What’s going on up there in Canada, anyway?

Coming into the 2010 baseball season, Canadian baseball fans (specifically Blue Jays fans) did not have much to be hopeful for. Over the last few years, the Jays went from being perennial third-place finishers in the vaunted AL East to perennial fourth-place finishers with the emergence of the youthful Rays. In 2008, Rogers Communications owner Ted Rogers died and since then ownership interest in the Jays has dwindled, leading to speculation that the media giant is considering selling the team.

Trust me, as a Canadian sports fan, I know how easy it is for Canada to lose a team because of an apathetic ownership group (see the Montréal Expos, Quebec Nordiques, Winnipeg Jets, Vancouver Grizzlies, etc, etc.), and the loss of the Jays to an American market would be absolutely devastating for me and millions of Canadian baseball fans. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen.

Before 2009, Jays fans watched as A.J. Burnett twirled a career year that finally justified his massive contract, only to see him opt out the final two years of said contract for the greener pastures of the division-rival and hated Yankees. And finally in December of last year after the team’s first sub-80-win season since 2004 and only the third since 1997, the Jays dealt the franchise’s best-ever player in Roy Halladay to the Philadelphia Phillies for a package of prospects, signaling an era of rebuilding brought on by more than a decade of mediocrity.

Couple all of these things with the fact that the Jays get very little media coverage outside of Canada and you really can’t blame the average baseball fan for forgetting the Jays exist until they show up on the schedule to play their team.

Now let’s take into account what the Jays are doing in 2010. They were left for dead by anyone who bothered to forecast their season (including myself who predicted they would lose 94 games and finish last behind the Orioles in the AL East), but here they are in late August with a more than respectable 66-61 record.

Sure, they’re still fourth in the ridiculous AL East, but considering this team traded its best player for a package of prospects who have yet to sniff major league time, that’s pretty impressive. (They did get Brett Wallace in the deal, and he is now in the majors; however it’s with the Astros who acquired him for A-ball outfielder Anthony Gose.)

So, let’s ask the obvious question. Is this a fluke? There are several reasons to think it is. There are also several reasons to think this could be a sign of things to come. Let’s go over each of them, starting with the flukes.

Fluke

Kevin Gregg
With his save on Wednesday against the Yankees, Gregg now has 29, which places him firmly in fifth in the junior circuit. Closers tend to be thought of only in terms of saves, but let’s look a little further. Yes, Gregg is having a career year—he’s on pace for career bests in saves and ERA—but his 1.28 WHIP is the highest of anyone in the top 10 in the AL in saves, and his 3.26 ERA is solid but worrisome for a closer. He’s never been a truly shut-down closer, and he has a tendency of walking far too many batters.

His season last year with the Cubs was downright awful. It was so bad that the Cubs opted for the erratic and unreliable Carlos Marmol as the ninth-inning man late in the year. Gregg is working out nicely as a cheap option who has done a nice job this season, but to think this is a sign of things to come for years down the line is foolish; both the Marlins and Cubs knew that.

Vernon Wells
Pundits and Jays fans alike have been praising the return of Vernon Wells to prominence since his red-hot start, but I am a realistic Jays fan, and when I look at the season Wells has had, I’m not convinced he’s fully the player he once was. Yes, he’s better than his ’09 version, but he has tailed off dramatically after a torrid start.

On May 9, Wells was hitting .339 with a .409 OBP and a surreal .661 SLG. He had nine home runs and 25 RBI in 33 games and was homering once every 14.1 at-bats. These are the types of numbers we Jays fans were used to seeing from Wells earlier in his career.

Since then, however, it’s been a different story. In the 91 games starting May 10 through to August 26, Wells’ numbers have plummeted to .249/.294/.453 with 14 HR and 41 RBI. In that time frame he’s homering once in every 24.4 at-bats. Now, these numbers are nowhere near as bad as his ’09 numbers, but overall, Wells has not returned to prominence.

On the plus side, this season may give other general managers around the league the incentive to trade for Wells and his huge contract that currently makes him one of the highest-paid players in the game.

Jose Bautista
Bautista has been one of the biggest stories this year in the majors (made all the more impressive by the fact that the Jays get no coverage). As of last night, he leads the majors with 41 home runs and is third in all of baseball in RBI with 96. He’s been the crown jewel of the homer-happy Blue Jays. But where did this come from?

Bautista was a journeyman utility player who has the dubious distinction of being the only player in history to appear on five different major league rosters in one season back in 2004. When the Jays traded catching prospect Robinzon Diaz to the Pirates for Bautista in August of 2008, even the most diligent of baseball fans barely twitched.

What Bautista has done this year is simply incredible, and there’s no doubt that he is a better player than most people thought a couple years ago. But is this going to be a permanent thing, or a one-year aberration? His disturbingly high flyball rate would suggest that eventually some of his home runs will stop leaving the yard.

According to Hit Tracker, Bautista leads the AL in home runs that were “just enough” with 11. Now, he also leads the league in “no-doubt” home runs with 16, but when you consider the sheer number of home runs he’s hit, that number becomes less impressive.

Is Bautista a legitimate everyday player capable of middle-of-the-order power? Yes, and he very well could be for a few more years, but players like this who come out of nowhere at the age of 29 and destroy every personal record they once had don’t tend to do it for long. Chances are Bautista is a guy capable of 20-25 home runs a season with a .250 average and an on-base percentage that may top out at about .300. I hope I’m wrong.

Not a fluke

Young starters
When the Jays traded Roy Halladay last December to the Phillies for a package of highly-touted, albeit not major-league-ready, prospects, most experts predicted the Jays would fall to the bottom of the American League in every pitching category and dip to the level of the Orioles in the AL East. Perhaps the biggest reason that hasn’t happened has nothing to do with the home runs the Jays have hit; it has to do with their impressive corps of young starting pitchers.

The Jays’ “big four” starters of Shaun Marcum, Brandon Morrow, Brett Cecil, and Ricky Romero may lack the star power of the Becketts, Sabathias, and Lees, but all four have been among the league’s best this season. Even with Romero’s poor outing Thursday night against the Tigers, the quartet have a combined record of 41-27, which amounts to an impressive .612 winning percentage, with a 3.84 ERA while pitching mostly in baseball’s toughest division.

Marcum
Typically, players coming back from Tommy John surgery say that it’s their control that takes the longest to come back, sometimes taking up to two years. That makes Marcum’s numbers this season all the more impressive. Not only did he flirt with a no-hitter on opening day, but Marcum has walked just two batters per nine innings on average this season.

Morrow
Morrow was one out away from just the second no-hitter in Jays’ history when the Rays’ Evan Longoria hit an infield single to break it up. He went on to get the final out on a strikeout; his 17th of the game in what was one of the most impressive pitching performances in the majors this season (and yes, I’m aware of the other masterful performances). Considering the Jays acquired Morrow from Seattle this offseason for a struggling middle reliever in Brandon League and a low-level prospect in outfielder Johermyn Chavez, his performance this year has been great.

The Mariners gave up on the former first-rounder in part because the Giants selected Tim Lincecum five picks later in that year’s draft, and when comparing the two of them, it’s clear that Seattle, at least in the short term, made the wrong pick. But the Jays understood that Morrow just needed more time to develop, and he’s very quickly developing into one of the most dominant pitchers in the American League.

Cecil
Cecil has been perhaps the most consistent of any of the Jays’ big four. His 11-6 record leads the staff, and he has a 7-1 record against AL East opponents this season (including a combined 5-0 record against the Yankees and Rays).

Romero
Romero finally broke out last year with 13 wins in his rookie season after years of going nowhere fast in the minors. The former first rounder did tail off toward the end of the year in ’09, but so far he has remained consistently solid in 2010. Although his record is only 10-8, he leads the Jays with a 3.54 ERA and is seventh in the AL with 172.2 IP. His ability to pitch to contact for a high groundball rate has made him one of the toughest pitchers to face in the AL.

                 W-L   ERA     IP                    Factoid
Brett Cecil     11-6   3.80  139.2        7-1 Record Against AL East Opponents
Shaun Marcum    11-7   3.70  151.0        4th in the AL with a 3.82 K/BB Ratio
Ricky Romero    10-8   3.54  172.2   2nd in the AL in Ground Out/Fly Out Ratio
Brandon Morrow   9-6   4.39  137.1                 Leads Majors with 10.81 K/9

Balanced power
The Jays’ ability to hit home runs throughout their lineup has made them a tough team to beat. I’ve already discussed Wells and Bautista in terms of their ability to keep up what they’ve done this year, but there’s no denying that the Jays are not a fluke when it comes to the balance of their lineup.

The Jays lead the majors in home runs with 193. That’s 24 more than second-place Boston. They are only seventh in the AL in runs scored, but that’s enough when you consider how good their pitchers have been; and when you can hit the long ball, you’re never out of a game. This is made even more impressive by the fact that arguably their two best hitters, Adam Lind and Aaron Hill, have not had good years.

John Buck
I think most of us were surprised when John Buck made the AL All-Star team in his first year with the Jays. With the likes of Joe Mauer, Jorge Posada, Victor Martinez, and A.J. Pierzynski behind the plate in the AL, not many people could have predicted that Buck would be named, but he is having a terrific year.

But before you say fluke, let’s remember that Buck was once very highly regarded in both the Astros’ and Royals’ systems. He was dealt to KC as part of the Carlos Beltran deal and never fully materialized for the Royals. Many catchers, however, take a little longer to develop their defensive game, and Buck certainly has fallen under that category. With significant effort being devoted to learning how to call a game, handle a pitching staff, and play better behind the plate, Buck’s offensive skills were never quite refined while he concentrated on being a more well-rounded catcher.

The raw power existed, but he struck out way too much and his average was routinely among the worst in baseball. With Buck finally getting a handle on his defensive game, he can now concentrate on the offensive side of things, which he has. Buck, who came into this year with a .235 career average, is hitting .283 with an impressive .493 slugging percentage which is higher than Mauer, Martinez, and Posada.

The downside of this is that Buck is a free agent at season’s end and will likely sign elsewhere. On the other hand, uber-slugging catching prospect J.P. Arencibia may be ready to start for Toronto next season.

So where does this leave us? The Jays are clearly better than anybody would have predicted this season, but is it sustainable? Maybe. The Jays should not expect a repeat performance from Jose Bautista or Kevin Gregg, and they should probably try their best to trade the massive contract of Vernon Wells while his value has rebounded a little, but there’s no doubt that the young pitching staff and the organization’s re-focus on player development and scouting should continue to guide them in the right direction.

Maybe someday, the American mainstream media will acknowledge that the Jays exist; and that there’s something very interesting to watch up here in the “Great White North.”

References & Resources
Statistics derived from Baseball Reference, MLB’s website and Hit Tracker.

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Comments

  1. Jason B said...

    Bob said: “I would add though that the #7 ranking in runs despite the huge lead in home runs is a warning sign. This is a team that does not get many men on base. Toronto’s OBP is ranked 12th in the AL.”

    Totally agreed, and this worries me too.  Seems like many nights if they’re not hitting homers, they’re simply not scoring.  I would gladly forego a bit of that team power for a little better on-base ability.

  2. Travis Reitsma said...

    Okay, first off.  I understand Bautista’s career OBP heading into this year was .329.  All I said was an OBP around .300 was what I thought he would have from this point on.  I’m an ardent Jays fan and I really do hope I’m wrong.  It’s simply a feeling I have.  Up until this year, he’s been seeing great pitches to hit, and this year he’s figured out how to hit them.  The rest of the league seems to keep throwing him hard stuff on the inner-half and he keeps hitting it.  Eventually, that will stop.  He’s been vulnerable to the off-speed stuff on the outside corner and down.  Once the league makes that adjustment, there will be a lot more swings and misses; especially when the frustration of not hitting 40+ HR sets in.  I could very well be wrong.  It’s simply a feeling.

    And as for Buck, I never said he wasn’t still striking out a lot.  But striking out a lot when you’re hitting .235 is a lot different than when you’re hitting .280.  Also, his 2009 numbers were elevated because of a very good September where he hit .340 with a SLG near .600.  He’s been far more consistent this year (with the exception of a slow start) and his low-walk rate likely has more to do with a higher focus on aggressive hitting over patient hitting as implemented by Cito Gaston than it does with his own apparent impatience.  The fact is, this is the first season of his career where he is playing everyday and putting up these kind of numbers and I was simply saying I don’t think he’ll go back to the level he was at in KC.

  3. Travis said...

    Feel free to do so, Jazz.  I would gladly read a respectfully written rebuttal.  Who knows, your wisdom might may even change my mind.

  4. Travis said...

    Bob Rittner: “As a side note, I doubt the Jays can move Wells for anything useful despite his apparent improvement. That contract is simply too big. Perhaps they can find a team to take him to alleviate the burden of that contract somewhat, but that might be the best to hope for. Remember he still has 4 years and $86 million due him, and he will be 32 next year. What team that would be in a position to think they need him would take that on and give up anything of value?”

    Yeah, that contract has become something of an albatross for Toronto, which a lot of people predicted when he first signed it.  The backloaded nature of the deal was probably not the smartest of moves.  They’re likely stuck with Wells for better or worse, but who knows, someone with money to burn may take him off the Jays’ hands if Toronto agrees to pay some of the remainder of the deal.

  5. Joe said...

    .250 average with a OBP that may top out at .300?  From a player with a career walk rate over 10% and .342 OBP…Really now?

  6. Peter Gentleman said...

    You think that Bautista will top out with an on base percentage of around .300 when his career OBP is .345? .329 even if you pretend this year never happened? That is just completely unrealistic.

    You also mention that Buck “struck out too much”, even though he is striking out more than ever (last year excluded, when he hit exactly as well). I also notice you’ve ignored his career low walk rate (half his career rate!). Not that I don’t think he can sustain his batting line, but you’ve done nothing to support that argument, such as citing his severely lowered groundball rate the last couple of seasons.

    I’m sorry, but this analysis feels really lazy and not at all based in reality.

  7. Msfan said...

    not to mention Lincecum is a local boy from the University of Washington. I honestly think that was a gigantic chip on Morrow’s shoulder, and I think it’s good for him to be out of Seattle. Getting League for him was a giant mistake though. Even if League lived up to potential, Morrow is young with gigantic potential. Congrats to the Blue Jays GM for ripping off Jack Z (it hasn’t been done too often).

  8. Bob Rittner said...

    I agree with your fundamental point that the Blue Jays have a chance to be very good over the next few years. Those 4 starters provide a frightening gauntlet for any team to run, and there is real power in that lineup.

    I would add though that the #7 ranking in runs despite the huge lead in home runs is a warning sign. This is a team that does not get many men on base. Toronto’s OBP is ranked 12th in the AL. Only Overbay at .334, Escobar (.344) and Bautista (.386) are over .330 with Fred Lewis exactly at that mark. Two of this year’s regulars are under .300. If, as expected, the home run pace of 2010 levels off in the future, that is bad news for the offense which could slip even further and put too much pressure on the pitchers.

    Balancing that is the legitimate hope that Snider may yet blossom into a big power threat.

    I don’t think this year is a fluke exactly, nor do I think it is necessarily a harbinger of better things. Rather, it seems to me an announcement that if management addresses the flaws they have a solid base around which to build a strong contender. Given what they have done so far, I am optimistic they will.

    As a side note, I doubt the Jays can move Wells for anything useful despite his apparent improvement. That contract is simply too big. Perhaps they can find a team to take him to alleviate the burden of that contract somewhat, but that might be the best to hope for. Remember he still has 4 years and $86 million due him, and he will be 32 next year. What team that would be in a position to think they need him would take that on and give up anything of value?

  9. Peter Gentleman said...

    But it’s just illogical to think that after having this fantastic year, he’s suddenly going to be not only worse than ever, but VASTLY so.

    And saying he is “vulnerable” to picthes down and away is a baseless claim. The face is that he takes more or less everything on the low, outside corner. Observe: http://pitchfx.texasleaguers.com/batter/430832/?pitchers=A&count=AA&pitches=AA&from=3/1/2010&to=9/1/2010

    The dude has always had great pitch recognition and, if anything, his numbers would likely get BETTER as pitchers pitch around him thanks to his ability to lay off of pitches out of the zone.

  10. Travis Reitsma said...

    No, don’t get me wrong, you make a good point, and it’s one that I thought of myself when writing it.  I wasn’t stupid enough to not look into his career numbers before this year.  It’s simply a feeling I have, which is why I said “I hope I’m wrong.”  It’s simply a gut thing. 

    Now, the decrease in his power numbers to the 20-25 a season mark (perhaps less) and the .250 average are things that I believe are inevitable given his age and history.  I tend to think of an Adrian Beltre phenomenon (and I know he’s a totally different player) but his OBP numbers dropped off after his 48 HR year, and his pitch selection early in his career was very solid. 

    I guess I just don’t like being accused of being lazy when I was simply going off a gut feeling.  Trust me, the research was done.

  11. Alex said...

    I think you should also look at some fluke stuff that went wrong for the Jays.  Aaron Hill, Travis Snider, Adam Lind, and Lyle Overbay all had bad years. (although lind/overbay are coming out of it a bit). Their bullpen also didn’t perform quite like in the past, if I recall correctly.

  12. Peter Gentleman said...

    The difference between straight flukes like Beltre is that his big year was based entirely on an inflated HR/FB rate and BABIP. There’s nothing in the underlying data to explain it. There was no change in his batted ball results, no change in approach. He just swung the same way he always had, and has since, but with better results.

    But with Bautista there is a clear talent change. He’s swinging at slightly more pitches to facilitate his new dead red fastball, dead pull hitting approach. And he is pulling the ball WAY more often this year. Prior to this year, balls to the pull field only accounted for 34.8% of his batted balls. This year he’s pulling the ball 42.7% of the time. And when he’s pulling he ball, he’s hitting WAY more flyballs to the pull field too. 44.9% of his pulled balls this year are fly balls, as opposed to 34.8% for his career (this year included, so the actual difference is bigger). People keep focussing on his overall flyball increase, but it’s the pull field flyball numbers that are important because a) Bautista has hit a grand total of zero homers to right field in his entire career and b) a large majority of flyballs are to the opposite field, which is true for all hitters, so an overall increase in flyballs doesn’t neccessarily mean the batter is hitting them in a direction that is conductive to homeruns.

    So there’s your sustainable explaination for Bautista’s season. More pulled balls, and when he pull the ball, he’s hitting it way more in the air, meaning way for opportunities for homeruns. His HR/FB rate to pull IS inflated (47.5% this year, as opposed to a still well above average 35.3% for his career), so if there’s a number you want to regress, that’s the one. But even at his career HR/FB rate to pull, he’s still probably a 30+ homer per year guy.

    Keep in mind, however, that 47.5% HR/FB to pull is not unheard of. Lyle Overbay and his career high of 22 homers, for example, has a career HR/FB rate of 46.1% to his pull field.

  13. rick said...

    No mention of those giant fans they bought from the Twins? Never heard of such a bunch hitting homers like the Jays have. Or maybe HGH is leagal north of the border?

  14. Bunty Buntwright said...

    “Congrats to the Blue Jays GM for ripping off Jack Z (it hasn’t been done too often). “

    Except by everyone.

    Maybe having a wildly overrated GM is the new market inefficiency.

  15. Steven Booth said...

    Just did a piece on the Ventura County Gulls, a Single A affiliate of the Jays in 1986. Their player development system was outstanding in those days and gets less credit than similarly strong, yet less successful organizations like the Indians.

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