Monday, August 14, 2023

Ten random thoughts: Post-all star week - August 13


We are a month past all star week and two weeks past the trade deadline.  This edition of ten random thoughts will recap what's happened for the Blue Jays and in the world of baseball. Since the all star break, the Blue Jays have won four series (two of those were series sweeps) and lost three series. We've seen Hyun-Jin Ryu return to the majors after missing 13 months with Tommy John surgery. They have had injury scars with closer Jordan Romano and star shortstop Bo Bichette landing on the IL with back and knee injuries respectively. Alek Manoah has shown encouraging signs as he tries to get back to his dominant self. This post will examine all that and more. Here are ten random thoughts from around the MLB. Note, all stats will be as of Saturdays games 

1. As per usual, we will look at the injuries and their impact on the team. First, let's start with arguably the most impactful loss. Blue Jays fans were holding their breath when Bo Bichette grabbed his right knee after it buckled when he stopped suddenly on what could have been a double. Bichette has been a consistent threat in a lineup that has largely underperformed and struggled mightily with runners in scoring position. He is leading the AL in both average (.321) and hits (144). Bichette also has 17 HR and 59 RBI. Thankfully, the MRI came back fairly clean and Bichette was placed on the 10-day IL. Another impactful injury is to close Jordan Romano, who had his lower back tighten up on him while warming up for the all-star game. Romano is 4-5 with 28 saves. There's no question that the Blue Jays will go as far as their bullpen takes them. This is an injury that needs to be nipped in the bud and not linger. Trevor Richards is another reliever dealing with a nagging injury that the Blue Jays are trying to nip in the bud. Richards has been a valuable piece of of the bullpen, in a middle-relief, multi-inning role. The team is hoping his stint will be the minimal 15 days.  Chad Green is getting very close to returning from Tommy John surgery. He has made 5 rehab appearance and has looked good. The last hurdle to clear appears to be appearing on back to back days. He'll only be pitching an inning max so he doesn't need to build up his durability to throw a ton of pitches. Green will likely assist in bridging the gap to getting the ball to closer Romano. Kevin Kiermaier had to leave the game in the 6th inning August 6 after crashing into the center field wall at Fenway Park making a leaping catch and cutting his elbow. Obviously risk of infection is going to be a concern. He was placed on the 10 day IL retroactive to August 1st. Danny Jansen also missed a few days after getting hit by a pitch against Baltimore. The injury is to his throwing hand.  Hyun-Jin Ryu, just two starts back from Tommy John surgery, had the misfortune of getting drilled in the knee by a screaming line drive back at him.  

2. Two Blue Jays staring pitchers are in the midst of comebacks for different reasons.  For Hyun-Jin Ryu, his start August 1st marked the end of a grueling 13 and a half month rehab from Tommy John surgery. The next 2 months will be crucial for Ryu, especially since he is on an expiring contract. He is also going to be auditioning for a potential spot on the playoff roster. The big question will be velocity and whether that holds up start to start. 

Alek Manoah is trying to regain his form that saw him dominate in his first two seasons in the bigs. There are a variety of factors that contributed to his struggles in 2023. First and foremost, batters figured out how to beat him. Success in three majors is about adjusting. Players have access to iPad in the dugout, scouting reports and a lot of players have now faced Manoah several times over the three seasons. Second, Manoah had done a lot of trash talking, giving players motivation to beat him. Nobody likes to be shown up on the field and the best way to combat cockiness is to beat the cocky player. A third factor is for just of spring training, Manoah's personal catcher Alejandro Kirk was absent due to waiting for his partner to have his first child in Mexico. Yet another factor is Manoah's physical conditioning.  He came into spring training notably bulkier. While you can succeed in baseball with all kinds of physical shapes, generally the successful players are in shape. He's also been affected by the pitch clock. While he had looked better since the all star break, the real fix will likely come in the off season when he can really work on his mechanics and also revamp his physical training program. Command is definitely a concern. Thankfully the way he left his July 29th start (pulled after badly injuring Angels outfielder Taylor Ward with a fastball that drilled ward in the face) Did not negatively impact his next start. That is a big reason why he needs to get himself sorted out otherwise more accidents can happen if he has no control of his pitches. Manoah was optioned back to AAA-ball after Thursday's start

4. How about Davis Schneider? Drafted in the 28th round of the 2017 amateur draft,  Schneider beat the incredibly long odds and made his major league debut last weekend vs. the Red Sox. With Bo Bichette on the IL with a knee injury and Otto Lopez injured with an oblique strain, the Blue Jays called up Schneider. He turned Fenway Park into his own personal playground, going yard over the green monster in his first career at bat. Schneider ended up going 9-13 with 1 walk, 5 RBI (including one the painful way on a hit by pitch with the bases loaded) and 2 home runs. He cooled off a bit in Cleveland,  going 0-6 with 3 strikeouts and a rally killing double play with the bases loaded. Here are some other late rounders who went on to have careers in the MLB. 

4. Let's look at the trade deadline and the moves made both by the Blue Jays and around the MLB. The biggest needs for the Blue Jays were a high impact bar and another arm or two in the bullpen (preferably a lefty). The Blue Jays acquired two arms for the bullpen; lefty Genesis Cabrera and righty setup man and second closer Jordan Hicks. Cabrera filled a need for a second lefty besides Tim Mayza that could be used to attack left handed batters. Cabrera has more than impressed in his brief time as a Blue Jay, allowing 3 unearned runs and 4 hits, 2 intentional walks while striking out 9 over 10 appearances spanning 10.1 innings. Hicks hasn't quite been as effective, taking the loss Saturday against the Cubs.  In 6 appearances, he has a 3.86 ERA. With Romano currently injured,  Hicks has been filling in as the closer. Once Romano returns,  Hicks should slot in his more ideal role as a setup man. Just prior to the trade deadline, the Blue Jays got a big scare when star shortstop Bo Bichette injured his knee while running the bases (thankfully the MRI showed no major structural damage. The Blue Jays opted to acquire infielder Paul DeJong from the Cardinals. Defensively he's been solid, not so much offensively with just 2 his and a run scored in 13 AB. Once Bichette returns, he'll likely slide over to 2B and be a backup SS. Trent Thornton was dealt to the Mariners.  In his first four appearances in a Mariners uniform, Thornton has a 3.38 ERA. 

Perhaps the biggest player not traded was Shohei Ohtani, who was pulled off the trade market as the Angels felt they could make a run at a wild card spot. It's a move they will likely regret if they miss the playoffs with Ohtani a free agent after this season. The Astros made a big move, reacquiring veteran righty Justin Verlander, who has thrown several no hitters and is still capable of doing damage.The Padres, Rangers and Angels were the most active buyers at the deadline and the Mets, Cardinals and white Sox were the most active sellers. At the end of the day, only one team will be the world series champ, but the early winner looks like the Mariners, who are on a hit streak and currently neck and neck with the Blue Jays for the final wild card spot.  The early losers are the Angels, who have lost 10 of 12 since the deadline and are quickly falling out of contention for a wild card spot. 

5. In terms of the wild card standings, the Blue Jays are neck and neck for the last wild card spot.  At this point, it appears that the Blue Jays will be fighting for the last wild card spot as they are 7.5 games back of the Orioles for the division title.  They have three game left against the Orioles and have won just twice in ten season series games to date. Thru are tied for the final wild card spot with the Mariners,  who would hold the tie breaker due to a better interdivisional record. The Red Sox and Yankees are 3 and 4 games respectively back of the final wild card spot. Both the Red Sox and Yankees would hold the tiebreaker if the season ended today as the Red Sox have already clinched the season series and the Yankees are leading the season series 4-3. The Blue Jays need to get on a roll pretty quick. Their biggest winning streak is 6 games (accomplished between April 23rd and 29th. 

Looking at the national league, if the season ended today, the Braves, Dodgers and Brewers would be the division winners (the Braves and Dodgers would have byes to the divisional round and the Brewers would host a wild card game). The Phillies, Giants and Cardinals would be the three wild card teams. The Reds, Marlins, Diamondbacks and Padres are all within 5 games of the final wild card spot. 

6. In recent weeks the Blue jays have DFA'd a few players,  a couple of whom were claimed. Prior to his trade to the Mariners,  Thornton was initially DFA'd and cleared. Thornton was 7-14 with a 4.74 ERA in 108 appearances (35 starts) over 4 seasons with the Blue Jays. He had largely fallen out of favor for the Blue Jays in recent years. Jordan Luplow, who is an outfielder by trade, was claimed off waivers by the Twins. Luplow batted .214 in 13 AB for the Blue Jays this season. Interestingly,  he is batting. 385 in 6 games for the Twins. Is this further proof that the Blue Jays need to move on from Guillermo Martinez as hitting coach? On the same day, Mitch White cleared waivers and was outrighted to Buffalo.White is a trade deadline bust from last season. White is 0-1 with a dreadful 7.11 ERA in 10 appearances this season. He missed the first 2 months of the season with a dead arm. Initially he was supposed to challenge Yusei Kikuchi for the 5th starters role, but he was never able to pitch in spring training and the Blue Jays now see him as a bulk inning reliever. However,  he cannot even be trusted in low leverage situations. Thomas Hatch, another pitcher having a tough season was claimed off waivers by the Pirates. Hatch has a 4.26 ERA in 6 appearances for the Blue Jays this season.. in his only appearance for the pirates, he threw 4 shutout innings and was credited with the win. 

7. We are almost a full year into the new rules for the 2023 seasons. To recap,  the new rules are a pitch clock (pitchers must begin their pitching motion before the clock expires or a ball is called . Batters must be ready at the 8 second mark or they get a strike). Clock resets on pickoff attempt,  with a limit of two pickoff attempts per at bat generally,  but get two more tries if the base runner(s) advance a base (runners automatically advances on third failed pickoff attempt). The bases are bigger this season to prevent injuries and increase chances of stealing bases. Defensive shifts are largely eliminated with two infielders required to be on either side of 2nd base and infielders cannot switch sides. An outfielder can move to the infield, but that is a risky move since it gives batters more space more space to hit the ball to the outfield. In terms of the pitch clock bulkier pitchers such as Alek Manoah have struggled the most to adjusting to the pitch clock. The big impact of the pitch clock has been a reduction in the length of games, which has brought new fans to the sport. The no defensive shift rule has increased batting average. Left handed batters have enjoyed the biggest benefit since they are the ones who were shifted against most. Case in point, Corey Seagar, who batted .248 last season, is batting a remarkable .348 so far this season. The biggest impact of bigger bases is the almost complete elimination of preventable injuries simply from baserunners and fielders not having enough space to both occupy a base without someone getting spiked. There have also been an increase in stolen bases. Ronald Acuna Jr leads both leagues with 54 stolen bases and has only been caught stealing 9 times.

8. With the MLB season approaching the final stretch, let's look at the potential award winner.

  • AL Cy Young - Nathan Eovaldi. Here's a pitcher having a comeback season after a so-so 2022 season where he was 6-3 with a 3.87ERA. This season he is 14-3 with an AL-leading ERA of 2.69. He is currently injured with a forearm strain,  but he is still a major reason why the Texas Rangers are first in the AL west.  Other potential candidates are Gerrit Cole (10-3, 2.76 ERA) and Shohei Ohtani (10-5, 3.17 ERA)
  • AL MVP - Shohei Ohtani. The Angels pitcher/DH wins the AL MVP awards on the strength of his offensive numbers. He is leading the league in HR (40), triples (7), slugging% (.661) and is 5th in batting average. As Matt Chapman infamously said,  Ohtani is the only batter on the Angels who can hit. Bo Bichette, who leads the league in hits (144) and is 2nd in the AL in batting average (.321) should also receive some votes. 
  • AL rookie of the year Josh Jung of the Texas Rangers. Leads all rookie in both leagues with 22 HR, it's batting a solid .274 and has driven in 67 runs
  • AL manager of the year - Baltimore Orioles manager Brandon Hyde. Since he took over from buck Showalter in 2019, the Orioles have steadily improved. This season,  they stand a decent shot at winning the AL East division title just 5 years after they lost 100+ games. They are going to be a dangerous team in the playoffs. 
  • NL Cy Young - Justin Steele of the Chicago Cubs. He's leading the NL in wins (13) and has a solid 2.79 ERA over 22 starts. Last season,  Steele finished the year 4-7 with a 3.18 ERA over 24 starts. The only other candidate that can be considered is Arizona Diamondback righty Zac Galen, who is 12-5 with a 3.24 ERA in 25 starts on he season.  Yes,  Blake Snell leads the league in ERA (2.63) but he has a record of 9-8. Steele gets the mood for Cy Young, plus he was solid against the Blue Jays on Saturday. 
  • NL MVP - this award will be better Luis Arraez, who leads the NL in batting average (.365) and hits (159) and Braves first baseman Matt Olson, who leads the NL in HR (42) and RBI (105). I would give the nod to Olson since home runs and RBI have a bigger impact on the game than hits. If Arraez was still batting over .400, I may have said he should win, but he's not. Cubs starter Steele should also receive some votes,  especially if the Cubs can overtake the Brewers for the NL division title. 
  • NL rookie of the year - Corbin Carroll of the Diamondbacks - tied for the NL rookie lead with 21HR, batting .272 and has driven in 59 runs. 
  • NL manager of the year -  Chicago Cubs manager David Ross.  A member of the 2016 world series champion Cubs team, Ross is leading the team as manager towards a potential NL central title or likely wild card spot. Since the Cubs broke that 108 year curse in 2016, the Cubs have made the playoffs three times and missed three times, including the last 2 seasons. Under Ross'leadership,  the Cubs have been steadily improving over the last three seasons. I doubt any of their fans want to wait another 100 years for a world series championship. 

9. Finally, congrats to Jose Bautista in making the level of excellence,  very well deserved.  He was a huge part of the 2015 and 2016 playoff teams

10. Blue Jay of the month: Yusei Kikuchi. In five starts since the all- star break, Kikuchi has given up just 4 earned runs and deserves to have won his last start when he pitched seven outstanding innings, but the Blue Jays were shut out.