Character references

“Just look at the guys we added: Character guys, winners. We anticipate they’re good clubhouse guys, guys with an edge which is something we needed a bit more of.”—Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi

“If I stood for anything while I’m here in Toronto, it’s the fact that we tried to have good character people here and we tried to do this the right way with the right people, and we’ve got good people in that clubhouse. If I’m going to succeed or I’m going to fail, I’m going to fail with good people that I can trust.”—Ricciardi

When you hear the phrase “character guys” in a baseball context, what springs to mind?

To me, a character guy is one who finds a way to score or to win when things aren’t going well. He’s a player who steps up in a tough situation and makes key plays when one is needed. He’s a guy who steps up when the pressure is on and comes through, a go-to guy when it’s gut check time.

Whether such a beast exists is debatable, but I think most would agree that if there are such things as “character guys” they would be associated with success when it counts.

Now, we know clutch hitting exists; whether or not it is a repeatable skill remains a subject for debate. One thing we do know is that choking is a fact of life in sports, and it is something that can be repeated.

The 2008 Toronto Blue Jays’ offense has shown repeatedly this season that it cannot hit in big situations. However, this is more than just an in-game phenomenon (leadoff triple, whiff, whiff, deep fly ball … bases loaded, nobody out: whiff, 6-4-3 GiDP … second and third, nobody out: whiff, walk, 5-4-3 GiDP); it shows up most prevalently when the club is on the verge of maybe making a run to get into a playoff race or creating an springboard opportunity to do same.

The Jays were red hot in May, when they won 20 games by the 30th of the month to close within three games of the AL East lead. They won the first of a three-game set in Anaheim before back-to-back walk-off losses sent them into a miserable June. After the first win against the Angels, the Jays hit .169 with runners in scoring position over the next six games. Only a 3-for-6 effort in a 9-5 loss to Baltimore, making them losers of 6-of-7, brought it to near Mendoza line levels (.197).

The Jays showed signs of life heading into the All-Star break with six wins in eight games that included a sweep of the Orioles and taking two of three from the Bronx Bombers. They were poised to come out of the break on a high note with three games against the Rays who were suffering from a seven-game losing skid headed into the All-Star Game. They were to send both A.J. Burnett and Roy Halladay to the hill to ensure the series got off to a good start.

It was not to be. Over the first 17 innings of the three-game set the Jays scored a single run, going 2-for-12 with RISP.

Toronto again swept Baltimore and came home looking for the first six-game winning streak since 2004 after taking the first two against the hapless Mariners. Next up were the road warrior Rays, winners of less than 44 percent of their contests away from the Trop, with the non-waiver trade deadline looming.

Should the Jays buy or sell? The next four games would tell and a possible 56-52 or 57-51 record at month’s end would let the front office know that this team was poised to make a run.

The four games saw a single hit with RISP (.050) and at the deadline the team again tumbled to .500. The Jays stood pat (although Ricciardi has traditionally been about as active at the deadline as an adolescent when there’s housework to be done).

There was a recent glimmer of hope as the club swept a struggling A’s team in a four-game set to rise to three games over .500 for the first time in over two months. Next up: a three-game series against the AL Central cellar-dwelling Cleveland Indians.

Yet another chance to wiggle their way back into the playoff picture. Once again the bats went stone cold—only four runs in a three-game sweep by the Tribe. The Jays bat a lusty .150 with RISP.

In 2008, the Blue Jays are hitting .244 with RISP; when they were playing games that had them hovering around the .500 level they hit .254 with RISP, yet when they had four different shots at getting (somewhat) into the playoff picture it dropped down to .163.

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The first hiccups came against the Angels, Yankees and Orioles. The next three came with their 1-2 starters slated to pitch against a team that lost seven straight (Rays), a last place club, and a team six games below .500 on the road (Mariners/Rays).

Speaking of which—the Jays are 13-15 versus AL teams currently in last place.

Jays’ fans often lament that the hitters make opposing pitchers look like Cy Young. It’s not an illusion—the six worst pitching teams in the AL (using ERA): Cleveland, Seattle, Detroit, Kansas City, Baltimore and Texas (aggregate ERA: 4.68) have held Toronto to a .238 average with RISP. It’s actually far worse than that. The Jays have fared very well against the Orioles, hitting .341 in that situation over 12 games, but against the other five AL pitching doormats the Jays are hitting .196 with RISP.

The teams that should serve to fatten the Jays’ numbers— most importantly the win-loss record—are the same ones that are keeping Jays runners from scoring.

Again, we see when there is a degree of expectation on the lineup they simply spit the bit.

When they face teams where expectations of victory are lessened due to quality of team, the team hitting heats up. Over the previous two seasons when it was thought the Jays might have a shot they scuffled through the summer months (especially after the All-Star Break) due to injury or some other reason, but once the pressure of the pennant race is completely off, the Jays relax and hit the ball better.

In 2007, they finished up 9-4 batting .269/.349/.428 (.369 with RISP) after hitting .260/.322/.409 to that point of the season post All-Star break, and in 2006 after hitting .265/.324/.426 after the All-Star Game, they heat up at the end with 12 wins over the last 17 games while hitting .302/.361/.486 (.295 with RISP).

In both cases, nothing was riding on the games insofar as the postseason was concerned; they were merely playing out the string. In that pressure-free environment the bats loosened up. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a similar phenomenon this season.

These are J.P.’s idea of “character guys?”

I have a suggestion for Ricciardi: stop looking for guys your grandmother’s knitting club and partnership for a celibate society would be delighted to have over for tea and crumpets that you can cherish as a BFF (“best friend forever” for those of you without teenagers in the home). Instead, focus on things like slugging percentage, OPS+, extra-base hits, home runs, and don’t worry about assembling the 1 Blue Jay Way chapter of the Boy Scouts of Canada.

I, for one, would be much happier if we could trade a little character for power, run production or guys with a shot at a 20+ home run season. I don’t care if Adam Dunn doesn’t like baseball or Barry Bonds has done what hundreds of ballplayers did. Since Opening Day 2007 Toronto has played almost a full season’s worth (160) of games scoring four runs or less. It’s been frustrating watching the Jays plate three runs or fewer 124 times over their last 281 games. I’m sure the fans have had enough of watching their favorite team score two or fewer runs after having been treated to that experience 84 times the last two seasons.

I think we have enough of a sample size to state conclusively that “character guys” are most certainly not the new market efficiency.

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