Toronto Baseball Guys
Saturday, July 25, 2009
  Closer Shmoser

Question: If you look into the 2009 Jays bullpen, how can you determine which player is their closer?
Answer: He's the most ineffective one.

Why is it, that Jays fans have to fear closers entering a game regardless of whether it’s theirs or their opponents’? Jays closers stand on the mound and look afraid to throw the next pitch. They sweat, take eons between actions, and lose all sense of what they want to do. They’re like an eighties movie nerd infiltrating a party at the Jock’s house.

Scott Downs has been stellar for the Jays over the last few seasons. Last year's numbers were tremendous -era 1.78 and an OPS of 0.584-, and his start to this season was absolutely sick, with an era of 0.59 by early May. Since that point, Downs has produced some wretched performances. He's blown three saves, and picked up two losses, while ballooning his era to 3.06.
What's changed over that time? For starters, he's become the closer. Once it became clear that the incredible shrinking Ryan wasn't meant to pitch as a featherweight -Hey look on the bright side BJ, if the $ 15 million you're "earning" right now dries up, maybe you can sell your weight loss secrets- Scott Downs was installed as the closer. Since that time his results have ranged from capable to baroque. Anyone watching the most recent Jays fiasco -converting a 9-1 lead into a loss- just knew that the two run advantage given to Downs in the ninth wouldn’t be enough.

The Blue Jays current closer experiment has gone awry. Not only is Downs a below average stopper, he’s also been ripped from his comfort zone of set up and middle relief--a position that he fills as well as anyone in baseball--Downs’ weakness as closer probably comes from a combination of the added pressure and the irregularity of "closer" innings. Downs seems to work better when he’s being used with a high and regular frequency. Sometimes closers can go nearly a week between appearances and these conditions don’t seem to optimize Downs’ performances.

My Recommendation
It’s time the Jays go back to closer by committee. Having a bullpen full of arms expecting that they might get to close can have several benefits:

Hot Hand:
This way, Cito can go with the arm that’s been most effective lately. We all know that every third day Brandon League manages to get his hose under control. Take advantage of these good days, rather than stubbornly sticking with his closer just because he’s managed to earn that contrived label. This will also allow Cito to stick with a guy if he was lights out in the eighth inning, rather than going to a new arm that may or may not be on.

Reduced Pressure:
Jays’ closers tend to perform like favoured Canadian Olympians not competing in Trampoline or 100 m finals –full credit to Cockburn, Karen and Johnson Ben-. Without the closer label, expectations are reduced and there is less pressure on the pitcher.

The Cream Might Rise:
A lot of pitchers can throw shutout innings. The ability of pitchers to do this in the last inning of the game seems to be different than it is in the first eight. Clearly Scott Downs is...err...was the Jays most effective pitcher out of the bullpen, but that was in a non-closing role. Maybe pitchers like Jason Frasor or Jeremy Accardo have the right combination of stuff and mental makeup. They’ve already done it, with pretty good results:

Player: Frasor
Year: 2004
Saves/Opportunities: 17/19

Player: Accardo
Year: 2007
Saves/Opportunities: 30/35
Maybe guys like Brian Tallet, Brandon League or Jesse Carlson are just weird enough that they prefer pitching under pressure. The mustache and the tatoos suggest as much.
Using all of them to close out games might help Cito realize that one or more of these guys have the makeup it takes to be a closer. Perhaps one of these guys will shock us all and succeed. It worked for Anthony Michael Hall in "Sixteen Candles".
Monday, July 20, 2009
  Lessons Learned From B.J. Ryan
The final damage on B.J. Ryan's 5-year/$47.2 million contract: one great year, one good year, one year lost to injury and, of course, this year, which has seen Ryan's release after compiling a 6.53 ERA over 25 games.

So, that's $23.6 million per good season. In case that strikes you as somewhat pricey, you're right.

Here are the top 10 relief seasons during J.P. Ricciardi's tenure as general manager, by Adjusted ERA - that's ERA adjusted for the pitcher's home park, where 100 is league average (minimum 50 innings pitched).

Player ERA+ IP Year G H ER BB SO ERA $
1 B.J. Ryan 333 72.1 2006 65 42 11 20 86 1.37 4
2 Scott Downs 239 70.2 2008 66 54 14 27 57 1.78 2.25
3 Jeremy Accardo 209 67.1 2007 64 51 16 24 57 2.14 0.392
4 Scott Downs 206 58 2007 81 47 14 24 57 2.17 1.025
5 Casey Janssen 190 72.2 2007 70 67 19 20 39 2.35 0.3852
6 Jesse Carlson 190 60 2008 69 41 15 21 55 2.25 0.39
7 Justin Speier 173 66.2 2005 65 48 19 15 56 2.56 1.9
8 Justin Speier 153 51.1 2006 58 47 17 21 55 2.98 2.25
9 Jason Kershner 149 54 2003 40 43 19 15 32 3.17 0.315
10 Brian Tallet 148 56.1 2008 51 52 18 22 47 2.88 0.64

What's striking here is that 1) half of these seasons cost the major league minimum, or slightly above, and 2) There are eight different names on this list.

If you extend this to the top 20 seasons, you add Ryan's other good year, and names such as Aquilino Lopez, Jason Frasor, Scot Schoeneweis, Felix Heredia and Cliff Politte. This means that over just seven seasons, Ricciardi was able to find 13 different pitchers who pitched a full season of relief at least 20% better than league average.

Thus, there was really no excuse to open the vault to bring in a "proven" closer. The irony is that Ricciardi already knows this - he let Justin Speier leave for bigger money in Los Angeles after the 2006 season. Enter Accardo, Downs and Janssen, and Speier wasn't missed in the least. Relievers are everywhere - they can be failed starters, such as Downs and Tallet, or one Dennis Eckersley, or young flamethrowers like League and Accardo, or minor league journeyman like Carlson.

The fact that so many different names populate the list is also instructive, because while it's relatively easy to find an effective reliever, it's much tougher to find relievers who can repeat that level of effectiveness. Jesse Carlson is finding that out in 2009, Jason Kershner crashed to earth in 2004, and then there's Brandon League, human roller coaster. Expecting Ryan to reel off five years of dominance was always a dicey proposition.

It can be argued that the signing had deeper significance than simply adding a top flight reliever, that it "sent a message" that the Jays were serious about winning, or announced to the baseball world that they were players in the free agent market. All of which sounds good in the off season, but the only message worth sending is on the field, by winning 90-95 games and earning a playoff spot. That's a lot harder to do when you spend almost $50 million dollars for 155 innings pitched.
Tuesday, July 14, 2009
  No More Boos For Bud
It happens every year, both at the All-Star Game and the World Series. When baseball audiences are at their largest, and fans their most euphoric, they will still take time out to rain down a merciless chorus of derision at Bud Selig.

Rightfully so, of course. This is the man who presided over the cancellation of a World Series, and the All-Star Game tie. He's also the man who compounded that mistake by attaching home field advantage in the World Series to subsequent All-Star games. And he kept his head firmly buried in the sand during the Steroid Era. He is generally completely ineffective, unless he's about to do something monumentally stupid.

Selig isn't alone in drawing ire from the fans. Any time the corporate head of a major sport steps onto the field, he's usually set upon by the crowd. Possibly because the likes of Gary Bettman and David Stern appear so out of place in an athletic setting, more likely because fans associate "the suits" with the greed and bureaucracy of sport, and because they can't quite get the taste of that last work stoppage out of their mouths.

It doesn't have to be this way. There is a sure-fire way to guarantee that Bud Selig never hears from the boo-birds again: Stop showing up. Not literally, of course. Selig is welcome to hide in the friendly confines of a luxury suite during the All-Star game or the playoffs, but when it comes time to hand out the hardware, it's time to pass those duties off to someone else.

Create the position of MLB Ambassador. This should be a former player, or even better, a collection of former players, who can then preside over awards presentations "on behalf" of the commissioner. Think Hank Aaron or Willie Mays are going to get booed?

It's a perfect choice for baseball, with its rich history of recognizable stars. They could even be geographically specific: Mike Schmidt in Philadelphia, Bob Gibson or Stan Musial in St. Louis, Yogi Berra in New York, Cal Ripken in Baltimore, in case the Orioles ever win anything again. These sorts of peronalities would not only enhance awards presentations, but also remind fans of baseball's less corrupt days. Pete Rose need not apply.
Tuesday, July 07, 2009
  Time To Listen To Offers For Doc
Coming out of New York having played four tight games, and lost three of them, the Blue Jays are in essentially the same position as they were heading into the Big Apple: In fourth place, but above .500, and on the cusp of contention.

The problem is that every team they're chasing is, if not better, at least much healthier than the Jays, particularly when it comes to the pitching staff. With that in mind, and the July 30 trade deadline just three weeks away, it's prudent that J.P. Ricciardi at least be willing to listen to offers for Roy Halladay.

That's not to say the team should trade Halladay. Personally, I'm ready for the Jays to give Halladay the 7-year/$140 million extension to keep him in powder blue until he's 40. Sure, it's generally a bad idea to give anyone that kind of term or money, especially a pitcher, and there's a good shot that the deal will become an albatross before it's up. Still, there's something to be said for hanging on to the best pitcher you've ever developed and letting him shatter every club record, rather than simply allowing him to become the next Yankee free agent mercenary.

That said, if you're going to deal him, THIS is the time. With a year and a half remaining on his contract, and in the midst of another Cy Young-type season, Halladay will never command more value than he does right now. He turns any viable contender into an odds-on favourite.

Further, the Jays have no pressing need to deal Halladay, so they can sit back and wait a team to blow them away

And they'll have to be blown away. This is a GM defining sort of trade and Ricciardi will have to hit an absolute grand slam. David Cone for Marty Janzen and his orchestra simply won't cut it.

The blueprint for any potential Halladay trade has to be the Bartolo Colon-to-the-Expos deal brokered by Omar Minaya. That deal saw Cliff Lee, Grady Sizemore and Brandon Phillips shipped to the Indians as the 'Spos tried to snag a playoff spot in their death throes.

While the Expos garnered a staff ace in Colon, the Indians picked up Phillips, a 30-30 middle infielder, who has been by far the biggest disappointment of the trade, Sizemore, a 30-30 Gold Glove centre fielder, and Cy Young winner Lee, who has posted a .630 winning percentage in his time with the Tribe.

That's the kind of swag the Jays will need to land to justify a Halladay trade. It's a trade that almost certainly won't happen, since the Jays still view themselves as contenders - particularly in 2010 - and it's much safer to not make a deal and just let Doc go on being Doc. But if Ricciardi can snag a couple of all-star calibre regulars and a solid #2/occasional ace starter, doesn't he at least have to consider it?
Discussion of all thing Blue Jays.

Christopher Casuccio
Sean Doyle
Rob Metcalfe
Matthew Graf
Yoni Grundland
Mark Rottmann
Jim Turner
Joel Williams


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