Saturday, November 07, 2015

Since Everyone Else is Doing it: Postmortem: The Jays

In an effort to find a nice way to end his report on the Jays loss to KC, one Sportsnet reporter concluded by noting that "all" of the Jays "position players" were coming back next year and that their team was young and would continue to develop. I'm not certain either of these assertions are actually true. Jays fans, like myself, should be happy with the post-All Star break season, even while I think there were serious missed opportunities that contributed to the Jays exit before reaching the World Series. I was happy with the team, happy with the players (more or less) and happy to see a lot of fans in the stands (but unhappy with the way they periodically behaved). I don't think we need to be negative in a postmortem but I also think we need to be honest in our assessment. I think it is going to be difficult to the Jays to replicate this season, I think the missed opportunities hurt them, and I think they will have big holes that need to be filled.

Let's start with the first thing: age. It is true that younger teams tend to improve. Baseball players tend to reach their peak about or after 27 and begin to decline in their early 30s. For the average player, the years of peak performance are, actually, not long. There is a natural decline and injuries also take their toll. Older teams tend to decline. Teams with players in their prime, tend to consistent ... all other things being equal.

The Jays have some young players but they are not a particularly young team. When people discuss the age of the Jays, they often refer to the rookies that started the year with them or Osuna, Sanchez, and Stroman. And, both statements are true. The problem is that most of the rookies were sent out, some have changed roles, and some are no longer with the organization. Acknowledging that it is difficult to determine the precise age of a team (because rosters change so frequently and one might also want to consider prospects likely to play next year), by one measure the Jays were only the 27th youngest team (see this URL: http://espn.go.com/mlb/stats/rosters). There are other measures -- the age of starters (verse all players), bullpen verse all pitchers, etc. -- and so I would not say treat this measure as gospel but it is indicative. The Jays are not a young team that can say "time is on our side."

Most of their key players are, in fact, either in their prime, aging or to the point where they skills will start to decline. Russell Martin is 32 (which is fairly old for a catcher because the wear and tear that position takes on the body), Donaldson is 29 (prime), Encarnacion is 32 (almost past prime and hampered by nagging injuries), Bautista is 35 (and still good but ... he is also beset with nagging injuries, it seems, each year) and Tulo is 31 and beset with nagging injuries. One of their "kids" is Goins and he's 27, Pillar is 26, Revere is 27, Cecil (their only reliable lefty in the pen( is 29 and on down the line. Once one gets past Sanchez (23), Stroman (24), and Osuna (20), in other words, this is not a young team at all. The only other player who could really be considered young on the team is Travis (24).

What this means is that age and maturity will likely not, by itself, make this team better. Revere, Pillar, Goins (if he has a job), Travis (if he has a job - you won't have both, right; it will either be Goins or Travis starting), will -- more likely than not -- improve, but other players will not and may decline. There is an odd approach to talent on the Jays that dates back to Cito Gaston whereby any player in their 20s and some, even, in their 30s were described as "kids" if they lacked regular playing experience. Some commentators, it appears, have picked up on this logic despite the fact that it does not make much sense.

The second big issue is the starting staff. While we don't know what will transpire in the off season, one can make some reasonable projections. Buehrle will not be back. Estrada is a free agent and, of course, Price is a free agent. Hutchinson ... well ... and there is a $12 million team option on Dickey. Dickey back and let's assume that Hutchinson gets another chance to right himself. That still leaves them with 3/5ths of a starting rotation and they traded away everyone else to make this year's run. I'm not complaining. I'm explaining the situation. This was clearly a decision that the Jays management made knowing the situation with their farm team and their talent levels. In fact, I think points one and two are related. Because the Jays are not young, upper management decided to go "all in" because they recognized that their team's shelf life was not particularly long.

If this was their logic, it is actually not a bad logic. It's better, at any rate, than the logic used by commentators to describe the team as "young" because it responds to the talent the Jays have. If their team was not going to get much better -- and it may not -- then taking steps to make a run now makes sense. On the converse, if their team was going to improve naturally over time, then trading away a mass of young talent to make a run now -- that is, trading away the very players who would likely be the ones helping your team improve -- does not make a great deal of sense since the chances that the Jays were going to win now were not great even with the talent they brought in.

Which brings me to point number three: the Jays were simply not the best team in the AL and here is where I think they made some mistakes in terms of how they approached the season, particularly the back end of the season. This is hindsight, of course, but the Royals were better than the Jays. Their defense was at least as good, if not better all around; their starting staff was deeper, and their bullpen was better and deeper, much better and much deeper. In terms of offense, the Jays produced a lot more runs than the Royals but the Royals had home field advantage and were no offensive slouches. Home field was important for them because their team (like the Jays) was built to take advantage of their home field (where one plays half one's games). By my count, Kaufmann takes away about one home run per game that would have been hit in Rogers Centre. IOW, it doesn't eliminate but it moderates power-based offenses.

This is why the Jays needed to try to secure home field advantage throughout the playoffs. They needed to be in a position where they could take advantage of Rogers Centre and this is what differentiated KC from Texas. Texas' park is, like Rogers, a park that expands offenses, perhaps more than Rogers. It is a hitter park. Texas had little in the way of a home field advantage (as we saw) v the Jays. KC did and this is why the Jays complete lack of interest in leaving the season with the best record in the AL surprised me.  They had it. It was in their grasp and then, for reasons that are just not at all clear to me, they decided to rest everyone and play the second unit for not one but two games.

I get it. Some Jays might have needed rest. One is concerned about Bautista's declining range in the outfield and his shoulder. Yes. OK. sit him down for a game or DH him. Encarnacion has problems with his fingers. Same thing. Martin needs a day off. Sure. But everyone? All at once? They Jays virtually surrendered two games to KC -- a team playing hard down the stretch and not -- one might note -- sitting everyone all at once, precisely so they could secure home field  for the playoffs. What is more, when the Jays starters returned to the lineup, they seemed indifferent to the games at hand. Mission, it appeared, was already accomplished.

Now, I know the Jays are not the only team doing this but ... one matter they might want to address if they want to improve is strategy or what we could call missed opportunities. Opportunities are great things. If they work, you win a championship. If they don't ... well ... you look like fool. Hence the Jays celebrating when they clinched the AL East looked, in retrospect, a bit foolish because, truth be told, they had not won anything at that point.

I think the Jays have a good crop of players and I think they will be in the thick of it next year. But, they don't have a lot of depth if they run into problems. They have some. But, some of that seemed more by luck than design. And, over time, luck evens out. I still like the Jays to be back in the playoffs next year. I'll be watching them. With the right strategies, they could also go further. But, if they don't ... they need to beware because that is point at which problems might start to really set in.

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