Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Blue Jay Blues: Injuries and Starting Pitching

There are a couple of matters with the Jays that merit some comment. First, as I noted before, this is what a rebuild looks like. Rebuilding teams are often wildly inconsistent. Players play well one game and really bad the next. A pitcher (think Thornton) looks lights out one start, cannot get an out to save their soul the next one. A batter (think Vladdie) gets on base four time one game, but can't seem to figure out a change up the next.  You see where I am going ... those people and commentators who react as if the Jays were (a) contending and (b) not rebuilding are focused on short terms solutions. We hear this with the "bring up Vladdie. He will save us." And, now the corresponding "send Vladdie back down, he is not ready, he has not saved us" comments. These come from people who really don't know much if anything about baseball, team development and player development. I've noticed some people have already started asking where is Biggio and, even worse, where is Pearson (who was just promoted to AA and so will ... well ... at best a September call up). So, yes, the Blue Jays are not playing well, but this is (a) predictable because (b) this is what a rebuild looks like.

There is, however, a bit more that could be said. The second thing to note is the spate of injuries that have hampered the Jays starting rotation. Clay Buckholz, Matt Shoemaker, Ryan Borucki, David Phelps, and Clayton Richard are all on the IL, prompting a trade for Edwin Jackson to get some more rotation depth. Injuries have long been a Jays bug-a-bear and it has prompted Buck and Pat to periodically -- usually about once per game but sometimes more often -- to say "you can never have enough starting pitching."  They say this as if these injuries were not predictable and therefore come as a surprise so we need to have a storehouse of starters in reserve.

This goes along with another old saw "you can't predict injuries." Well ... actually you can and the Jays may have needed a storehouse of starters to get through the season but the number of pitchers the Jays have on the sideline is completely predictable. In fact, if you had bet against it at the start of the season I would have told you that you were going to lose your money.

Why? Because, for reasons of wanting to flip the team, the Jays upper management loaded up with low cost, injury prone pitchers until such a time (later this year? next year?) that the team's pitching prospects were ready for the majors. The aim this year, from what I could tell, was to try to sort out the pitchers a bit and figure out who went where for the future. To fill out their rotation they picked up pitchers at a low cost who were low cost because no one else really wanted them, in part because of their injury history.  This is the same strategy that the Jays followed (with regard to pitchers and others), more or less, last year. Gather up a bunch of spare parts (a sort of Kijiji of team development) that can have some short term value to the team and, ideally, someone else so you can trade them for more prospects. The Jays picked up Thornton and Pannone this way. I don't think anyone in the Jays front office thought they were going to get rich using this strategy but it put experienced pitchers on the mound to keep the games close and it was likely going to add another pitching prospective or two or three by the end of the season.

I am not slagging this strategy. It is more than possible that this is not the strategy I would have followed but I don't run a major league baseball team. I would have gone with the kids and seen how they performed over a season. IOW, I would have tried to get Pannone and Reid-Foley or Borucki into the starting rotation in addition to Sanchez, Stroman and Thornton to see how they held up. The Jays went in a different direction and it was really the only other option available to them. Once they (whomever they might be) had decided that Reid-Foley was on the farm and Borucki was on the IL and Pannone and Gaviglio were in the bullpen ... then the strategy the Jays followed was really the only other one available to them. There was no point in attempting to trade for or sign better pitchers because those would add appreciable costs to a team that is not competitive so trading or signing bigger name free agents (say, Keuchal) does nothing for you. It simply increases team costs at a time that you actually want to keep them down so as to maintain your flexibility for the future (and, the Jays, you will recall, recently has very little flexibility because of the big contracts that were weighing the team down -- this is not a critique but simply a statement of fact -- Tulo, Martin, Battista, Donaldson, Morales).  Without a lot of room to maneuver, the Jays were paying a lot for a team that was not very good. Why would anyone want to go back to that?

How does this relate to injuries? Well, injuries are the downside of the strategy on which the Jays fixed. If you are not going to spend a lot of money, what is available to you? Unless you somehow believe you are a manifestly better judge of talent than other people who are paid a tonne of money to judge talent (a shakey proposition), then what you have at the low cost end is pitchers no one else wants. In the case of the Jays, Buckholz, Shoemaker, Norris, Phelps, Richards, Hudson, Richard and now Jackson are all players with injuries histories ... some of whom have appreciable injury histories. And, all are on the + side of 30, making them older to old in baseball terms.

Leaving aside the specific injuries, you can see point: if you sign a bunch of relatively old pitchers who have a history of injury problems ... you should not be surprised that they become injured, should you? The issue is not that "you can't have enough starting pitching." The issue is that the pitchers the Jays signed were almost guaranteed to break down. Sanchez has missed only one start so far this year but after two injury plagued years, no one should be surprised if he has further injury issues.

The point is not to simply critique a way of looking at pitching; the point is to understand why the Jays are having the problems they are having and these are not random. What can/should the Jays do with their pitchers? Let's leave that off for another time. The point is that the Blue Jays Blues are part of the rebuilding process. They are what happens when you rebuild. It can be troubling. No one likes to see potentially career ending injuries. I don't. But, injuries are not random. They occur in specific demographics for specific reasons.

I am also not surprised that the Jays traded for Jackson. After all, they had committed themselves to this strategy and it is working, more or less, in that it is allowing them to separate out the pitchers that they want in the rotation from those who are bullpen bound. There was, at this point, no other real alternative; thus one might as well stick with it. I still think the future rotation will look a lot different than what we are seeing and that is the point.  And, that is not a bad thing. It will make for an exciting season as it goes along.

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