Scream of consciousness

Before we get started, take the link at the end of this paragraph and “right-click” your mouse. If you’re using Firefox, choose “Bookmark This Link” in the box provided. If you are using Explorer select “Add to Favorites.” When you’re done here, be sure to read this article. It’s one of the best you’ll ever read as a baseball fan.

Moving on…

I’m gonna let you in on a little secret: The Toronto Blue Jays have been a very frustrating team for me in 2007.

Honest to God!

I know my stoic, dignified and understated approach to Toronto’s fortunes this year most likely left you with the impression that I was taking everything in my calm, easy stride.

(cough cough)

All right, I admit it, I’ve been stone cold bat(bleep) crazy as a bloody March hare. But can you blame me? When you consider the Jays’ starting five (Roy Halladay, Shaun Marcum, Dustin McGowan, A.J. Burnett and Jesse Litsch) have pitched 649.2 innings (as starters) to a 3.73 ERA while league average for every stripe of pitcher is 4.48, you’d think that the Jays would be battling for a postseason berth. The AL scores on average 4.89 runs per game, so a league average offense should be sufficient to contend—all the more so when you factor in that the Jays have the second best relief corps in the AL and third in all of MLB.

However, the Jays this year:

Scored four runs or fewer 80 times (including 40 of their last 60 games).
Scored three runs or fewer 64 times.
Scored two runs or fewer 44 times.
Scored one run or fewer 18 times.
Were shut out 4 times.

In April they had runs of scoring four or less in eight of nine games; in May they had six-in-a-row scoring as few as four. In July it was 10-of-11 and 12 of 13 in August. That creates serious pressure on the starting pitchers, going into games knowing they have little margin for error.

What’s worse, the Jays have blown scoring opportunities galore. They’re third in the league in grounding into double plays. The Yankees are first. The galling thing is, however, the Bronx Bombers (excluding reached on errors) have put 1,900 men on base to the Jays’ total of 1,626 but have only 10 more GIDP.

Of course, that’s easy enough to figure out. Runners in scoring position—two out:

New York Yankees  .274/.355/.431
AL average        .254/.350/.402
Toronto Blue Jays .220/.314/.350

Think of it this way: Imagine that whenever your team has men in scoring position and two outs your manager—regardless of who’s due up—pinch hits with Juan Uribe every time. That’s how bad the Jays have hit in that situation. Also, of course, the Jays’ biggest failure is hitting with men on base, period:

New York Yankees  .290/.363/.463
AL average        .280/.352/.431
Toronto Blue Jays .267/.338/.417

As I said—a league average offense and the Jays have an OPS of .752 rather than .664 with RISP/two out and an OPS of .784 rather than .755 with carbon-based life forms on the bases. It probably translates into enough offense to be in the race. As it stands now, they have a Pythagorean won-loss record 72-63; toss in the bump of getting up to league average and…

Do you know what this season reminds me of? The final week of the 1987 season, when the Jays went 0-7 and lost the AL East flag to the Tigers. Yes, the Jays lost Tony Fernandez and Ernie Whitt in September but the fact remains the Jays didn’t get it done—they choked. They got the pitching that final week (3.07 ERA—the AL was 4.46) but the bats cooled. Heck, they froze. The Jays scored 16 runs in those final seven games (and two of those games went a total of seven extra innings) and batted .161/.239/.225 (and drew 29 BB!) and hit .137 with RISP, hit into 10 double plays and stranded 61 runners.

It’s the same feeling. A golden opportunity wasted. Except instead of being seven games long, it’s been since July 1 when the Jays pitching started dominating the league (3.29 ERA) but there was no run support. As a club, the Jays hit just 45 HR since Canada Day; a total equaled by the combination of Jimmy Rollins, Pat Burrell and Ryan Howard over the same span. While the AL (including the Jays’ meager efforts) was batting .272/.334/.426, the Jays weighed in at .262/.325/.416. You can give a bump to the AL averages when you remove Toronto’s totals so the gulf between “The American League” and “The Toronto Blue Jays” increases.

(sigh)

Speaking of which: One thing that made me feel worse in 1987 was this: Despite being an admittedly irrational Blue Jays fan, I’m among the many who feel very strongly that the 1987 MVP should’ve gone to Alan Trammell. It was like the BBWAA was giving Toronto a consolation prize. What other possible explanation could there be? Over the two weeks leading up to the Jays’ meltdown, both George Bell (.382/.407/.655; nine runs, four HR, 13 RBI) and Trammell (.491/.548/.782; 10 runs, three HR, nine RBI) are playing like MVPs. Both are red hot, but the Tigers’ shortstop is playing like a god both offensively and defensively.

Finally the fateful seven games; Trammell cools a bit, which is hardly surprising since that pace is hardly sustainable, but still is .333/.419/.519; four runs, one HR, three RBI and is four-for-four in stolen bases (over the final three weeks). Meanwhile, Bell totally loses it (.111/.250/.111; one run, one HR, four RBI) right along with the rest of the offense.

The Tigers complete their miracle finish and the “Blow Jays” have reverted to form and they give the MVP to Bell?

Wha????

A slick defensive shortstop posts an OPS+ of 155 on a division winner while an unremarkable defensive left fielder with an 146 OPS+ who, it should be noted, helped pull off one of the great choke jobs in the game’s history is named most valuable player?

I realize they didn’t have OPS+ back then, but Trammell’s a 20-20 multiple Gold Glove winning shortstop who was caught stealing twice all season and batted .343/.402/.551 with 200 hits and more than 100 runs scored and 100 RBI. He doesn’t win over an average defender at a power position batting .308/.352/.605 playing half his games at old Exhibition Stadium, which at the time was probably the best hitting park in the circuit?

Bell had a great year, true enough, but to this day this was one of the most boneheaded MVP votes I have ever seen. All because he led the league in RBI. After that final week, it never dawned on me that Trammell wouldn’t win. One of many dark thoughts in the aftermath of the Jays’ collapse was “there goes Bell’s MVP.” After all, Trammell got it done all year including when the AL East flag was on the line.

Speaking of the 1987 Tigers: A lot of folks have taken a lot of time and effort to demonstrate that Jack Morris doesn’t deserve to be elected to the Hall of Fame. Baseball Prospectus’ Michael Wolverton and Joe Sheehan (evidently scratching sweaty, inimically literate itches about his career) put together convincing cases why he doesn’t measure up.

The trouble is, when you go to so much effort knocking somebody down a notch, you tend to miss what made him special. I’m here not to make a Hall of Fame case, but rather demonstrate what a superb big game pitcher was Jack Morris. For everybody who points to his 1992 playoff performance with Toronto as proof that he wasn’t always amazing, it’s good to look more closely at precisely what was transpiring.

To do so, we have to rewind a few of years prior to ‘92. Now consider:

In 1989, at age 34, he missed two months with a right elbow injury. Despite that, of his 24 starts, 13 exceeded 110 pitches, seven topped 120 and he had a pair of 130+ pitch outings. After his return July 24, it didn’t take long for his workload to resume its normal levels. Of those 13 long outings, eight were among the 14 starts he pitched after he came back (including six of his seven 120+ pitch games). He had a four-start block in August where he notched 468 pitches, and he finished the season throwing 506 pitches over his final four turns, 278 in his final two starts.

In 1990, at age 35, he threw 249.2 innings and topped 110 pitches 16 times and had starts where he threw 146, 134, 132, 127, 123 and 122 pitches. He had four straight turns where he threw 502 pitches another four consecutive starting assignments of 489 pitches and finished the year with 697 pitches over his final six outings.

In 1991, at age 36, Morris logged 246.2 innings and had 10 starts of more than 120 pitches and 20 over 110. He had six straight turns in August where he threw a total of 709 pitches (and one was an outing of just 84). He had four consecutive September starting assignments with a total of 473 pitches. He capped it off with 36.1 postseason frames, which included three World Series starts culminating in the epic 10-inning shutout against the Atlanta Braves.

In 1992, at age 37 he tossed 240.2 innings and topped 110 pitches 17 times and 120 five times (including a 144-pitch effort opening day); in July-August he had five straight turns with a total of 574 pitches. After three starts of between 83-102 pitches, he had five more in a row where he tossed 563 pitches.

Are you starting to get the picture? After a nasty elbow injury that cost him about two months in 1989, Jack Morris started 124 games and averaged a bit over seven innings and 105 pitches per start. That works out to a 133 pitches per nine innings pitched between July 24, 1989 through the end of the 1992 regular season. When you factor in the number of sliders and split-fingered fastballs/forkballs he must have thrown, it’s not hard to see that this was a right arm that was angry and not going to take it anymore.

At this point he had thrown 3,530 regular season innings, 69.1 postseason frames and X number of spring training innings. He had walked 1,290 and struck out 2,339 (regular and postseason) batters with 170 complete games.

After the 1992 postseason, Morris pitched two more seasons with an ERA of 5.91 and retired.

What appears to have happened is that Morris’ arm had nothing left—ever—possibly at the end of the ’92 regular season or Game 1 of the ALCS, where he threw a complete game on 119 pitches. That may have been the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. It wasn’t that he “choked” in the postseason; every pitcher reaches a point where hisr arm says: “No Mas!” and that evidently was Morris’ moment.

Simply put, come October 1992, the fork was inserted and the bread had popped golden brown and was ready for the jam. The pitcher formerly known as Jack Morris could now be referred to in the past tense. The spirit was willing but the right arm was dead, buried, saponified, fossilized, dug up by archeologists and displayed in a museum not located in upstate New York.

Probably, you’re thinking: “O.K. Einstein—what’s your point?”

It’s this: Jack Morris unquestionably was an elite big game pitcher. Some notes: His career ERA in September was 3.26. Of course, not every September was a pennant race. However when his teams (Detroit, Minnesota and Toronto) were in the hunt, Morris was even stingier—his ERA in his five races for October (1984, ’87, ’88, ’91, ’92) was 3.02. Toss in his work in the postseason (before his arm gave out) and it drops even further to 2.96. (If you wish to include the first game of the 1992 ALCS, this ERA is 2.98 in 322.2 IP). I know it’s easy to discount 1984 due to the Tigers’ amazing 35-5 start, but guess what? Morris was a major reason for that; in April and May that year, Morris went 10-1 with a 1.88 ERA, tossing seven complete games, throwing a no-hitter and pitching nine innings of an extra-inning affair where he got a no-decision.

Jack Morris—before his arm gave out sometime in October 1992—pitched 322.2 innings of 2.98 ERA (138 ERA+) of very high-leverage pennant race/ALCS/World Series baseball. Say what you will about his overall career, but if you wanted a guy to pitch for you down the stretch and into the postseason, you definitely would want the man in your rotation.

References & Resources
The stats used in the first section are as of Sept. 3, 2007 at 6 p.m. Due to circumstances this week I had to write this column early. Expect some variation from the numbers posted here to the ones on the date you’re reading it.

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