Blue Jays mail bag
The Jays have officially completed one third of their schedule, on pace for 84 wins. That must be considered a disappointment. But the pitching keeps on pitching and this team could go on another win streak at any time. In this week's mailbag, instead of pointing fingers at J.P. Ricciardi and John Gibbons, some thinking fans are beginning to examine the responsibility of the fans in creating a winning environment for the team. Here we go.
Q: Hey Richard.
Are you as sick as I am with the people writing in saying they are “taking a break” from the Jays? What kind of fans are these? We are less than two months into the season, the Jays are hovering around .500 in arguably the toughest division in baseball and fans think it's time to quit! I know as well as everyone else that it’s been 15 years since we've seen October ball in the T-dot, and I am not making any “it’s hard competing against that kind of money” excuses. I just think that as fans, we are as much to blame as anyone else.
Have you seen the Rogers Centre lately? Of course you have, there are no fans blocking your view! Maybe instead of taking a break from the Jays, the fans need to show the team and the owners how badly we want post-season action by showing up and being LOUD!
Cory Gallagher, London
A: I agree with you that fans who believe they are capable of “taking a break” are not as true-blue fans of baseball as they think. It’s like being frustrated by your children and thinking the solution is to “take a break” from caring for them. It ain’t gonna happen. Sitting here in Oakland and watching the non-fans at the Coliseum not show up and not cheer for a talented young team as they compete for the division shows what the Rogers Centre could become if all Jays fans went through with their threat to take a break.
Toronto and environs has more than five million people. The stadium is in an easily accessible downtown location. The facility is clean, comfortable and never has rainouts. Jays fans don’t realize how good they have it.
Instead of complaining, Jays fans can enjoy the baseball AND add to the noise level to inspire the players. We’ve seen how good it can be as recently as the Red Sox series to open the season. Part of the fault lies with the Jays’ management who seem to believe that excess noise must be a sign of excess drinking and needs to be stopped. That may be simplistic, but, hey, loosen up guys and don’t curb your enthusiasm, encourage and enhance it.
In one of your recent responses you say: The Jays are clearly a better team than their record shows. When will people stop saying that? They were a .500 team last year and are again this. I realize they've made a few changes, but obviously, not enough. Before the ‘08 season, I predicted they’ll end the season within four games of .500 either above or below. Still feel that way. Do you not agree that this is truly a mediocre team and has NO chance to compete for a playoff spot? A wise man once said: "You are what your record says you are." 'Nuff said.
Paul Brace, Warkworth, Ont.
A: The Jays are clearly a better team than their record shows. They should be a 90-win team with this roster, especially with a pitching staff which every day goes to the mound giving th club a chance for victory.
GM J.P. Ricciardi successfully convinced his bosses in the off-season that last year’s roster was put together to be a contender. Give them another chance. As fine-tuning, he switched Troy Glaus for Scott Rolen (good move), made David Eckstein this year’s Royce Clayton (not so good move) and readied himself for a run at the wild-card. Look back day-by-day at this season and there are at least four losses that should be wins except for poor execution or strategy or both. Make those four games wins and the Jays are 10 games above .500 instead of two above. This is not a truly mediocre team, but they are playing a truly mediocre season thus far. Who was that wise man, Conrad Black?
Q: Barajas vs Zaun:
My son said that the Blue Jays are 13-4 in games started by (Rod) Barajas, and of the four losses, he was replaced by (Gregg) Zaun with the score tied in three of them.
If this is true, that seems like a most significant difference. Clearly, Barajas’ recent hitting streak has pushed his offensive numbers ahead of Zaun. On the defensive side, I haven’t looked at any stats, but subjectively, I perceive Barajas is a “quieter” catcher; he receives the pitch in a “clean” fashion that seems to make it easier for an umpire to call a strike. Are there any significant defensive stats that compare the two?
Mel Norton, Burlington, Ont.
A: Through Tuesday night in Oakland, the Jays are 14-8 in Barajas starts, including two at first base.
Neither Barajas nor Zaun should be a catcher that starts 120 or more games in a season. In fact they have many similar characteristics and the current balance of workload of 327 innings behind the plate for the switch-hitting Zaun and 161 for the right-handed hitting Barajas seems about right. They complement each other and know their roles. Barajas seems to have become A.J. Burnett’s personal catcher and also gets the nod against most left-handers.
As for what Zaun brings to the table, note that in 2007, among the 29 catchers that started more than half of their team’s games, Zaun squatted to the second lowest catcher’s ERA in all the majors at 3.55. Josh Bard of the Padres led at 3.44. That, despite only throwing out around 14 per cent of potential base stealers. This season, Zaun’s ERA as catcher is 3.63, while he has upped his throwing rate to 25.9 per cent of would-be base stealers.
The perception of Barajas as a “quieter and cleaner” catcher is very subjective. Both men are smart, hardnosed catchers and other than the iffy offensive numbers, catching has not been the Jays’ problem, considering that pitching has been their strength.
Q: Hey Richard;
I love the insight and look forward to your comments each week. The 2008 Jays approach the game like a team built for speed but are lacking one critical component: speed. Every game they seem to be losing at least one base runner trying to stretch a single into a double or making a questionable sprint for home plate. You have the math at your fingertips so please riddle me this: how many bases have the Jays gained versus outs made in pursuing this strategy? I know the Cyanocitta Cristatas are desperate for runs but at what point does this tactic deserve a re-think?
Luke Mills, Victoria
A: Since the arrival of J.P. Ricciardi as GM, the Jays have mostly been offensive posers. After he took over in 2002, he insisted that they would be a Moneyball team when the talent on-hand did not reflect an on-base, take more pitches, work the pitchers, get to the bullpen, pump up the on-base percentage type of a team. But that’s the way they played. It’s like trying to make Wade Belak into a figure skater because he can’t score.
Now, as the offence struggles, the Jays take more and more chances in an effort to “make something happen”. At the same time, mistakes and running into outs can easily be laughed off when your team is scoring runs in buckets. But those miscues are under the spotlight when you become involved in more low-scoring one-and-two-run games -- in which the Jays are 12-16 this season heading into Wednesday night. That’s just more than half of their games.
Certainly, the Jays are not built to run the bases with reckless abandon, but running with just plain old abandon is necessary. Being more conservative on the bases would just mean be more futile, fruitless at-bats with runners in scoring position. Which is more frustrating for fans? Eckstein, Hill, Rios, Rolen, Stewart, Wilkerson and Wells are all capable of being trusted in their base-running judgment. Keeping pressure on the defence is always good.
Q: Watching the recent series with the Angels has got me thinking more about the future of the franchise and concentrating less on the current season. When should the Blue Jays start thinking about locking up their younger starting pitchers?
Ben Collins, Gangneung, Korea
A: The three young starting guys you are referring to are Shaun Marcum, Dustin McGowan and Jesse Litsch. Marcum and McGowan are not eligible for free agency until after the 2012 season. Litsch until after 2013. Sure it would look good to lock them into long-term deals as soon as possible, but logically, with Marcum and McGowan, the time to negotiate would be following the ’09 season. In that way, the Jays could buy out their final three arbitration-eligible years plus the first two seasons of free agency through 2014 under terms of a five-year contract. Litsch could be done a year later. There is really no advantage to doing it now.
Watch them develop. Make sure they are healthy in another year and a half then give them the financial security all young players are looking for while giving the team the cost certainty all well-run teams seek.
Q: My question is about the people who get the big money then disappear such as A.J. Burnett and to some extent Vernon Wells. I know both these guys seem to want to win and there would be better examples but I’ll stick to the Jays. On to the question.
Why can’t the GMs be more creative with the contracts? Suppose for round figures A.J. wants an extension at $15 million for five years. Why does the GM not counter with say $10 million a year guaranteed for six years and $7 million a year in total bonuses, $2 million on the player performance and $5 million for the team reaching the post-season? I'm thinking the extra year and the chance for AJ to make 2-million more than what he's asking for seems reasonable. Plus, if he plays like crap or goes (on the) DL or the team stinks, you’re only on the hook for $10 instead of $15 million. You don't need the bonuses to be hard to get to either. Just something like 10 quality starts or a sub 4.50 ERA for the $2 million. What that works out to is instead of $75 million for 5 years, it would potentially be $102 million for six years on a winning team. I’m thinking extra playoff revenue and more season tickets for a winning team would be worth the extra money if everyone hits the bonuses. If you did this with say ten of your core guys at the same values, you’d only spend $20 million a year max and potentially save $50 if the team underachieves. Would you not agree that having the extra money incentive would encourage these 10 to get after the rest of the slackers?
Jason Howlett, Princeton
A: Jason, I notice that you are an Ivy Leaguer. I like to think of myself as pretty savvy in math but dude you lost me at the bakery. The one thing I do know about established, healthy major-league players is that they like their money up front. Usually the heavy performance bonus-laden contracts are offered to iffy veterans coming off injuries, like Frank Thomas took with the A’s in 2006 in order to get his career back on track.
Can you imagine A.J. Burnett facing the Red Sox on September 12, Jays trailing in the Wild Card standings by one game, and having David Eckstein heave one into the front-row of the stands to lose the game in the ninth? Yikes. That would be the opposite of building team spirit when that play has the potential effect of costing A.J. $5 million. No pat-on-the-back-shake-it-off encouragement would ever happen.
So, say there are 10 guys with $5 million on the line for a playoff berth. If the Jays can release Frank Thomas to save $10 million, what would they be capable of to save $5 million 10 times, or $50 million in bonuses paid out if they make the playoffs?
The main reason it would never work is the free-market system where another team would simply offer the guaranteed money without bonuses and the player would just leave. “Show me the money!”
Q: Hey Richard. I know J.P has screwed up a lot but why can't you focus on some of the positives? J.P has put together one of the best bullpens. He may not have much positional depth, but he has single-handedly put an amazing bullpen together: (Jesse) Carlson, (Shawn) Camp, (Armando) Benitez, (Scott) Downs, (Brian) Tallet, (B.J.) Ryan, (Jason) Frasor and the injured (Jeremy) Accardo and (Casey) Janssen. I know he has wasted a great deal of money on position players, but with the exception of Ryan, he has put together an incredible bullpen without breaking the bank and without trading away the future of the club. Not a bad job, eh?
Devin Shyminsky, Waterloo, Ont.
A: Hey, listen. While the last few mailbags were full of doom and gloom letters from disgruntled readers demanding an immediate purge of the front office, I, the voice of horsehide reason in a vast wasteland of reader pessimism, have been saying, “Be patient. Stay the course.”
However, I do believe that rounding up two-pitch bullpen guys that can cobble together three outs without allowing a run three times per week is somewhat of a crapshoot and is easier than stocking the system with up-and-coming position players that can fill in during time of injuries and make the team a true perennial contender. Balance the “three cheers for J.P.” pitching names in the current bullpen above with other Ricciardi pitching acquisitions through the years that didn’t quite work out as well: Felix Heredia, Luke Prokopec, Chad Ricketts, Brian Cooper, Cliff Politte, Scott Wiggins, Terry Adams, Ty Taubenheim, Doug Creek, Tanyon Sturze, Jeff Tam, Juan Acevedo, Victorio De los Santos, Kerry Ligtenberg, Matt Roney, John Thomson, Tomo Ohka and Vikictor Zambrano.
Q: Hey Richard,
I have two baseball quirk questions I thought would a refreshing refrain from whining about the Jays: 1-When/Why did the around the horn after a strikeout come about? 2. I've noticed on several occasions that after a first baseman makes the third out, he keeps the ball, tosses it into his dugout to have another ball from the dugout thrown back out to him. What's up with that? Thanks, and keep up the great work.
Ian Donnelly, Toronto
A: The around the horn tradition after a strikeout goes back to before the turn of the 20th century. One story about its origins (that I personally don’t believe) claims the tradition started with the crew of Portugese explorer Ferdinand Magellan. As his boat sailed around Cape Horn at the bottom of South America journeying between the Atlantic into the Pacific Ocean, his crewmen were playfully throwing the ship’s pet cat around in a circle while chattering gibberish, likely from the effects of scurvy. As the boat went around the Horn, one of the guys missed and the cat went overboard. Every time thereafter that they went around the Horn, the superstitious bunch would throw another cat into the drink for good luck.
The baseball option for after a strikeout, without going "around the horn", would be to simply throw the ball back to the pitcher and have him stand around like a mope waiting for the vanquished hitter to disappear into the dugout dragging his bat and the following hitter to take his position in the batter’s box. Instead, the infield fires the ball around to keep the arms warm and to allow for vapid chatter like “Hum baby”.
As for the first-basemen thing, what happens there is that the first baseman after the third out comes to the dugout, pinpoints a kid sitting in the stands above the dugout, flips him the ball, thus ingratiating himself to that section, then looks to the coach for a replacement ball that is flipped upwards to him and left in his glove on the top step so that when he heads back out to first he has a ball with which to warm up the other infielders. Actually, the first guy that I saw doing this on a regular basis was Jays’ first baseman Carlos Delgado. The tradition slowly caught on until now it’s a jarring sight when a first baseman rolls a ball back to the mound, as was the old baseball custom.
Roy Halladay frequently chats with the home-plate umpire as he’s walking to the dugout at the end of an inning. A couple starts ago, he was pulled during an inning and as he was leaving, it looked like he went over and thanked the ump, sincerely that is, not facetiously. Is this unusual among pitchers? Is he just buttering them up or do top-notch pitchers and umps have some kind of rapport, based on respect for what the other is doing out there? Many thanks.
Chris Clark, London, Ont.
A: It’s amazing to talk to Halladay and to realize how zoned-in he is on what he is doing while he's pitching and how truly unaware he is of what is going on in the stands, the dugouts, statistically for himself or occurrences on the rest of the field.
As for schmoozing with the umps, there is not a devious bone in Halladay’s body that would see him trying to gain an advantage by buttering up an umpire. What he is doing is asking about specific pitches that he may have thrown in that inning. “If he hadn’t swung at it was that a strike?” “Where was that pitch?” “Why did you call it a ball?” The exchanges between Halladay and umpires are always respectful and useful to his future pitches. The only person he visibly gets mad at is himself, although we are convinced that he suffers teammate gaffes not lightly. But he would never show any of them up and refuses to point fingers after a game in the manner of many lesser men.
Q: Love reading your mailbag! I read last week that President Bush was asked who the best position player and pitcher were in the MLB. He picked Halladay as his pitcher. Who would be your picks?
Frank S., Toronto
A" My picks are “Best President” Abe Lincoln. “Best V-P” Al Gore. Oh, you mean players in baseball? Best player…A-Rod. Best Pitcher…Josh Beckett.
Click here to send Richard a question, and he'll answer a selection in his mailbag Wednesdays in this space.