Blue Jays Poised to Soar if the Heavy Hitters Get Their Mojo Back

05 05, 2008

This story first appeared in the March/April issue of Chill Magazine

On the surface, 2007 appeared to be a bit of a step backwards for the Jays. But peel back some layers and quite a different story emerges. JP Ricciardi’s men in blue mustered 83 W’s, four shy of 06’s tally, and slid into the third spot in the AL East for the eighth time in the past ten seasons.

While the ho-hum year-over-year results seem to portend more of the same old story in 08, the concerted effort to revive the blue birds, which began at the end of the 2004 season with the firing of coach Carlos Tosca and the hiring of current skip John Gibbons, is still rolling on schedule.

Despite ace Roy Halladay posting his worst ERA in his last three seasons and losing closer B.J. Ryan, a two-time all-star, after just five appearances (ligament tears in his elbow required Tommy John surgery), the pitching staff shrugged it off like it was no big whoop and transformed into an offense stymieing machine allowing the second fewest runs in the AL after the World Series Champion Boston Red Sox. In the process starter Dustin McGowan, 26, who was drafted by the Blue Jays back in 2000, finally broke out racking up 12 wins and 144 strikeouts.

Making it easier for the hurlers was a crack team of putout specialists led by a couple of groundball snagging, rifle-armed studs in Aaron Hill and John McDonald. When you crunch the team’s highlight reel hogging moments into raw numbers, the digits paint a picture of total defensive domination. Utilizing baseball statistical analysis guru John Dewan’s innovative plus-minus system of gauging defensive proficiency, the Jays come out with the top defense in the MLB. The founder of Baseball Info Solutions plus-minus system ups the ante on the old fielding percentage metric by taking into account the direction, distance speed and type of hit of every ball hit into play. It’s a revelatory super-stat that is making the same waves in player evaluation that OPS (on Base percentage + Slugging percentage) did a few years back.

“The way the plus/minus system works is we look at how often player X gets to the ball compared to other average players. The Blue Jays as a whole made 92 more plays than would be expected of average players at every position. To get the number we analyze video and mark down the exact location of every batted ball, the velocity, and the type of batted ball which all come into play in developing this metric,” explains Dewan, a colleague of sabermetrician Bill James. Dewan was an actuary before he got into the baseball data mining business in 2002.

“The Blue Jays defense was just great last season. You go through every position and they were above average. ”

Now take into account uncharacteristically anemic offensive production thanks to power-sapping injuries suffered by Reed Johnson (herniated disc), Lyle Overbay (broken hand), and Vernon Wells (torn labrum in his shoulder) and suddenly last year’s record starts to look real good. If the bats make a comeback in 2008, lookout American League—the Blue Jays are back in business.

Hot Corner Swap: Hello Rolen/ Later Glaus

The Scott Rolen for Troy Glaus straight-up third baseman swap over the offseason is the type of even trade baseball card collectors would make in the schoolyard during recess. Both are veterans coming off injuries and wanted out of their respective teams. Rolen frequently butted heads with manager Tony La Russa in St. Louis and Glaus felt moving to a ballpark with real grass would be easier on his ailing left foot for which he underwent nerve-decompression surgery this past September. Rolen, a seven-time gold glove and five-time All-Star may lack Glaus’ power but if he can stay healthy (he’s had three procedures done on his left shoulder) he’ll make up for it with his average, a career .283 which dwarfs Glaus’s .254. Rolen is also a defensive upgrade. Despite having an off year he still finished fifth in the majors in plus-minus among thirdbasemen. Also, the move from Busch Stadium to Rogers Centre where the field dimensions are more favorable to a pull hitting righty should leave Toronto fans no regrets that this deal was done.

Eckstein Cometh
The 2006 World Series MVP, who has another ring on his finger from his days with the Anaheim Angels, has a reputation as being a sparkplug who can ignite rallies. The lead-off hitter had a career-high .309 batting average last year and struck out only 22 times in 434 at bats. He is expected to reprise his role at the top of the order. While Eckstein, renowned for his small ball mastery (squeeze plays and hustling his keister off to beat out throws), is pretty much a single-slapper, his rare round-tripper thwacks have a tendency to come with impeccable clutch timing. If you’ve been following the Jays for a few years now you may remember that while with the Halos in 2002, Eck left quite an impression on Toronto fans after launching grand slams in back-to-back ball games against the Jays. But that was nothing compared to his performance in game five of the 2006 World Series where his X-factor was in full force. Eck measured huge in the championship clinching game, participating in three of the clubs four runs in the 4-2 victory. He got the Cards started with an infield single, then knocked in the third run with a well placed grounder to short, and capped it off by driving in one more with another infield-hit. The polar opposite of a Barry Bonds at the plate yet potentially just as dangerous, Eckstein’s penchant for pesky production promises to drive Blue Jay opponents seriously batty.

Keeping up with the perennially fully loaded Bo-Sox and the Bronx bombers remains an uphill struggle. But the Jays perfect spring mix of seasoned veterans and explosive young talent offer a glimmer of hope that the chemistry that propelled the blue birds to back-to-back titles in 92 and 93 can be stirred up again. The ingredients are certainly back.

This story first appeared in the March/April issue of Chill Magazine

Copyright © Mike Dojc 2008

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