The Blue Jays have face-planted out of the gate, managing to put their playoff hopes in legitimate jeopardy within two weeks of Opening Day. Is it all already hopeless? Is it time for fans to crack each others' heads open and feast on the goo inside?
I'll tackle the answers to those and many other equally soul-crushing questions in this week's edition of our Blue Jays mailbag!
And if you have a Blue Jays question you'd like me to tackle for next week, be sure to send it to email@example.com. Now on with the show! As always, I have not read any of Griff's answers...
OK, small sample size and it's early and all that but also what about these two theories: 1) The book is out on Jays hitters: pitch 'em away away, mostly soft stuff. And Jays don't adjust. 2) They got old fast. What other team has so many thirty-somethings in starting lineup?
Terry from Toronto
Yeah... no. I mean, if you're really desperate to shit your pants about this team and this season being irrevocably fucked, I guess I understand the appeal of those kinds of one-size-fits-all theories, but I don't think it takes a whole lot of investigating or thought to pretty well blow them apart. Like, did it really take pitchers until 2016 to figure out that Jose Bautista is going to damage them on the inner half of the plate? Is that fact that Devon Travis has so far looked abysmal because of age?
I think not.
Those are just two small examples, of course, and it's certainly possible that Bautista, Russell Martin, Steve Pearce, and Troy Tulowitzki are suddenly showing the signs of deep, age-related decline, or a total lack of ability to adjust to what they're seeing. But the truth is, we haven't seen enough of any of these hitters so far in 2017 to have picked up on trends we can have any sort of confidence in.
For fans desperate to point fingers that's probably going to be a profoundly unsatisfying idea, but it's the truth. Consider last season, when Tulowitzki's numbers looked awful in mid-May, and questions surfaced about his ability to catch up to velocity and the startling decline in his contact rate on pitches in the zone. Then he went out and posted a 118 wRC+ over the rest of the season. Or consider Edwin Encarnacion, who was slashing .205/.327/.295 through Sunday, with one home run, one double, and more strikeouts (18) and a higher strikeout rate (34 percent) than Bautista (15, 28%).
Does any blame-desperate Blue Jays fan think the league has suddenly figured Edwin out, or that he's suddenly fallen off an age-related cliff? I doubt it. And they shouldn't! Healthy players don't usually just show up having suddenly lost all their ability to play the sport—especially when still firmly in their mid-30s, especially the way they train these days. Even if that was what was happening, we'd have to be out of our minds to think we've seen enough to believe it over the course of these first 12 miserable games of the season. (And before anyone brings up the club's struggles late last season and suggests this is a continuation, be aware that part of that was that Donaldson, Martin, and Bautista were hurting, and that we saw a lot of Saunders and Upton, plus enough of Navarro, Smoak, and Barney going 0-for-September to tilt the sample as well).
Even Encarnacion wasn't quite himself last September, posting a 117 wRC+ for the month. And yet Blue Jays fans know enough to not assume so quickly that Edwin is finished or that the poor starts of the Mariners or Rangers mean their seasons are already over. But when it comes to their own team they sometimes have a blind spot.
Which isn't to say everything is fine and nobody needs to be concerned! The hole the Blue Jays have dug for themselves in the standings is not insignificant, and we can't just assume that every hitter will necessarily get back to his expected level of production—or do so quickly enough to keep the season from going down the tubes. There are concerns emerging that need to be considered—Bautista's swinging strike rate is way up, for example, and Martin is seeing a lot more fastballs and not doing much with them—but as far as already having come up with a grand theory? As far as acting like anybody knows enough about what's wrong yet to get angry about players' refusal to adjust or management's inability to get younger?
I know it's early, and that the Jays are much better than what we've seen, but at what point does this hole get too big to climb out of? Right now (assuming 89 wins is a wildcard spot) they need to play at a .578 clip the rest of the season. Over a full season that's 93 wins, and I think that's already pushing it for this team (not impossible, but a bit of a stretch).
Since you've written this, the situation has gotten a little bit worse, mathematically. They now need to win 87 of their final 150 games to reach 89 wins, which would be a .580 clip, or a 94-win pace. And now they've got to do it for the next little while without Josh Donaldson, Aaron Sanchez, and J.A. Happ.
To me, this is why it's completely ridiculous to act—as some have been—like everything is fine because it's only natural that the Jays will even this bad start out a bit by playing above their heads for a spell. Yes, there is plenty of season left for good things to happen, but that means there is plenty of season left for more bad to happen, too. Just because they've "got some of the bad out of the way" doesn't mean they're "due" better results going forward. You'd expect them to play to their true talent level from here out, just as you would have when they were at 0-0, and if we think that level is below the .580 clip they need to get to 89 wins, that makes it tough. Like you say, they're getting close to having to play as well as anyone could reasonably expect just to get to what we hope will put them in them in the wild card conversation.
But this stuff can work both ways a little bit. It looks bad right now, but say the club reels off five wins in its next five games. We wouldn't expect them to do that, but strange things happen—strange things like their 2-10 start to the season, which we definitely wouldn't have expected, either. Five in a row puts them at 7-10 with 145 left. To get to 89 wins at that point would mean playing at a 91-win clip (.566) the rest of the way to get there. That's at least more doable than the 94-win pace they're staring at right now. Or say they play .500 for 10 games, then go on a five-game winning streak. That would make them 12-15 with 135 games left, which would require a 92-win clip (.570) to get to 89.
A little burst would put them right back where we'd expect them to be. And even without one they're not even entirely fucked, they just have a painfully thin margin for error. If they play like an 89-win team for the next 100 games they'd be 57-55 with 50 games remaining, and need to go 32-18 the rest of the way to get to 89 wins. Not great, and maybe not enough for them to avoid being sellers at the trade deadline, but not impossible. But if they played like an 84-win team over the next 100? They'd be at 54-58, needing to go 35-15 to get to 89 wins. Stranger things have happened, but that's not a position anyone wants to see them in.
The losing and the sub-.200 baseball needs to stop, and soon. But that doesn't mean they need to win every game. Even just a stretch a little above .500, which could then act as a springboard to an even better run down the line, would be huge. I don't think that's very much to ask—though with their recent spate of injuries, it still might be.
And we shouldn't forget the doomed 2011 Boston Red Sox. They had a nine-game lead in the AL East going into September, and it was only through a monumental collapse that month that they managed to miss the playoffs on the last day of the season. They started 2-10, as well.
Grasping at straws to explain this horrid start, I had a thought:
With the new regime of fitness and nutrition experts on staff, could they have purposely held off on going hard in spring training, knowing the inevitable slumps that every team endures over the season? In other words, analyzing the health of each player and their history; the schedule, etc., and strategizing for the entire season?
Are the Jays doing the long con?
That's an interesting theory, but I think it's undone by the fact that there's nothing resembling evidence to support it. Yeah, the Jays talked about easing some of their veterans into the spring, but that was mostly because it was six interminable weeks long because of the World Baseball Classic. And yeah, they're looking at training and nutrition in a different way than they used to. But are they losing games because they're not "ready" or not as fit yet as other teams? I can't imagine how we make the connection, nor can I imagine people failing to object to this idea of trading near-term wins for the hope of longer-term ones on the belief that the club will be "fresher" and healthy enough to capitalize.
Why hasn't Tulo been moved been moved leadoff yet with him getting on base a lot? Also how much of the slow start do you blame on Gibbons? i say 80% on the players and 20% on Gibby?
BTW keep up your great work. Big fan
Thank you for the kind words, Rian, but holy shit, this is kind of exactly what I mean when I talk about blame-desperate fans. The difference between the Jays being in the awful spot they're in or having a reasonably mediocre record is so small, when you really think about it, that the idea of assigning blame in this way is kind of absurd. A couple warning track shots hit a little more squarely, a double play ball hit a degree or two away from a fielder, a few more well-struck balls not finding a glove. That's literally all it might have taken to put a few more wins up on the board.
I don't understand how anybody who is being honest can blame Gibbons for all that.
Sure, there are lineup decisions that come down to the manager, and bullpen decisions, and he can "lose the room," or have his team ill-prepared, or all kinds of things that could justifiably be hung on a manager if you're making the case to blame him for his team's poor play. But there is so much failure in this game, anyway, that, certainly for me, they have to be especially egregious. And Gibbons not batting Troy Tulowitzki, who currently has an on-base of .256 and who has in the past specifically bristled at the idea of leading off, at the top of his lineup is far from one of them.
I was lobbying last week for Steve Pearce to get a chance to hit ahead of Russell Martin, but even that is hardly anything to get up in arms about, and already that complaint seems a little quaint. Because that's just the thing! Trends in baseball take a long time to manifest. Last year only one team, the Cubs, had a winning percentage above .600. Other than them, all of the very best teams lost more than four games in every ten. So, while losing quite as much as the Jays have out of the gate isn't necessarily common among elite teams, losing still very much is. And so to respond to a bit of losing with "OH MY GOD WHO DO I BLAME FOR THIS??!?!?" doesn't make a whole lot of sense.
I know people don't often seem to be wired this way, but you can be angry without being angry at something or someone. Your anger is not obliged to make sense, and when it comes to baseball it often doesn't.
That's not to say how the Jays have ended up here is entirely down to dumb luck, either, but there's certainly an element of that. And there are a whole host of other things that we may ultimately be able to point a finger at for whatever this season ends up becoming, but to act like we know enough to say we're seeing them now and can adequately assign blame is not only pretty rich, but wholly pointless. I'll pass on this one.
The Jays just have a touch of PTSD. They lost Eddie, almost lost Bautista. They're pros they are used to shifting around, BUT when you almost go the WS two yrs in a row, there is a vet core kinship mentality that's felt right down to Ryan Goins. It's not that they don't get it. They probably don't even realize it. But there is a weird void, and their rhythm is off. It's a team. A slight shift sometimes changes things for a minute. It's all psychological. They aren't losing by much. Gibbons will do something to shake them up, and once they succeed the bonding can happen again, the rhythm will come back. That's my real opinion, not the jokey one from before. But then fuck, they may lose every fucking game, who knows.
The other thing that happens after just almost making it...to teams, is they try way too hard. Like darts, you got to relax. Take your time. They're already trying to win the pennant. Over thinking.
Or maybe not, maybe they just stink, I don't know.
Have a good holiday!
Sure, I'll buy it!
Vladdy Jr is off to a hot start this year in the minors. When can we get really excited about this guy?
Oh, I think you can get quite excited about him already. Not remotely in the "he's going to ride in and save the season" kind of way—he's still just in Low-A ball, and despite the gaudy numbers he's still the fifth-best hitter on his team so far (Bo Bichette says hi), plus we're talking about just 10 games so far—but he continues to look like he'll be a good one. Will be nice to follow his progression over the next couple of years as he climbs through the system.
The Jays NEED to make a move to salvage this season. Vlad Jr. for Joey Votto. How could either team say no to that? SOMETHING has to be done, so why not get crazy?
Uh... no. The Jays don't "NEED" to do "SOMETHING" to salvage the season.
Even if they did, the unfortunate reality is that the Reds would have a say in a thing like this. As much as it's clear that they're not going anywhere this year, it's not likely they're willing to punt on their season two weeks in. It's also not likely that they wouldn't bring other teams into the equation and have other offers to contemplate that may well beat this one. And it's not at all clear that they'd be willing to take a single prospect, albeit a very good one, from the low minors in exchange for their franchise player. They may want to actually be able to show their fans some kind of return a little sooner, or they may not be quite as high as a Blue Jays fan—*COUGH*—on someone without a clear defensive position.
Then there's the matter of the money—the one hundred seventy nine million dollars Votto (who will turn 34 in September) is owed between now and 2024. Oh, and the fact that Votto has a full no-trade clause, which he may not be inclined to waive. And also, holy shit, just how old and expensive do you want this team to get before you say enough is enough???
Don't get me wrong, finding a way to add Votto would be incredible—not because of his passport, but because he's a tremendous hitter at a position of need and currently plays for a rebuilding team. But pulling it off will be sliiiiiiightly more complicated than a video game trade in mid-April.
How and when did it go so wrong for the Blue Jays? I'm of course talking about those atrocious red abominations they'll be wearing for all of their Sunday home games and throughout July.
I, uh... I don't think they're going to be wearing them throughout July, thank fuck, but you're not wrong. They're awful.
But the list of companies that lose money by cynically marketing to people's patriotism can't possibly be long, and I'm sure ownership doesn't mind seeing the club decked out in the company colours, so... here we are.
Hey, but at least they're a relatively minor complaint compared to literally everything else that's going on around the team right now!