Archive for December, 2012

The Power of Prestidigitation, or How to Upgrade at Shortstop in Three Years

Siegfreid & Roy, Harry Houdini, David Copperfield, Penn & Teller, and The Amazing Kreskin are all illusionists, magicians, and escape artists. They share one key thing in common: they make the impossible seem possible. When you consider what has been accomplished at shortstop on the Toronto Blue Jays since Alex Anthopoulos took the reins as General Manager, you might want to add his name to the list.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not part of the ‘AA is a ninja’ crowd. I don’t need to be in order to be impressed by what he’s done for the franchise. And shortstop is one of the positions where the upgrades have been among the most impressive.

Who The Jays Have: Jose Reyes

Some maintain that Jose Reyes is the best shortstop in MLB. I don’t, but that doesn’t matter much to me. What matters is that the Jays are better at SS than they were last season. Others think that Jose Reyes is overrated, and that Jays’ fans are in for a rude awakening. As with most discussions, the truth is likely to be found somewhere in between those two extremes, but I’m inclined to believe that Jose Reyes is closer to the former extreme than the latter extreme.

It’s not that much of a stretch. If we use fWAR as a catch-all talent evaluating device, consider that in 2012 Reyes ranked #4 among MLB SS. He ranks #2 (slightly) behind Troy Tulowitzki since 2010, and he’s played 107 more games than Tulo in that period. We all know that Tulo’s a monster, (1) when he’s healthy, and (2) when he’s on his game. When he’s healthy, he puts together stretches of unbelievable baseball. He can put the Rockies on his back and carry them to Kilimanjaro-esque heights. Unfortunately, he’s missed so many games that his impact is difficult to judge appropriately. He’s sort of the Eric Lindros of ML baseball.

One knock against Jose Reyes is that he’s also injured frequently, thereby limiting his positive impact. Fair enough, and to compound the potential problem, the turf at the Rog isn’t exactly friendly to players with a history of injuries. However, the Jays aren’t getting Tulo and all his injury problems. Reyes ranks 10th among ML SS with 419 GP since Opening Day 2010. Here’s some perspective: he’s 53 GP behind Alexei Ramirez, who leads MLB SS in GP since 2010. Yunel Escobar ranks 13th with 413 GP. Tulo is well down the list with 312 GP since 2010, ranking him 27th in MLB between Stephen Drew and Rafael Furcal. The situation, though worth keeping an eye on, is far from dire.

How The Jays Got Jose Reyes

The Jays signed Alex Gonzalez to play shortstop for them in ’10. Gonzalez was better than expected, playing well defensively and popping 17 HR before the trade deadline. Alex ranks #25 in fWAR among MLB SS from 2010-2012.

Alex Gonzalez was a pleasant surprise, and the Jays sold high on him in a deal for Yunel Escobar. Yunel ranks #13 among MLB SS since 2010 in fWAR since 2010. Escobar had a reputation, but played pretty well in between injuries. Then there was the eye-black incident, and the die was cast.

Taking advantage of a skittish Marlins front office was AA’s next move. The Jays traded Yunel Escobar (and others) for Jose Reyes and Emilio Bonifacio (and others) who rank #2 and #24, respectively, in fWAR among SS since 2010.

I’ve long been fascinated by this kind of stuff and I expect that there are some trivia buffs reading this, so here’s one for your memory bank. In the same genealogy of trades the Jays acquired both Jo-Jo Reyes and Jose Reyes.

Abracadabra! Hocus Pocus! Hocuscadabra? Abracapocus?

The Jays have upgraded substantially at SS since 2010. Think about the moves they’ve made: the magnitude of the upgrade is so great that a player with a slightly higher rank than Alex Gonzalez at SS since 2010 (i.e. Emilio Bonifacio) is now their back-up SS.

One of the problems the Jays faced in 2012 was a lack of depth. When injuries hit, they were forced to rely on aging star Omar Vizquel and rookie Adeiny Hechavarria. If Reyes gets hurt, then the Jays will be able to fall back on Emilio Bonifacio who, if fWAR is all it’s cracked up to be, contributes slightly more than Alex Gonzalez. Not only are they better at SS, but they’re also deeper. We shouldn’t forget Maicer Izturis here, too, but he looks to be the starting 2B.

In Transylvania 6-5000, Bugs Bunny mixed and matched magic words to get himself out of several tricky spots. In three short years, Alex Anthopoulos has mixed and matched major and minor league talent to acquire the top shortstop combination in Major League Baseball. I expect that will get them out of several tricky spots in 2013 (and beyond).

Wes Kepstro

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The Jays’ Journey Back to Relevance

­Here at AL Eastbound, we’re all about following the Jays on their journey back to relevance and the Jays have given their fans good reason for hope for 2013. I’d like to take an opportunity to highlight some key moves over the last several years that have put them on the cusp of contending seriously for division, league, and world championships.

Alex Anthopoulos

When the Jays won the World Series in 1992 and 1993, Pat Gillick was the braintrust. His relentless pursuit of excellence meshed well with uncanny baseball acumen. When he left for other challenges (BAL; SEA; PHI), the Jays wandered in the baseball wilderness under successive general managers Gord Ash and JP Ricciardi.

Years of mediocrity (or worse) necessitated a change, and the Jays turned to Alex Anthopoulos. He was untried and unproven, and faced with the daunting task of reversing the negative momentum, hiring a competent skipper, dealing with their best player (Roy Halladay), and re-stocking a long-neglected farm system. He attacked the challenge with gusto but, alarmingly to some, their record spiraled downward.

That’s the point at which his efforts have taken on new meaning. His commitment to rebuilding the farm gave the Jays another form of ‘currency’, if you will: honest-to-goodness major league prospects. Since July 2012, he’s been using these prospects to fill spots on the major league roster and to make trades.

Some deals in the past few years have been difficult and, in some cases, the cost has been very steep. But for the first time in a few years (2007 was pretty good), the Jays are poised to make some noise. How did they get to this point? At the end of the year we generally like to reflect and reminisce, so let’s indulge ourselves.

Jose Bautista

The deal that sent catcher Robinzon Diaz to the Pittsburgh Pirates for utility player Jose Bautista may be remembered as one of the most lopsided in ML history. Apparently the Jays saw something in Bautista that made them believe he was capable of more. ‘More’ is exactly what they received.

‘More’ began in September, 2009, when Jose hit 10 home runs. The increased production resulted in more at bats, which led to more production, which led to more at bats, which led to, well you get the picture. 10 HR were followed by 54 HR in ’10. 2011 was a sight to behold, though. His ISO dropped substantially, but it had to: very few can maintain a .357 ISO. Countering this, his BABIP rose substantially, as did his BB%, OBP, wOBA, wRC+, and his K-rate, fielding, and base running all improved. This led to a jump in his fWAR from a star-level 6.8 to an MVP-calibre 8.3. He became one of the most complete players in MLB. All this for Robinzon Diaz.

An injury-riddled 2012 slowed his ascent, but his production was still at an all star level. The problem was that he’s not getting any younger, and if the Jays wanted to take advantage of his career peak, improvements would be necessary.

Free Agency? Alex Anthopoulos? Really?

It’s not his preferred method of player acquisition but, with the addition of MLB television-related revenue, the Blue Jays were flush and poised to make a move or two. Speculation abounded about top-notch FAs, such as Zack Greinke, Josh Hamilton, Anibal Sanchez, Edwin Jackson, Kyle Lohse, and many others. But AA didn’t go there. Instead he signed Maicer Izturis, formerly a super-sub with the Angels, as his initial move of the offseason. The move generated excitement—could anyone be less effective than Kelly Johnson had been?—but it was hardly the ‘big splash’ Toronto fans expected.

His next move on the FA market was more along the lines of what some anticipated. Melky Cabrera was suspended for using performance enhancing drugs. And he did it when he was poised to become a free agent. It’s the sort of situation that fits the Blue Jays’ modus operandi: quality players + low price = good value. This equation was used for both Colby Rasmus and Yunel Escobar as the team was built. Though their actual value is a matter for discussion, it’s undeniable that the Jays didn’t pay much to get them. Similarly, Melky’s disgrace made him available for a relatively low price.

Suddenly LF is no longer a question mark. No longer do Jays fans have to wonder whether this is the year that Travis Snider or Eric Thames breaks out, or whether Rajai Davis’ glaring defensive deficiencies could be hidden. Rajai’s on the bench as a 4th OF, where his strengths can be used most effectively.

Fishing for Marlin(s)

The much ballyhooed trade with Miami took place only a few weeks ago, but it has been thoroughly discussed, dissected, and assessed. Generally, the idea is that the Jays improved dramatically when they acquired Josh Johnson, Mark Buerhle, Jose Reyes, Emilio Bonifacio, and John Buck. Suddenly, two things Alex Anthopoulos maintained all along—that he would improve the team when the time was right, and that he preferred to use the trade route—became realities.

This move improved the rotation by replacing Drew Hutchison and Kyle Drabek with Johnson and Buerhle. Reyes improves the IF defense and gives the Jays a bona fide lead-off hitter as well. Bonifacio and his ability to play a number of positions improved the bench, where glaring weakness were evident when the injury bug hit during the ’12 season. Buck’s acquisition, while attractive (former Jay; experienced; good power), would have shored up the Jays behind the plate, but his value was part of another surprising trade.

Let’s Go (Get Some) Mets!

It’s rare that a reigning Cy Young award winner is available, but this was one of those rare times. The Mets were looking to deal RA Dickey and the Jays were looking for another high-quality arm to augment their rotation. Throw in Josh Thole and Mike Nickeas and voila, the Jays were in business in front of the plate as well as behind it.

A rotation that was in tatters as recently as June 2012 was transformed completely by the addition of quality pitching from two teams looking to dump salaries. Two #1s (Dickey; Johnson), a #2 (Morrow), and a #3 (Buerhle), have pushed incumbent ‘ace’ Ricky Romero to the #5 spot in the rotation. His much-hoped-for return to form isn’t as crucial to their success as it might have been.

But It’s Only December…

We all know that games are won on the field, not on paper. But the team is actually better; no longer is it simply a matter of potential. The players they acquired were costly, but there’s absolutely no doubt that they’re better major league talent than the players they replaced. As a Jays’ fan I’m more excited about this team on paper than I have been about any other Jays team on paper over the last two decades. And I have good reason to be.

Five years from now may tell a different story, but the window is open NOW and NOW was the time for the journey back to relevance to be kicked into overdrive.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year everyone. As I post this there are 99 days left until Opening Day, 2013.

Wes Kepstro

Projecting New Look Blue Jays Rotation

In an unbelievable offseason that has seen the Toronto Blue Jays add Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, Melky Cabrera, Mark Buehrle, Maicer Izturis and Emilio Bonifacio – did I forget anyone?  Oh yeah, some guy named R.A. Dickey, just the reigning NL Cy Young award winner and one of the better pitchers in baseball over the past three seasons.

Can anyone believe that above paragraph is actually fact?  That type of offseason haul would be difficult on MLB13 – The Show let alone in real life.  Kudos to our ownership for stepping up to the proverbial plate and providing the payroll needed to pull this off.  The buzz that has been created is palpable and the fan base that had grown indifferent is hungry for baseball once again.

Today I wanted to have a look at our revamped starting rotation which is without a doubt the part of the ballclub that needed the most improvement.  Alex Anthopoulos and his staff have done a wonderful job reloading a starting staff that had been absolutely decimated by injury (Drew Hutchison, Brandon Morrow and Kyle Drabek) and poor performance (Ricky Romero).

Let’s have a look at the new and improved (on paper) starting rotation and include 2013 Bill James projections:

2013 Projections IP   H     BB    K     HR/9 ERA  FIP  WHIP K/BB
R.A. Dickey (R) 226 198 56 152 0.83 3.58 3.76 1.12 2.71
Josh Johnson (R) 196 176 62 166 0.51 3.21 3.08 1.21 2.68
Mark Buehrle (L) 205 218 41 106 1.01 3.78 4.10 1.26 1.80
Brandon Morrow (R) 187 163 66 191 0.91 3.47 3.48 1.22 3.18
Ricky Romero (L) 185 183 89 140 0.92 4.43 4.46 1.47 1.57
JA Happ (L) 161 158 72 144 1.12 4.30 4.25 1.43 2.00

*projections for Dickey, Johnson and Buehrle were for their prior NL teams, obviously a move to the AL will hurt overall statistics

Injuries are bound to happen and given our recent history teams might need up to eight healthy starting pitchers to get through the season.  Josh Johnson and Brandon Morrow are two pitchers who have had particularly rotten past health issues so that is why I included JA Happ’s projections as he is a decent insurance policy.

Check out the ZIPS projections for the Blue Jays rotation heading into last season for some contrast.

The thing I find most attractive about the new rotation is the versatility and ability to throw a completely different style of pitcher at an opposing line-up each night.  In this setup the opponents would face ‘the nuke’ from RA Dickey followed by the power fastball/slider combination of Josh Johnson – quite the tricky combination back to back.

After that the fast paced, soft tossing southpaw Mark Buehrle would be again followed by a power fastball/slider pitcher in the nasty Brandon Morrow.  That isn’t a bad 3-4 combo in a starting rotation and with Ricky Romero likely to bounce back from a disaster 2012 the Blue Jays could have a distinct advantage on the mound in most games (especially in the backend of the rotation).

Nothing is guaranteed in baseball, especially in baseball but having a strong starting rotation certainly makes it easier to avoid long, season crippling losing streaks.  A strong staff might also help string together the much sought after winning streaks that can separate the playoff teams from non-playoff teams.

Any way you slice it the Toronto Blue Jays on paper have one of the better starting rotations in all of baseball and that is a great start to having a successful season.

Breaking Down RA Dickey’s Velocity & Strikeouts

Most people know RA Dickey won the 2012 NL Cy Young award for the New York Mets last season but most forget he was also one of the more consistent starting pitchers in baseball for the past three seasons. 

Let’s examine that today and see if he can sustain his success in the AL East.

R.A. Dickey IP ERA xFIP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 HR/FB BABIP WAR
2010 174.1 2.84 3.75 5.37 2.17 0.67 8.5% .276 2.8
2011 208.2 3.28 3.95 5.78 2.33 0.78 8.3% .275 2.5
2012 233.2 2.73 3.27 8.86 2.08 0.92 11.3% .275 4.6

 As you can see Dickey has been a model of consistency three years running.  His K/9 definitely spiked in 2012 and is the only red flag I see in terms of possible regression.  Bill James projects 226 IPs in 2013 and a 6.05 K/9 as well as a 3.76 FIP – for the New York Mets in the NL East.

There has been a lot of talk that his increased strikeout rate is directly related to him starting to throw the knuckleball with more velocity.  Let’s check that out in terms of percentage of time the pitch was thrown and velocity in brackets (MPH).

RA Dickey Knuckleball Fastball Changeup
2010 83.8% (75.9) 16.2% (83.9) n/a
2011 75.3% (76.1) 22.4% (84.4) 2.3% (74.8)
2012 85.4% (77.1) 14.0% (83.4) 0.6% (75.3)

 So the average velocity of the knuckleball has steadily increased over the past three years.  I am not sure any data exists that can state with any certainty that one MPH increase in a knuckleball velocity is worth X amount of runs but he has thrown it a tad harder.  Is one MPH enough to justify such a massive increase in strikeouts (over 3 more strikeouts per 9 innings)?

Dickey relies heavily on his knuckleball and why not the pitch was worth 0.96 runs per 100 pitches thrown while his fastball was worth 1.56 runs.  The fastball is worth so much due hitters being completely thrown off given the propensity of Dickey to throw his knuckleball over 80% of the time.

Let’s see if we can pick up any red flags in his plate discipline stats:

RA Dickey O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% F-Strike% SwStrk%
2010 29.4 66.0 48.8 69.8 86.8 82.0 59.3 8.4
2011 29.0 65.1 48.2 74.9 86.8 83.4 63.1 7.8
2012 34.0 66.4 50.6 68.2 78.9 75.4 62.2 12.2

 A huge increase in swinging strike percentage (4.4% better) certainly helped with the strikeout rates and overall contact against Dickey was way down, whether in the zone or otherwise.  Overall Dickey managed to miss a lot more bats in 2012, hopefully for the Blue Jays sake he can keep this gravy train rolling.

Moving to a home park like Rogers Centre which is definitely a better hitters park than Citi Field in New York won’t help and the offensive lineups he will face will also be slightly better in the AL East.  If he returns to his career norms in terms of contact percentages there is no doubt he will regress next season.  This will be something to keep an eye on going forward.

Blue Jays Possibly Paying Steep Price for Dickey

The actual deal won’t be released or finalized until at least Sunday but the current rumours have the Toronto Blue Jays trading top prospects Travis d’Arnaud and Noah Syndergaard along with veteran backstop John Buck and another prospect to the New York Mets for reigning 2012 Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey, catcher Josh Thole and another prospect.

Overrating prospects is easy to do, especially ones you follow from draft day but at first glance this looks awfully steep.  We are potentially giving up a lot of controllable years on two of our top prospects.  We have plenty of interesting arms to replace Noah Syndergaard but losing Travis d’Arnaud would be especially tough given the lack of offensive prospects close to being major league ready. 

My first thought was Dickey makes our team markedly better for the next two to three seasons and right now isn’t that all that really matters?  Perhaps Alex Anthopoulos is actually selling high on TDA and Syndergaard but a part of me is nervous about this trade. 

Again we are adding a Cy Young award winner in R.A. Dickey who has been an extremely underrated pitcher over the past three years.  Teams look to contend will routinely trade away their best prospects and this is no different.  Maybe I am just unaccustomed to seeing a team from Toronto actually trying to make a splash.

R.A. Dickey is a damn good pitcher and don’t dare call him a one year wonder as that is way off base.

Here is what Dave Cameron of Fangraphs recently wrote:

Apparently, there’s this idea that pre-2012 R.A. Dickey was a worthless nothing, and after his fluke season, he’s headed right back to being a trick pitch sideshow. That idea is just hilariously wrong.

61 pitchers threw at least 350 innings between 2010 and 2011. During those two years, Dickey posted an ERA- of 81, meaning that he prevented runs at a rate 19 percent better than the league average. We’re using ERA- for Dickey because knuckleballers have a long exhibited history of being an exception to FIP, by the way. That put him squarely between Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum, and ahead of guys like Hiroki Kuroda, Dan Haren, Chris Carpenter, and Mat Latos. Not bad company.

If I had to guess at what Alex Anthopoulos was thinking (is that even allowed?) or what his strategy was it would have to be R.A. Dickey wasn’t necessarily the only pitcher targeted he just happened to be the best one available right now.  Free agent hurler Edwin Jackson is probably looking for an arm and a leg or has already informed the Blue Jays he wouldn’t sign here. 

When the top guns of the Blue Jays farm system became available I wouldn’t doubt that AA was contacted by different teams offering various arms but with most of the best young arms off the market (Mat Latos, Gio Gonzalez) and other options too risky (Matt Garza) or divisional rivals (David Price) this R.A. Dickey thing just made the most sense.

I am just struggling with the fact that we essentially just traded our two best prospects for a 38-year old pitcher, albeit a very effective one.  This is certainly an “all-in” moment for the Blue Jays front office as our farm system has been stripped to the bones.  On the other hand our current regime has consistently shown the ability to build and restock the minor league ranks.

Check back when this deal is actually finalized one way or another.  I know some Blue Jays fans actually hope this deal falls apart.  This does feel very UN-Alex Anthopoulos given the way it has played out in the media and it feels very Yu Darvish like. 

Stay tuned.  John Farrell couldn’t be contacted for comment.

Blue Jays Second Base Battle – Maicer Izturis or Emilio Bonifacio?

I have to admit I was excited to hear the Toronto Blue Jays added Maicer Izturis to their roster early in the offseason.  I thought even if we don’t add much more he will definitely make the team better.  Little did I know that this was shaping up to be the biggest offseason in team history and after also acquiring Emilio Bonifacio I wanted to compare the two possible candidates for our second base job?

Let’s start with last season’s numbers:

2012 PA AVG OBP SLG H 2B HR R SB
Emilio Bonifacio 274 258 330 316 63 3 1 30 30
Maicer Izturis 319 256 320 315 74 11 2 35 17

 Both played on a part time basis last year so it’s tough to get a handle on what either could do with a full seasons worth of plate appearances based on those numbers.  Let’s take a look at both of their best offensive campaigns and compare, for a best case scenario for either player:

  PA AVG OBP SLG H 2B HR R SB
Emilio Bonifacio (2011) 641 296 360 393 167 26 5 78 40
Maicer Izturis (2009) 437 300 359 434 116 22 8 74 13

 These are similar players overall offensively with the edge in speed going to Bonifacio and the slight edge in power going to Izturis.  One big difference is the approach at the plate, Bonifacio walks at a 8.3% career clip (Izturis 8.2) but strikes out 20% of the time (Izturis 10.7).

Given the Blue Jays past problems with the strikeouts or lack of contact at key times this might be a huge edge for Izturis when competition for jobs starts in spring training.  He can better “handle the bat” in key situations and you know John Gibbons is an old school kind of guy.

Where Maicer Izturis really pulls away however is with the glove as he is miles ahead of Bonifacio in the infield.  Izturis can play a slightly below league average shortstop and has proven to be a very capable defender at second base. 

Izturis for his career (1965 innings) at second base has a very respectable (if not elite) +11.6 UZR while Bonifacio (587 innings) checks in with a less than stellar -2.6 UZR.  This might ultimately be the difference when selecting the starter at the keystone corner.  Izturis has better range, is better at turning the double play and is less error prone.

With the current makeup of the Blue Jays staff (like most teams) they will be reliant on their defense to make plays behind them and turn balls hit into play into outs.  Jays fans might not want to hear this but Jose Reyes is anything but an elite defender at shortstop whose range has really suffered the past three years.  He has negative UZR ratings of -5.0, -3.1 and -2.8 the past three seasons and most of that is due to a severe reduction in range (possibly injury related?).

Solidifying the infield defense has to be a priority and I do not see any other scenario in which come opening day 2013 the Toronto Blue Jays starting second basemen is not named Maicer Izturis.  Emilio Bonifacio is going to play an extremely key role and for the first time the Blue Jays will have serious protection against injury at several key outfield and infield positions.

The baseball season is a grueling marathon and our bench depth has never been greater.  That has to be viewed as a huge positive heading into 2013. 

What do you guys think, Izturis or Bonifacio?

Blue Jays On Verge of Landing R.A. Dickey?

According to various reports it appears the Toronto Blue Jays are in advanced talks with the New York Mets about 2012 NL Cy Young award winner R.A. Dickey. 

According to MLBTR:

All signs point to the Mets trading R.A. Dickey, Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports reports (on Twitter). The sides aren’t progressing toward an extension, and Dickey’s one-year, $5MM salary seems quite appealing to teams seeking pitching. Here are today’s Dickey rumors, with the most recent items up top…

  • The Mets may be landing d’Arnaud in the deal, Heyman tweets.
  • Travis d’Arnaud was a “must have” during the winter meetings for a deal with the Blue Jays to happen, sources tell Andy Martino of the Daily News (via Twitter).
  • Two sources involved in the talks say not to expect any resolution with Dickey tonight, tweets Anthony DiComo of MLB.com.

There was a lot of talk after the winter meetings finished that the two sides had discussed different scenerios in which RA Dickey would head to Toronto but it has seemingly become a lot closer to being finalized.  I would have to assume that if the Blue Jays are pondering moving our top prospect (two years running) in catcher Travis d’Arnaud that the deal would possibly bring back more than just R.A. Dickey.

Would I like to add another starter?  Absolutely.  Would I mind adding R.A. Dickey?  Not at all.  Would I like to see the Blue Jays depleted system take another serious hit for one 38-year old knuckleballer?  Absolutely not.  Let’s reserve judgment until if and when this deal might come to fruition.

Besides, isn’t the very fact we are even discussing this mean there is no chance Alex Anthopoulos is actually going to pull it off?

What are your thoughts?


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