Is it a eulogy? Epilogue? Pathetic whining?

The last few weeks have been fun—a nice diversion from a disappointing season.

As you may know, I also write for Sympatico-MSN and, more often than not, about the Blue Jays.

To make a long story short (which is, admittedly, a first for me), like most Blue Jays fans I have been frustrated in 2007 by the Blue Birds’ lack of offense. Due to this, I wrote a couple of columns suggesting that manager John Gibbons had wasted many potential scoring opportunities by eschewing “the productive out.” Before I proceed further, I would like to say that I am neither fish nor fowl when it comes to offensive philosophies—all I want is one more run than the other team and I’m not real fussy how my guys go about it.

Had Gibbons been getting this level of offensive ineptitude from playing “small ball,” I would’ve written a column suggesting a different approach was needed. I’m versatile enough to be contrarian as circumstances require.

Well, the good folks at The Mockingbird and the awesomely named Maldonado Over Everything blogs felt that I was a few Tim Bits short of a family pack. (Guilty as charged, but my mental state isn’t relevant in this instance, I think.) They proceeded to explain why they felt that way. Despite our not seeing eye-to-eye on the issue, these are both very insightful (and passionate) blogs—well worth a look. I’m certain they’ll have plenty to say about what is to follow in this week’s column; I know they’re not going to agree, but they do provide a good counterpoint.

One thing I hate as a fan is “The Book”; you know, the book that says you save your closer for the ninth even though you’re nursing a one run lead in the seventh with one out, three on and Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Pat Burrell due up. The book that says you don’t try to bunt for a base hit in the ninth inning of a no-hitter when you’re down 7-0, etc. However, as sabermetrics gains popularity in front offices, “The Book” is getting a new testament. Now the “thou shalt not” section includes things like not giving away outs, and the rules say drawing walks is never a bad thing, whether it’s Barry Bonds with two on and first base open or Neifi Perez with two out and nobody on in a 8-0 game.

Don’t get me wrong. “The Book,” both old and new testaments, has value provided it’s used as guidelines and not as hard and fast rules applied dogmatically regardless of the game situation and the talent on hand.

In 2007, the Toronto Blue Jays were hoping to generate runs through walks and the long ball. Initially, it seemed to be going reasonably well despite many injuries; the Jays were fourth in the AL (first in the AL East) in home runs and fifth in drawing walks before the All-Star break. The pitching was settling in after numerous injuries and posted a 4.35 ERA before the break. However, poor situational hitting had the Jays sitting 10th in runs scored. It would seem all was needed was a few more key hits.

Eventually, the Jays got everybody back, but Vernon Wells, Troy Glaus, Lyle Overbay and Reed Johnson still struggled with their various maladies. The Jays stopped hitting the long ball (11th in the AL since the break) and their walk totals plummeted to eighth. Add poor hitting generally (.260) and the Jays are tied for last in OBP (.322) since the break and are next-to-last in runs scored with 258.

Since the All-Star break (as of this writing) the Toronto Blue Jays have scored:

Four runs or fewer 42 times in 62 games.
Three runs or fewer 28 times in 62 games.
Two runs or fewer 22 times in in 62 games.
One run or fewer eight times in 62 games.
No runs twice in 62 games.

In 68% of their second half games, they have scored fewer than the league average number of runs. However, since they have had the best pitching in the junior circuit (3.50 ERA), they have won half of their post-break games (31-31). I want to focus in on just 15 games of the 42 in which they scored four or fewer runs, since those provide insight into the Jays’ offensive woes this year. Of those, they lost eight by two runs and seven by one run.

Not all runs are created equal. We remember the Rangers/Orioles game that Texas won 30-3. I think we can safely state that at least 20 or 25 of those runs were of minimal importance, save for individual stats. Now, if Texas had won that game 5-3, I think we can say that two of the Rangers’ runs were of paramount importance. The proverbial “bloop and a blast” and you have a tie game; same goes for a walk and a home run.

In the Jays’ case, the 15 games under consideration were chosen because they wasted a good effort by the pitchers (3.91 ERA in the 15 games). Obviously, an extra run or two in those contests would have been huge. According to the new testament, you don’t give away outs to score runs, yet in a lot of these games (as well as games in the first half), a single run was worth more to the Blue Jays than any other club. They were in contention, they were getting good pitching, it was obvious that the offense was struggling. That makes every run precious.

To illustrate why not all runs are created equal despite being of identical numerical value: Suppose you had a homeless family and Bill Gates, standing side-by-side, and you had a $50 bill that you wished to give to one of them. To Bill Gates, it’s not going to mean a heck of a lot; he probably uses $50 bills to, er, “clean up” when the ol’ platinum bidet is being polished. To the homeless family, it means they get to eat that day and possibly tomorrow as well.

Now, if you let the numbers simply speak for themselves, they tell you that $50 and will purchase $50 worth of goods for both the homeless family and Mr. Gates. However, if you look at the situation at hand, you can see that the $50 is of larger value to the homeless family.

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So it is with an extra run or two. If you’re the New York Yankees and:

  • Seven guys in your everyday lineup have OPS+ in excess of 120 with two guys over 160 and …
  • You’ve won 66 of your last 101 games, 32 of them by five runs or more and …
  • The offense scored nine or more runs 29 times …

… then chances are an extra run here or there isn’t going to mean a lot. However if you have one of the worst offenses in the league and 40 times you’ve been beaten by roughly a league average number of runs (the opponents average 3.9 runs per game in those 40 wins over Toronto in which they score five or fewer runs) and you’re getting pretty good pitching, then each scoring opportunity must be approached with the thought of “We gotta get this guy in any way we can.”

One person I was debating with on a blog discounted the relative importance of hitting with RISP/two out (a major Blue Jays bugaboo) over any other RISP situations. However, there is a difference: With less than two out and a runner on third, you still can cash him in via a number of means. He can be driven in with a hit, or a sac fly, or a sac bunt, or a wild pitch, or a passed ball. With two out, you have fewer options; generally, you have to get a base hit or your half of the inning is over.

Getting back to the 15 games under consideration: The Jays had at least two base runners, with one on third, and two out 15 times. They left the bases full four times. That’s why RISP/two outs are such clutch situations. On six of those occasions, the Jays had just one out. All were key game situations, when the pitching and defense were doing their best to keep it close. Of note: In one game, the Jays had bases loaded and one out in the 11th inning against the worst bullpen in the AL (and probably the worst in the last 50 years: 6.27 ERA) and couldn’t score. If the Jays are batting .224/.322/.362 w/RISP and two out in almost 700 plate appearances, then if you’ve got a man on third with less than two out, it’s close to now-or-never insofar as getting runs on the board. Gibbons should act accordingly.

In the Jays’ case, you’re not looking at a sabermetric philosophy and you’re not looking at a small ball approach. There’s a saying: “Live every day like it was the last day of your life because it could be.” Well, that should be the Jays’ offensive mindset: ‘Treat every scoring opportunity like it’s the last one you’ll get in the game because it just might be.”

The Jays’ offense is bad and their hitting is terrible; ergo, they know that their scoring chances are going to be rare. It’s Gibbons’ job to make sure that the players are prepared to do whatever it takes to get the man in from third with less than two out or a first and second/nobody out situation.

Yes, you look to the numbers and beyond the numbers and examine the situation at hand. An example: When the Jays were beset by injuries to key hitters (and even after some came back), they had 43 games with some combination of…

Player          OBP   SLG
Royce Clayton  .304  .344
Adam Lind      .303  .404 
John McDonald  .269  .278
Hector Luna    .231  .304
Jason Phillips .268  .269
Sal Fasano     .229  .311      
Jason Smith    .269  .278
Ryan Roberts   .250  .077
Curtis Thigpen .268  .269
Howie Clark    .298  .245

… batting 7-8-9. In six interleague games, the Jays had three of the above followed by the pitcher. Excluding the pitchers, they grounded into 23 of the Jays’ 115 double plays (20 percent over the course of the season), about the same as the everyday lineup. However, while the regulars were batting .265/.335/.445, the scrubs were adding more injury to injury by batting .231/.275/.325 (55 OPS+). In other words, somebody cloned Cesar Izturis twice and the trio is at the bottom of your batting order. In baseball parlance, that’s called an “outmaker.” The Jays’ regulars were about league average (AL: .270/.338/.422) but the extras cost the Jays too many outs and got nothing in return.

So the Jays were routinely sending up two or three batters consecutively with men on who are slightly better than 50% of league average. Granted, a couple have futures, but most have nothing in their past that would indicate that they are capable of getting runners home. There is a 72.5 chance that the next three guys are going to make an out. Now the question has to be asked: “Since the out is almost inevitable, is there any way I can get something of value from it?”

The “new testament” tells us, in effect, that you shouldn’t give away outs. Fine, so which situation constitutes giving away an out?

a) an out is made and no base runners advance.
b) an out is made, and one or two base runners are 90 feet closer to scoring.

Which is the more wasteful? Which maximizes scoring opportunities more? If you get something tangible for an out (such as two bases) then, strictly speaking, you aren’t giving it away. If you swing away and give the umpiring crew practice in calling the infield fly rule and the runners stay where they are, then you have truly given away the out. The defense is one out closer to getting out of the inning and the men on base are no closer to scoring.

I’m not advocating that Gibbons turn the ‘07 Blue Jays into the ‘85 Cardinals and bunt with two on/nobody out or after a leadoff double any time that situation comes about. What I am saying is that Gibbons should have been more flexible and creative in his approach and realize what the talent on hand could or could not do. Having a sabermetric outlook will not turn Jason Phillips into Jason Giambi nor will a “small ball” approach turn Alex Rios into Alex Gonzalez. They will play to their expected levels regardless of the club’s philosophy.

It’s bad enough that the offense is struggling, but the Jays also make it easy on the opposition’s defenders. All they have to do is look at the scouting reports to see where the Jays hit the ball in various counts, position themselves accordingly and hope for a ground ball that they can turn two with. If the Jays mixed it up and used the inevitable out more constructively by advancing runners, etc., they’d get the infield in motion, creating holes so that balls can get through. You can also pressure the other team into making errors.

If you have two men on, none out and your opponent is wondering if a bunt is coming, the defenders have to decide what to do. Do they shift infielders once the pitcher throws or stay back waiting for the double play ground ball? If they guess wrong, you may end up with a ball reaching the outfield or getting a bunt hit. If all you end up with is runners on second and third/one out, you’re in a situation where you can generate a run with an out, or two runs with a single. It also opens up the small possibility of scoring on a passed ball/wild pitch, which, in a close game, might cause the pitcher not to try his nastiest breaking stuff on the man batting lest it get past the catcher.

As the Mockingbird blog stated, the Jays’ No. 1 problem is that they’re just a poor hitting team.

Fair enough.

I’m sure Gibbons realizes this as well.

Once this particular epiphany has occurred, what do you do? Do you:

a) give up and concede defeat if the other team scores four runs?
b) refuse to apostatize from the GM’s philosophy and go down hacking with runners on base with two or three batters who aren’t within hailing distance of league average?
c) take some risks, put some pressure on the defense and try to sneak in a precious run? Is it a gamble? Sure, but no more so than letting consecutive batters with an average .233/.275/.325 line swing away, hoping that they’ll drive home base runners with a hit or, failing that, not give up an out.

Getting back to those 15 games lost by one or two runs with the pitching staff averaging less than four earned runs given up, here’s the thing: The Jays were—to state the obvious—0-15 in those games. Suppose the Jays took some risks. They certainly would’ve run into some outs, in which case they’d still lose. On the other hand, if a few of those gambles pay off, you end up with a few more wins.

On July 25, the Jays were 51-50 with 61 to play. The Jays were 10 back in the AL East and probably within seven or eight games in the wild card race. They had just won their last five and the rotation of Josh Towers, Roy Halladay, Shaun Marcum, Dustin McGowan and Jesse Litsch (plus bullpen support) had given up five runs over those games and they knew they were a couple of weeks away from getting back A.J. Burnett. Before an 8-0 whitewashing of the Mariners, Toronto had scored four runs or fewer in 11 of their last 12 games and 55 out of the 101 played to that point. Two things were clear: The Jays had one of the best pitching staffs in the AL and they were having trouble scoring runs.

The Blue Jays’ brain trust had a large enough sample size to know that the offensive philosophy they opened the 2007 season with lacked the personnel to execute it due to injuries and slumps. Being in third place, they had little to lose at this point but adopted a risk-averse approach to the final 61 games. They stuck with the status quo hoping that somehow, some way the offense could right itself despite the fact that Johnson, Glaus, Wells, and Overbay were being hampered by injury, Frank Thomas was still trying to find his stroke, (.255/.375/.446; 16 HR), John McDonald was the everyday shortstop and there was only got one reliable bat on the bench. If you wanted to rest a starter, chances are you were going to get a well-below-average hitter added to the batting order.

When that’s your situation, you have to be pragmatic and understand that this lineup is not going to generate the runs you initially expected.

When that is your situation, you toss the book-—whether conventional or sabermetric—and do whatever it takes to plate a runner. In my opinion (feel free to disagree and check out The Mockingbird and Maldonado Over Everything in a few days for an opposing viewpoint) the Blue Jays left “money on the table’” in 2007. This team should be playing October baseball but it is not, because it failed to scratch out runs and instead, chose to hope for big innings, which were few and far between. It doesn’t matter how good your pitching is, when you play 102 different games in which you score five runs or fewer and average 2.8 in them, every extra run is huge.

I’ll be honest. A different approach might not have made a difference. However, the Blue Jays would’ve been no worse off had they tried. They stuck with a low risk strategy and ended up with a low reward. As I mentioned to the good folks at Mockingbird: Faint heart never won lady fair—or the wild card.

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