Things haven’t completely fallen apart yet for the Jays, but you can see the edge of the cliff from here. They are in the midst of the most important two weeks of their season, with 14 games against the AL East, a division that is some 39 games above .500 as a five-team entity. The Jays are closer to the Orioles in last place than they are to the Red Sox in first.
When Roy Halladay loses a start, it’s an open invitation to a losing streak. When he wins a start, it gives the team hope they can win three of the next five. That’s an impossible balance if you want to be a contender. Brad Mills and Casey Janssen had their chances. Brett Cecil earned his recall with a 1-5 record and a 5.69 ERA at Triple-A. Scott Richmond has been responsible for more bombs than Kim-Jong Il. Brian Tallet has delivered more mea culpas than a South Carolina politician and in one of the letters below, a reader compares Ricky Romero to hip-hop icon LL Cool J. If the Yankees want to challenge the Jays to “battle-rap” instead of “ball-game”, they’re down with it. By the all-star break, if the Jays are still above .500, they won’t be sellers at the deadline. On to the mail bag:
Q: As I understand it - the Jays owed a large part of their early success to aggressive swinging early in the pitch count. I don't see that happening as much any more. I attended the first game against Tampa. I saw Niemann throw a first pitch strike again, and again, and again. Why have they stopped swinging at that first pitch? It's like Niemann knew they wouldn't - so he just kept floating in first pitch strikes all night. It's not just this particular game - it's every game now. Why can't the Jays clue-in on this and correlate it with their fortunes having gone south since they ceased being as aggressive early in the pitch count? (How do I get this message to the Jays? I don't see how one would communicate with them.)
A: The biggest part of being aggressive on first-pitch hitting is guessing what pitch is coming and zeroing in on location. If you can guess right and it’s in your zone, then let ’er rip. Earlier in the season when this early-in-the-count slashing was a new Jays’ philosophy, the aggressive hitting worked better because most teams and pitchers were caught slightly off guard. But the preponderance of video scouting has been amazing over the past few years. You can walk through any major-league clubhouse before a game and there is every TV set showing silent video of this game’s opposing starter edited down to show just pitches and swings.
What I’m saying is that opposing teams have caught on. Now it’s a matter of Jays’ hitters adjusting to the adjustments. You can’t just insist that your hitters swing at first pitches, because if it’s not what they’re looking for and in a location they’re looking for, they won’t hit it hard. The cycle of baseball adjustments continues.
Q: "Pretty tough to ask a guy who has already hit two homers to bunt," Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston told reporters. He was referring to Aaron Hill in the bottom of the ninth Sunday. Then with one out he puts on the steal. Go figure. I've never been a big fan of Gaston even when they were winning the World Series. I thought it had more to do with the talent they had. It seems like the players like to play for him and maybe that's all a manager needs to do. Or maybe not. Comments?
Phoenix Rhys, Ottawa
A: Here’s what Aaron had to say about that botched inning this week:
“We’ve run across a couple of situations now where in the back of my head I’ve thought maybe I know I should be bunting or get the guy over. (Cito) comes to me every day and says, ‘Look, swing it. We don’t want you to do that.’ Obviously in certain situations, I look back on the other day and I should have done it myself. They said swing it. I swung the bat (and homered) the first couple of ABs. It’s kind of tough to lay down a bunt there. I know I should have done it myself. Those are situations - I know they’re not going to come up very often - in a big game like that to move the runner.”
As for the steal of third that resulted in a Brad Lidge pickoff, I’m not sure even with Gaston covering for his player, McDonald, that Gaston called for the steal. It’s the same thing he did with Rios on the last homestand, caught stealing third as the tying run in the ninth for the first out of the inning. Sometimes a great notion. At that time, Gaston said, “I can always give him the don’t steal sign.” Sometimes you just rely on the good judgment of your adult baseball players.
As for Gaston’s major asset as a manager, yes, it’s the fact that his players want to play for him and he sticks with them. That’s very important even if in-game strategy is not at the same level. In fact it’s more important.
Q: What have you guys been feeding Rolen? Is it just he is healthy for a change or has he made an adjustment? He was always one of our favorite players here in Philadelphia (but that puts us in a distinct minority).
Larry Stelmach, Doylestown, Pa
A: Rolen is healthier in mind than in body. His left shoulder stiffness will stay with him for the rest of his career, but he has learned in the last 12 months to adjust his swing and still be able to drive the ball hard. He will never be a 25-homer guy with his forced swing changes, but he can still hit 30 doubles and hit for a decent average.
In addition he is the best defensive third baseman in Jays’ history and one of the best in major-league history. Rolen got a bad rap as a bad clubhouse presence both in Philadelphia and St. Louis. He fits in well in Toronto and is an inspiration to younger players with his work ethic and game preparation. Serious about his profession, he said Kevin Millar has made him smile twice on the field this year, a new personal record.
Q: Richard I have a question. Why is no one mentioning that Vernon Wells has been a habitually slow starter. All thru his career it’s been the norm. I'm wondering if you agree, it would seem that lately Vernon has turned it up a bit, and hopefully has started his road to .280, 30 hrs, 100 Rbi's.
Bruce Caldwell, Chatham, Ont.
A: People do indeed mention that Wells is a habitually slow starter – especially Vernon.
However, when does a slow start finish? It’s already July and even though he did start swinging the bat more effectively at the very end of the last homestand, heading into Philly, the games that have already been played and the games that have already been lost count in the standings just as much as games after the all-star break. I have always wondered why guys that recognize they are slow starters don’t try something different at spring training like playing in more games, making more road trips and staying in games for more at-bats. Instead, it’s Jays’ road trips to Fort Myers with guys like Jason Lane, Aaron Mathews and Sean Shoffitt playing the majority of outfield innings.
Q: Hi Richard,
Do you think there's any chance the Jays will outright release B.J. Ryan either this season or next? Assuming some pitchers get back from the DL, it doesn't seem like there's much room for Ryan, even in middle relief.
Mike A, Toronto
A: The Jays would accept an offer for Ryan right now that involved taking next year’s $10 million guaranteed salary off their hands. They would even pay the rest of this year themselves. However that’s not likely to happen because contenders at the trade deadline or down the stretch are looking for starters, impact hitters and solid middle relievers. Ryan is none of those.
But the question coming from the Jays is: “Why release him now?” They owe him the money next year anyway. If he is released, the next team just has to pay him the $400,000 major-league minimum, which comes off the money the Jays owe him. Instead, what they will likely do is hold onto B.J. if nobody takes him and try and deal him in the off-season. They can even afford to bring him to spring training next season, but even if they can’t move him by the end of the spring, I would be very surprised if he is on the 2010 Opening Day roster.
Q: Richard - Ricky Romero has been a pleasure to see come through so far this year. While his competitive instincts and "look of a leader" remind me of Jack Morris, my girlfriend astutely noted that he actually looks like LL Cool J. The nickname LL Blue Jay seems appropriate for this (hopefully) long time Jay. Thoughts?
Andrew Ponsford, Vancouver
A: Here is a line from LL Cool J that wasn’t actually written to describe the act of pitching (ahem) but it somehow seems appropriate for Ricky Romero as LL Blue Jay…
“I’m in the mix now, searching for the right spot
To hit now, get down.”
LL Cool J, “Doin’ It
Q: What's your take on the way the Jays are treating John McDonald (am I the only person who thinks he's being treated despicably?) and now that Russ Adams is on the team and is a shortstop, do you see a trade in McDonald's future?
Eleanor Pakozdi, Port Colborne, Ont.
A: McDonald has admitted that he would like to play more, but at the same time he has talked in awe about the way Marco Scutaro has been playing on both sides of the ball.
McDonald understands that he is caught at the moment between a rock (Scutaro) and a hard place (Aaron Hill). McDonald respects the team concept and is being paid nicely for his limited role. The 34-year-old had a nice chat with his friend and mentor Omar Vizquel who is filling the same role in Texas while teaching young Elvis Andrus the major-league ropes. Johnny Mac’s future as a reserve middle infielder is secure as long as he wants to play. But beyond this season, it will not be with the Jays. McDonald knows that he is an insurance policy and that if Scutaro goes down for a week, he had better be ready to hit and contribute. In the meantime he prepares hard and sits.
Q: I seem to remember Brad Arnsberg being quoted earlier this year saying that Brandon League's stuff could be unhittable. Yet, he seems to be very hittable right now. Can you offer any explanations?
Kirk Mykytyn, Columbus, OH
A: Brandon League’s stuff is unhittable as long as he gets ahead in the count and locates his pitches with good command of the strike zone. If he falls behind 2-0 and they know a fastball is coming, he’s hittable. If Rod Barajas sets up on the outside corner and League comes up and middle if the plate, he’s hittable. His un-hittable-ness is day-to-day.
Q: Hi Richard,
Just read your "5 reasons why Jays won't make the playoffs" article and when I got to #5, I noticed that there was no mention of Travis Snider (aka a top prospect pushing for a job)...I admit I haven't exactly been following Triple A ball, and I know that he hurt his back at some point, but has his stock really fallen that quickly to the point he is no longer an "elite" prospect? He was the starting LF no more than two months ago...what happened!
Nicholas Hung, Hong Kong
A: Snider is still an elite prospect, but not ready to make the difference for the ’09 team. He was sent back to AAA-Vegas in May and played in eight games before suffering a back injury. He had eight hits and a double in those games, but before he returns to the majors he has to learn to cover more of the plate. His current swing has more holes than Myrtle Beach.
As a pro he has averaged almost 190 strikeouts per 600 at-bats. Once he does that, with the raw power that saw him crush two balls into the upper deck at the Metrodome in the same game in April, he’ll be back. But he’s not knocking at the door.
Q: Hi Richard:
I have come from a baseball loving family for years, I am a senior now and I can remember my parents listening to the World Series on the radio and would shhhhh us when we would come home from school so they could hear the game. It was cute now that I think of it. I love the game as well into my old age can you tell me what it means when Jamie Campbell saying double play 4-6-3 or 4-5-3 I just don’t understand this can you enlighten me. Read your blog every Wednesday keep up the good work.
Shirley Kuzyk, Mississauga
A: There’s a lot of things that people don’t understand that Jamie Campbell says, but I think I can help you with this one. Baseball is a game of statistics, so every game since the late 19th century has been scored using a peculiar baseball code. When an out is made, anyone that touches the ball on the way to the putout is given credit by using a single-digit number that corresponds to his position.
1-Pitcher; 2-catcher; 3-first baseman; 4-second baseman; 5-third baseman; 6-shortstop; 7-left fielder; 8-centre fielder; 9-right fielder. Since the DH is not a defensive position, there is no corresponding number. So when Jamie says that double play goes 6-4-3, it means shortstop to second baseman to first baseman. That way looking back years from now, you can effortlessly re-create an entire game.
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