Monday, October 31, 2011

Joey Bats O Lantern

Every year I spend way too much time working on a pumpkin.  The last two years, I've learned how to create a stencil from a photograph (as opposed to simply relying on someone else's stencil), which certainly opens up the possibilities.

This year, I opted for a Joey Bats O'Lantern.  Here is a sneak preview, although it will look better tonight outside:

I'll post some more pics tonight.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Cheater Cheater, Pumkin Eater!

By the time you read this article, no doubt, you will have already heard about the ESPN Magazine story accusing the Blue Jays of stealing signs.  According to the story, last year, four unnamed visiting players witnessed a man dressed in white, sitting just to the right of the centerfield batting eye, signaling to the batter whenever any off-speed pitch (i.e. non-fastball) was being thrown by raising his hands over his head.  The article speculates that this man may have been receiving the signals via blue tooth and then relaying the information to Jays hitters. 

Stealing signs has long been a part of baseball.  In fact, many would suggest that if you are a runner on 2nd base and aren’t trying to steal signs, then you aren’t really trying.  But there is a palpable difference between players on the field stealing signs, and employing a third party (and perhaps additional technology) to do so.  For the record, I’m not sure how I feel about this if one presumes the allegations are true.  But my own feelings aside, this is going to be (or may already be by the time you read this) a very big story.

If the story ended there – with the allegations from the four anonymous opponents, I’m not sure anyone would care.  But the report goes on to do some analysis on the numbers from 2010, and the results are intriguing.  The one piece of information that REALLY caught my attention  was the fact that the differential in home run rate at Rogers Center last year between the home and visiting team was the 3rd highest, in any stadium, in the last 60 years. 

That’s kind of hard to ignore.

Sure, one could argue that this means that there were two other seasons where a team enjoyed an even bigger advantage, and the story doesn’t discuss who those teams were and whether there were any sign stealing allegations in those cases.  At least in this sense, I would agree with the criticism being leveled that the story is not complete yet, and more analysis should have been done.

However, some of the kneejerk reaction from twitter dismissing this article is perhaps not well thought out.  The article itself looks at some of the players with very large home/road splits last year in support of its theory.  As some have pointed out, a few players, including John Buck and Edwin Encarnacion, enjoyed better seasons on the road.  While this is indeed true, that doesn’t change the impact of the large sample, whole team data.  One would expect, even with a sign stealing advantage, that a couple of players would still hit better on the road – perhaps they weren’t involved in the scheme, perhaps they are just not well suited to hitting in the Rogers Centre, perhaps they had one or two unusual hot streaks on the road (anyone recall E5 hitting 6 home runs in a 3 game series in Arizona last year?), or perhaps it is just random statistical variance.  In any event, that does nothing to convince me the story isn’t accurate (which isn’t to say I believe it is either).

Some have also pointed to the fact that the statistical advantage has significantly decreased in 2011, despite allegations that the sign stealing continues.  But the report also reveals that several teams, including the Yankees and Red Sox, have begun mixing their signs even without men on base.  As more teams defend against the alleged sign stealing, one would expect the advantage to diminish, and perhaps that’s what we’re seeing.

Another criticism knocks the article as being incomplete because it admits the evidence is circumstantial.  This is only sort of true – the article says the numbers, by themselves, are circumstantial, and then suggests that when taken in context with the evidence from the unnamed players, it is something more.  Not to get too technical hear, but whether evidence is categorized as circumstantial or direct is nothing more than a label.  Circumstantial evidence (which, by the way includes such things as DNA and other forensic evidence) can be more than compelling enough to convict even in a criminal trial.  In any event, there IS direct evidence here - the eye witness accounts of the four players (which in my mind is far less compelling than the "circumstantial" statistical evidence).

But this is not a criminal trial.  This is the court of public opinion, and in so far as it relates to baseball, the standard of proof is far lower than beyond a reasonable doubt.  The real question is, do you believe the evidence is strong enough?  I’m not sure that I’m convinced, but I greatly look forward to what I’m sure will be countless articles that provide far more in depth analysis to try to get at the truth. 

And apparently, that begins at 3:45 when AA addresses these allegations in a press conference.  This should be interesting…

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Lamenting the Decision to Retire Alomar's #12

ESPN is reporting that the Blue Jays are set to retire Roberto Alomar's number 12 jersey during a ceremony prior to the game on July 31, which not coincidentally, is the same date as a previously scheduled Roberto Alomar bobblehead giveaway.

I'm not opposed to the concept of retiring numbers.  Most people perceive this to be the highest honor a team can bestow on one of its players.  However, the Blue Jays have never done this before, instead opting to honor their great players in the "Ring of Excellence" where their name is displayed prominently, although their jersey numbers may be worn by future players.  IF the Jays are going to start the practice of retiring numbers, then there should be some very simple criteria, which I would succinctly suggest be greatness, longevity and character.  Any player who's number is to be retired should rate very highly in at least two of these categories and at least reasonably well in the third.  

If we were to look at a hypothetical player who perhaps wasn't the best in the game at his position but was still very good, played for the home town team long enough to own numerous team records and was considered by most to be a model citizen, I suggest that they would be worthy (think Carlos Delgado perhaps).  By contrast, a player who played at an exceptionally high level, but wasn't here long, and was reviled by teammates, would not be worthy (*cough* Clemens *cough*).

I loved Alomar when he was here.  He was brilliant defensively.  He had great speed, which he knew how to use.  He hit for average and even had some power to go along with it.  He was an exceptionally smart player too.  His game didn't have any holes.  He was the best player on the greatest teams in Blue Jays history, including the 92 and 93 championship seasons.  And most recently, he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, becoming the first player to enter the Hall wearing a Jays cap.

But beyond that, he hit what is, in my opinion, the biggest home run in Blue Jays history - a 2 run shot off Eckersley in the top of the 9th in game 4 of the 92 ALCS that tied the game. [Yes, I know Joe Carter's home run "won" the World Series.  But even if Joe Carter doesn't hit that home run, the Jays could still have won in game 7.  And even if they didn't win in 93, they had already won in 92.  By comparison, if Alomar doesn't hit that home run, the Jays - who at that time had a well-deserved reputation as chokers after their collapse in the 85 LCS, 87 vs Detroit, and 91 ALCS - are probably only 50/50 to beat Oakland and if they don't win, who konws if they ever sign Molitor and Stewart in 93].  Incidentally, the bobblehead depicts Alomar in the famous image of him with both arms raised and index fingers pionting to the sky after hitting the home run off Eckersley.

The problem I have is that although Alomar certainly qualifies in one of the three categories (greatness), he falls somewhat short in the other two.

For all the memories, he was only a Blue Jay for 5 seasons.  Consequently, his name is conspicuous by its absence from virtually all Blue Jays career records.  Also, at least from a statistical standpoint, his best and third best career seasons came as a member of the Cleveland Indians, several years after leaving Toronto.  I don't necessarily count this against him, but to the extent his number is being retired in recognition of his impending Hall of Fame induction, this is somewhat misguided.  

Then there is the whole character issue.  For almost the entire time he was in Toronto, he was the darling of the city.  His teammates seemed to admire him, the fans adored him, the media treated him well and corporations lined up to have him schill for their brands ("Catch the Taste!!").  But then, in '95 the Jays were terrible and Alomar didn't want to be here.  When the trade deadline came and went and he was still listening to two anthems before every game, he sulked and eventually quit on the team.  

But even if you're able to sweep the 95 season under the rug, it's pretty hard to forget the spitting incident the following year in Toronto when Alomar was wearing an Orioles uniform.  And if you think I'm being overly harsh or unforgiving, consider how the Hall of Fame voters made Robbie sit on the pine for a year as punishment for this incident before electing him to the Hall this year.  How else can one explain the unprecedented increase in votes from last year to this year?  Did the writers suddenly find some new appreciation for his career?  Hardly.

Perhaps if the Jays had already retired someone else's number, I'd feel differently.  But to do this now feels...wrong.  

Friday, April 8, 2011

How Do You Spell Relief? And other musings...

One week into the season, and the early returns are very promising in Blue Jay land.  Not so overwhelmingly great that I’ve changed my expectations for the v.2011, but good enough that I’m able to hold onto that flicker of hope that maybe, if all everything breaks their way, the Jays could maybe, just maybe, sneak into the wild card spot.  I don’t believe it will happen, but there is still that faint flicker of hope.

I don’t know that we’ve really learned anything much about this team, other than that finally, there is a manager capable and willing to use his roster effectively to maximize their chances of winning on a daily basis.  I haven’t agreed with everything Farrell has done so far (Rivera batting second on one occasion, and a sacrifice bunt in the 7th inning last Sunday come to mind), but overwhelmingly, the decisions made by the manager have been well thought out and logical.

While there have been some standout performances in the early part of the season (RR Cool J, Drabek, Escobar, Lind and Snider come to mind), the real hero of this team so far has been the bullpen.  Heading into yesterday’s contest, collectively they had pitched 18 innings and had allowed only two earned runs.  That’s phenomenal production out of a group that many thought would the team's Achilles heel.

True, Jason Frasor coughed up a lead yesterday leading to the Jays’ second loss on the year, but by all accounts he pitched well, and but for Romero making a poor decision not to go for the lead runner at third on a sacrifice bunt, and a wild pitch by Frasor on a third strike that ought to have been blocked, the Jays could easily be 5-1. 

The reality is that this bullpen will have some ups and downs.  I’m not sure Francisco or Dotel will ever be so effective that we, as Jays fans, will feel safe when they come in to protect the lead as we did in 2006 with BJ Ryan, and in 1994 with Duane Ward.  But that’s an incredibly high standard.  And more importantly, Farrell has already shown a willingness to eschew the dogmatic use of “closers” to start and finish the ninth inning (as he did Wednesday when he left Rzep in for the first batter in the ninth before bringing in Rauch).  Putting your relief pitchers in the best possible situation for them to succeed gives the relief staff, as a group, a significant edge over any relief corps in this city in years (ever?). 

Even more impressive, perhaps, is the depth.  With Dotel back in the fold, the Jays have a lights out ROOGY, a significant asset when used properly.  His return pushed the very impressive Casey Janssen to Vegas.  When Francisco  and Morrow come back, that pushes two more on a direct flight to sin city (presuming Jo-Jo Reyes moves to the bullpen upon Morrow’s return).

They may get almost no name recognition, but the Jays’ bullpen is going to keep this team in most games.

Don’t wanna say I told ya so, but…

In a move that was surprising to some, Zach Stewart, who put up very comparable number to Kyle Drabek last year when the two were teammates for the AA Fishercats, will start the season in New Hampshire again.  His performance last year was clearly sufficient to earn a promotion to AAA, if not the major leagues.  So one might be left to wonder whether his stock has fallen with management.  Not so.

AA (Alex, not the team) was quoted saying they didn’t want to expose Stewart to the very rough pitching environment in the PCL and Vegas in particular, and that if a need for a starter arose, they would consider promoting Stewart directly from AA (the team, not Alex). 

For the few of you out there that have been reading my rambling thoughts, this is just further evidence of the urgent need for the Jays to find a new top minor league affiliate.  If you won’t send your top pitching prospects to your AAA team, it really ties your hands when trying to develop your pitchers.  Let’s hope that this doesn’t set back Stewart significantly.

Hatin’ on the BoSox

I can’t remember a team going into a season as such a heavy favourite to win the World Series as Boston was to start this season.  I don’t recall the exact number, but something like 28 of 33 “experts” at ESPN picked Boston to win it all this year.

And so forgive me if I’m feeling a bit Schadenfreude-y with Sawx off to an 0-6 start.  I find myself hoping they will lose all three games this weekend, even though they’re facing the evil empire. 

I still think they’re best team in baseball, but even if they are, at some point they will dig themselves too big a hole to climb out of.  Almost certainly, we haven’t reached that point yet – but if they were to get swept this weekend in New York, it’s pretty difficult to see them bouncing back.

With John Lackey getting the start today, it’s quite possible the shit show will continue for at least one more day. 

If you want updates on new postings, follow me on twitter @bluejaysonfire.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Coming (Very) Soon - Brett Lawrie??

The Jays made a couple of minor moves today...or at least, they seem minor.  First, they announced a positional shuffle - Joey Bats moves back to right field, which apparently will now (again) be his regular position, with EE5 getting the nod again at 3rd, and Juan Rivera sliding into the DH spot.  The second move was to acquire 2B/3B Jayson Nix from the Indians for cash/future considerations.

Perhaps I'm reading into this, and I certainly haven't heard AA speak yet about these moves, so what I'm about to say here is all conjecture.  But it would appear to me that Brett Lawrie is going to be making his major league debut sooner than later.  No, I'm not saying they're going to recall him from minor league camp and make him part of the opening day roster.  But a move like this only makes sense if they truly believe that Lawrie is going to be ready well before the end of this season.

Lets take a step back though...

Generally, I think Joey Bats is roughly as valuable defensively at third as he is in right field, all other things being equal.  Last I checked, this was supported by the advanced fielding metrics (but this is a bit of a rush job, so if this has changed, feel free to state your case in the comments).  The reason Bautista was tabbed to play third in the first place was because the Jays simply didn't have any better options.

That hasn't changed.

Encarnacion (presumably) still can't be trusted throwing accross the diamond, and nothing in Jayson Nix' past suggests he is anything more than a complementary player, if that (albeit, with a fair amount of power).  The only thing that has changed since the initial decision was made to play Bautista at third and Rivera in right field, is that management has had a month to evaluate Rivera's defensive ability up close.  I haven't seen enough of Rivera to add any insight.  That said, Rivera has a reputation as a poor, but not terrible outfielder.

So I suppose one possibility is that they simply felt that as bad as Encarnacion is at 3rd, Rivera would have been worse in right field.  Having seen EE5 for more than a full season, I find this very difficult to believe.

What seems more likely is that the Jays felt that Lawrie was further ahead of schedule than they originally anticipated.  The reports from Florida were almost unanimous in this conclusion.  If that is the case, then shifting Bautista to right field now makes perfect sense.  I suspect that management would prefer that the regulars get comfortable in their positions, and moving Bautista to right field now, before the season begins (where he has explicitly expressed a preference for playing) accomplishes this.  In this context, adding Jayson Nix then makes some sense - think of Nix as short term EE5 insurance.

Again, I don't know if I'm right about any of this.  And by all means, if something else makes more sense, feel free to let me know in the comments section.  But just to be clear, I still expect that Lawrie will have to play a few weeks in Vegas at a minimum.  They may still very well keep him there until early June to ensure he doesn't get Super 2 status.  But I would be very surprised if he wasn't cashing a major league paycheck by the All-Star break.

Of course, even if I'm absolutely correct, none of this is written in stone.  Lawrie could get injured or flame out.  But what I don't see is any scenario where the play of anyone on the major league roster would prevent this from happening (again, assuming I'm right in the first place).  If one or both of EE5 or Rivera do not play well, then they can be easily benched as the Jays have no long term commitment to either.  And even if they are both playing very well, this only means that both are more easily moved to a team that needs a bat.  It seems like the worst kept secret in Blue Jay land that the Jays have been looking to move Rivera since the first day Vernon donned a halo.

We shall see...

Friday, March 25, 2011

Random Thoughts on Spring Training

Remember when Sil Campusano was the Jays
Opening Day centerfielder, forcing George Bell
to DH?  That has nothing to do with this article.

Yes, I know it’s been a while.  Life has been getting in the way, blah, blah, blah.  I’ll try to do better.  Let’s move on.

Some random thoughts about the Jays, one week away from opening night…

Brandon Morrow
I’m sure I’m not the only one whose heart skipped a beat or two upon learning that Morrow would start the year on the DL.  Although Romero has been named the opening day starter (and the nominal #1 in the rotation), it’s Brandon Morrow that many believe will be the anchor of the rotation this year and into the future (myself included). 

On further reflection though, I think there’s probably nothing to worry about.  Morrow himself has indicated he feels plenty capable to start the season and was disappointed that he was placed on the disabled list, even if the retroactive placement will allow him to miss only one start.  And while I generally wouldn’t trust what a player says for public consumption, particularly about their own injury, all the external factors suggest this "injury" is truly insignificant.

In the short term, starting Morrow on the DL allows the Jays to break camp with both Jesse Litsch and Jo-Jo Reyes in the starting rotation.  Litsch has shown no ill-effects from his Tommy John surgery two years ago and his hip surgery last autumn, and seems poised to recapture the form that allowed him to pitch very effectively for the better part of two seasons.  Reyes (obtained with Yunel in the Alex Gonzalez deal) has loads of ability but has never been able to put it together at the major league level – at least until this spring.  While the usual spring training caveats apply (Gabe Gross, Eddie Zosky…Jerry Schunk!), Jo-Jo was lights out against the Yankees earlier this week.  With Reyes out of options, the Jays must keep him on the roster or risk losing him through waivers.  With the bullpen already overcrowded (and more so now that R-Zep has been relegated to LOOGY duty), the Jays were in a bind with 6 guys for 5 slots.  Putting Morrow on the DL allows them to delay making a decision about their rotation for an extra week.  Maybe that just delays the inevitable, but if one of the other five pulls up lame out of the gate, this will be seen as a very savvy move.

In the long term, and perhaps more subtly, the Jays may simply view this as a way to redistribute Morrow’s innings for greater effect.  Remember, Morrow was bounced around between the bullpen and rotation for a few years while with Seattle, and was limited to under 150 innings last season.  In all likelihood, the Jays won’t allow him to pitch even 200 innings this year, so assuming he stays healthy, he will almost certainly be shut down again before the end of the season.  If this is indeed the situation, then if Morrow only misses one start at the beginning of the season, it gives him one extra start at the end before he’s shut down.  And maybe I’m overanalyzing this a bit, but the start he’s missing would have either been Minnesota (presuming he’s slotted 1-3) or Oakland (if he would have been slotted 4 or 5 in the rotation).  Presuming an innings limit of 190-200, he likely would be shut down in early-mid September.  From September 1-18, the Jays play 16 games, of which 12 pit them against New York and Boston.  It seems to me this a better use of a limited asset.

Juan Rivera
It’s kind of odd how little has been written about Rivera since he became Blue Jays property in the Wells trade.  Certainly, he wasn’t very effective in 2010, but he’s had some very good years in the not-so-distant-past, and based solely on the numbers, has hit very well this spring. To the extent anything has been written about him, it has almost always made reference to his likely impending departure just as soon as AA can find a trading partner. 

I’m certainly not about to suggest that he’s going to become the centerpiece of the Jays future, or that he should ever block the progress of Brett Lawrie when he’s ready, but I think Rivera is being seriously undervalued and might put up some very good numbers. 

Brett Lawrie
The kid looks like the real deal.  Don’t be fooled by his seemingly pedestrian minor league numbers.  He’s 1.5-2 years younger than his competition and every scouting report I’ve read on him suggests he’s going to be a monster at the dish.  The real concern has always been his defense. 

Lawrie was drafted as a catcher and was immediately moved to 2nd base in the Brewers system.  Most scouting reports were in agreement that although he is athletic, he had difficulty with his footwork and with a lot of improvement might one day be an average to slightly below average secondbaseman, but in all likelihood, a corner outfielder. 

All of which is to say that the biggest issue with Lawrie was finding a spot for him to stand whilst holding a glove.  From the limited glimpses I’ve had of him on television this month, he’s appeared quite comfortable at his new position – 3rd base.  But those that have watched him more closely this spring have been universal in their praise for how quickly Lawrie has adapted to the hot corner. 

As well as he played this spring, sending him down to AAA was the certainly the right move.  No need to start the service clock yet, and having a few months to work through growing pains at his new position, while (hopefully) crushing the ball in the thin air of Las Vegas.  Even if he doesn’t make an appearance until next season, he’ll only be 22 years old – still exceptionally young for the major leagues.

John Farrell Taking Over
I’ve taken as an article of faith the (now) conventional wisdom that a manager can really only impact a team’s record on the margins, not amounting to much more than two wins either way, if that.

But what if that’s not the case?  For all the analysis I’ve read on the subject, and notwithstanding any simulations that support that conclusion, without a parallel universe, we can’t really know if that is actually true.

I don’t want to make this a Cito-bitch-fest – for all his faults, he had strengths as well, not the least of which is the fact that he had enough faith in Jose Bautista to play him as a regular at the beginning of last season, and I doubt anyone else employed as a manager in the major leagues would have done the same (I’m operating on the assumption that Cito had full control of making the line-up card, which always seemed to be the case).

But Cito DID have many faults.  I suspect if you’re not familiar with them, you’re probably not reading this, but suffice it to say that Cito was a man set in his ways, and his ways frequently defied logic (whether you define “logic” as being the domain of the statheads or old school baseball men, I assure you, Cito still offended the concept of logic).

I’ve watched approximately 13 innings of spring training baseball this year, and even if I’d seen plenty more, I would never even begin to judge a manager for his decisions in Grapefruit League action.  All of which is to say, I really can’t say with any degree of certainty what kind of decisions John Farrell will make when the season starts. 

But the man certainly talks a good game.  Listen to him for 5 minutes and you can’t deny that he at least sounds like a guy that gets it.  He’s educated, has experience as an executive, as a coach and with player development, not to mention significant experience playing at the major league level.  If you were to build the ideal manager from scratch, I suspect, at least on the surface, he would like John Farrell (or at least, his resume would like John Farrell’s). 

None of this means he actually will be a good manager, but the potential is there.  And if you’ll permit me to dream, just for a moment, IF he becomes the great manager his CV portends, and IF the role of the manager is somehow more significant than we’ve come to believe, might a contending team be on the very near horizon?