Monday, April 10, 2023

Ten random thoughts: week 1: March 30-April 9

Another baseball season is upon us and with the first week of the season comes my first edition of 10 random thoughts of the 2023 season. Last season ended in spectacular fashion with a two game series sweep in the wild card round at the hands of their expansion cousins the Seattle Mariners. The off season saw a shift in the culture of the locker room. Gone are outfielders Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Raimel Tapia and and Teoscar Hernandez, three players who were seen as, at times, not taking the game too seriously. They were replaced by Daulton Varsho and Kevin Kiermaier, both considered to be defensive upgrades. George Springer has moved to playing right field full time in the hopes of keeping him on the field and healthier. Brandon Belt was brought in to be the full time DH and also the backup 1st baseman. Righty Chris Basstt was added to an already solid starting rotation. One move that was made that will essentially be a mid season acquisition was the signing of reliever Chad Green. The former Yankees reliever will not be available until towards the All Star break as he is recovering from Tommy John surgery. The Blue Jays also acquired reliever Erik Swanson in the Hernandez trade with Seattle. We will look at all those players and where they are now and how their first week of the season has gone. The new 2023 season also sees manager John Schneider begin his 1st full season as manager of the Blue Jays after taking over from the fired Charlie Montoya mid season last year. The Rogers Centre underwent major changes in the off season and the look and fan experience will be vastly different. The upper deck seats were all removed and replaced by social spaces and rooftop patios were added where fans can stand and watch the game. The dimensions of the outfield have changed and become shorter distance for home runs, the outfield fences are also taller,qwa    ` so it will be more difficult to make a great catch at the wall. I'll talk more about the Roger's Centre changes later. 

 The Blue Jays began the season with a 10 game 3 team road trip starting in St. Louis the 1st weekend of April. The Blue Jays won a slugfest on opening day that saw the offense explode for 10 runs on 19 hits, none of them a home run. Unfortunately the pitching was not on point. Alek Manoah had his worst start of his career, giving up 5 runs on 9 hits over 3.1 innings. The next day, The Blue Jays lost the 1st game of the season due to an unfortunate 3rd inningm where the normally reliable Matt Chapman made a rare throwing error, that eventually resulted in 3 unearned runs. The next day, Chris Bassitt made his 1st regular season start in a Blue Jays uniform and was taken yard 4 times, not a good thing for a sinker baller. He also did not strike out a batter during the game and ended up giving up 9 runs on 10 hits before being removed in the 4th inning. The Blue Jays then moved on to Kansas City for a four game set against the Royals. Jose Berrios started the 1st game and was torched for 8 runs on 9 hits through 5.2 innings. Bo Bichette went yard for the Blue Jays first HR of the season, although it had to survive a video review to count. The next night saw a pleasant surprise with Yusei Kikuchi having a solid first start of the season. Kikuchi is a player with the most to prove after a disaster's 2022 campaign that saw him removed from the starting rotation and pitching out of the bullpen in low leverage situations by the end of the season. Although, Kikuchi did make the playoff roster as a second left handed option out of the bullpen. Daulton Varsho threw out a runner at home and hit his first home run in a Blue Jays uniform. The next day, Manoah had a nice 2nd start of season throwing seven shut out innings. Vlad went deep for the first time this season. The Blue Jays completed the series win and extended the win streak to 3 games in the finale thanks to Kevin Gausman throwing 6 shutout innings. Matt Chapman continues to be red hot, driving in a pair of runs to open the scoring. Vlad and Cavan Biggio both went deep with solo jacks. The Blue Jays ended the road trip with a weekend trip to LA to take on the Angels. They took the series opener on a huge Bo Bichette 3-run bomb. The Angels evened the series when Mike Trout hammered his own 3-run bomb. The rubber match went to the Blue jays in a wild game that saw a combined 23 runs and 26 hits. Matt Chapman and Kevin Kiermaire both had 5RBI.. Looking at the week ahead, the Blue Jays open the first home stand against the geographically closest team to them in the Detroit Tigers. The Blue Jays won the season series against the Tigers last season, outscoring the Tigers 33-15. The Blue Jays then wrap up the first home stand and week with their first series against division rivals the Tampa Bay Rays. The Rays edged the Blue Jays 10-9 in the season series, outscoring the Blue Jays 82-73. Here are ten random thoughts from week one of the MLB. 

1. As per usual, we'll start off with looking at the current injury situation for the Blue Jays. At this time, the Blue Jays are very healthy. The only real injury concern is that of reliever Mitch White, who was placed on the IL with an inflammed pitching elbow. Of course, the real concern is that the injury will result in eventual Tommy John surgery. White was expected to challenge Kikuchi for the 5th starter's spot, but he entered spring training already behind due to a shoulder injury suffered in off season training. He threw a bullpen last Monday, but he'll basically be starting from scratch and will need to build up to be ready for the season. Assuming no setbacks, White could be ready to pitch in the majors towards the end of the month. Speaking of Tommy John, the Blue Jays have a couple of pitchers (Green and Hyun-Jin Ryu) recovering from the surgery, who are anticipated to be ready to pitch again around mid-season. Green is probably a little bit ahead of Ryu given he had the surgery in May, while Ryu didn't have the Tommy John surgery until June. It's likely both pitchers will be pitching out of the bullpen. Although, if Kikuchi and/or White struggle in the 5th starters role, the Blue Jays could stretch Ryu out as a starter. For Ryu, The timing of the injury is unfortunate for Ryu because this is his final season he is under contract with the Blue Jays. A couple of players the Blue Jays will be managing the workload of are Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and George Springer. Guerrero Jr. has already had a little injury scare when he tweaked his knee in a Spring training game. Both Guerrero Jr. and Springer will get half days off at DH and the occasional full day off, as Springer had on Thursday. Injuries will come up throughout the season, but the trick is minimizing the time off and hoping that the injuries are not to key players. 

2. The game of baseball is going to look significantly different this season due to several rule changes implemented by the MLB. The most significant change is the introduction of the time clock. A major problem the game of baseball has had is keeping fans engaged and introducing new fans with the game due to the length of the games due to players wasting time stepping out of the batter's box, adjusting their batting gloves, and pitchers wasting time when runners are on base. To reduce the time of games, MLB is introducing a pitch clock where pitchers must deliver a pitch within 15 seconds if no runners are on base and within 20 seconds if there are runners on base (batters are allowed one time out per at bat). The pitch must be delivered before the clock expires and batters must be in the batter's box and alert to the pitch by the 8 second mark. If a pitcher violates the clock, it will result in an automatic ball. If a batter is not ready by the 8 second mark, they will have an automatic strike against them. Further, pitchers are only allowed two pick off attempts per at-bat. A 3rd faild pick off attempt will result in the runner automatically advancing a base. The pick off limit is reset if a runner or runner's advance via a steal, passed ball, wild pitch or throwing error. I am in favor of the pitch clock. It drove me nuts watching pitchers waste time throwing to 1st base time and time again when the runner clearly wasn't going to be going anywhere, Also, you shouldn't need to adjust your batting gloves after every single pitch. With the introduction of catchers being able to to electronically relay the pitch selection last season, that should eliminate the need to waste precious seconds flashing signs or trying to agree on a pitch. It will be nice to see the games in under 3 hours. 

Another significant change this season is the elimination of defensive shifts in the infield. Prior to this season, teams were almost always shifting the infielders around the diamond, especially against left handed batters. Now, teams must have two players on each side of 2nd base and all four infielders must be within the dirt of the infield. Teams can elect to move an outfielder to the right side of the outfield but teams cannot have four outfielders. Failure to have the proper defensive alignment at the time of the pitch will result in an automatic ball. Corey Seager, a notorious pull hitter should benefit most from this rule change. You should see the averages of left handed batters increase due to the defensive shift ban. To me, this rule change was unnecessary. There are ways to get around the defensive shift. For example, a batter could hit to the opposite field or lay a bunt down the left field line. Now batters will be able to continue to pull the ball, if that is their tendency. 

The third major rule change will impact base stealers and the safety of the game. The MLB is introducing bigger bases this season in an effort to prevent injuries from defensive players getting spiked by base runners trying to get to a base. On July 24th, 2013, Atlanta Braves pitcher Tim Hudson broke his ankle getting stepped on running to cover 1st base. Bigger bases would have prevented the injury from occurring because both Hudson and the base runner would have had room to step on the bag without someone getting stepped on. From a strategic point of view, base stealers will be able to steal bases easier because they'll be able to slide to the outside of the bag and away from a tag. Also, there will be a 4 1/2 inch reduction in the distance between 1st and 2nd base and 2nd and 3rd base, so base stealers will have less of a distance to travel when stealing a base. I like this rule as well because if you can prevent an injury why not? Who wants to see Vladimir Guerrero Jr miss significant time because he broke his ankle getting stepped on? Also, more offense would be a great thing as well. 

Finally, the MLB is going to a more balanced schedule this season. Prior to this season, teams would face their division rivals 18 to 19 times in the season and teams within the same league would play home and home series. Interleague games would rotate season to season, where AL East teams with face NL East teams one season, then the next season AL East teams would face NL West teams, and finally the season after that AL East teams would face NL central teams. The AL central and AL West divisions would face similar rotations against the three divisions in the National League. This meant that the Blue Jays would face NL central teams once every 3 seasons and players such as Joey Votto of the Cincinnati Reds would not come home to play Toronto for perhaps 5 seasons. Now, with the new schedule, the Cincinnati Reds will be coming to Toronto every other season. The new schedule means that the travel schedule will get tougher for teams on the West Coast, who will now have to endure long road trips ro face teams such as the Yankees, Rays, and Blue Jays. Teams will also have to make sure that work visas are an order so that players are able to play in Canada. As a whole, this new schedule will allow fans to see players that they wouldn't normally get to see, and players will get to play against players they don't normally get to play against, other than in an all-star game.

3. Say goodbye to the home run jacket. One aspect of the Blue Jays trying to remake their image into a more serious, competitive team is the retirement of the home run jacket. Introduced in the summer of 2021 by Blue Jays unterpreter Hector Lebron as a way to represent the team's multicultural background and fan base, the jacket has been donned every time a Blue Jays player hits a home run, whether the team is up by a ton of runs, losing badly or, just hit a big home run to tie a playoff game. The gimmickiness of this jacket was really exposed in the 2nd game of the wild card series versus Seattle in the playoffs. The Blue Jays got a huge lead in the 2nd game, only to see Seattle come all the way back and win the series. I think a lot of baseball fans, not necessarily Blue Jay fans, I saw the team as one not serious about contending for a World Series. Bo Bichette, Vladimir Guerrero Jr and George Springer are all only going to be around for a finite amount of time. They are going to want to go to a team that will give them a good chance to win. There is a time and a place for fun. Maybe the home run jacket can become something that is awarded to the player of the game, much like teams in the NHL do, such as the Flames awarding a firefighter's helmet. It's time for the Blue Jays to start showing that they are maturing as a team and are not just there to mess around in the dugout and goof around. They should look to the Houston Astros and the New York Yankees, two teams that consistently make the playoffs and win rounds. They still high five each other in the dugout after home runs, but they are very much a professional team that gets the job done on the field. 

4. As mentioned in the preamble, the Blue Jays will be coming home to renovated Roger's Centre. Fans will have more spaces to congregate and watch the game. The atmosphere will be more like an outdoor patio as opposed to the bleachers that existed up to last season. The Blue Jays may have to rethink the opposing bullpen design though. At the moment, fans are able to sit pretty much right up to where the pitchers are warming up. Further, balconies have been set up where fans can watch the opposing pitchers warm up. They had better make sure that there is good security to ensure that the pitcherss are not being harassed or even worse physically harmed by a stupid fan who is drunk. One casualty in the design is that there will be fewer seats available for fans to buy tickets. It's likely that fans will see more home runs And there won't be fewer home runs that or not caught by fans. The bulpen used to be at the field level so a lot of the home runs would land in the bullpen and fans would not have the opportunity to catch a home run ball. The players will get to enjoy a brand new weight room, a family room for the families to hang out and there will be a new staff locker room. Phase 2 of renovations, taking place between the 2023 and ’24 seasons, will shift the focus to overhauling the 100-Level infield seating. This will include the addition of premium clubs at field level and social spaces. This phase will also round out the renovations of player facilities, which will include clubhouses. 

5. The first time through the rotation was a mixed bag of results. Alek Manoah, Chris Bssitt and Jose Berrios will be wanting do-overs. Yusei Kikuchi and Kevin Gausman met and exceeded expectations. For Manoah, he got the opening day assignment he probably should have gotten in 2022 when the Blue Jays went with the more experienced Jose Berrios and we all now how that went (Berrios didn't even make it out of the 1st inning opening day 2022). Manoah faired a bit better this season's opening day. However, it was still a career worst start for Manoah, who was lit up for 5 runs on 9 hits over 3.1 innings. It was not a great night for either team's pitchers in a game that featured a combined 19 runs and 34 hits. Kevin Gausman did his part the next night, saving the bullpen with 6 innings. Gausman was victimized by a rare throwing error from Matt Chapman, which led to 3 unearned runs and was essentially the difference in the game. Next up was Chris Bassitt, who was making his Blue Jays regular season debut. Like Manoah, Bassitt only made it through 3.1 innings. More concerning was he gave up 4 home runs, not ideal for a sinker baller, and did not strike out a batter. Then it was Jose Berrios turn, a pitcher looking for a strong start after an inconsistent 2022 season where he at times looked like an all-star and at times had disastrous outings. His first start of 2023 was the latter unformattely, giving up 8 runs on 9 hits. At least this time he made it through the 1st inning. The biggest surprise was saved for last. Yusei Kikuchi came into the 2023 season with the most to prove after a disastrous first season in Toronto where he was all over the map with his pitchng, walking 58 batters in 100 innings. He was out of the rotation by the all-star break. His first start of 2023 he looked like a completely different pitcher with 5 solid innings, where he gave up a run on three hits while walking one and striking out 2. Manoah bounced back nicely with seven shutout innings Thursday in KC. Gausman also had a strong second start with 6 shut out innings of his own. Bassit and Berrios are still looking for answers. Bassitt is likely the least concerning of the two given he is new to the team and is still getting used to his catchers. Kikuchi came crashing back to earth Sunday, allowing 6 runs on 9 hits while walking 1 and striking out 6. Three of those hits were HRs. 

6. A look at departed players:
  • Teoscar Hernandez - Acquired in a trade, with Nori Aoki, that sent Francisco Liriano to Houston July 31, 2017, Hernandez spent 5.5 seasons with the Blue Jays. He established himself as a power hitter that would bat anywhere from 3rd to 6th in the lineup and played one of the corner outfield positions. His best season as a Blue Jay was 2021 when he batted .296 with 32HR and 116RBI and his only all-star appearance. In 609 regular season games as a Blue Jay, Hernandez batted .260 with 135HR and 384RBI. He had a tendency to strike out a lot. 755 times over those 609 games. In the 4 wild carsd games he played as a Blue Jay, Hernandez batted .200 with 2HR and 4RBI. His trade to the Mariners represented the team's desire to change the culture in the locker room, as well as a defensive upgrade, plus the Blue Jays got an upgrade in the bullpen in the trade with Erik Swanson coming the other way. Through the first nine games of the season, Teo was batting .156 with 2HR and 4RBI. On Sunday, Hernandez was 2-6 with a run scored and an RBI in a losing effort as the Mariners were edgwed by the Guardians 7-6 in 12 innings
  • Raimel Tapia - Acquired in a trade that sent Randal Grichuk the other way just prior to the start of the season last year, Tapia gave the Blue Jays a valuable left-handed bat and played all three outfield position. Tapia hit .292 with 3HR and 52 RBI over 128 games and 411AB. He was 0-6 in the wild card round vs. Seattle. Tapia signed with the Red Sox and was batting .500 through Saturday's game. Tapia came in as a late defensive replacement and did not get an at-bat.
  • Bradley Zimmer - A waiver wire accquisition at the end of August 2022, Zimmer was a disaster in his limited time on the Blue Jays roster, Zimmer batted an abysmal .077 with 0HR and 2RBI. He did not make the Dodgers opening day roster and ir currently in the minors
  • Lourdes Gurriel Jr. - Signed as an amateur free agent in the 2016 off-season, Lourdes Gurriel Jr. played 5 seasons for the Blue Jays. Gurriel Jr. batted .285 with 68HR and 254 RBI over 458 games and 1724 AB. He did not play in the WC series against Seattle due to injury.  Gurriel Jr. was traded to Arizona for Daulton Varsho. In his first 9 games as a DBack through Sunday, Gurriel Jr. was batting .229 with 0HR and 5RBI. Gurriel Jr. had the day off Sunday and did not play. 
  • Ross Stripling - Acquired at the trade deadline 2020, Stripling was both a starter and at times reliever for the Blue Jays. He took over Ryu's spot in the rotation after Ryu had season-ending Tommy John surgery and did well,  going 10-4 with a 3.01ERA in 32 games (24 starts). In his Blue Jays career,  Stripling was 15-13 with a 3.94ERA over 61 games (45 starts). He had a rough first start for the Gianrs, giving up 8 runs on 10 hits, including 5HR while walking 2 and striking out 4. 
7. A look at the new players: 
  • Erik Swanson - Acquired in the Hernandez trade to Seattle, Swanson is expected to be a setup ma in the bullpen. Swanson had a 2.08ERA in 5 appearances through Saturday/ He gave up a solo shot to ex-Blue Jay Brandon Drury to turn the game into a save situation.
  • Daulton Varsho. Acquired in the trade that sent Lourdes Gurriel Jr. ro Arizona, Daulton Varsho is already showing he is a defensive upgrade, gunnin down a runner at home. Through Saturday's games, Varsho is batting .313 with 1HR and 4RBI. On Sunday, Varsho had a hit, drew a walk and scored a run.
  • Keviu Kiermaier - Signed to give the Blue Jays a CF so George Springer could shift over to RF full-time, as well as being a left-handed bat in the lineup, Kiermaier is batting .360 through Saturday's game. He had a huge day offensively Sunday, going 3-5 with 5RBI and 1 run scored.
  • Chris Bassitt - see above
  • Brandon Belt - Signed to be a left-handed bat and the backup first baseman, Belt is off to a slow start due to a later Spring training, batting an abysmal .043 with a single hit in 23 AB. Even worse. he has struck out 15 times already!
  • Chad Green - to make his debut mid-season as he is still recovering from May 2022 Tommy John surgery.

8. How about the Tampa Bay Rays. A perfect 9-0 to start the season. They are the last remaining undefeated teand the blue jays get a chance to potentially break that streak as the Rays will be in town next weekend. Are the Rays going to repeat what the Yankees did last season when they ran away with the first half of the season, but fell back to Earth in the second half?

9. The bottom teams in the MLB currently are the Detroit Tigers, the Washington Nationals, and the Oakland Athletics, who all had identical 2-6 records after Saturday's games.

10. Blue Jay of the week: Matt Chapman. The two defensive errors can be forgiven since he's been sizzling offensively. batting .457 with 1HR and 9RBI through Saturday's game. Sunday he was a monster, hitting a grand slam to get the Blue Jays on the board and later adding a 2nd run scored and a 5th RBI.