Friday, July 29, 2011

Misinformed Deadline Gossip

The Roster Crunch is a phenomenon that is far too often blown out of proportion. In early spring training, when there are seventeen relievers brought into camp fighting for seven jobs, people go into freakout mode. "I like X (let's say, for the sake of argument, Carlos Villanueva), but if X gets a job that's means we're going to have to trade Y (let's say, for the sake of argument, Jason Frasor) and he's been with the team forever!" Inevitably, of course, injuries happen, and usually sometime between when pitchers report in mid-February and April Fool's the team has no problem fitting both X and Y onto the major league roster .
That said, we're not in spring training anymore and in the wake of The Great Heist (or simply Target Obtained), there is a bit of a roster crunch, this time on the offensive side of the ball. The Pasty White Hope is here; Eric Thames continues to take Carlos Delgado-like passes (occasionally making contact) while doing his best Nuke Laloosh impersonation in post-game interviews; there's a new centerfielder in town and Gordie Dougie is - let it be known - coming home. And on a team with those four hitters getting starts along with some guy named Jose, there's not a whole lot of room for Edwin Encarnacion to get ABs. Which is a shame, because even though I've been begging for his release since mid-May, E5 has shown flashes over the past month of becoming the hitter we all thought he could be coming into the season. At 29, Eddie only seems like he's been around forever, and it's still not inconceivable that he could eke out a valuable season or two as a DH on a contending American League team in the near future. He doesn't have Jack Cust's patience and he'll never be Travis Hafner, but there are worse options than a blistering Edwin.
And one such option, it should be noted, is the rapidly disintegrating corpse of Jorge Posada. Understanding, of course, that there are factors in play beyond 2011 performance (5 World Series rings! Derek Jeter!) and that the damn Yankees do already have a reasonably viable DH option in a suddenly-healthy Eric Chavez, I think the Bombers could do worse than Encarnacion as a bat off the bench. And if they're willing to give up a piece or two with minimal upside, why not take the deal? In the event of an injury, you've still got Rajai Davis kicking around, and you know he'll be hungry to win his starting job back - not to mention that Adam Loewen ought to be getting a call sometime in late August or early September. Maybe it's a pipe dream, but I'd love to see Anthopoulos move Encarnacion and recoup some semblance of value. Let's get this done, Brian Cashman.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Corey for Colby...

...with a half-dozen pitchers mixed in too, I guess.

Think Anthopoulos has a pattern yet? For the third time in less than two calendar years, Double-A has sent Jays fans everywhere into paroxysms of joy by picking up a highly touted misfit uberprospect with major league experience for a package of lesser pieces, First it was Brandon Morrow, then it was Yunel Escobar (stretching the definition of "prospect" a bit) and now it's Colby Rasmus. Colby Rasmus for relievers - who woulda thunk it?

It certainly goes to show that the mantra of targeting upper-tier major league talent was no idle hyperbole. If there's one thing that Anthopoulos has shown, it's a penchant for former first-rounders and high-upside talent without much concern for personality issues.

But let me throw a cold shower over the celebratory moment. People have been targeting Colby Rasmus for months. This almost feels like a trade that was born in the blogosphere and gradually came to fruition through the fan base's incessant urging. I'm not saying that that's how it went down at all - I'm sure Anthopoulos picked up the phone to John Mozeliak long before he read a post about the Jays' interest in Rasmus on some website - but I do wonder if the price tag is really as discount as it first appears.

It seems to me that there are two viable approaches to building a baseball team: by going for quality and by going for quantity. We often hear scouts say that the team who won a deal was "the one who got the best player," which is completely ridiculous, as it doesn't take into account any of the finer points of making a trade. Billy Beane, for one, seems to be a GM who focuses on diversifying his assets over focusing in on singular targets. By acquiring a boatload of assets who were far away from the majors for a 26-year-old Dan Haren, he managed to get Carlos Gonzalez and Brett Anderson (along with several fringy major leaguers), which works out to 12 star-potential seasons for two years of high-end starting pitching. The fact that he let Gonzalez get away makes that deal seem like less of a steal in retrospect, but it's still a trade that has great upside should Brett Anderson and/or Michael Taylor get back to the players they were once projected as.  Essentially Beane has made a career out of giving up the best player in just about every deal he makes.

The other option, obviously, is to try and steal top talent at its most under-appreciated, and that seems to be exactly Anthopoulos' approach to the three deals mentioned above. Rasmus and Escobar had problems with their teammates/clubhouse environments, and at age 24 Morrow had been miscast as a relief specialist. That approach is great when it works out and nets you a perennial all-star or Hall-of-Famer for pennies on the dollar, but if that talent turns out to be overblown, and you find you've given up a whole lot of useful pieces for a lemon, it doesn't look so hot. Rasmus' comp lists on baseball reference reads like a nightmare of overrated "five-tool" prospects from years past. Ben Francisco, Adam Jones - and yes, there he is, former #3 overall pick Corey Patterson.

That's not to piss all over the deal. Rasmus has a whole lot of upside, and at the price of the players in question, it would have been a deal difficult to turn down. Middling middle relievers are exactly the "pieces" that a non-contending team should be moving for high-end young talent. I'm just saying that it's a little like placing a decent-sized bet on a straight flush draw - admittedly, Zach Stewart and Marc Rzepcynski is hardly an all-in push, but Rasmus only becomes yet another enigma on a team that's full of them. (And don't forget, there are three more pieces still TBD.)

Of course, as much as the flashback meme has been overblown, and comparisons to Devo and Robbie miss the mark as far as the type of player that Colby is, there is a little something to be said for the way that this team is approaching roster building. Tony Fernandez was a great defensive 28-year-old shortstop who was turned into a 21-year-old two-way second baseman in 1991, much like Yunel Escobar was six years younger than Alex Gonzalez was when that trade went down. Like Gillick did (and Ricciardi tried to do), Anthopoulos is slotting high-end players onto a big league roster with an eye toward an impending push, minimizing holes on the team with young players so that once they do dip into the free agent waters for slightly older players there won't be likes of Corey Patterson or John McDonald taking significant major league at-bats.

That said, is there now any reason not to pursue Jose Reyes if he does indeed hit the market this offseason? I'd slot him in at second base, but whether you transition him or Escobar is somewhat irrelevant - the duo would make for a dynamic one-two at the top of the lineup and in the middle of the diamond. With Reyes, and an ever-improving core of Snider, Rasmus and Lawrie, the Jays lineup could suddenly take on a dimension of depth that has been so sorely lacking with the at-bats given to sub-replacement level players. If Edwin Encarnacion is your number 8 hitter and DH, you're probably in decent shape.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Those Lazy Sundays

So I guess yesterday wasn't the worst day of the year to be a Jays fan, was it? A couple of HOF inductions, a complete game shutout against a pennant winner from an enigmatic young pitcher. Hell, Brett Lawrie even went 2-4 with a triple and a couple of walks to continue his gradual, thorough obliteration of the Pacific Coast League during his rehab. So yeah, no biggie.
Sadly, I missed the first eight innings of Cecil's start, so I can't even begin to suggest to know why or how he did what he did, but it's hard to take it as anything but a great sign. There were reports of 94-mph fastballs, which would seem to suggest that this wasn't simply a case of a fastball-hitting team thrown off-balance by a left-handed thrower, but was actually a 25-year-old former first rounder displaying his peak form.  Tiny sample caveats abounding, Cecil has now struck out 27 versus 11 walks in 36 innings since his recall.

Maybe it's just something about that July heat. Remember, it was last July 2 that Brett Cecil went into Yankee Stadium, pitched out of a bases-loaded jam in throwing 6 innings of 1-run ball, and proceeded to put up a 2.23 ERA for the rest of the month. Brett Cecil, winningest Blue Jay pitcher, was born.

Brett Cecil was decent last year for all the reasons that JoJo Reyes wasn't decent this year. He averaged over 6 innings a start. He struck out 2 batters for every one he walked. He showed the promise of a 23 year old pitcher primed to improve through his prime beyond an innings-eater into something more, if not an "ace." Until a rocky September, he appeared to be improving by the month, like Brandon Morrow, not falling to pieces as ruthless major league hitters picked his delivery apart. Cecil was Squints Palledorous, 14-year-old ladies' man, the baby in the second-youngest rotation in the majors. He was playing with the big boys.

But in April, it started to come apart. Was he a future rotation fixture going through growing pains, or was he destined to be another shitty lefty journeyman? Bruce Chen's 2000 was better than Cecil's 2011 by almost any measure. Then again, Randy Johnson and Al Leiter didn't become the pitchers they would be remembered as until they were nearly 30. They say pitchers'll drive you insane, none more than young one and none more than the lefties. Of course Cecil was the one who would show up in spring training missing his fastball; he couldn't just get better on a linear curve, could he? Running a baseball team isn't that easy; if it were, Luke Hochevar would be a 20-game winner and Mike Piazza never would have made the bigs. Because in any given season a good player can implode or a bad player explode, baseball is never predictable (even when we think it is). If it was, who would watch? I'll be honest: over the past few years, Tiger Woods and Serena Williams have made golf and women's tennis boring for me. What's the point of watching a game when the outcome is assured?

I don't know if everything clicked last night and Brett Cecil is going to be the Blue Jays' newest incarnation of Roy Halladay for the next decade. More likely, it was a perfect storm of comfort, mechanics and luck, and he'll continue to be another enigma in a rotation (and a team) full of the unpredictability that marks young talent. But for every pure unbridled display of individual talent like yesterday's, ever closer the team shifts to playoff contention.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Tilting at Mills

Jo-Jo Reyes hasn't yet been embarrassed by the Rangers tonight, so I promise you that this post is not written out of irrational frustration. I swear! But please, for the love of God, let's get PCL player of the week Brad Mills a major league payday. I'm not sure what else the man can do.

In 19 starts in the most notorious hitter's league in the world, Brad Mills has put up a 3.71 ERA. That's good for third in the league (admittedly, right behind Dana Eveland, but that's neither here nor there). Among pitchers with 50 innings, it's best on the team by a run and a half. He has put up superficially better numbers than Brett Cecil, Jesse Litsch, Luis Perez and Kyle Drabek, all of whom have spent time with the major league club.

All of which is well and good. Drabek and Cecil are significant prospects. Litsch has had a very good major league season in the past and is still only 26. Perez...well, as good as Perez looked in 35 major league innings, I'm prepared to acknowledge that the Jays may have seen something beyond the AAA numbers. So by all means, give those four major league innings.

The problem is that for each one of Mills' minor league starts, Jo-Jo Reyes has made one in the major leagues. Here on July 22nd, Brad Mills is slated to make his 20th start on the same night that Reyes is slated to make his 20th. And it's fitting, because Brad Mills is Jo-Jo Reyes' shadow:

1) Jo-Jo Reyes is 26. Brad Mills is 26.
2) Jo-Jo Reyes is left-handed. Brad Mills is left-handed.
3) Jo-Jo Reyes' minor league ERA is 3.51. Brad Mills' minor league ERA is 3.47.
4) Jo-Jo Reyes' minor league ratios (HR/9, BB/9, K/9) are 0.6/3.3/8.3. Mills' are 0.8/3.1/8.5.

There are differences. In 38 starts at AAA, Reyes had a 3.11 ERA, while Mills has surrendered a 4.24 mark in even more games. But Mills has been pitching in the PCL, while Reyes spent his entire minor league career in the International League. Either way, in broad strokes they're very similar pitchers and it's hard to make an argument (that doesn't start with "asset" and end with "retention") that Reyes is significantly more deserving of a major league trial than Brad Mills. And in light of Perez's recent demotion back to AAA as (presumably) a starting pitcher, there is even a decent contingency option should Reyes be lost on waivers and Mills get pounded at the major league level. If the Jays are simply biding their time with Reyes before a deadline in which several relievers will make their way elsewhere, then there's something to be said for holding with a subpar rotation in the very short term. But if Brad isn't on this roster on August 1st, let's Don Quixote this bitch.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Mysterious Case of the Disappearing OPS

When I was growing up, there was a sweet-swinging lefty named Angel Martinez. He was going to be the one. Unfortunately, 450 plate appearances into his big league career he'd demonstrated an astounding ability to combine a lack of plate discipline with a lack of power and a lack of contact, and after going to Chicago to catch Kerry Wood's legendary 20-strikeout game, he returned to the minors for the bulk of six more seasons.

Then there was Carlos Delgado. I guess he turned into a decent player, but he only caught 5 innings in the bigs.

There was Kevin Brown, buried behind Darrin Fletcher.

Then there were three at once: the Catchers Of The Future circa 2002 were Jayson Werth, Kevin Cash and Josh Phelps. One could really hit, one could really catch, and the other  - well, the other could kind of hit, but couldn't really do anything else (much less catch) and never amounted to much more than an occasional platoon bat.

There were others. Guillermo Quiroz. Curtis Thigpen. Robinzon Diaz. The most you could say about the large percentage of these guys was that their disappearance was quiet and painless. Kevin Cash showed up on the Red Sox and OPSed .545. Josh Phelps was a below-average offensive DH for a couple of months with the Devil Rays. Diaz brought back a decent return. Here in 2011, most of the names on that list are Crash Davising their way through yet another minor league season or retired. (The obvious exception being underperforming $100 million man Jayson Werth, but he left his tools in Syracuse a good many years ago.)

And so now, after a decade of transforming players like Ken Huckaby, Gregg Zaun and Rod Barajas into major league starters, there is a new wave of COTF in Blue Jay land. JP Arencibia is the poster boy, but it seems every day we are reminded of the cavalry. Travis D'Arnaud lighting up New Hampshire. Some kid named Carlos Perez with pretty mechanics and sub-.700 OPS in A ball.

There are concerns, however. Perez may never hit. D'Arnaud may be a superstar, but a halfseason in AA only means so much. And Arencibia is starting to look like his #lazycomp - the man he replaced, John Buck. John Buck was a very bad hitter for the first five years of his major league career, and through the first 300 plate appearances of his career, Aaron Cibia has been similarly awful, showcasing slightly more power at the expense of even more on-base. For all of the glowing praise he's received for breaking up Verlander's perfect game with a ("feisty/gritty/well-earned/disciplined") walk, his on-base percentage this year is .273. That's better than Rajai Davis and it's better than John McDonald, but it's not a pretty figure. His .297 wOBA paints a slightly less dismal picture, because it takes his 25 extra-base hits into account, but it still places him as one of the lesser lights in a thoroughly middling offense.

Even more concerning than the season snapshot is the progression that we've seen since April, going by OBP/SLG:

April: .328/534
May: .316/.465
June: .205/.377
July: .220/.156
To recap: his power has diminished in every month, capped by a July with only a single double, and his on-base has steadily fallen from low-.300s to low-.200s. Since June 1, JP Arencibia has been the least valuable Blue Jay hitter. I think it's fair to say that even if Michael Pineda implodes in the second half, we can kiss that Rookie of the Year candidacy aside. Add in a mediocre CS ratio and defense that generally rates as poor, and Arencibia simply hasn't been very good this season.

To be fair, to be a major league rookie is not an easy thing. Alex Gordon fell well short in his bid as Rookie of the Year pre-season favourite, and The Bautista Himself was a below average hitter in his rookie age-25 year. But most great hitters who debut at that age show portents of the players they will become, and all Arencibia has shown is an ability to lift and separate on the odd mistake fastball. Given the position he plays, that should be enough for him to retain some facsimile of a major league job for a few years to come - I mean, Miguel Olivo has 3500 career PAs - but let's just say I see a lot of bullpen catching in Cibia's future.

And so the catcher mill keeps churning.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011


Warning: cynicism ahead.

I've always thought there was something a little foolish in the Jays' apparent policy not to retire numbers of players who were deserving of the honour. There was something bush league about it, as if the team themselves felt they lacked the heft and history of a Red Sox or a Yankees, and were too insecure to partake in one of baseball's most vaunted traditions. Maybe there simply wasn't anyone deserving (though Dave Stieb would have been legitimate enough). Admittedly, this was id stuff - as a child growing up identifying yourself with a given team, you chafe at the thought there are superior organizations on the horizon without understanding the full import of a century of mythology and backstory. We won the World Series TWICE. Why don't we have anyone's number retired? The Sox have like ten.

That said, when I heard that there a retirement ceremony for Alomar's number in light of his Hall of Fame induction, my first impulse wasn't "awesome!", it was something more along the lines of, "another one?" It's sad that the Jays' publicity department has pounded 80s and 90s nostalgia so deeply into the ground over the past half-decade that something as monumental as a night honouring a Hall-of-Famer can feel like a trite pub stunt, but it almost does. It's striking that one of Halladay's comments following his return implied that he hopes the organization can move on and not still be hanging onto him in a decade the way that they hold onto certain other relics from the past. Alomar's induction ceremony will be well-attended, and will be a day that stands on its own merits. It's just a shame that the Jays have already robbed such a ceremony of its poignancy in the wake of so much trafficking in memorabilia.

Though on a more positive note, I guess it's cool that people have finally forgiven him for this.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Water wings

The first time I heard of Alexisonfire I was sprawled backstage of my eleventh-grade drama class, crowded around an archaic boombox as the owner of said device and I avoided watching whatever awful socially-conscious George F Walker scene our drama teacher was reenacting at the time. The sound was dialed down to 1, and he played me the quietest song on the album, "Counter parts and number them." Afterwards, he mumbled something about the muffling killing the sound, but it was plain that he was pretty stoked to be in on the next big thing.

"The only thing I don't know is if its pronounced Alex-is-on-fire or Alexis-on-fire."

I was a music virgin, his initiate into everything from 90s pop punk to Polish death metal. And he was right. Before the year was out, Alexisonfire were everywhere. Album goes gold. Videos all over Much Music. Then came City and Colour. Then Watch Out!, an album I could discuss with teenage girls who "didn't usually listen to that stuff." My excitement at being included (if only by accident) in my first underground discovery gradually dissipated. Being a fan of Alexisonfire became like being a fan of Jack Johnson, and by the time I dutifully picked up and then immediately lost a copy of Crisis in 2006, I didn't even care that I hadn't had time to give the album a spin.

But back in 2002, the band was composed of a handful of 17-year-olds who'd somehow, magically, stumbled upon the right cocktail of disparate elements. Alexisonfire is filled with epic angst (a ".44 caliber love letter" is a subtle message if there ever was one), but it found a way to take that whiny singing and superimpose it over hardcore to make it the kind of shit that guys weren't afraid to have on their playlist. Without proper mixing, perfect timing and an appreciation for melody, lesser musicians could have taken all of the elements of the Alexisonfire album and created unlistenable noise metal, but they didn't. The melodic singing got people who liked heavy music but hated vocal shredding into the genre, and it exploded. It made male music accessible to females, fringe music accessible to the mainstream. However you choose to deconstruct it, the convalescence made millionaires out of a handful of small-town Ontario kids. Moneen, suffice it to say, never found the same kind of success; their sound was decidedly more one-note.

The analogy isn't perfect, but a baseball lineup also has a certain dynamic. Replace Adrians Beltre with Gonzalez and the structure of the Red Sox offense changes; replace Dallas Green with Tom DeLonge and Alexisonfire sounds a little different. The Red Sox are a little bit better because of the switch, and a DeLonge track might have made for an interesting original single, but regardless: every swap or changeover you make tweaks things a bit, until the band or baseball team eventually transforms. There was a tangible difference  between From Autumn to Ashes' sound with and without Benjamin Perry, and everyone knows that the Misfits aren't really the Misfits anymore. The 1998 Yankees were a good offensive team with Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada on the roster and the 2011 Yankees are a good offensive team with Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada on the roster, but no one would mistake them for the same team.
One of the truisms of modern life is that younger is always better. At 20 I was nostalgic for fifteen, at 24 I'm nostalgic for 20. In a few decades, if I make it that far, I'll wonder how my twenties brushed past so quickly. This is especially true in music and professional sports. Players fade and "die," to use a term bandied about thoughtlessly in fantasy forums. (Also in 2002, I was part of a baseball forum where fantasy players could list formerly good players who had "died" on them: Juan Gonzalez, the Vaughns Mo and Gregg, Billy Koch. And you know who else was on that list? Darryl Kile.) Likewise, musicians can never live up their youthful successes. In 2011, the Offspring still can't play a song recorded after 1997 without eliciting boos from the crowd. Celebrities age and lose their edge, be it to natural causes or the fat-and-happy factor. It's hard to write protest music after you build a home in Beverley Hills and start voting Republican, and I imagine it must be hard to focus all your energy on winning a meaningless baseball game in August when you know you've already got your $130 million banked.

The second half of the 2011 season features a volatile cocktail of young blood in the Blue Jays lineup. There's an unpredictable violence to a team full of hack-happy young sluggers; explosions like a three-homer inning against Cliff Lee are par for the course, but then so are three-hitters against the likes of CC Sabathia. This is not necessarily  a team that will grind 100 pitches out of a mediocre hurler through five innings, but they're liable to tantalize and excite on any given day. Travis Snider, Eric Thames, JP Arencibia will swing hard, and they'll miss a lot. They'll continue to get exploited and continue to improve. There will be thirteen-run outbursts where the lineup just works; where Rajai Davis will drop down bunt singles and steal runs, Yunel Escobar will work his walks, Edwin Encarnacion will bounce doubles off the warning track and Thames and Snider will hit tape-measure jobs. When this lineup comes together like they did in the first inning on Thursday, it'll be like a breakdown that writes itself off of the opening riff. On the days like Saturday and Sunday against the Yankees it'll be a different story; three-pitch strikeouts and six-pitch innings. They'll sound like some shitty garage band selling songs on iTunes before the bassist learns how to play in time with the drummer.

But, hey. When Travis Snider is winning MVP awards and JP Arencibia is a veteran backup on a pennant winner, we can say we saw them "before they got big."

Thursday, July 7, 2011

"We have a new ace here and his name is Ricky Romero."

R. Romero (L, 7-8)4.19663221.233.09

Ricky Romero is having a year. Record aside, his numbers across the board are very strong. Almost seven innings per start. Less than a hit per inning. ERA barely 3, FIP under 4.

But Ricky has a problem. He's got a boogeyman. Boogeymen are never good for professional athletes, be they Eric Lindros' brain, Jose Reyes' hamstrings or Roger Federer's Rafael Nadal. And unfortunately for Ricky, his bugaboo resides in the same division as he does, and projects to be a difficult obstacle for years to come.

If you'll recall, in his time here, Roy Halladay also had a problem team. The Texas Rangers touched him up for 7 wins and a 5.17 ERA, the highest surrendered to any American League team. To add injury to insult, six years ago tomorrow Kevin Mench lined a ball off of his leg that quite possibly cost him his (then-would-have-been) second Cy Young Award.

But Roy Halladay's Ranger problem was never quite as bad as this whole Ricky-Red Sox thing. For one thing, Roy Halladay has 20 career starts against the Rangers in 13 seasons; Romero has faced the Red Sox eleven times in less than 3. It was one thing to shrug off the odd uncharacteristic Halladay start, but it's quite another to endure Romero shitting the bed four times a year in key interdivision matchups. For another, the Red Sox have absolutely killed Romero in a way that the Rangers never dominated Halladay: ERA over 8, OPS over 1, IP/S under 5. As much as the Rangers made Halladay seem mortal, the Red Sox transform Ricky Romero into Jo-Jo Reyes at his worst. (It can be argued that 50 innings is too small a sample, but when those 50 innings are as awful as they have been, the argument evaporates a bit. If Ricky Romero throws complete game shutouts in his next six starts against the Bostonians, his ERA against the Red Sox will still be worse than his career number.)

But this post isn't about that whole Red Sox thing. That's been covered. I'm merely wondering why, given  all of the above numbers, given Romero's lack of Halladay-an credentials in general, he was left in to absorb so much punishment last night.

It began when Bruce Walton came to the mound in the fourth inning with two out, two on, one in and Yamaico Navarro at the plate. Buck and Pat commented that Walton's conversation was not with Romero but with Arencibia. At first I didn't know what to make of this, but it quickly occurred to me that it's a sign of respect. Roy Halladay don't need no pitching coach, but he might need a breather once in a while. Coach comes out, makes small talk with the catcher, goes back to the dugout and lets Halladay (or, in this case, Ricky) do his thing. That's fair; Romero has been very good this year, and the game was still tied going into the Navarro at bat. If you think Romero's your man in a 3-3 game in the fourth inning, then Romero's your man.

But then Romero, of course, went on to allow back-to-back doubles off the wall. At that point it was 6-3, and the specter of Romero's previous struggles against the team in question was beginning to loom. The second of those two doubles was surrendered to the left-handed hitter Ellsbury, and I think it's fair to say that many pitchers would have been pulled from the game at that point provided the pen had adequate rest (and given Cecil's CG the previous night, that was a moot point). At that point, Romero had allowed 5 straight hits to face the heart of the highest-run-producing offense in baseball. The game was still within reach, and with two right-handed hitters coming to the plate, there was a potential matchup to play.

I do remember the odd Halladay game where one early rough inning would prove his undoing; a couple of fourth-inning bleeders, a walk, a three-run homer and he'd be down 5-0. Then he'd go back out there for the fifth and throw five shutout innings. They were hiccups, flukey innings that happen because even the best ain't perfect. But they wouldn't faze Doc. There would be some browsweat, a handful of expletives, and then the Halladay we all knew and loved would reappear. Rarely was Halladay knocked out of the game, and that may have been the Jays' thinking following the Ellsbury double. "It's one bad inning. Let's shut it down and let Ricky Romero get back to being Ricky Romero." It was somewhat strange thinking given the early homers he'd also surrendered, but it was a certain level of ace treatment, which is fair.

So, with Ellsbury on second, Ricky Romero faces Marco Scutaro. And Ricky Romero walks Marco Scutaro. And this is where the Halladay comparisons come to an end. Roy Halladay does not walk your backup shortstop to face your former MVP, thank you very much. At this point, it's Shawn Camp time.

But Farrell doesn't move. He leaves Ricky in to face Dustin Pedroia, and Ricky somehow induces a weak grounder back to the mound. The throw to first nearly takes off for the right field corner, but Lind squeezes it and Ricky Romero's Red Sox nightmare is finally over. Right?

Wrong. Because after the Jays don't score in the top of the fifth, there's Romero on the mound to start the bottom half.  Only after allowing two of the first three batters to reach is he finally, mercifully pulled.

It was not a performance with a silver lining. Just one shutout inning. More walks than strikeouts. Five extra-base hits and at least one Green Monster single. He allowed almost as many baserunners as he recorded outs.

Perhaps it's psychological. Perhaps, as Pat and Buck insinuated during the broadcast, the Red Sox are the only team in baseball that has picked up on his tell. Or perhaps it's simply a matter of a lineup stacked with really, really good hitters facing a pitcher who lacks the stuff to dominate them.

I'm not sure why the Jays didn't take Romero out earlier. It didn't cost them any runs after the Ellsbury hit, but it's hard to look at a stretch where 8/10 batters faced reached base safely and not feel as if the pitcher was overexposed. I imagine there were developmental reasons, that the Jays really, really want Romero to be that guy who can be counted on every single start, even if they have to force the issue.

But at the end of the day, there's only one Roy Halladay.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Homecoming Queen

I recently watched a movie about my second-favourite sport, pool, called Turn the River. Pool tables are often used as a cinematic device - to set a scene in a bar, say - but movies about pool are rare, and good ones are even rarer. There is one great pool movie, maybe one or two good ones, and after that there's a whole heap of mediocrity.

Turn the River falls solidly into the latter category, in the way that indie movies tend to be mediocre. It's a story about a female pool hustler trying to make enough money to kidnap her estranged kid and move from the American Northeast to small-town Ontario. And it didn't try, like so many billiards movies, to glamourize the game. It didn't have major plot holes. The filmmaker was willing to set his characters up for failure. The acting was satisfactory, featuring a bitter, grumbling Rip Torn in all his old-codger glory. The characters were twisted archetypes. The filmmaking was quiet. The effect was that the audience got the sense of being the fly on the wall witnessing a tragic human-interest story unfold in real time. Some find that type of film boring, but in short it was a movie that I should have loved.

But the whole thing just didn't work. The narrative moved past understated and into vague. We never got a sense of how our female hustler came to be that, or of how good she is (or was). We don't know why, if she's so good, she's broke at the beginning of the movie and yet suddenly thinks she can break the bank. We don't understand her relationship with the Rip Torn character, how he came to be a father figure to her without knowing certain critical details about her life. Aside from some hints at paternal abuse, we don't even know why she needs the kid back now, as opposed to five years ago. And the pool shown in the movie looks legitimate, but as a pool player I was rarely given enough time to appreciate the games themselves - the more you get into it you realize that this isn't a movie about pool, it's a movie that features some pool players making easy shots that then tells you who won. And worst of all, the title refers to a poker, what's that about?

My point is, Turn the River was a good story that wasn't told properly. It's not an awful film, by any means. It's just one that won't top many lists. It's a story about resiliency and struggle that leaves out the resiliency and struggle.

Roy Halladay was once a human-interest story in his own right. He wasn't simply a pitcher who had a few good years into Toronto. He tantalized one September afternoon in 1998 and then lost it all. The obvious metaphor for what happened to Roy Halladay in 2000 is of a highly touted fighter who gets knocked to the canvas in the first round of his first professional fight. Or to extend a hustling metaphor, he was a kid who ran out his first rack and then lost $10,000 trying to follow it up. He was not merely a prospect who had failed to develop; he was Edward Norton in 25th Hour, a white-collar thug exposed as a skinny white middle-class pretty-boy.

But then he came back. And he didn't come back like Todd Van Poppel came back, a failed starter who salvaged a long and thoroughly mediocre career as a reliever. He didn't even come back like Eric Gagne or Rick Ankiel, who became useful to great players once they had converted to a position that better suited their skill sets. No, when Doc Halladay came back, nickname in tow, he became that prizefighter everyone had glimpsed. On July 2, 2001 he stepped back onto a major league field with a revamped delivery, but it was more than that. He had murdered the fresh-faced kid who had once thrown that one-hitter and reincarnated himself as a player.

Please forgive the hyperbole. This is the story as it is known, and I'm only recounting the myth that is the man. The Roy Halladay saga sustained us, as Blue Jays fans, through lean times. It was thirteen years ago that he first made an appearance in a Blue Jay uniform, and in those thirteen years the Blue Jays have never played a meaningful game in August. He was our Zach Greinke (before Zach Greinke had even been drafted). While on some level we knew we were latching onto something insubstantial, it was the only thing that we had. There were no pennant races. Aside from Carlos Delgado in 2003, there were no serious MVP candidates. There was only Halladay, year in and year out. We could never pick the Blue Jays to win the AL East, but we could pick Roy Halladay to win the Cy Young Award, and that was something more than nothing.
That career amounts to a story, and that's why I can't help but feel like when Carlos Villanueva disdains the ovation that Halladay received on Saturday, he's missing the point. What he sees is a good pitcher facing some ex-teammates, the same way all I saw in that movie was a supposedly good pool shark winning some cash games. Carlos Villanueva has been on the Blue Jays for three months. How could he possibly know the stories? I don't begrudge him the emotion at all - it's ballsy for a pitcher to call out the fans three months into his stint, even if he didn't say anything particularly harsh, and that strength is certainly something you look for in your players. And there's no question that through his first 72 innings in a Jays uni, CV has been terrific. As a fan, I appreciate Villanueva very much.

But if you watch The Hustler, you develop an appreciation for Fast Eddie Felson. You understand that he is a flawed individual, but understand why he must win the final game against Minnesota Fats. You understand why Minnesota Fats must, in the end, succumb to Eddie's superior determination and admit himself beaten. It's certainly a hard thing to have perspective on the story while you are participating in it, which is another reason I don't begrudge Villaneuva his feelings; the second he stands on the mound and thinks about how much better the opposing pitcher is, he's already, on some level, lost.

But the Roy Halladay legacy will survive in Toronto long after Carlos Villanueva has moved on. And that's why, as a Jays fan, I wish I could have been at Rogers Centre on Saturday to show my appreciation.