There’s a lot to be excited about on the current Toronto sports’ scene. The beloved Maple Leafs have made the playoffs with a young squad considered ahead of schedule. The Raptors are about to begin what many hope will be a deep playoff run. TFC is hoping to improve upon its best season ever last year. But what’s the fun in writing about success, when you can write about the Blue Jays’ wretched 1-9 start to the season?
Even in the worst case scenarios, pre-season predictors generally thought the Jays could dip below .500 and fall to the bottom two teams of the American League’s Eastern Division. Nobody thought they would be playing .100 baseball. Sure, they are going to improve—no team can maintain such an abysmal pace over the course of a long season. But the damage done by such a horrid start is often impossible to overcome, especially because seven of their nine losses have been at the hands of division opponents and because they play in a very competitive division.
Here’s another ghastly thought to consider. On many fronts, the Jays could get worse as the season wears on. Their relief pitching, universally thought to be the team’s Achilles’ Heel, has been pretty good, with one or two exceptions. The starting pitching, an acknowledged strength, has been about as advertised. Twice through the rotation, they’ve received two excellent starts from Marcus Stroman, two good starts from Marco Estrada, two mediocre starts from J Happ, and one really good start from each of Francisco Liriano and Aaron Sanchez. In only one game, Liriano’s first, did the starter bury them. So even if the hitters perk up, they might find that the pitching goes south.
The batters have been awful. Not only are they striking out in droves, but they have been horrendous with runners in scoring position. Their go to move has been hitting into double plays. Donaldson has hit for average, but is injured now and looks like he might have one of those seasons where the body never completely heals. Aside from Tulowitzki and Morales, no one has produced clutch RBIs. Pillar and Smoak have looked more disciplined at times, but Travis, Bautista, Martin, and Pearce have been wretched.
Then there’s the manager. Back at the beginning of April, amidst much congratulations to John Gibbons on his contract extension, I expressed my reservations on twitter. My complaint with Gibbons is that he rarely if ever asks players to move outside their comfort zone. God forbid he should ask Jose to bunt or to move a player over. He does not manage to manufacture runs; he waits on the three run homer. And when times were good, and the baseball world was feeding the Jays fastballs, Gibbons was a popular manager. Doing nothing with a group of veterans that are pounding baseballs over fences apparently makes you a “player’s manager”. But we got a hint of what would happen when teams started out thinking the Blue Jays in last year’s American League Championship against the Indians. The manager was slow to react, or perhaps more accurately, paralytic. So the fans kept waiting for the Jays to start looking for breaking balls, but they never did, and the series was over in the blink of an eye. What looked to some like laid back Texas wisdom in the last couple years’ playoff runs (“The bats will come around, but they battled out there”) is now exposed as a lack of imagination and strategy. Even little league managers know that when you are in a team wide slump, you need to shake things up. It’s the hockey equivalent of “put pucks on the net and hope for a greasy goal”. But Gibbons has been loathe to bunt, to run, to try to surprise teams and to try and pressure teams into making mistakes. He’s still playing for the five run inning. With the pitching the Jays have received, they should be at worst a game below .500 and at best, a couple games above that mark. Meanwhile Gibbons continues to be the country bumpkin, stroking his stubble, marveling at the impotency of the bats, serving up cliché after cliché. Well here’s a cliché for you John courtesy of a true genius, Albert Einstein: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” For years, this quote could be aptly applied to the Maple Leafs who would overspend on aging veterans while giving away young talent that others would develop into stars. Now Atkins and Shapiro, having erroneously equated team success with good managing, have endorsed a manager that thinks the epitome of creativity is changing up your leadoff hitter.
Meanwhile the Red Sox are loaded, the Orioles are solid and the Yankees and Rays have exciting, young talent that will be good for years to come.
Maybe the Jays turn it around. Maybe they go on a torrid streak in June and are battling for a playoff position in the fall. Far more likely is that after the Leafs and Raptors have finished participating in playoff contests, Blue Jays’ nation is going to get awfully tired of Gibbons’ post game laments. And his contract extension which many called a “no brainer” might be viewed more simply as brainless.