2015 Preview: Toronto Blue Jays

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2015 season. Next up: The Toronto Blue Jays.

The Big Question: Is it going to be all-mash, no-pitching for the Blue Jays once again?

The Blue Jays made some intriguing additions this past offseason. They signed Russell Martin. They made a couple of key trades in acquiring Josh Donaldson and Michael Saunders and, according to some, made some additions by subtraction in getting rid of Colby Rasmus, Brett Lawrie and Adam Lind. Now, leaven your excitement at least a little here given that (a) Melky Cabrera also left, and he’s been a big contributor (as was Lind last year for that matter); (b) Russell Martin’s 2014 was his best offensive season ever and, coming as it did at age 31, it’s not likely to be replicated at age 32; and (c) Saunders has battled injury all spring and, frankly, all career, so expecting him to be an impact player is not the safest bet ever. But those caveats aside, this is a team that should, once again, be one of the most mash-happy offenses in baseball. As it has been for the past several years.

The knock on the Jays those past several years, however, has been that the pitching staff has been mashed in return. Toronto had one of the worst AL staffs in runs allowed and homers allowed in 2012 and 2013 and, while it took a moderate step forward in 2014, it was only moderate. And the most promising part of that improvement came from Marcus Stroman, who tore his ACL early in spring training and will be gone for the year. Add that to a bullpen which was near the bottom of the ladder last season and didn’t really improve in the offseason, and it seems like the Jays, for all of their changes, stood mostly still this past offseason.

Not that that keeps them out of contention, of course. They won 83 games last year in a league where 88 wins got you into the Wild Card Game. The AL East, as we’ve noted several times this spring, is something of a crap shoot. And, as we’ll note below, the Jays have a couple of intriguing dice they’re getting ready to roll.

But if you are a betting man, it’s hard to look at the 2015 Toronto Blue Jays and see anything radically different than what you’ve seen in the past: some big bats, some holes in the bottom of the lineup and a lot of question marks with the pitching staff. That’s the sort of thing that makes a gambler want to hedge his bets.

What else is going on?

  • The impact of the Stroman loss is so, so big. With R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle getting long in the tooth, Stroman’s electric stuff looked poised to put him at the top of the Jays’ rotation. Now his transition into ace-hood is delayed a year, and the bottom half of the Jays’ rotation is filled with uncertainty. But it’s worth noting it’s not without promise: Aaron Sanchez and Daniel Norris are two rookies with oodles of talent and each will get a chance to stick there all season. Still, rookies are rookies and sometimes rookies take some time to adjust. If Sanchez and Norris do — or if innings limits or what have you limit them at some point this year — the starting pitching depth available to John Gibbons is less-than-stellar.
  • The bullpen has some issues of its own. Saying bye-bye to last year’s closer Casey Janssen is no big tragedy — the guy was falling off — and replacing him with strikeout machine Brett Cecil is an upgrade. Beyond him, though, it’s not a scary bunch of relievers. Marco Estrada and even Johan Santana could be contributing here. That is if they aren’t pressed into duty as starting pitching reinforcements. Not exactly encouraging.
  • For all of the thump (Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Josh Donaldson), on-base ability (Russell Martin) and table setting skills (Jose Reyes) near the top of the order, there are some question marks farther down. Another pickup from Seattle was Justin Smoak. He and his career line of .224/.309/.380 is the starting first baseman. There is some promise at second base with Devon Travis — picked up in a steal from the Tigers last year — and center field with Dalton Pompey slated to start. But each are young and unproven, so you have to expect some sort of growing pains here.
  • Indeed, there are all kinds of youngins being paired with oldins here. Norris, Sanchez, Travis and Pompey as mentioned, but also some bullpen arms like Roberto Osuna and Miguel Castro are all embarking on rookie seasons. Sometimes youth can inject vitality. Sometimes youth can induce some frustrating slaps to the head. John Gibbons’ biggest job this year will be getting out of the way of the former and limiting the damage from the latter.

Prediction: It’s not hard to write a story of the 2015 Blue Jays in which Reyes and Martin are on base for a lot of those Bautista, Encarnacion and Donaldson homers, Dickey and Buehrle show that they still have something left in the tank, the young arms of Norris and Sanchez surprise and the young bats of Travis and Pompey don’t embarrass themselves. It’s not hard to tell another story, however — a quite familiar story, actually — in which the Jays mash but the pitching stinks and they find themselves in either third or fourth place, depending on whether the Yankees crater. I’m going to take a pessimistic approach here, because the Jays have not exceeded expectations in some time and say Fourth Place, American League East. It’s up to some young guys to prove me a fool.

Astros fan logs trash can bangs from 2017

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A fascinating and no doubt time consuming research project was released this morning. An Astros fan by the name of Tony Adams went through every Astros home game in the 2017 season and logged trash can bangs. Which, as you know, was the mechanism via which Astros players in the clubhouse signaled to hitters which pitch was coming.

Adams listened to every pitch from the Astros’ 2017 home games and made a note of any banging noise he could detect. There were 20 home games for which he did not have access to video. There were three “home” games which took place at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida due to the team being displaced by hurricane Harvey and for which, obviously, the Astros’ camera setup from Minute Maid Park would not have been applicable.

Adams logged over 8,200 pitches and found banging before over 1,100 of those pitches. He graphed which players got the most bangs during their at batsMarwin Gonzalez got the most, with bangs coming before 147 of 776 pitches seen, followed by George Springer, who got bangs on 139 of 933. José Altuve had the least among regulars, with only 24 bangs in 866 pitches. One gets the sense that, perhaps, he felt that the banging would interfere with his normal pitch recognition process or something. Either way it’s worth noting that a lack of banging was also signal. Specifically, for a fastball. As such, Astros hitters were helped on a much higher percentage of pitches than what is depicted in the graphs themselves.

Adams reminds us that Commissioner Manfred’s report stated that the Astros also used hand-clapping, whistling, and yelling early in the season before settling on trash can banging. Those things were impossible to detect simply by watching video. As it is, Adams’ graphs of bangs-per-game shows that the can-banging plan dramatically ramped-up on May 28.

It’s hard to say anything definitive about the scope and effectiveness of the Astros’ sign-stealing scheme based on this study alone. Adams may or may not have been hearing everything and, as he notes, there may have been a lot more pitches relayed thought means other than trash can banging than we know. Alternatively it’s possible that Adams was marking some sounds as bangs that were not, in fact, Astros players sending signals to the batter. It’s probably an inexact science.

Still, this is an impressive undertaking that no doubt took a ton of time. And it at least begins to provide a glimpse into the Astros’ sign-stealing operation.