Thursday, July 5, 2012

Midterms: Rajai and the Blue Jays' Magic Lamp

It's been a long time. I know it has. And as the weeks pass by between my posts and things continue to happen in Blue-Jays-land, and my readers gradually dwindle to zero, I mourn my sloth. My most recent post was about the Brett Lawrie helmet toss. Remember the Brett Lawrie helmet toss? You know, that incident that got everybody fired up, talking Blue Jays, that netted Lawrie disapproving words from everyone from the MLB Network to Jamie Campbell to Ken Rosenthal? Oh, a happier time, when the Blue Jays still had a starting rotation and Kelly Johnson was king of the universe.

Yeah, that Kelly Johnson. Leadoff hitter Kelly Johnson, with his great batting eye and clutch power. Fuck that Aaron Hill, we said. Kelly Johnson plays better defense, we said. Well, fast-forward eight weeks and now Kelly's a gimpy, limited-range #8 hitter with 90 strikeouts and zero power and Aaron Hill can't stop hitting for the cycle.

But the more things know. When Lawrie attacked Bill Miller on May 15th, the Jays were two games over .500, about to fall to one game over. And on July 5th, five starting pitchers and a couple of left fielders later, they're two games over .500. Amazing how a mediocre team can manage to remain so astonishingly mediocre through so much adversity! (And for the record, as much as this applies for the last eight weeks, it's equally fitting for the previous 16 years.)

But back to Kelly Johnson. His gradual descent from first in the order culminated on America Day, as he switched with Aces Up Adam Lind. Lind hitting fifth, you say? After such a tiny sample size? After ample assurances that he wouldn't? Gotta love those inflated batting lines and mistake homers.

So I look up the lineup and gradually strike away names...Arencibia's .260 OBP can stay #9 as long as he's still getting more at bats than Jeff Mathis (who is still, you know, Jeff Mathis)...Yunel has somehow managed to contribute no power while seeing his supposedly proficient walk rate disintegrate...Johnson couldn't buy a hit in June. So that leaves us with two potential candidates: Adam Lind and Rajai Davis.


Okay, I'm calm now. Phew. But as much as I can't really believe it, I'm serious. It goes back, of course, to the old Bill James saw: set up your top four hitters for one inning, and then your bottom four hitters for one inning. The ninth guy is either a pitcher, an equally terrible hitter, or if necessary slots into one of the foursomes. And the top foursome of the Jays lineup has been ungodly of late. Crazy good. (As in, 34.4 batting runs over the month of June versus -11.3 for the rest of the team. I don't even understand what that means and it's still mind-boggling.) Regardless, odds are on any given day that the guy who leads off the second inning is probably going to be the #5 or #6 hitter in a given lineup. And while Rajai's poor on-base skills make him a less than ideal leadoff hitter, I'd argue that that ungodly speed makes him a great second leadoff hitter (especially in the absence of a viable, non-Adam Lind-shaped, 5-hole alternative). Building innings around Rajai, Yunel, and then some three true outcome platoon guys is hardly the worst idea in the world. In a vacuum, because the hitters at the bottom of the order are so much worse than the hitters at the top, you could leave the corpse of Adam Lind at #5 and stick Rajai #6. That way, the highest possible percentage of innings start with Rajai Davis or Brett Lawrie. (If there's one thing JP Arencibia's atrocious line does contribute to, it's Brett Lawrie leading off innings. And when Brett Lawrie leads off innings, god - I mean good - things happen.)

I also think that Davis' hack/slash/speed game could make for some interesting innings if pitchers are putting runners on base for him. If you put Davis at the plate in potential sacrifice situations - say, after a Jose walk and an Edwin single - you open up endless possibilities. The sac bunt with Rajai running is a dicey proposition for the defense at the best of times. And the more the third basemen has to cheat, the more the possibilites of sneaking a ground ball through the hole increase. There's still the vulnerability to breaking balls in the dirt and two feet outside (although slightly less so than a month ago), but I suppose I'll take the odd strikeout over Yunel's patented 6-4-3.

Anyway. This wasn't a post about Rajai. This was a post about the Blue Jays. The Jays, those lovable not-quite-losers who just keep plugging away. Fetch me your diatribes about a-changing-of-the-guard in the AL East. Then look up the Pythagorean records. At halftime 2012:

New York

49 - 32

46.6 - 34.4

47.3 - 33.7

47.4 - 33.6
Red Sox

42 - 40

46.0 - 36.0

47.5 - 34.5

46.6 - 35.4
Blue Jays

42 - 40

43.7 - 38.3

41.3 - 40.7

42.3 - 39.7
Tampa Bay

43 - 39

41.2 - 40.8

39.1 - 42.9

40.5 - 41.5

44 - 37

37.7 - 43.3

36.2 - 44.8

37.9 - 43.1

Squint a little bit and that 1 on the calendar could turn into a zero. 2012=2002. Whether I blog about them or not, whether they're starting Brandon Morrow or Aaron Laffey or Esteban Loaiza or Tanyon Strurtze, whether they're starting  Rajai Davis or Brad Wilkerson or Frank Catalanotto, the Blue Jays are still the Blue Jays.

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