Wednesday, June 29, 2011


I don't remember Cal Ripken as a very good player. I just don't. The first time I can recall hearing about him I was nine years old and he was about to set the record for most consecutive games played in the major leagues.

"Cool," I said. "But he's only hitting .260."

I watched Ripken hang on with bad Orioles teams for the next six years, and listened as announcers and managers fought over who could pay him the better compliment, all while watching wondrously as mediocre Blue Jays pitcher after mediocre Blue Jay pitcher consistently got him to roll over and hit weak grounders. He was a light-hitting third baseman with mediocre range in a high-offense era - a role player on a bad team. And he was treated like a superstar. By the time he got selected to yet another All-Star team in 2001 (his 18th straight) I wanted to scream out to anyone that would listen: HE SUCKS! In the heart of the steroid era, a .637 OPS from a third baseman was light years away from All-Star-worthy, and when he retired the next year I think I was more relieved that I would get to stop hearing about him than I was worried that the Orioles would actually find a good player to replace him.

In 2001 he really and truly did suck, but the truth of it was that he hadn't been much of a player since 1991, when I was a 5-year-old learning how to speak pidgin-English in southeast Asia. I missed the good Ripken and spent most of my life enduring the bad - I can only imagine how it must have felt for Oriole fans of the same vintage.

Corey Patterson was a slightly different story. Shortly after Ripken retired, I joined a baseball message board at the ripe old age of fifteen. The board had its share of Cubs fans, and Corey Patterson had been ranked the second best prospect in baseball (behind Josh Hamilton) by Baseball America in 2001. There was a lot - a LOT - of talk about 30-30 seasons, and the general consensus was that the Cubs had found a center fielder for the next decade. However, since the Cubs were in the NL Central, I never got to see Patterson - I only got to read over the next five years as the Cubs fans griped about his strikeout tendencies, got a little frothy-mouthed at his promising 2003 half-season, before settling into a bitter and uncomfortable acceptance of the fact that Corey Patterson was not the player he had been advertised as. By the time he made his way to the AL East in 2006, I was eager to see what all the fuss had been about. And much like that other famous, shitty Oriole, I saw a vulnerable hitter and mediocre fielder, a player remarkable only in his unremarkable-ness.

In the ensuing years, I never really lost track of Corey. His "bust" status and notoriously poor eye led to an online meme, and even though my message board buddies had long since moved on, Corey was still around.

I never thought the Blue Jays would sign Corey Patterson. He was a player (like Doug Davis, who was also legendary on that message board, and - ironically - Gregg Zaun, among others, had been before) who was so etched in my mind as a journeyman role player for non-Blue Jay teams that I thought he would never make his way to Toronto. It's hard to explain, but I suppose my assumption was that if the guy had played for five different teams, the Jays had had plenty of chances to acquire him already and deferred.
Through the bulk of the first half, Corey is putting up a Corey-like line: .263/.296/.403. He's within 3 percentage points of his career OPS and has accompanied that with terrible defense. He's been exactly the player he was advertised as coming into the season - a little power, a little speed, and not much else.

But that said, I like having Corey Patterson on this team. In his proper role - much as I think the Orioles could have benefitted from using Ripken in his proper role through the late nineties - he's a valuable bench player. He can start in center field while a player like Travis Snider is getting his reps in at the position and a player like Rajai Davis is OPSing .400 over the course of an extended slump. He can sit on the bench and pinch-run for Jose Molina or Juan Rivera in late and close situations. He can occupy a roster spot for a (major league) pittance and be easily disposed of when no longer necessary. He can be called on to bunt - either in the rare circumstances when a sacrifice is in order or, more often, for a hit against a tough pitcher.

Just don't hit him leadoff. OR SECOND!

Monday, June 27, 2011

Holdin' it Down

Before the season started, I set the over/under on Jo-Jo Reyes' time with the Blue Jays in 2011 at one month. And by the end of April, my prediction wasn't looking so bad: winless, with an ERA close to 6 and a WHIP close to 2, his spot on the roster seemed tenuous at best. But partly due to a (debatable) lack of better options and partly out of stubbornness, the Jays stuck it out, and to outward appearances he's rewarded them. He's broken out of a "the streak," and managed to get his season ERA down to a pedestrian 4.34. But don't be fooled: Jo-Jo Reyes is not a good pitcher. There's no harm in leaving him in the rotation to absorb innings while the Jays audition and summarily rotate the likes of Zach Stewart, Kyle Drabek and Brett Cecil, but the fact that he has stayed in the rotation while those guys have yoyoed has a little to do with performance, a lot to do with options, and more to do with upside. Reyes is a little like a younger Brett Tomko...a guy who managed to get 30 starts for four years in a row not because of any illusions that he was any good (a single above-average season over the course of a decade would indicate that), but just because he was, well, there. Tomko was one of those creatures that upbeat play-by-play guys (I'm looking at you, Pat Tabler) call "innings-eaters."

Jo-Jo Reyes has thrown 85 innings in 15 starts, so he can't even say he's really that. In those 85 innings, he's allowed 130 baserunners, which is not good. He's struck out 54, which is right in line with his career number but is hardly earth-shattering. His FIP and xFIP are eerily close to his actual ERA - overall, he's doing exactly what we should have expected of him, and that's not much at all.

Which isn't to say, exactly, that I think the Jays - in the position that they are - should release him. The rotation currently hinges on one ace, a converted reliever and two unpredictable "stuff"y young pitchers. Brad Mills has put up numbers in Vegas which suggest a look is in order, but options do matter and supposing Mills were to get clobbered as he was in two awful starts in 2009, you'd like to have insurance behind him that wasn't named Scott Richmond. Brett Cecil will get another shot in time, but his minor league numbers don't inspire confidence that that shot will necessarily go well. There's pitching depth on this team, but it's all over the place developmentally. And another injury will happen (although an optimist could hold out hope that it may hold off until Dustin McGowan has finished his miracle recovery). Anyway, the point is the urge to retain arms is not a ill-founded one.
But I think we can acknowledge that, even at age 26, Jo-Jo Reyes is not a part of this team's future.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Lineup Reparations (Or: Eric Thames is Adam Lind)

(Full disclosure: this post was conceived as an "Eric Thames should be called up" post. Now that he's been called up, I suppose I'll have to settle for "Why is Eric Thames here?")
The Blue Jays' offense in June has been anemic. Since scoring 17 runs in 2 games against the Royals, which says far more about the latter's pitching staff than anything else, the Jays have scored 35 runs in 14 games, or 2.5 runs/game. Which is...let's just go with awful. To put that in perspective, if the Jays scored two and a half runs per game over an entire season, they'd end up with barely 400 runs scored. (The 2010 Mariners scored 513 runs over an entire season, which says a lot about just how pathetic that team was).

As the offense sputtered through Cincinnati and Atlanta, the cries went up. Snider, Thames, Cooper! Lawrie! Anyone! We need offense! And I must admit, I was among the masses. I wanted to see the kids come up and gag on those inflated PCL balloons being shoved down their throats by coy, nasty major league veterans like Tim Hudson and hotshot rookies with ungodly breaking stuff like Brandon Beachy. There were a few reasons for this, but none of them really had much to do with upgrading the offensive production of the 2011 Blue Jays.

Rajai Davis is a better center fielder than Corey Patterson, but with a wOBA of .277 he makes for a great pinch-runner. Benching Davis to push Patterson to center and open up a lineup spot wouldn't thrill the pitchers short-term, but I think the value of letting Eric Thames (er...Travis Snider/Adam Loewen) flail at sliders in the dirt instead of Rajai Davis outweighs that relatively minor tradeoff on a franchise level.

AA's interest in Davis was entirely reasonable, if belated. Throughout his minor league career, he was a stolen base machine with a great on-base percentage who never really got a chance to crack the major league roster. Snapping up high-OBP guys trapped in other teams' system is the (well-documented, you think?) formula that Billy Beane built an empire on, and Beane acquired Davis in time to give him 500 PAs in his peak, age-28 season. And when Davis responded with a .360 OBP and 40 steals at a 77% success rate, he was pretty much the new Scott Hatteberg.

However, as Beane has done throughout his reign, he moved the player once he realized that he had maximized that player's potential. Think back: Koch, Foulke, Thomas, Davis. How many players have departed Oakland and never again had a season as good as their best with the A's? At age 29, he saw Davis put up a .697 OPS and realized that there were flaws in the player that would only be exploited as major league pitching caught up to him. In Patterson's case, the flaw is high fastballs; in Davis's, it's breaking balls at the knees and two feet outside.

In the case of slap-hitting speedsters moving out of their prime, the adjustment is generally negative. But adjustments can go the other way, as well; a young player who had been exploited can develop into a plus major league hitter as he enters his prime. The most obvious example on the current Jays' roster is Adam Lind. Exposed to certain weaknesses over two half-seasons between 2007-8, he exploded in 2009 and appears to be picking up off of that after last year's disappointment. His career major league wOBA progression has gone as follows:


Can you spot the outlier? From ages 23 to 27 he's improved in every season except for last year's hiccup, and will only be entering that all-important age-28 season in 2012. (For reference, in addition to Rajai Davis's career year, age 28 is also the year in which Aaron Hill and Ed Sprague had their 36-homer outliers. It a good age to be a big league hitter.)

When Lind first came up he was a little younger than Eric Thames is now - and, after raking in the minors, he struggled. He OBPed under .300 after never hitting under .299 in the minors. Major league pitchers found the holes in a 23-year-old's swing and never gave him a pitch to hit, and he put up numbers that would have been terrible for a shortstop, nevermind a DH.

But he came back the next year and hit a little bit better. The power still wasn't what it should have been, but he managed to hit some singles. Then came 2009, when he put up a major league line which would have fit in gorgeously with any of his minor league ones.

When Eric Thames first came up for a cup of coffee, the numbers weren't bad in a tiny sample size, but those that actually watched him knew that he wasn't a polished hitter. The swing was pretty, but against good major league stuff he looked as overmatched as any rookie should. In other words, he's not Jason Heyward, and we should expect some tribulations over the rest of the season if he remains with the club. Maybe it won't quite be as bad as watching Rajai Davis flail at outside pitches all day long, but it won't be pretty.

But it's going to happen eventually. And why not get that part over with now?

Because, at the end of the day, I think Eric Thames can become every inch the hitter that Adam Lind is. Their minor league slahlines are almost identical:

Lind: .320/.382/.512
Thames: .308/385/.535

To be fair, there are differences. Lind started younger, so he got more at bats in the minors. He was a year younger than Thames when he put up his .900 OPS at AA New Hampshire - although, given that he had spent an extra year at Dunedin, maybe that age gap doesn't mean the world. And, of course, Thames' AAA line has to be adjusted for PCL inflation.

But, regardless, they profile as very similar players. And as long as it's clear that Thames has nothing more to prove against AAA pitching, we might as well get his .291 wOBA learning curve out of the way in a meaningless developmental year - i.e. when he's only taking at-bats away from the likes of Davis rather than the Sniders and Lawries of the world.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011


I've had a rather busy week. Aside from travelling halfway across the country by rail and eventually receiving a piece of paper with a little too much fanfare to acknowledge that, along with millions of other Canadians, I now have a bachelor's degree, I also made a stop in Vancouver which just happened to fall on Riot Wednesday.

I didn't participate in the riots, nor did I stick around to watch them, much as I would have liked to. I got my fix of police-citizen conflict last June in Toronto when there was actually something to fight for, and given that I was on vacation with my parents, there was no reason to take to the streets. I am spiritually anarchist, so on some subconscious level it was thrilling to see drab Canadians take their lives into their own hands and to see police emasculated. But hanging over it all was the knowledge that there was nothing political about this action, no unity to the the end, it was just a few shitheads who came to crash a huge party, and then a bunch of drunks having a truly epic bar-fight. Did breaking the doors of The Bay do anything, in the war against corporation? No. But that wasn't really the point.

Mobs appeal to something carnal inside us. A collection of like-minded people has more strength in its convictions than any one person can, and falling into a crowd can be utterly exhilerating in moments of pure anger and joy. Historically, it's this realization that created labour reform and political revolution, but the closest we can often come in modern Western society is sport (or perhaps music). It is one of the most gratifying feelings in the world to rise as one at a sporting event where something incredible has happened.

One of the most exciting baseball moments I've experienced was Aaron Hill's walkoff walk on June 5, 2007 against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Walkoffs are always exciting, of course, but this wasn't just your typical walkoff. There was expectancy in the air, in the way the inning had progressed. The Jays had scored five runs in the ninth and everyone - everyone - in the stadium was on their feet waiting to see if the sixth would cross. And when Aaron Hill took that fourth ball, that place erupted.

I didn't participate in the riots on Wednesday in Vancouver, but I was part of the mob (at least early on, while the game was still in progress). And what I was down there for, searching for, almost, was that carnal roar. We didn't get a single goal in the three hours I spent at Georgia and Richards; all we got was, early on, a camera angle that appeared to take Tim Thomas back into his own net. The mob cheered, spurred on by each other, but the arms went down as soon as the score flashed back up on the screen. No goal, no joy, no victory.

I'm not a hockey fan. Anyone who knows me knows that to accuse me of being a hockey fan undermines everything about me, that I've spent most of my life railing against the hours TSN devotes to minor league hockey instead of major league baseball, that I haven't played hockey since I was a prepubescent with a mini-stick and a tennis ball, that I absolutely hate the way that hockey must be intertwined with national identity in this country, leading many acquaintances to call me, in half-jest, an expatriot American. I grew up in Ottawa, young enough that while I didn't care about the Sens, I didn't despise them either, but when I moved to Toronto I adopted an irrational distaste for the Leafs. For being terrible and yet still being front-page news, for putting their stadium right next to the Rogers Centre...just for existing, really. And when I moved to the West Coast, I was entirely ambivalent towards the Vancouver Canucks.

I've also, as a hardcore baseball fan, always resented the casual fan. I found it incredibly frustrating to go to a game with someone who had only a casual understanding of baseball, the kind of person who gets really confused by a sacrifice fly or can't understand the concept of a strikeout. Every second I spent explaining the game was a second I wasn't watching the game, and these people had not invested nearly so much into my team as I had, so why should I care about explaining the game to them?

So suffice it to say I was hesitant about becoming a Canucks fan this year. And I'm not, really. I watched one or two playoff games last year, and then skipped the entire regular season except for the occasional check of the standings. And I noticed early on that this year's team was really, really good, at least if points were any indication. Towards the playoffs, I started to ask my hippie friend, resident hockey fan, about the season.

When the playoffs started, I kept track of the Blackhawks series, figuring it was over after two games then checking back in in the second period of Game 7, watching my friend live and die in the moments before Burrows buried the OT winner. The Preds and Sharks series each went by fast, with the odd radio snippet catching my ears when someone brought a radio to work or picked me up in their car. "The Finals," I said. "I'll be a fan if they make it to the Cup Finals."

And they did. And I followed a little more closely. Eager for updates from coworkers. Watching the games, if not instead of Jays games, at the very least simultaneously. The Canucks took a strangelehold. Then blew it, spectacularly. Then lived to fight another day. Then, on Monday night at the airport, I listened to the guttural sounds emerging from the bar as Luongo relinquished one, then two, then three, first-period goals and the specter of Game Seven came into focus.

If I was ever going to be a hockey fan, it was now. How often can you say that your local team is in Game Seven of the final in their respective sport? The Blue Jays have been around for thirty-four years and never seen a World Series Game Seven. The Texas Rangers have been around since 1961, and they've never seen one. The Maple Leafs, that team that I came of age hating so much, hasn't had a Cup Final Game Seven since 1964, when my father was in grade school.

So here I was, in Vancouver for Game Seven, a conflicted hockey fan with the opportunity of a lifetime. I joined the mob, the mob went wild, and we all went home.

And you know, if you tell me you're a casual Blue Jays fan next time I see you, maybe now I won't rip your head off.

Everyone move to Canada, smoke lots of *beep*, everybody move to Canada right now.

Monday, June 13, 2011


I haven't had nearly as  much occasion to listen to baseball on the radio since 2007 as I did over the previous decade for a multitude of reasons, not the least of which being that none of the radio stations in this here hinterland carry Blue Jays games. Increasing availability of television and internet feeds have something to do with it as well, of course, but at the end of the day, ridiculous blackout restrictions have cost me the Jerry Howarth of my childhood.
The upshot of it all is that I haven't heard as much Alan Ashby as I'd like. Which is a shame, because I like Alan Ashby quite a bit. Part of Ashby's appeal has something to do with what one might call the "Rance Mulliniks effect"; while it's much easier to picture Rance's bespectacled countenance giving up his lunch money than taking someone else's, I imagine that if old Alan ever took advantage of anyone it was through cold, impervious logic rather than force. Players like Josh Hamilton, Bryce Harper and Brett Lawrie are baseball players, but you get the sense they only play baseball in particular because it happens to be the athletic endeavor that best suits their superhuman skill set. Old-timey backup catchers, platoon infielders and middle relievers, on the other hand, often project an everyman effect. But while a guy like Rance can stimulate social awkwardness quite well, what pushes Ashby a level above is his shrewd sense of self-awareness.

Ashby has a penchant for deadpan irony which escapes his boothmate, be it Howarth or Buck Martinez. Despite the constant interjections about all the guys he's played with, he's the antithesis of the mirror-gazing Rob Dibble type who filters his "analysis" through his personal memories. You get the sense that he truly is analyzing the game, taking stock of the situation and picking bones with a given manager's whatever - defensive alignment, hit-and-run strategy, lineup selection.

I like to draw analogies between baseball and billiards, and Ashby is every inch the pool player who plays the lie of the table rather than the ball he's shooting. Like every other ex-catcher, he rags on Jose Molina's lazy picks, but he'll also complain about outfielders who take bad routes or, as in Saturday's blowout, a baserunner who doesn't take an open base in a blowout. But to reduce it to on-the-field shenanigans doesn't do it justice - I just get the sense that Ashby is always the smartest guy in the room. The pool player who loses two three-dollar games in order to win one $100 game, the poker player who saves a million in career earnings rather than burning through billions. I'm not saying he's hustling his co-hosts, exactly...but by dancing circles around them psychologically, he renders their trite cliches all the more redundant.
Which is why I got a kick out of a certain exchange that went down late in Sunday afternoon's blowout. The Sportsnet camera wandered into the idle Red Sox bullpen, and Ashby made a throwaway comment about crossing paths with the Red Sox bullpen coach at some point or another.

"Was that back in your coaching days?" Tabler said.

"No!" Ashby almost screamed. His furious indignation as he defended himself for the next five minutes reminded me of a 35-year-old woman who'd just been offered the senior's discount at a movie theatre. Tabler reacted with a kind of calm bewilderment, which only served to antagonize Ashby further. Was Tabler playing Ashby's game right back at him, subtle revenge for all the times Ashby had inadvertently made him sound foolish over the weekend? Maybe Ashby had overstepped his bounds, so used to rolling over the cheerful Jerry Howarth that he forgot that some people took offense to that sort of thing. Or maybe Tabby had just said something unthinkingly...because, God knows, he's more than capable of that.

Either way, it was an entertaining moment - the kind of psychological insight that doesn't often carry through a baseball broadcast.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

That New Website

So Grantland came into being this week, with a staff roster and layout to stick it to either of the baseball Rogers (Angell or Kahn).

And after three months of anticipation, the launch felt underwhelming, to say the least.

Aside from the whole not-being-an-urban-hipster factor, I'm pretty much the perfect target audience for Grantland. I'm the kind of internet-addicted sports fan who also reads actual ink-and-paper books - novels even! (If, admittedly, not nearly so much as I should.) I'm a young, glib, cynical, fresh-faced university graduate, and I like to support my opinions with acerbic writing and rhetoric rather than facts and shit. I don't care much for pop culture - maybe not even "culture" itself, so much, as an entity - but I do allow many of the unique strands of art that I have been exposed to to infest my own life. I'm a sponge, equal parts Freaks-and-Geeks era Martin Starr and Fast Eddie Felson, equal parts juggalo wannabe and lover of Irish folkpunk, reader of Sartre and lover of History channel's epic Pawn Stars. I'm not sure whether it comes out of insecurity or an actual interest in well-roundedness as an individual - probably some measure of both - but my point is that if anyone is, I should be buying what Grantland is selling.

Some people don't like Bill Simmons, but I don't care about that. To me, going in, he's nobody, some ex-columnist. I never read his articles on ESPN and as long he writes almost exclusively about basketball and hockey, I probably won't read too many of these ones either. The ones I do will be judged on their own merits (although he didn't buy himself a whole lot of goodwill by getting a name wrong in his very first one). Molly Lambert, on the other hand, once wrote a mind-blowing post analogizing writing with money and the whole thing with telephone wires, the kind of spacey random-tangent type of thing that should never work but that once, for me, absolutely did. That post clicked with me and made me think - the difference between writing that equates to someone stuffing their opinion down your throat, like I am doing now, and actually writing for the reader. You know, give a man, teach a man, etc.

As for the others? I haven't especially been impressed with Klosterman based on his puttering fawning in this Stephen King interview or the odd single-paragraph excerpt I've glanced through in a bookstore, but that's roughly the writing sample size of a single at-bat in baseball terms, so I could easily be convinced I've underestimated him. And my knowledge of Dave Eggers amounts to a couple of people saying that his autobiography is a touch megalomaniacal, so I've got nothing on that. These people are celebrated by some people, and in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, I defer to that opinion.
But, after a preliminary read of the odd Grantland article, I'm left wondering. What is it? Is it highbrow? Is it aiming right in the middle? On the one hand, I dislike canonical thinking - the notion that a Mamet is better than a crime thriller because it's a Mamet, or that a Pitchfork review is better than an allmusic review because of its url - but at the same time I'm not sure that such a massive multifaceted entity can afford to go through the same kind of identity crisis I go through when debating whether to watch Spun for the fifteenth time or go to a baseball game.

The internet is full of noise, and it's the niches that stand out. IMDB became IMDB because it was the best movie site. Google became Google because it was the best search engine. Youtube - hell, ESPN, you name it. Yes, funds and readership appeal help sustain a site at start-up, but internet is anarchy.

And I wonder if by trying so hard to stand out, Grantland will fade into the woodwork.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011


Please forgive me my five-day absence; I've been pondering great questions of existence and major league's baseball's amateur draft, which is after all when non-existent players come into being (well, at least that's the way it works in my sim league).

In truth, though, I'm not one of those people (scouts) who actually has a clue when it comes to the ammy. The Jays took a HS pitcher? Cool. To me hearing that informs me exactly that they didn't take a college player and they didn't take a bat. No more, no less. In my mind, the difference between a Beede and a Bundy has far more to do with serial killers and Ed O'Neill than baseball.

From the so-called "experts," however (and I use the term loosely), I can pick up a couple of things from the draft. First of all, it sounds like they took someone with a strong commitment to college, which means one of two things: either they really are serious about going for the best talent, and are convinced that they can blow this Beede kid out of the water with ridiculous money...or AA is still trying to game the system.

The Jays also took the first Canadian of the draft - way down at 139, or about a hundred picks before that Gretzky kid. In an interview on Jays Connected last week, Robson, who's a skinny little pike, compared himself to Roy Halladay, and it for all the world sounded like a ten year old kid saying he wanted to be a fireman. Still, if he could conceivably model himself with any success after Halladay's style (as opposed to simply his regimen), it wouldn't be a terrible place to start.

Of course, the fact that they even took Robson at all should probably underscore that Anthopolous is playing, at least a little, to Joe Nationalist. Now that's not to say that Lawrie is a bad player or even that this kid is necessarily a reach that far down - but it's no coincidence that we're seeing guys like Loewen sign here, or that a 32-year-old Scott Richmond is still on the 40-man roster despite stinking up the joint in Vegas while a 29-year-old Josh Roenicke has packed his bags.

Of course, the most memorable instance of a team favouring the local boy in the past decade worked out pretty damn fine back in 2001 (wonky knees notwithstanding) I'm not saying it's all doom and gloom. I'm sure Anthopoulos will grin and cheerfully suggest in that devious CEO way of his that he absolutely thought that Robson was the best eligible player at that point in the draft. But don't be fooled. Joe Canadian sells, and AA is no less a used-car salesman than JP Ricciardi. He's just one with far more (Canadian) tact.

Anyway...back to my existential woes. This song, by itself, makes life worth living:

Friday, June 3, 2011

Fame and fortune

Aren't rebuilding seasons supposed to be boring and disappointing? Throughout my baseball-watching career, I've watched the Royals and Pirates from a safe distance, aware of the occasional highlight (Zack Greinke! 2003! Come to think of it, I can't think of anything Pirates-related) only because they stand in such stark contrast to the usual misery that surrounds such teams. It's for fear of the negative karma that such "rebuilding" teams project that many teams - such as the Blue Jays - use weasel words like "building" and "long-term plans" in an effort to avoid any associations with a 20-year death spiral.

But this season - which, in spite of the best efforts of the team on the field and the voices in the front office, should absolutely be considered the ebb of a (hopefully quick) rebuilding process - has been anything but slow. In fact, compared to the doldrums of some leaner Ricciardi years, when Lyle Overbay's bland personality and Vernon Wells' carefree attitude lended a mediocre team the air of stagnation, this season has been all about Kid Dynamite. Highs and lows: no-hitters, three homer games. Walkoff wins and blowouts - both in the offensive sense and the bullpen sense. There's been Octavio Dotel striking out Jeff Mathis with the winning run one ball away, there's been Yunel turning a loss into a win, and there's been a little too much of Frank Francisco.

The first two months of the season have been about the youth movement. They've been about upside, potential, and hope. Rookies. Major league debuts. And they've been about failure. After putting up cartoon stats in Vegas, first David Cooper then Eric Thames have gotten a lesson in major league pitching. Cooper couldn't handle it, though Thames has survived fairly well (despite being eaten alive in selective at-bats). And any day now, Brett Lawrie will make his debut after posting the best AAA OPS of the lot. This season has been a coming-out party for Kyle Drabek and JP Arencibia. We've seen terrible players play well (Corey Patterson), and supposedly good players play terribly (Brett Cecil, Travis Snider, Aaron Hill).

But none of that is too far out of the ordinary. They're great subplots, but I could have written many of the same types of things in 2002 about Eric Hinske, Vernon Wells, Josh Phelps and Roy Halladay. What makes this season fascinating, as Blue Jays seasons go, is Jose Bautista.

I guess it could be argued that in the wake of the past decade I had forgotten what the title Home Run King used to mean in the baseball vernacular. Before everyone got sick to death of ubermenchen McGwire and Bonds, the guy who led the league in homers every year was a bona fide superstar. When Cecil Fielder hit 51 home runs in 1990 it was a big deal. When Kid Griffey was hitting 40 a year in the mid-90s, he was considered the best player in baseball. SI covers, commercials, what-have-you - he was the face of baseball. Everyone knew who Griffey was, and it didn't matter that he played for an up-and-coming team in the Pacific Northwest (or pretty much as far as you can get from the nearest major league baseball city...aside from San Juan, I suppose).
I thought I'd seen superstars in Toronto. Clemens had two of the best years of his career here, albeit as a mercenary. Roy Halladay developed into the best pitcher in baseball. Carlos Delgado hit .344 with 41 home runs in 2000. But none of them really got noticed. Pedro's '99-'00 put Clemens in the dust, and he was always destined to be remembered as a Red Sox/Yankee rather than Blue Jay anyway. Halladay was a beast, but a beast who had to be seen to be appreciated. "Santana's better," people would say; then, after Santana went to the other league, it was "hotshot so-and-so has a better ERA. Halladay's a good pitcher, but..." And by 2000, great hitter seasons had become the norm; Delgado didn't even start the All Star Game, much less win the MVP.

Jose Bautista is different. Jose Bautista is mid-career Griffey. He's getting articles in Time. He's leading the world in All-Star votes, which is something I thought I'd never see before I saw the Jays in the playoffs again. He's the best player in baseball, italics necessary. The heir apparent. He's Pujolsing Pujols, who took that mantle from Bonds. He's getting namedropped on virtually every baseball podcast or website south of the border. Halladay's great seasons got footnotes, but Bautista is the headline right now. He had a couple of words with an 0-8 pitcher and it became a story. If he can maintain anything close to the numbers he's produced in the first half of 2011, then we won't have to worry about media coverage in Toronto for a whole lot longer. Before the season, Bautista's fame score might have been in the lower quadrant, but right now he's about a Yankee jersey behind ARod in the baseball world's awareness.

It seems that every day over the past couple of weeks, there's been a different story coming into focus in Blue Jay-land. Jojo Reyes winning; a superprosepct being demoted or promoted; a near-fight on the field; yet another Player-of-the-Month award. It's almost like we're a real team with all that stuff real teams (you know, like the Yankees, Dodgers, Red Sox and White Sox) have - melodrama, tension, post-game press conferences. Everything.

Over at GROF, there's a post about how it's cool to be a Blue Jays fan right now. I'm too far away from Toronto these days to know if it's true or merely a projection, but if so, maybe it's a little sad that it takes one measly player leading the world in a overrated stat like homers to make it so. But at the same time, I can't argue with more fans supporting my team on a larger scale. The times, they be a-changing.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

On Phonies, Third Baseman, and Phony Third Basemen

A few weeks into the most recent incarnation of my current form of employment (which pretty much sets the gold standard in menial wage-slavery - but hey, some recently-graduated "writers" wouldn't have it any other way!), I had one of those painful get-to-know-you conversations with one of the far-too-attractive teenaged tarts who tend to surface in such places. Once she found out I was involved with that magical institution known as university, she became instantly fascinated and wanted to know all about it. She asked my major - which, five years into a four-year degree, is pretty much the most dreadful question in the world. And then it only got better.

"I'm a writer, too," she said (which is right up there with "What are you going to do with that?" as the most awful, predictable response imaginable). "Who's your favourite author?"

I thought about it for a minute, wondering if I should dazzle her with some archaic literary giant who'd written a short story I'd been forced to absorb at some point, or just come up with a disappointing, honest response (Nick Hornby?). I settled for a compromise, a familiar name that was definitely top 5.

"I like Salinger quite a bit." I said.


I sighed, slightly disappointed, my last hopes fading that this girl was some kind of sentient being behind the  cheerleader facade. "Catcher in the Rye?"

"Oh yeah." Her nose wrinkled as she focused really hard, trying to place the title. "I read that in like grade 10. I think...I'm pretty sure I had problems with his views on women."

I laughed out loud. It was too perfect: the way her criticism of it embodied everything about the book, parroting some high school English teacher who might well have been a frustrated writer herself (perhaps of the feminist bent). At the way her conversation skills betrayed her teenaged lack of self-awareness, when the book is all about adolescence. At the way that the rift in our conversation could have been the rift between Holden and his girlfriend as he rants about taking her to the country. And while I'm a little blase about invoking the much-exaggerated catchword of the novel, there was a definite phoniness in there too - in her superficial smile, in the way she tried so very hard to carry on the conversation at my level. It was just the perfect Salinger moment, far more telling than if she'd jumped up and said "yes! That's my favourite book too!"

Anyway, this girl has nothing to do with baseball. But our conversation reminded me of a time - almost a decade ago now - when I was the foolish high school student and it was my coworkers who were the snobbish university types who wouldn't give me the time of day. In other words, when I was a teenager and when I was a phony.

I was (and am) a phony on many levels; too nerdy to be a jock, but too jocky to be a nerd. Too busy smoking weed to read, but too busy reading to learn to roll a proper joint. I loved to talk Neitzsche but nearly failed Existentialism 201. And when I played baseball, I fielded like a good hitter and hit like a good fielder.

Because - see - at the very low level at which I played baseball, I was a third baseman. And third base is a position full of phonies.

It's the tweener position: the position where bad corner outfielders and 1B/DHs start their careers and the position where catchers and great middle infielders go to die. It's the position of failed prospects. From Sean Burroughs to Hank Blalock to Eric Hinske to Alex Gordon (or maybe not Alex Gordon?) to Wilson Betemit to Edwin Encarnacion, third base prospects love to burn out. And of the ones who do make it, many don't last long at third. Ryan Braun, Gary Sheffield, and Edgar Martinez will surely go down as historical third basemen, right? On other side, you've got a Yankee-era ARod here, you've got a 36-year-old Tony Fernandez there, and you've got the orange-capped corpse of Miguel Tejada somewhere else - basically, all aging All-Star shortstops who can't/couldn't move like they used to.

The "ideal" third basemen is a great power hitter with soft hands, cat-like reflexes and a strong arm - basically a guy who fields like a shortstop but is built like Paul Konerko. And occasionally you'll find someone who profiles like that. But Evan Longorias and Brooks Robinsons are rare. More often, you get someone like my major league equivalent: someone who fields like a first baseman and hits like a middle infielder.
Since taking over the reins of the Blue Jays, AA has wrestled with this conundrum of the disappearing 3Bs. He started with Edwin Encarnacion, then traded for Brett Wallace, then dumped Wallace and subsequently traded for Brett Lawrie.

To recap:
1) Edwin Encarnacion plays third base like a DH, and has been since relegated to that position.
2) Brett Wallace played third base like a first baseman, and has since been traded and relegated to that position.
3) By all accounts, Brett Lawrie plays third base like a corner outfielder.

Given what's at stake - i.e. almost nothing, short-term - I have no problem with bringing up Brett Lawrie as a third baseman. God knows the Jays could use someone with a little more offense than the John McDonald/Jayson Nix two-headed monster. But given the comparisons to Ryan Braun, given the constant position changes, given John Sickels' wavering qualifiers as he assured the Getting Blanked crew that Lawrie could - in some conceivable time-space continuum - stick at third, I'm not banking on anything long-term. More likely, Lawrie is another Eric Hinske - not quite an Encarnacion-level shitshow, but somehow who could, best-case scenario, not embarass himself too much. Somehow who a fan can easily tell doesn't belong at third, but can cover it well enough that the manager can justify putting his best offensive lineup on the field.

Much has been made of how space will be made for Lawrie this weekend (or, now, whenever he is deemed healthy enough to play). With guys like Mike McCoy, Luis Perez and Eric Thames kicking around, 25-man roster space shouldn't be a major concern, but 40-man roster space is another story, and from one phony third baseman we come to another: is it time for the Jays to part ways with E5?

Yesterday afternoon, I (along with a few other people) did some jawing with @TaoofStieb on this very subject. The question was whether E5's value as an asset outweighed the value of an available roster spot. I'd argue that simply because a player of rostered doesn't mean he's a positive asset; negative value exists, too. Fangraphs had a good article on the same subject, pointing out that, at his best, Edwin Encarnacion is a league-average hitter and having a league-average hitter as a DH is a generally poor allotment of resources. In most cases, a given American League team would be better off simply finding a replacement level player with good defense and putting their poorest defensive regular in the DH slot, so even at the relatively reasonable price tag of 2.5 million, Encarnacion has little to no value as an asset. In some universe, he could conceivably find work as a National League player in the mold of a Marlon Anderson, but at this point I'd argue there's very little reason for the Blue Jays to hang onto him - unless they truly do foresee a Bautista-like emergence in the near future. And after two years, I'm very skeptical.

So, Jays fans, let's get ready for our sixth third-baseman-of-the-future of the past decade, as we say goodbye, perhaps, to the fifth.