The dramatic arrival of Washington Nationals pitching phee-nom Stephen Strasburg on the baseball scene merely continues what looks like a resurgence of the game on the national sporting tableau. On a night when the Lakers and Celtics played Game 3 of the NBA Finals, the headline news was the home debut of the new Chosen One against the Pirates. Strasburg did not disappoint, with 14 Ks and under 100 pitches for seven innings reminiscent of the early impact and anticipation of Dwight Gooden and Kerry Wood when they arrived. Attendance around baseball may be down in many ballparks, but interest in the game, I believe, is up. It's clear that the game is slowly returning to its purest form of play before steroids took over the psyche of GMs and the direction of building a team. Five-tools as assets for position players have never been more important and changing speeds for pitchers is now more important than bulking up to add that last four miles-per-hour to a fastball. On to the Mailbag.
Q: Hi Richard,
Just wondering if there's hope for our bullpen. It seems no lead is safe once the starters run out of gas. Is there anything that can be done? What ever happened to Jesse Carlson? Has he peaked in the majors and moved on? Too bad. He seemed to have future. We sat in front of his family during his debut a couple of years ago. It was fun to witness anxious parents. Nice people.
Dave Huband, Toronto
A: Cito Gaston was asked on Tuesday night before the Rays game about the bullpen's recent struggles. The manager merely shrugged and said that the relievers that he normally counts on to preserve leads just don't do well against the Rays and the Yankees. He said that it's not going to change and you just have to hope when theyhit the ball hard that some nights it's going to be hit hard at one of his fielders.
Gaston has sometimes been accused of pulling statistics out of his ah- ... um, out of the air to suit his purposes, so we examined the career records of Kevin Gregg, Scott Downs, Jason Frasor and Shawn Camp against the two front-runners of the AL East – and Cito's right. Not going too deeply into the numbers, just using the stats that most fans are familiar and comfortable with, the Jays most important bullpen quartet – Gregg, Downs, Frasor, Camp -- vs. the Rays and Yankees has a career combined 9-21 record, with a 4.37 ERA, allowing 395 baserunners in 259.1 innings. Not good.
However the Jays' bullpen in the grand scheme of things is pretty solid and pretty deep over the course of 162 games. It's just that the closer's role has had first Frasor, then Gregg spit the bit at key moments. But, think about it this way. The goal of the Jays season was set in the off-season as a rebuilding one, thus, the signing of a top-flight Jays closer was not a priority, nor should it have been.
Down in the minors, lefty Jesse Carlson has only walked four batters in 24 innings, but has allowed 37 hits and hit three batters. It may be that he's being used beyond his lefty-specialist role which is reflected in 22 games 24 innings. You're right he is a good guy. Some righty named Jeremy Accardo is 6-for-7 in save opportunities.
Q: How do you explain Vernon Wells' turnaround this season? Late in the game on Saturday he had an at-bat where he laid off of a few pitches out of the zone drawing a walk. I thought about how many times I watched last year's Vernon strike out chasing one of those bad pitches. Is he simply healthy now, or has he changed something in his mechanics/approach?
Jeremy Johnson, New Westminster, B.C.
A: The thing I hate most about Vernon is his unwillingness to whine about his injuries. Hey, how can we write excuse columns full of pathos that tug at the heartstrings of courage when the guy you want to write about won't cooperate. In any case, it's clear after his home run to deep right centre field on the weekend that the injured wrist had been a large part of his problems hitting the ball hard and with consistency over the past couple of seasons. It's all one package. If your wrist is wonky, you can't drive the ball the other way, you can't check your swing, you take more good pitches because you know you can't check your swing, you become a defensive hitter on pitcher's pitches, you become the Vernon Wells of 2009. He's still not worth $23 million per year, but few are. He's playing well, enjoying himself and making a lot of money – which is the winning trifecta of pro sports.
Q: Toronto and the so-called fans have become a city of 'front runners' with respect to the "Guarantee we will win and I'll come out" type of attitude (other than the few who do attend). There is nothing wrong with the Rogers Centre. Other cities compete with TV networks and other sports etc. (i.e the Cubs) and still fill their stadiums. Stanley Cup games have no bearing on it. My question is simply: do you agree that Toronto has become a terrible 'baseball fan' city?
Brian Thrower, Mississauga
A: It's so much B.S. on both sides of the argument. It's like after the great baseball strike of '94. Those that didn't want to come out to the park used the excuse -- “I'm never coming back because players and owners are greedy and I'm done with baseball.” Then when the steroid era reared its ugly (oversized) head, those that didn't want to come out to the park said -- “I'm never coming back because players are cheaters and owners knew about it and condoned it and I'm done with baseball.” Now, after eight years of ego-driven leadership in the Jays' front office that produced zero playoff appearances, those that don't want to come to the ballpark use the excuse -- “I'm never coming back because the Jays are cheapskates and tickets are too expensive and they're rebuilding and I'm done with baseball.”
Meanwhile there is clearly a hardcore group of knowledgeable, loyal fans that make me believe that Toronto is still as much of a baseball town as it ever was. They do just need a winner to bring the fringy, trendy, well-dressed element back to the yard. The Jays' dilemma is like a restaurant that hires a world class chef to staff the kitchen in what was formerly a bad restaurant. You don't just open the doors with the new guy and expect people to flock in. You need word of mouth, then it snowballs into more people, then more word of mouth. When the restaurant becomes full and lively with the great food and ambiance, then even random people walking by and looking through the glass will be interested in trying. As Paul Beeston likes to point out, look at the Black Hawks in Chicago.
Q: Hi Richard,
What do you think about grooming Dustin McGowan for the closer's role when he returns for duty? Todd Clement, Timmins, Ont.
A: Don't like the idea. A top closer needs to be able to go hard on back-to-back and even back-to-back-to-back days. McGowan's shoulder issues would make it irresponsible for the Jays to try and convert him to short relief where he may be asked to pitch or warm up four times per week.
Q: Has the fact that "Mike Wilner has been benched" made you more cautious of the type of questions you may ask at the next post-game news conference that you attend with Cito Gaston? If not why not? Gary Bartlett, Dundas, Ont.
A: No. There was confusion between the principle and the particular when the firestorm went down with Wilner on the weekend. It could have been anyone. The principle was that the BBWAA was defending the freedom of the press to ask serious, responsible, tough questions without the threat of being censured. There have been other more serious dustups between managers and writers than occurred last Wednesday. There has never been a moment that I can recall a writer thinking caution first when asking a question. There have been some stupid questions, but that's a different issue.
Q: Hi Richard,
Two questions about dugouts. Around the majors there are several ballparks with barriers along the top step of the dugout (Yankee Stadium, for example). I imagine this is probably to prevent line-drive fouls from screaming into the dugout at head height. A secondary effect I find is that players seem to be much more visible, hanging out along the railing. Is there a reason that Rogers Centre doesn't have a similar barrier for the dugouts? Obviously safety is concern but it would be great to see our impressive young Jays having fun, rather than invisible in the shadows of the Rogers Centre dugout. The second question: are there any dugouts around the majors that players really love or hate? Or is dugout design a point of indifference?
Matt Marshall, Toronto
A: The most hated dugout for a visiting team has to be in Phoenix where the Jays played an inter-league series in May. The benches are straight backed and so high off the ground that everyone looks like play-by-play man Jerry Howarth, feet dangling back and forth and not able to touch the ground when seated. In addition, the extra benches next to the railing are set up so that anyone of normal baseball height has his view blocked by the padding at eye-level. Next, the dugouts at Comerica Park are so wide back to front and long home-to-first that you could stage a ball hockey game with the game going on. The dugout at Fenway Park on the third base line is so low and the field so crowned that where the manager sits you don't know what happens on a ball in the dirt at first or down near Pesky pole.
As for the Rogers Centre, it's not dug very deep with just two small steps to hop up onto the field. That makes it different than most. I remember a couple of years ago they experimented with putting screens and fences up even bringing coaches and players into the dugout and trying to set up at various heights. They were never installed largely because of vision issues. These guys are supposed to be paying attention and they are nimble enough to scatter when a foul ball is ripped in among them. There are Jays players that sit slouched at the third base end that are always visible. Enjoy them.
Q: Hi, Richard.
Interested in your/the Jays' organization's thoughts on a couple of Canadians in the system. Trystan Magnuson who is 6'7" has gone 10 games without giving up a run in New Hampshire. 14 innings/3walks/13Ks in that time. Adam Loewen also with the Fisher Cats is hitting .344 in same time frame. Doesn't appear to have much power or speed (no HR's and 1 steal in last 10). Either of these guys moving up a level any time soon? What are their prospects for the Bigs.
Phil Winch, Sarnia, Ont.
A: Magnuson stands out not just for his pitching, but also at spring training whenever we visited minor league camp for a rehab start or something else, Magnuson would be wandering around with his big shock of long hair, a full head taller than anyone else looking like Big Bird in black. After making 24 starts for Lansing in his first year, he's being groomed for a closer or setup role. He is pretty much a two-seam fastball and slider guy that can reach 93 m.p.h. with good deception all arms and legs. As for Loewen, he was a pitcher and hitter before he was drafted by the O's as a pitcher. It's taken him a while to get his stroke back after giving up pitching, but the Jays say they will be patient.
Q: When a pitcher is ejected AFTER being removed from the game, i.e. Gregg on Tuesday, are there any real consequences for the ejection?
Rick Prashaw, Kanata, Ont.
A: The fine is the same, the ejection goes on his record if there is ever further discipline needed from the Commissioner's Office as a chronic troublemaker and umpires take note and the info is always in the back of the minds of the men in blue. Ejections are never a good thing, although I as a coach and manager of young men in Oakville over the past 13 seasons have been ejected and/or suspended five times – always a misunderstanding and never for swearing. I sometimes don't condone myself.
Q: Hi, Richard . . . Long time reader and follower. Curious question and excuse if you had responded to this already but didn't notice in the archives . . . Regarding Brad Arnsberg, former pitching coach for the Toronto Blue Jays during the Riccardi era, will we ever have an answer to why the rash of injuries to pitchers were so rampant during his tenure? Injuries are inevitable, but it appeared that for Toronto, within the pitching corps, the injuries were not only frequent but routinely more serious than the average or standard. The Blue Jays must have been close to the record of most pitchers sent for Tommy John surgery within a 3-year period and the number of pitchers who still remain questionable for this year (i.e. Litsch, McGowan, Richmond) is puzzling. While it is still early in the 2010 season, at least for now, it seems things have calm down with Bruce Walton at the helm and the few injuries we have seen are more of the "pulled muscle/tendon" type. Was there really(!) a connection to Arnsberg and his approach which led to these injuries or should we chalk it up to uncanny bad luck? It just seems so suspect.
Martin Keogh, Toronto
A: One thing to consider with Arnsberg is that during his five years as pitching coach, the Jays were always willing to take chances on fragile, previously damaged pitchers that came at a bargain price because they were already nicked up. Plus, while new pitching coach Bruce Walton's emphasis is on the changeup which offers less chance of damaging a shoulder or elbow, Arnsberg was a power-pitching fan stemming from his early '00s days with the Marlins when he had Josh Beckett, A.J. Burnett, Matt Clement, Brad Penny and others. The cut fastball/slider combination is tougher on the body's joints. That being said, I'm not even sure that the Jays' record of injuries is any higher than many other organizations. I believe that in the past 20 years, teams are more cautious with arms and shoulder, willing to put guys on the DL for 15 days rather than risk long-term loss especially if they have a long-term contract attached to an arm. One final point, the pitching surgeries have become so effective due to improved techniques and methods that instead of being a last option, sometimes corrective surgery is an early option. It's like pointing out breast enhancement surgeries for women have doubled in the past 20 years. Does that mean that natural breasts aren't what they used to be? Hmm, I think not.
A friend of mine (Reg Lewicki) emailed me with a statistical anomaly today. In 1986, Tony Fernandez played in 163 games, which is a franchise record. What is odd is that the Jays finished the season with a record of 86-76 (162 games). The 163rd game seems to come from a postponed contest on August 26 vs. the Indians that was halted after 9 innings with the scored tied 6-6. Instead of picking up the game where it left off the next day (like the Twins and Yanks did last week), the teams appear to have played a DH, replaying the game in full. However, the stats from the postponed game seem to count, including games played? How is it possible for Fernandez to have played in a game that his team didn't actually play in? Any thoughts?
Jess Bechard, London, Ont.
A: There is a difference between a “game played” and a game that ends in a decision. The rule for most of the history of major-league baseball was that if a game had reached five-plus full innings and was tied and it rained or was unable to continue that the game was a tie, the statistics counted and the game was replayed in its entirety. If one team was ahead then it was over and resulted in a decision. The rule was changed I believe some time in the late '80s so that a tied game after 5-plus innings is picked up at that point and continued prior to the next meeting at the same venue. Thus 163 games was common.