My Sports

24 April 2017

Artificial Turf Blues, Games 17 & 18: Difference Makers

By // Sports

Game 17
5-4 Loss at Anaheim
Season Record: 4-13

Full confession #1: I didn’t see this entire game. As lucrative as blogging for an audience of 7 or 8 readers is in 2017, I had an old buddy from university in town visiting and wanted to hang out with him at a bar. With the sound off. After watching Friday’s interminable abomination, I felt comfortable doing so. I suspected that another night of agonizing over the details and minutiae of the game were going to suck at my soul. So I went out and drank beer while watching the game and listening to the crowd around me do the same. Full confession #2: I’m approximately 53% drunk as I write this. Not quite venturing into “Y’know what your problem is?” territory, but a few times I may suddenly blurt out “You don’t know me!!”. Just forewarning you, ok? Ha. You’re hilarious. I love you, man. I do.

It will be interesting to see if, in 10 or 15 years, Baseball writers/voters will look a player’s total WAR rating while weighing that player’s Hall of Fame eligibility. WAR, as you may or may not know, is an acronym for Wins Above Replacement. It is a measurement that attempts to numerically represent a player’s value in relation to his contemporaries. If your WAR score is positive, you are (in theory), that much better than a league average player.   On the high end of the scale, Mike Trout’s total WAR rating the last few years has been at or around +10 each season. Conversely, last year’s backup Jays catcher Josh Thole’s WAR rating was -0.5. Rather than measuring just ‘baseball card statistics’ like RBI and batting average, WAR attempts to incorporate and measure everything a player does in games (defence, base running, hitting) and illustrate how many more games that player’s team would win in a season using him instead of a league average player.

The reason I started wondering about WAR being considered in HOF voting is a guy like Andrelton Simmons. The Angels shortstop is and has been easily one of the five best defensive players in the game since making his MLB debut in 2012. His defensive prowess alone has made him worth nearly 18 Wins Above Replacement level in those 5+ seasons. His hitting skills have never matched his glove, having been worth just over 7 WAR in that same time. In this game he was the reason that Anaheim won the game – on both sides of the ball. When the guy who hit a go-ahead grand slam later makes an elite defensive play to snuff out a ninth inning rally, it is hard to overstate how incredibly valuable that player is. If Simmons finishes his career with, say, 40 defensive WAR but just 15 or 18 offensive WAR, it will be interesting to see how much HOF support such a case would draw.

Any player with a career WAR rating above 50 certainly deserves Hall of Fame consideration, but most players’ WAR scores are generally accrued through their offensive contributions. The only players in the Hall of Fame that I can think of whose election was based firstly on their defensive excellence, rather than their offensive skills are Ozzie Smith and Phil Rizzuto (and Rizzuto doesn’t belong).  Toronto fans don’t get to see him play often, but Simmons’ singular level of glovework will create a very interesting discussion if it can continue. A few more big hits like he had tonight wouldn’t hurt his case, either.

COULDA, WOULDA, SHOULDA
(after each loss, three things that could have made a difference)

If I had just criticized Justin Smoak’s hitting from the left side of the plate sooner, the Jays COULDA had a really dangerous switch hitter in their lineup. The other day I showed how smart I am by writing that Smoak should just give up hitting left-handed because he was clearly a better hitter from the right side. I might have even inferred that switch-hitting was kinda gimmicky, too. Since then, all Smoak has done is hit bullets from the left side, including a home run and a double to drive in 3 runs, over the last two games. In case you had any doubts, yes…of course I wrote that to motivate him. My sources tell me that he eagerly reads this column every morning with his morning tea. If I didn’t have his interests in mind while I wrote that, I would come off like some jack-ass who just sits on his sofa, shooting his mouth off. Of course, we all know that’s not the case…

If Angels outfielder Kole Calhoun WOULDA been born right-handed, Jose Bautista is representing the tying run at second base (at least) in the eighth inning after crushing a ball into the right-centre field gap. Instead, Calhoun, a lefty who is also one of the better defensive outfielders in the American League, was able to chase down Bautista’s rocket and make a leaping catch to rob him of a key extra-base hit. Having his glove on his right hand almost certainly allowed him to make the catch, as Calhoun went from full speed to full extension to make the catch and with a left-handed glove he wouldn’t have been able to reach out and grab it.

Devon Travis’ ninth inning ground ball up the middle SHOULDA been a single to move the tying run into scoring position with none out with the top of the Blue Jays’ order due up. Instead, tonight’s slightly drunken man-crush Andrelton Simmons dove up the middle to spear Travis’ would-be hit and from the ground, flipped the ball directly from his glove to begin one of the prettiest (and most clutch) double plays you’ll see this season. Travis has had a nightmarish beginning to this season and probably is due a break, but hitting the ball anywhere near Simmons isn’t the way to pad your stats.

NOTES FROM MY COUCH 

I know that in a game they have a lot of time to fill, but announcers need to stop citing statistics like “so and so hit .450 vs. the Blue Jays last year”. 15 or 20 at-bats last season are not enough to be predictive of what will happen in the next 15 or 20 against that team. Especially when the pitchers they are facing this year weren’t even on the Blue Jays roster last season.

Casey Lawrence ‘s first MLB start wasn’t too bad. He’s an easy guy to root for – an undrafted player who began his pro career 7 years ago, he has worked hard to improve and slowly made his way up through every stop of the Blue Jays’ minor league system, finally reaching his dream this weekend. He was a bit unlucky here – his first run allowed was unearned after a rare Darwin Barney error and the grand slam pitch wasn’t bad – inside and off the plate – but Simmons ambushed him, was waiting for it and somehow turned on it to sneak it out to left field. Lawrence probably can stay in the Major Leagues as a long reliever/emergency starter but from what I saw tonight, the lack of a put-away strikeout pitch might ultimately limit his ceiling.

With Troy Tulowitzki again placed on the Disabled List, Ryan Goins is being given an opportunity to show his value. He made a couple of plays at shortstop that no one else on this team could have, including a slick (and pretty clutch) double play with the bases loaded in the 7th inning. A decade ago, some terrible Blue Jays teams never had the guts to make light-hitting John McDonald their every day starting shortstop – a mistake for a team with a lousy pitching staff. Johnny Mac’s defensive skill so far outweighed the team’s other options but he was underappreciated because WAR wasn’t really incorporated into lineup considerations like it might be now. Goins’ situation might be similar. The 2017 Blue Jays have a better pitching staff that induces a lot of ground balls. A guy who gets extra outs with his glove makes a big difference when you don’t strike a lot of guys out. I’m not suggesting replacing Tulowitzki’s steady if unspectacular defence yet but it will be interesting to see if there is a noticeable difference while he’s gone. After watching Simmons and Calhoun save the game for the Angels tonight with their gloves, it might get the Blue Jays’ brass thinking about making sure Goins’ glove is out there somewhere.

Someone named Leonel Campos pitched 1.2 innings for the Jays tonight. I had literally never heard of him before he came to the mound to replace another guy I’d never heard of until a month ago. Let’s hope that trend doesn’t continue all season.

GAME 18
6-2 Win at Anaheim
Season Record: 5-13

Man, I had a white hot post written for tonight. I was going to go nuclear. Not just regular nuclear, either – the kind of fiery heat that you pronounce nuke-u-lar. I was done with diplomacy, over optimism and way, way past positivity. Tonight’s column was going to tear a strip off of the Blue Jays and give them a verbal beating that would leave their hides strawberry red. That’s what I get for starting to write the column before the game was over. In defence to me trying to cheat a little, I don’t think anyone saw that outburst coming.

For most of this game, the Blue Jays were awful, even for the 2017 Blue Jays. Somehow they were finding ways to suck that we still hadn’t seen yet this season. Making its 2017 debut this afternoon – horrible base running!! Despite managing just three singles in 5 innings vs. a pitcher named Daniel Wright, just recently picked up out of the California Penal League (no, not really), Toronto still managed to have baserunners picked off at first, caught stealing and thrown out at second while trying to stretch a single – to left field!!! I don’t know if casual fans realize how hard/rare/humiliating it is to have had just four baserunners at one point in the game and somehow have 75% of them get thrown out on the base paths. This game had all the tell-tale signs of being a new low in a season where that previously seemed almost unfathomable. And then, seemingly out of nowhere…salvation!!

(FYI I just moved the really pissed off column over to my Drafts section. I feel fairly confident I’ll be compelled to yank it out of there soon.)

BASKING IN THE GLORY
(after each win, three things that might have been the difference)

A BIG MOMENT- After Russell Martin led off the eighth with a walk but Chris Coghlan’s “bunt attempt” was popped right to the pitcher, it looked like the Jays were going to lose 1-0 to an Angels team that is really only about 15 players shy of being a contender. To say that the go-ahead home run Devon Travis then hit three pitches later was a surprise is an understatement on par with saying that Chevy Chase looks a little heavier since Caddyshack.

This unicorn moment opened the door for several even more unbelievable events: a Kendrys Morales infield single to the opposite field, a bomb of a home run by Ryan Goins(!) that travelled 427 feet and a new Angels reliever who apparently came to the park straight from filming an adult feature in the Valley whose name is Brooks Pounders (you brought her). All of those things happened within the course of 1 1/2 innings. I think Devon Travis may have unlocked the Matrix. In Orange County.

A BIG PLAY- With two out in the third inning, Marcus Stroman was called for a quick pitch after Angels hitter Cole Kalhoun stepped into the box on a 3-1 count. Calhoun appeared to be ready and once he steps in he really should be ready but home plate umpire Ramon DeJesus determined (as the rule says he may) that Stroman delivered the pitch too quickly and Kalhoun was awarded first base. He later scored the only run Stroman allowed all day when Albert Pujols and Mike Trout singled and, for seven innings, it looked like that controversial run would be the difference in the game. Stroman deserved a better fate and, eventually, the Jays’ offence gave him one. Really though, Kole with a K, why in the hell are you stepping in and out of the box between pitches when there are no runners on base anyway?

A LITTLE THING-  Mike Trout is the best player in the game. Full stop. He may well finish his career as one of the 5 or 10 best MLB players of all time. We now have video evidence that he is not, however, perfect. His cranial cramp in the first inning cost Anaheim a key run. After stealing second base with one out, he inexplicably stood frozen and watched Pujols’ ground ball up the middle go past him before he started to run and was unable to score on the play, much to Albert’s frustration. The next batter CJ Cron promptly grounded into a double play and the Angels had blown a chance at an early lead.

NOTES FROM MY COUCH 

Such a treat to watch the defensive battle that shortstops Ryan Goins and Andrelton Simmons are having in this series. In the first inning, Simmons’ laser quick arm and even quicker thinking got Jose Bautista out at second to snuff out a promising inning. Not to be outdone, Goins then made a diving stab up the middle on a one-hopper that was nearly behind him already and threw him out at first on the very first Angels batter of the day. Artistry.

I think John Gibbons’ ejection was more about his frustration with the way his team is playing than about the disputed quick pitch call. Surely Gibbons and his staff would know that the call is made at the umpire’s discretion and therefore not worth getting thrown out over. I’m not sure why the umpires needed to convene after Gibbons came out of the dugout, and I didn’t agree with the call, but it wasn’t nearly as confusing or unfair as the Blue Jays TV broadcasters made it sound at the time. It was pretty fantastic, though, when a sideline reporter subsequently explained the ruling to them and then Buck blamed the rulebook for being a “confusing piece of literature”.

Now that one Toronto sports team has been eliminated from the playoffs, this win may be a sign that the Blue Jays are starting to realize that they won’t be able to hide their poor play from the city’s collective sports consciousness much longer. No doubt the team’s brass were thrilled to sell 2.5 million tickets before the season started but it will be tough to sell many more than that unless things turn around. Once the Raptors are done, folks will find other things to do than fight construction-filled traffic to get downtown for a Tuesday night game vs. the A’s if the home team is already 10 or 12 games behind in the second week of May.

Stroman has already thrown two complete games this season after no one on the Jays pitching staff had one during the entire 2016 season. Though he did let the quick pitch controversy rattle him in the third inning, once he escaped that, he showcased his newfound maturity by putting it behind him and generally dominated, finishing 9 innings in under 100 pitches.

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