Archive for April, 2009

Is the Blue Jays offense for real?

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Sure, a 15-8 record and a spot atop the AL East division standings is pretty impressive – especially for a team whose pitching staff has been wracked by injuries to start the season. 15-8? Even devout followers of the team are no doubt surprised by the quick start.

But the Toronto Blue Jays know they’ve got a long way to go before critics begin to take them seriously as a contender in baseball’s most competitive division.

Manager Cito Gaston has surely already heard much of the chatter from the skeptics. ‘You haven’t even played a team in your own division yet,’ they might say. ‘Look at the records of the teams you’ve played so far.’

And certainly there’s a lot of truth to those statements. Following action Thursday, the Blue Jays had played a series against each of the AL Central teams, and had also played a pair of three-game sets against the Oakland Athletics and Texas Rangers — both squads in the AL West. Combined, those opponents had posted a record of just 69-76 (.476 winning percentage).

And, the Blue Jays have avoided facing some of the top-tier pitching in the AL East so far – pitchers like C.C. Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and Scott Kazmir.

That said, they’ve still gone up against some good American League arms, including Cliff Lee, Mark Buehrle, Francisco Liriano, Gil Meche and, of course, the league’s best pitcher right now, Zach Greinke. Of those five, they only lost to Greinke and Buehrle.

Meanwhile, the Jays have beaten other pitchers who have put together good numbers in the early part of this season, including Edwin Jackson (1-1, 2.25 ERA, 8 BB, 21 K), Kevin Millwood (2-2, 2.13 ERA, 8 BB, 22 K) and Dallas Braden (2-2, 2.52 ERA).

Overall, the 23 starters who have faced the Blue Jays this season have posted a cumulative record of 31-34 along with a 4.46 ERA in 94 starts. Those numbers may seem mediocre, but they’re actually better than the league average. In fact, the 83 pitchers who have started a game in the AL this season have an average ERA of 4.79 (928 ER in 1,744 IP).

So, contrary to what many of the skeptics have said, the Toronto offense – which entered action Thursday leading the majors in runs (136), hits (242), doubles (56), extra-base hits (88), total bases (391) and batting average (.290) – has not simply feasted on weak pitching to compile those impressive numbers. In fact, it has done so against better than average American League pitching.

First-year veteran?

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

It might be too early to call him a saviour. But Scott Richmond has earned all the praise sent his way so far during the 2009 season.

Just one day removed from a weak pitching performance from David Purcey, the Toronto Blue Jays got exactly what they needed Tuesday night: a quality start. But Richmond provided more than that. The 29-year-old rookie surrendered just one run on five hits in 7.0 innings of work. He also had three walks and five strikeouts en route to improving to 3-0 with a 2.70 ERA this season.

With the win, the Blue Jays remain the only team in the majors yet to lose consecutive games this season.

Once thought to be perhaps the odd man out of the starting rotation, Richmond has essentially risen to the No. 2 position with the injuries to starters Jesse Litsch and Ricky Romero, combined with Purcey’s ineffectiveness thus far.

Coming off a loss, the Blue Jays are accustomed to having ‘the doctor’ – Roy Halladay – to pick up the pieces, righting the ship with a victory. But for the second time this year, they received the same pick-me-up from Richmond. Both were 106-pitch efforts, and both were quality starts.

Not including his mediocre season-opening contest, in which he gave up three runs in just 4.0 innings against Cleveland on April 10, Richmond has gone a perfect 3-0 with a 1.86 ERA in his last three starts.

These certainly aren’t numbers consistent with most rookie pitchers. But then again, Richmond is no ordinary rookie. He’s grinded his way through a career that took him to Independent ball before a return to affiliated baseball.

There’s no doubt he picked up some mental toughness along the way. That’s why he brings more of a veteran presence despite his lack of big-league time, which is a good thing for the Toronto Blue Jays. With a paper thin starting rotation, they don’t just want that veteran presence — they need it.

Mama said there’d be days like this

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Perhaps it’s remarkable that the Jays’ injury-depleted pitching staff hasn’t been exposed more by American League opponents during the early part of this season. But that certainly hasn’t been the case. The patchwork starting rotation has kept the team in most games, and the offense has taken care of the rest.

Neither happened Monday night, though.

David Purcey, struggling all season with his command, gave up six runs on eight hits over just 5.0 innings of work. The young left-hander was tagged for three home runs – two by Jose Guillen during Kansas City’s 7-1 drubbing of the Blue Jays.

And the league-leading offense? It failed to show up last night, as the Jays managed just one run on two hits – their lone run coming on an Adam Lind RBI single in the first inning.

With the loss, Purcey dropped to 0-2 with an unimpressive 7.01 ERA through his first five starts in 2009. With Jesse Litsch and Ricky Romero both still on the shelf, it’s likely Cito Gaston will continue to give the ball to the 27-year-old Purcey. But that may not be the case for long.

The Blue Jay offense has shown itself more than capable of putting of runs. But it’s unreasonable to expect that sort of output all season. That’s why Toronto needs starting pitchers who can keep the club in ballgames. Purcey needs to show he has that ability – and soon. Otherwise, he may wind up the odd man out of an already thin starting pitching corps.

Steady as she goes

Monday, April 27, 2009

It doesn’t have quite the same ring as ‘WAMCO,’ but the first five hitters in Toronto’s lineup, also known as ‘SHRWL,’ are having similar success as the famous one-through-five – White, Alomar, Molitor, Carter, Olerud – that manager Cito Gaston rolled out on a regular basis during the Jays’ 1993 World Series-winning campaign.

Entering action Monday night against the Kansas City Royals, this year’s fab five have produced the following numbers thus far:

Marco Scutaro – The leadoff man is hitting .273 with a .402 on-base percentage. He also leads the team in runs scored (18) and is second in the American League with 17 walks (Jason Bay, 20).

Aaron Hill – Hitting No. 2, Hill has put all concussion-related talk to rest by starting off on a tear. His 33 hits lead the majors, while his .367 batting average, five home runs, 18 RBIs and 54 total bases are all Jays’ team highs.   

Alex Rios & Vernon Wells – The veterans and No. 3 & 4 hitters have struggled a bit early on this season. Among starters, Rios has a team-low .244 (21-for-86) batting average with just one home run and 12 RBIs, while Wells is hitting .274 with three homers and just nine RBIs. But Rios has hit safely in his last eight games, while Wells is hitting .333 (6-for-18) over his last four contests, including a big leadoff double off Scott Linebrink in the eighth inning of yesterday’s 4-3 win over the White Sox.

Adam Lind – The No. 5 hitter has been perhaps the most pleasant surprise for manager Cito Gaston & Co. thus far. The 25-year-old Lind is batting .333/.409/.551 with three home runs and 17 RBIs. He also has a team-leading eight doubles, including one in the first inning yesterday that cashed in Toronto’s first two runs.

Cito has taken the ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ approach with his lineup during the first month of the season. Scutaro, Hill, Rios and Wells have played in all 20 games this year, while Lind has sat out just one. And they’ve all held their respective spots in the batting order.

In fact, Gaston has maintained remarkable consistency across the board so far. Scott Rolen has only batted out of the sixth spot (18 games), Overbay and Millar only out of the seventh spot (13 and 7 games, respectively), Barajas only out of the eighth spot (14), and Travis Snider only out of the No. 9 hole (13).

And as long as the offense keeps rolling, don’t expect anything to change.

Blue Jays by the numbers …

Sunday, April 26, 2009

A look at some of the more notable numbers for the Toronto Blue Jays through action Sunday …

.700 – The Jays’ major-league best winning percentage through their first 20 games (14-6) this season, following Sunday’s 4-3 win over the Chicago White Sox. That marks the second-best start in franchise history – the best being a 15-5 mark to open the world series-winning 1992 campaign.

.602 – Toronto’s winning percentage (65-43) since Cito Gaston took over as manager on June 20, 2008. That also stands as the best mark in the majors during that span. The LA Angels are second at .598 (64-43).

1 – The Jays’ current rank in the majors in the following offensive categories: runs scored (124), hits (218), doubles (50), RBIs (117), total bases (361) and extra-base hits (82). They’re also second in the majors with a .298 team batting average, trailing only the St. Louis Cardinals (.299).

33 – Number of hits Aaron Hill has racked up during the ’09 campaign – best in the majors. The second baseman went 1-for-5 during Sunday’s win, and is now hitting a team-high .367 on the season.

17 – Number of walks drawn by leadoff man Marco Scutaro this year … trails only Jason Bay in the American League. Scutaro has walked more than he has struck out (13), and he currently owns a .402 on-base percentage.

36 – Major league-leading innings pitched total for Toronto ace Roy Halladay thus far in 2009. Halladay went 7.0 innings against the White Sox on Sunday, allowing three runs on eight hits while striking out six in improving to 4-1 on the season.

6 – Number of consecutive series Toronto has won to open the 2009 campaign. That ties a mark set in 2001. Meanwhile, with Sunday’s win over Chicago, the Blue Jays have accomplished a franchise first by winning three straight road series to open the year.

0 – Number of times the Blue Jays have lost consecutive games this year.

Patience is a virtue, they say

Saturday, April 25, 2009

It never fails. Ask a manager what his young player needs to do to have more success at the plate, and he’ll tell you one thing: more discipline.

That’s something that veteran manager Cito Gaston no doubt talked to Adam Lind about during spring training this year. And the 25-year-old has responded. Lind has been far more patient at the plate in 2009, and it has helped him have a great deal of success thus far.

Through 18 games, Toronto’s designated hitter has seen more pitches per plate appearance (4.7) than anyone else in the majors. The result so far? A .347 batting average (25-for-72) along with a .413 on-base percentage.

Last year, meanwhile, Lind saw an average of only 3.7 pitches per plate appearance en route to posting the following numbers: .282/.316/.439.

His 4.7 average this year is even better than the ‘greek god of walks’ himself. Kevin Youkilis is sitting at 4.1 PPA at the moment.

There’s no question: Lind is seeing more pitches, and he’s waiting longer to hit ‘his pitch.’ So far, it’s paying off.

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Note: Now, there’s a big difference between discipline and simply taking pitches for the sake of taking them. Certainly, there’s been a lot of talk about the difference between Gary Denbo’s teaching and Cito Gaston’s hitting philosophy. For one, Cito is okay with players swinging at first pitches. That is, of course, if that first pitch is in the hitter’s ‘wheelhouse’ (for lack of a better term). But if it’s not, Cito doesn’t want you swinging. Patience leads to better pitches to hit, and/or more walks. Just ask Adam Lind.

Hit parade

Friday, April 24, 2009

It’s amazing what difference a year makes. Last season the Jays’ offense held the team back from making a charge in the AL East, while their pitching was tops in the American League. And now? Despite an injury-plagued starting rotation, it’s now the offense that is not only keeping the club above water, but leading it to the top of the league. No joke.

With Friday night’s 14-0 shellacking of the Chicago White Sox, the Blue Jays now own the best record in baseball – 13-5 through 18 games. So, pitching and defense win ballgames, right?

Every starter scored at least one run on Friday, as the Jays pounded out a season-high 21 hits. Five players had three hits apiece – Marco Scutaro, Vernon Wells, Adam Lind, Rod Barajas and Travis Snider, while second baseman Aaron Hill led the club with three RBIs.

Heading into action on Saturday, the Blue Jays lead the majors with 118 runs scored, 200 hits, 339 total bases, 46 doubles, 111 RBIs and a .511 slugging percentage. They’re also tied with the Cardinals with a .302 overall team average.

It’s unknown how long the bats can keep up this pace. But for now, they’re certainly taking the pressure off the team’s pitching staff. And before you know it, Ricky Romero and Jesse Litsch will be back from the disabled list.

Blow Jay

Thursday, April 23, 2009

At this point, it’s hard not to make a case for removing B.J. Ryan from the closing role – at least temporarily.

The left-hander had another dismal performance last night, blowing a three-run lead against the Texas Rangers. He was mightily booed – as mightily as 13,000 fans can boo – at Rogers Centre after his outing, leaving manager Cito Gaston and Co. to ponder  just what is wrong with their $12 million per year closer.

“That’s not going to get it (done) for us,” Gaston told a scrum of reporters following last night’s game – an 8-7 win thanks to veteran Kevin Millar and his walk-off hit in the 11th. “So it’s just one of those things we’ll sit and talk about, I’ll talk to B.J. myself and see what he feels about what’s going on out there. But his control is off.”

When asked specifically whether it was time for B.J. to take a backseat and allow someone else – likely fellow lefty Scott Downs – to handle the closing duties, Gaston wasn’t committing to anything.

“I would say it’s too early” is what Gaston told MLB.com’s Jordan Bastian last night.

The question then becomes: how long does he wait?

Regardless of all the negative pre-season projections, the Toronto Blue Jays are a first-place club right now, sitting with an American League-best 11-5 record through their first 16 contests. But Ryan has been one of the lone dark spots in the early season – the left-hander has blown two saves in his last four outings, and has three total on the season. Overall, he owns an embarrassing 11.12 ERA in just 5 2/3 innings, and has walked more batters (5) than he has struck out (4).

Downs, meanwhile, has been his usual solid self – save for last night, in which he allowed a rare run in the eighth. Prior to that, the lefty had worked seven scoreless innings in relief, strikeout out 13 while walking none. Downs was phenomenal as a setup man last year, posting a 1.78 ERA in 66 appearances out of the bullpen.

How many more shaky outings before this switch is made?

Seventh Heaven

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

It’s a pretty good time to be a No. 7 hitter in the Toronto Blue Jays lineup.

Lyle Overbay, the regular in that spot, has found his groove at the plate recently. After a rough start to the season, in which the 32-year-old batted just .176 (3-for-17) with two RBIs in his first seven games, Overbay has recovered nicely over his last five contests, going 9-for-19 (.474) with a pair of home runs – including a 12th inning walk-off winner against the Oakland A’s last Saturday.

Kevin Millar, meanwhile, was the hero Wednesday night, delivering a walk-off hit of his own to give the Jays an 8-7 win over the Rangers to improve Toronto’s record to an AL East-leading 11-5. Millar’s game-winning hit capped off a night in which he went 3-for-6 with a pair of runs scored. The 37-year-old, who has started most games for the Blue Jays against left-handed pitchers this season, currently sports a .321 (9-for-28) average with three doubles, a home run and seven RBIs.

Combined, the No. 7 spot in the lineup has produced the following numbers since Apr. 15 … .400 (12-for-30) with six walks, seven runs, three doubles, two homers and 10 RBIs.

Young Travis

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

No one told Travis Snider it was going to be easy. Hell, it’s never easy for a 21-year-old rookie in the big leagues – even if that 21-year-old starts the season off by hitting .290 with three multi-hit games and his team’s only two-homer game of the season through his first nine games of the year.

The youngster will no doubt experience his share of ups and downs over the course of the lengthy 162-game season this year. The important thing is that he learns – both from his successes and his mistakes. And a great deal of that learning will involve the mental aspect of the game.

sniderTuesday night offered perhaps the first glimpse of proof that Snider is, indeed, a 21-year-old rookie. He didn’t make a serious gaffe in the field, and he certainly didn’t cost the Blue Jays the game – though ace Roy Halladay did suffer his first loss of the year – a 5-4 decision against the visiting Texas Rangers. But there was evidence that Snider will need to tweak his approach just a little bit as this early season progresses.

First the positive … With an 0-1 count in his first at-bat, Snider lifted a soft fly ball to left that went for a leadoff double in the third inning. He later scored Toronto’s first run on an Alex Rios double. But after that, his evening went sour.

Trailing 3-2 in the bottom of the fourth, Snider came up to the plate with two out and Lyle Overbay on second base. The 21-year-old swung at the first pitch he saw – a 78mph Brandon McCarthy changeup – and grounded out to second to end the inning. Following the swing, Snider flung the bat away in disgust, shouted an expletive after he crossed first base, and slammed his helmet off the ground before handing it to first base coach Dwayne Murphy.

Just like the third inning, Snider led off in the seventh – this time with the Blue Jays trailing 5-3. Against a brand new pitcher, Eddie Guardado, Snider swung at the first pitch and fouled it off. He proceeded to foul off two more pitches before popping out to third baseman Michael Young in foul territory. And then he proceeded to break his bat in two by smashing it over his knee in frustration.

In the eighth, Snider came up in a crucial situation. The Jays, trailing by just a run, had the bases loaded with two out when the rookie stepped to the plate. With Frank Francisco on the mound, Snider swung at the first pitch again, this time flying out to centerfielder Josh Hamilton to end the threat.

Travis Snider has a great deal of talent, there’s no question about that. But, just like any other youngster in the big leagues, he’s going to have to gain some experience and continue to learn as the season moves forward. After tonight’s performance, Cito Gaston and Gene Tenace will no doubt sit down with the youngster for a brief chat.

And they’ll likely tell some combination of the following:

1) Don’t live and die with every at-bat. Emotion is a good thing to have, but sometimes younger players get carried away in their effort to prove themselves.

2) See more pitches. In four at-bats tonight, Snider saw a total of eight pitches. If you want to be successful in the big leagues, especially as a youngster, you’ve got to be more disciplined at the plate.

3) Hit your pitch. You’re in the No. 9 spot. You’re likely to see a lot of good pitches, but make sure you don’t get yourself out by swinging at pitches out of your ‘zone.’

Snider is simply too good to not have success in the major leagues. And it’s only a matter of time. Meanwhile, to Blue Jays fans I offer up the following advice: just sit back and enjoy the ride of this talented youngster’s rookie campaign.