeneweis there and see what happens. They already have a pretty good idea of what’s not working, so it’s time to find something that does.

General manager J.P. Ricciardi has to be creative (and pray for Barry Bonds’ knee so the Giants stay in it and aren’t tempted to deal Jason Schmidt to the Red Sox or Yanks) and realize that with the offense he has, a consistent six inning/4.75 ERA-type starter would go a long way in Toronto.

So, to start my official second half of the 2006 season I’ll submit some (throw it against the wall and see what sticks) names for consideration: Kris Benson (Orioles), ex-Jay Cory Lidle (Phillies), Paul Byrd (Indians), John Thomson (Braves) and Victor Santos (Pirates).

Go Jays go.

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