Walking into disaster

This is gonna get ugly. You have been warned. The Toronto Blue Jays have me in a hostile mood. How hostile? I was hanging around Drunk Jays Fans (by the way, thanks again for having me on your podcast—keep throwing the high heat and hitting the high ball) Monday listening to the Jays/Tribe doubleheader. In game one, Lyle Overbay hit into a game-ending double play. In the first inning of the second game, Alex Rios hit into an inning-ending double play. I lost it then and there and dropped the following on their blog:

… I don’t want to see anybody fired, I want them to have the position players draw straws and the guy that draws the short straw should be publicly horsewhipped at home plate at the beginning next game at the Rogers Center then hauled up on a crane overtop the stadium and have his balls crushed by the retractable roof and allowed to drop headfirst into a 10 foot high steaming pile of fresh pig manure with his nose sewn shut.

Maybe that will inspire the rest into hitting. Let them experience a small taste of the pain and nausea their mastery of mediocrity has inflicted on me…

To paraphrase an earlier sentiment, the Jays’ situational hitting is now at black hole multiplied by the square root of an F5 tornado level of suckitude.

On the DJF podcast, Andrew Stoeten, Dustin Parkes and Justin Bergkamp were laughingly discussing that it may be time to start looking at the intangibles if for no other reason that there is no tangible explanation as to why the situational hitting has been so capable of redefining the word abysmal.

The thing is, it isn’t so much about the intangibles as it is understanding non-statistical factors in a tangible way. For instance, I do not view clutch hitting as the ability to rise above one’s normal performance in high-leverage situations as much as being able to execute your regular play in times of high pressure/high leverage. We know how one “chokes” in baseball—he tightens up physically which affects the mechanics of his swing or pitching motion that in turn results in poor performance or the proverbial “choke job.”

For a player to push those pressures into the back of his mind and still execute at his normal level in key spots is how I generally (hence, Neifi being Neifi is not clutch, just consistent) define a clutch performer. To do so in the postseason when the level of competition is higher and the pressure even greater is still more “clutch.”

This is the clutch ability the Jays lack. Toronto is getting above league-average offense from their catcher, first baseman, third baseman, two-thirds of their outfield (although Vernon Wells is out) and their DH. Their current keystone are not far below league average but are likely providing above average offense relative to their positions and, in Aaron Hill’s case, stellar defense.

Yet here are their totals in various situations (courtesy, as always, of the awesome Baseball Reference)…

Situation    BA   OBP   SLG
RISP       .209  .296  .281
RISP/2 out .186  .299  .257
Men on     .240  .319  .344
-2-        .196  .328  .245
--3        .208  .317  .229
12-        .224  .291  .327
1-3        .174  .250  .261
-23        .273  .300  .303
123        .174  .214  .348
--3/2 out  .163  .264  .225

What makes this even worse is this…

Situation    BA   OBP   SLG
RISP       .303  .343  .394
RISP/2 out .455  .538  .727
Men on     .277  .306  .383
-2-        .286  .333  .286
--3        .333  .333  .333
12-        .500  .500 2.000
1-3        .000  .333  .000 (2 AB)
-23        .375  .375  .375
123        .000  .000  .000 (1 AB)
--3/2 out  .333  .429  .333

These are the currently DLed David Eckstein’s totals in those departments, so the team totals are actually even worse than what is presented.

Despite being second in the AL East in on-base percentage (fifth in the AL) the Jays are next to last in runs scored—that is how bad their situational hitting has been. Of course they have hit into a staggering number of double plays (and a triple play!) easily leading the league (and majors) in that category (51) by eight over the next highest club (Boston). To give you an idea of how awful Toronto has been in this regard, I am going to list the double play totals of every team with a higher OBP than the Jays…

Team        OBP  DP
Toronto    .331  51
Chicago NL .375  24
St. Louis  .368  41
Boston     .365  43
Atlanta    .352  36
LA (NL)    .351  39 
Texas      .346  28
Detroit    .343  38
Arizona    .342  19 
NY (NL)    .341  27
Oakland    .340  32

It’s easy to say that the Blue Jays have been unlucky as respects situational hitting, but they’re not. Bad luck is when a team hits screaming line drives right at fielders or repeatedly have highlight reel defensive plays turned on balls in play. Having watched a lot of games I can say that this hasn’t been the case. Here is where we get into quasi-intangible territory. As idiotic as I feel in typing this, I cannot help but wonder if the lineup is focusing too much on OBP.

Before you fire off that angry e-mail, hear me out.

Last year, I received a lot of angry messages for my faulting Frank Thomas’s approach last June. Thomas had an OBP of .370 at that point in time but I saw him pass on far too many hittable pitches while at the plate with men on base. During a radio pre-game show Thomas admitted that his mindset was wrong since he has looking to walk and not hit. I was blasted for not understanding how runs were scored and that I was nuts for criticizing a guy with such a high OBP. As things turned out, Thomas adjusted his approach and after hitting .226/.370/.392 to start the year, batted .310/.381/.539 the rest of the way.

With men like Frank Thomas, Ted Williams and Barry Bonds in their primes, OBP gods all, their approach was to go up to the plate looking for a pitch to crush. They fouled off pitches that they couldn’t tee off on and ultimately, if that pitch didn’t materialize they simply trotted down to first base. They didn’t go up there looking to walk.

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However, this is what I see as being one problem regarding the Jays’ approach. They’re looking to reach base but not necessarily hit. Few teams in the AL take strike one as often as the Blue Jays (not a hunch, I checked the numbers) and more often than not (1) it’s a strike (checked the numbers) and (2) it is a hittable pitch (observation). This passing on hittable pitches in order to work the count and possibly walk often means that it is the pitcher—and not the batter—dictating the at-bat.

This passive approach puts the hitter in the position that when he has no choice but to swing the bat, he has to do so when the pitcher has the advantage. This is why the Jays have hit into so many double plays—31 of the Jays’ 51 double plays have come when even (excluding 0-0 pitches) or behind in the count—generally times when the batter is somewhat on the defensive.

Almost the whole lineup looks tentative. With men on, they appear like they are trying not to screw up and are looking to walk so as not to (1) make an out or (2) hit into a double play which is putting them into too many counts where they have to swing at a “pitcher’s pitch.” The stats seem to bear this out in that there are six free passes out of third place (in the AL) in walks drawn but 10th in batting average and 11th in extra base hits.

When you couple this tentative approach with the obvious tightness in their swings as the RISP drought continues the Blue Jays ineptitude becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The OBP is God faction will blast me for writing this however we cannot ignore that the Jays enjoy the second best OBP in the AL East, the lowest ERA, are solid defensively and yet are in last place. If you look at the situational stats in the first chart in the article you will not that their OBP is higher than their SLG in six of the 10 categories and the SLG is only three and 11 points higher in the OBP in two others. Again, this would suggest that in key situations the hitters are risk averse and are passing on hittable pitches in hopes of reaching base via the base on balls.

I discount it being bad luck since most of the outs made by the batters are routine—I’m not seeing the ball hit on the screws right at somebody or SportsCenter level defensive gems from opposing teams. The fact that they’re not even slugging .350 in any of the aforementioned situations—and are below .300 in six categories—indicates both a degree of tentativeness and possibly not being in a position to really take a hard rip at a pitch.

It is simple timidity—a fear of failure that, once again, is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The Jays need a hitter—a guy who relishes the big moment, who wants to get the big hit … a player who wants to cream the ball. The lineup has shown this year that save Scott Rolen and possibly Matt Stairs the club lacks such a man. The Jays need to find such a player and I can tell you right now that it ain’t a rebuilding club’s Triple A player nor a guy released by a poor-hitting club for a lack of offense.

Right now (you knew this was coming at some point) Barry Bonds is filing a grievance against MLB accusing them of collusion. If I’m his lawyer/agent, I’m using the Toronto Blue Jays as Exhibit A.

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