My Sports

07 June 2017

Artificial Turf Blues Games 56-58: Reliever Rankings

By // Sports

GAME 56
7-0 Loss vs. NYYankees
Season Record: 27-29

As a complement to last month’s completely ramshackle list of the Top 25 offensive seasons in Blue Jays history, today I will begin a list of the Top 25 pitching seasons in Toronto’s history. I have arbitrarily decided to split the seasons up into relievers and starters. Despite some folks’ ideology that ‘an inning is an inning’ and that pitchers should all be evaluated the same, I feel that the demands and measurements between starters and relievers are so different that they deserve their own lists. If you are displeased with this notion, I will gladly refund your subscription money.

Today, we begin with seasons #10, 9 and 8 for relievers in Blue Jays history.

Note: I don’t remember this person, but apparently in 1978 the Jays had a 20 year-old relief pitcher named Victor Cruz. He threw 47.1 innings that season, his only year in Toronto, with an ERA of 1.71 and did not allow a home run the entire season before he was traded to Cleveland for future A.L. Rookie of the Year Alfredo Griffin. One would assume that his 1978 numbers would have earned him a spot on this list, but two for two reasons, he didn’t quite make it. (1) Despite his shiny ERA, he did still issue 35 walks that year, which is terrible. (2) I don’t think he actually ever existed. Look at that photo below, one of the few of him in a Jays uniform that I could find. It looks like something Jason Bourne would unearth in a file that had been buried in a dusty safety deposit box somewhere in Bahrain. No way that guy was real.

10. CASEY JANSSEN (2012) – A fourth round draft pick of the Blue Jays as a starting pitcher out of UCLA in 2004, Janssen was hardly the guy who would come to mind when you dreamed of guys who you want to be your team’s closer. Despite lacking radar gun-popping stuff, Jansen was nonetheless very effective for several years in Toronto, with three consecutive seasons with an ERA under 2.6. He was slightly unorthodox, especially at the time, effectively combining elite location with a dynamic curve ball as an out pitch. In 2012 he allowed just 44 hits and 11 walks over 63.2 innings for a WHIP of just 0.864. He also struck out over one batter per inning and recorded 22 saves in his first of three seasons as the Blue Jays’ closer. He also married a girl from Fort Erie. As someone who grew up in the Niagara area, I can only wish him luck.

9. ROBERTO OSUNA (2016) – In his first full season as the Jays’ closer, the 21 year-old Osuna had as good a season as any reliever his age since the advent of the role. He improved upon his impressive rookie season (where he also became the youngest pitcher in team history), by allowing just 55 hits and 10 unintentional walks in 74 innings while striking out 82 batters for a 160 ERA+ and a .932 WHIP in 2016. He also had 36 saves for a team that was in a tight playoff race the entire season, and then threw 9 scoreless innings during that year’s playoffs. To be so steadfast and unflappable at such a young age is rare, but I suppose if you started pitching in the Mexican Leagues at age 16, closing out games at some place called Guaranteed Rate Field doesn’t seem so daunting.

8. DUANE WARD (1992) the season before he ascended to the role of Blue Jays’ closer, Duane Ward might have been the most valuable reliever in baseball (even though Dennis Eckersley won the Cy Young and MVP awards that year – don’t get me started). Before closer Tom Henke entered games in the ninth, Ward-O was often relied upon to appear for longer than just one inning and thrived in that role by featuring one of the best breaking balls in team history. Appearing in 79 games that year, he struck out 103 batters, allowed just 76 hits and finished with an ERA+ of 209. He was one of the first official ‘set-up men’ I can remember, and his ‘lights out’ efforts as a bridge to Henke were immeasurably important to a team that did not have the impressive offence that the 1993 team and needed to hold on and win a lot of low-scoring, close games.

Speaking of relief pitching…

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

In the third inning, Joe Biagini was cruising along, having not allowed a hit to any of the first eight Yankee hitters when superstar #9 hitter Rob Refsnyder hit a ground ball to shortstop that SHOULDA been the second out of the inning. Troy Tulowitzki had the ball bounce up on him a bit, then retrieved the ball with enough time to still make a play at first but then dropped it again. That error cost Biagini dearly when, after retiring Brett Gardner for the second (should have been third) out, Aaron Hicks fought off a good 2-2 pitch for a bloop double down the right field line to score Refsnyder and then Aaron Judge hammered a double to deep centre field that (once again this season) just got past the outstretched glove of Kevin Pillar. Biagini having to face those two rather than being out of the inning was a cruel fate for him to suffer on a day where he deserved better. Frankly, Joe had more than his share of good fortune as a relief pitcher. Now it seems as though karma is giving him a few extra kicks in the jockstrap, evening things out since he’s moved to the rotation. The only other runs he allowed today were on two more bloop doubles in the seventh inning.

If someone just COULDA slipped Jason Grilli some bad mussels or undercooked chicken – or some of that stuff Owen Wilson squirted into Bradley Cooper’s wine glass in Wedding Crashers, he might have been able to avoid the ignominy of today’s ‘relief’ appearance. If you asked Grilli, I suspect he’d tell you that hugging a toilet all day with a rampaging dose of Salmonella would be infinitely preferable to becoming the first Jays pitcher ever to allow four home runs in the same inning. If I hear one more media person comment on how Grilli is ‘still throwing 94 MPH’ I’m going to explode. Honestly, who gives a shit how hard he throws? If he isn’t getting anyone out (and an 8.15 ERA tells me that he probably isn’t), it doesn’t matter how hard he’s throwing. We aren’t at a pitchin’ contest at the County Fair. 94 MPH with a frisbee for a breaking pitch isn’t fooling anyone. Look, Grilli seems like a good dude and he’s had a nice long career. It would be a shame if the last outing of that career were as awful as that one, but with several younger bullpen arms throwing well down the highway in Buffalo, the Grim Reaper is very close to hopping in an Uber and heading for the border…luckily for Grilli it’s construction season and he knows it would take him about 9 days in QEW traffic so he’s safe for now…

I can discuss defensive miscues and poor relief pitching, but anytime you face a rookie pitcher making his 11th MLB start and can only muster three singles (two from your #9 hitting backup catcher) in six innings against him, the blame lies squarely with the offence. Yes, 24 year-old Jordan Montgomery got away with some pitches and caught a few favourable strike calls from home plate ump Eric Cooper, but clearly the Jays WOULDA given themselves a much better shot if they’d stolen a copy of the Yankees’ advance scouting report. I can probably sum that report up thusly – ready? Ahem…”Throw them a lot of curve balls.”. It’s a similar recipe to what the Indians cooked up in last year’s ALCS and until Toronto proves that they can adapt to it, teams are going to continue to go back to it. Toronto are now 0-for-20 with runners in scoring position in this series vs. the Yankees (and haven’t faced their #1 or #2 starter yet), so I’d say so far they haven’t adapted much. Jason Bourne could probably dig that report up 10 years from now and it’d still be valid. The accompanying photos just wouldn’t have afros that looked as cool.

NOTE FROM MY COUCH

It was small consolation in such a joyless game, but in the seventh inning it was nice to watch Josh Donaldson conduct a master class on how to properly execute a rundown. With the gregarious Didi Gregorius foolishly taking off for third on a ground ball to Tulowitzki at short, Donaldson took the throw and just forced Gregorius to run back toward second until he had to stop, tagging him out himself without making a throw and not allowing the runner at first to get to second either. I hope Devon Travis was taking notes.

GAME 57
3-2 Win vs. NYYankees
Season Record: 28-29

Firstly, we continue with our countdown of the best seasons by a reliever in Blue Jays history.

7. JEREMY ACCARDO (2007) – Largely forgotten because 2007 was the only season where he managed to stay healthy and ‘put it all together’, at the time the 25 year-old Accardo looked like he could have been a really nice young pitcher, especially since he was acquired from the Giants in exchange for much-loathed weirdo infielder Shea Hillenbrand. Replacing an injured B.J. Ryan and an ineffective Jason Frasor as the team’s closer in 2007, Accardo began the season with 21 consecutive scoreless innings and finished it with 30 saves and just 51 hits allowed in 67.1 innings, for a 2.14 ERA that was less than half of the league average that year.

6. SCOTT DOWNS (2008) – Released by the Washington Nationals before they’d ever played a game, Downs was nothing more than a waiver wire pick up by Jays G.M. J.P. Ricciardi in December 2004. Once he gave up life as a starting pitcher, Downs became perhaps the most effective left-handed reliever in Blue Jays history. He wasn’t just a LOOGY either. Effective against both lefties and righties, he appeared in 262 games as the Blue Jays’ primary set-up man between 2007 and 2010. He was even named the team’s primary closer for half of a season after B.J. Ryan was released (sniffle). 2008 was the finest of his Toronto seasons, though, as he allowed just 54 hits in 70.2 innings to the tune of a 1.78 ERA.

5. TOM HENKE (1987) – It is not hyperbole to suggest that Tom Henke’s 1985 arrival in Toronto was the final step in their becoming a playoff team. The days of using Joey McLaughlin or Bill Caudill as their closer in the early 80’s were painful reminders that the Blue Jays weren’t ready for Prime Time quite yet. After helping Toronto reach their first playoff berth in his first season after being stolen away from Texas, Henke had his second-best year in 1987 (foreshadowing alert) . Throwing 94 innings (!), allowing just 62 hits (!!) while striking out 128 batters (!!!) for a 0.926 WHIP, Henke also led the A.L. with 34 saves – many of which lasted more than one inning. The man who was nicknamed “The Terminator” despite looking like he was there to adjust someone’s orthodontic headgear was a towering figure at the end of games that the Blue Jays had always lacked.

4. B.J. RYAN (2006) – I’m not a real writer so I don’t even have to feign neutrality here. B.J. Ryan is my favourite closer in Blue Jays history. Even though the team sucked at the time and he was only really effective for 1 1/2 of the 5 years of his ridiculous contract, it was still pure visceral bliss when he came into games. A gigantic left-hander and self-professed redneck, his entrances at home were straight out of the WWE playbook. Terrible metal music would start to blast, the outfield display boards would all show flames and he’d explode from the bullpen, running to the mound at full speed like tonight he was about to challenge Triple H for the Intercontinental Title. You’d swear you could hear Jim Ross yelling “Mah God…that’s B.J. Ryan’s music!!” 2006 was really the only year he was worthy of the money or the theatricality, as he allowed just 42 hits in 72 innings while striking out 86 poor souls. He also had 38 saves and an minuscule 1.37 ERA. Some fires just burn too bright, I suppose. He battled injuries after that season and his arm pretty much fell off two years later, but much like the Gangnam Style phenomenon that changed us all so profoundly a few years back, it was beautiful while it lasted.

Well, you didn’t honestly expect anything less on Josh Donaldson Bobblehead Day, did you?

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

A BIG PLAY – With the game tied at 2 in the eighth inning, the Jays had finally rid themselves of Yankees starter Luis Severino and were now facing New York set-up man and Kareem Abdul Jabbar doppelganger Tyler Clippard. Leading off the inning, Donaldson was able to work the count to 3-1. He sat on a changeup, got it and missed it, but in a perfect display of his preternatural ability to guess right along with even good pitchers, he then hopped all over a high, running fastball and hit it out over the 375 ft. sign in right centre field to give the Jays the game-winning run. Donaldson’s combination of physical abilities and mental acuity make him the guy I wouldn’t trade for anybody. He’s a super hero, folks. I don’t know what else to say, other than just enjoy wearing his Underoos the next season and a half.

A BIG MOMENT – The Yankees have a very nice set of young position players, but before we hand them a few more World Series trophies in the next 10 years, my question was, “but who’s going to be their #1 pitcher?”. You saw the answer today. Severino was absolutely dominant today, mixing a 99 MPH fastball with a knee-buckling breaking ball, making even the Jays’ best hitters look absolutely lost for most of the afternoon. With two outs in the sixth inning, he was cruising along having allowed just four hits and it felt like the story of this game was pretty much written. Despite a winning homestand, the Jays hadn’t scored for 15 straight innings and seemed fated to lose ground to the Yankees by dropping 3 of 4 this weekend. Kendrys Morales’ opposite field single didn’t do a lot to change that feeling, but on the very next pitch Justin Smoak flipped the script. The Jays’ (dare I say it) All-Star worthy first baseman crushed the first pitch he saw – a breaking ball, no less – into the WestJet flight deck for a game-tying, rejuvenating home run. It was one of the very few bad pitches Severino threw on the day and Smoak, the Jays’ most consistent hitter this season, punished him for it.

…AND A LITTLE THING – Before he was plunked in the wrist with an errant Severino fastball and had to leave the game, Devon Travis pulled off one of the nicest defensive plays he’s made this season to turn a double play and erase a leadoff single with the game tied in the seventh inning. On a slow roller from Didi Gregorius, Travis charged the ball, tagged runner Aaron Hicks and then quickly flipped the ball to his throwing hand to get Didi Gregorius (I just love saying his name) at first by a step. After semi-miraculously coming back to tie the game in the previous inning, the last thing the Jays wanted was to give the lead right back and Travis’ quick thinking and quick hands ended any thoughts of that happening. Seems unfair if he has to miss time now with a wrist injury just after making such a fine play. Just don’t blame Didi Gregorius (tee hee).

NOTES FROM MY COUCH

It bears repeating even if you read it from me yesterday, because it continued today: the Jays managed to split a four game series with the division leaders despite going 0-for-24 with runners in scoring position. That may never happen again anywhere. Yes, they’ll take it, but a couple of well-timed home runs can’t obfuscate the reality that the Yankees look like a better team right now.

Love that Roberto Osuna struck out Aaron “A Town On Two Legs” Judge swinging by climbing the ladder with three fastballs yesterday and today, he got him with sliders low and away. That slider made the Yankees 3-4-5 hitters look foolish today (all three went down swinging) and gave them all something else to think about for next time. That was sexy pitching. Oh, to be so young and so gifted…

GAME 58
5-3 Loss at Oakland
Season Record: 27-29

And now, we conclude our list with the three best relief seasons in Toronto Blue Jays history:

3. DUANE WARD (1993) – In his only season as the Jays’ full-time closer, Ward was an absolute horse for Toronto’s second consecutive World Series-winning team. Leading the American League with 45 saves, the sweatiest pitcher in team history (he was the human equivalent of a moist towelette before he ever even throw a pitch!) also allowed just 49 hits in 71.2 innings while striking out 97 batters for a 2.13 ERA. He also won a game and saved 4 more in that year’s playoffs. This was the last of 6 consecutive excellent seasons of relief pitching in which he averaged over 100 innings a year. The high leverage workload cost him dearly, though – despite being just 29 in ’93, he threw just 2.2 MLB innings for the rest of his career when his shoulder was ravaged by injury and overuse.

2. TOM HENKE (1989) – Despite splitting save opportunities with Ward this season, Henke was never better. Using his devastating forkball as his out pitch, he struck out 116 batters over 89 innings and had a 1.92 ERA, while making 3 playoff appearances in October. It is interesting that by the time the Blue Jays reached the World Series in 1992, Henke was starting to wear down – that season, his saves often felt like highwire acts and were more of a struggle for him. He even blew a save in Game 6 of the 1992 World Series in Atlanta, though Toronto did come back to win, but for his six seasons before that he was as reliable and unflappable as they come. Jays fans could not have been more spoiled than to have Ward and Henke, both at their absolute peaks for 5 straight years. I can’t think of any teams in MLB history to have been afforded such luxury.

1. MARK EICHHORN (1986) – Oh, you didn’t know? Well, let me just fill you in. A highly touted second round draft pick in 1979 by the Blue Jays, “Ike” was a prodigious talent who made his MLB debut for Toronto at the age of 21, but then suffered a severe arm injury that caused him to miss 3 1/2 seasons. When he returned in 1986 he still qualified as a rookie but had completely transformed his throwing motion. Robbed of his former velocity by the injury, Eichhorn transformed himself into a remarkably accurate submarine-style pitcher and promptly had the greatest rookie season by a pitcher in Jays history. Without making a single start, he threw 157 innings (yes, you read that correctly), allowed just 105 hits and struck out 166 batters. He won 14 games and saved another 10 with a 1.72 ERA, and he just missed leading the team in WAR that year. He finished 6th in that year’s A.L. Cy Young Award voting despite being a rookie who was neither a closer or a starter. I could make a serious argument that it is the best season by any pitcher in team history.

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

It wouldn’t have made all the difference but with a runner at third base and one out in the fifth inning and the Jays down three runs, Jose Bautista COULDA had a much better approach at the plate. Oakland starter Sean Menaea had already thrown nearly 100 pitches and was starting to falter and A’s manager Bob Geren had ordered the infield to play back, basically conceding a run to a ball hit anywhere but to third base. I’ll give you three guesses where Bautista yanked it – on the first pitch of the at-bat, no less. When you’re on the road and your team isn’t scoring a lot of runs, you have to take advantage of situations and take what the defence is giving you. Bautista’s lack of focus and patience in that situation really came back to haunt Toronto as the game ended up being closer.

With Troy Tulowitzki at second base with one out in the second inning, Darwin Barney worked the count to 3-0. On the next pitch he took a fastball right down the middle for strike one. After that he chased two consecutive pitches that were much worse to get himself out. With the Jays being in the midst of a horrific streak of ineptitude with runners in scoring position (it’s now a sparkling 0-for-32), John Gibbons WOULDA done Barney a favour by turning him loose on that 3-0 pitch. Barney hasn’t played much the last week, and a get-me-over fastball would have been his best shot to do some damage. As it turned out, the inning ended fruitlessly yet again despite a leadoff double. Sometimes when you’re struggling you have to make your own luck. Manaea had given them a gift in that situation but the Blue Jays failed to take advantage of it.

It looked like the last week of general inactivity didn’t do much good for Barney today . In addition to some really lost-looking at-bats (he was later pinch hit for by Ryan Goins, FFS), the usually reliable Barney struggled in the field, too. In the second inning, J.A. Happ got a pitch in on Yonder Alonso’s hands and he hit a slow, looping liner towards second base. The ball had some English on it and knuckled a bit, but Barney had overcommitted to his right too soon and it went past without his even touching it. Instead of two out and none on (both runners had kinda frozen on the play), the Jays instead had two on and none out and two pitches later Ryon Healy hit a long three run home run to give Oakland a lead they would never relinquish. Just a solo home run there and this would have been an entirely different game. A defensive whiz like Barney SHOULDA been able to limit the damage there and help a rusty pitcher out as he rushes back to help the team even though he probably should have been given more rehab time.

NOTES FROM MY COUCH

The Jays had runners at second base with none out in the 1st, 2nd and 5th innings today and didn’t score that runner in any of those innings, nor did anyone even attempt to hit the ball to the opposite field and move those runners. Is it really that hard for them to remember how awful things were in April and why they struggled so much?

On days when Trevor Plouffe makes three sterling defensive plays at third base to rob your team of base hits, it’s probably just not going to be your day. Go back to your hotel room, draw the curtains and lock the door until it’s tomorrow.

Anyone else notice that Tulowitzki’s throws from shortstop are barely making it to first base? Justin Smoak is really having to stretch almost every time to make sure they aren’t short hops. That ain’t a good trend.

I think we can safely agree that the A’s have the most unheralded lineup in the American League (second in MLB after San Diego). They don’t have many injuries, but man – Mark Canha? Josh Phegley? Josh Pinder? And those guys are .starters! Even their ‘star’ players like Ryon Healy and Yonder Alonso are guys I wouldn’t recognize if they were in my apartment. They still seem to make it work, though, don’t they? Every year when the Jays head out to Oakland seems to derail their season. They’re the West Coast Tampa Bay Rays.

I don’t think we’ll see them on this trip because I think they only wear them on Sundays, but Oakland’s uniform with the gold tops might be my current MLB favourite.

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