May 27, 2003

Looking directly at the sun

Don't look now, but the Toronto Blue Jays are hot:

Month      W     L     AVG     OBP     SLG     ERA   |   RS/G     RA/G

April 10 17 .279 .353 .452 6.08 | 5.52 6.59
May 19 6 .306 .366 .508 3.67 | 6.56 3.84

There are a lot ways to win baseball games: defense, pitching, hitting, luck - they're all fun. But nothing, and I mean nothing, beats simply bashing the hell out of your opponent. The Blue Jays have basically been doing that all season.

Look at the production they have gotten from each position, along with the corresponding AL OPS (on-base + slugging) ranking:

Position             AVG     OBP     SLG     Rnk

First Base .319 .443 .649 1
Second Base .287 .344 .395 7
Shortstop .273 .330 .390 5
Third Base .233 .320 .368 10
Left Field .298 .352 .444 7
Center Field .300 .342 .541 1
Right Field .335 .361 .543 3
Catcher .304 .377 .489 1
Designated Hitter .264 .351 .457 4
Overall .291 .358 .476 1

Not surprisingly, the Blue Jays lead the American League in runs, on-base percentage, OPS, hits, total bases and doubles. They rank second in batting average and slugging percentage, and third in walks and homers.

Perhaps the most amazing stat about their offense this year is that their first sacrifice bunt of the entire season came on Monday against the White Sox - their 51st game of the year! Meanwhile, the Tigers lead the AL with 24 sacrifices.

The Toronto offense is lead by two guys, Carlos Delgado and Vernon Wells. Delgado has been one of the better offensive players in the AL for a while now...

Year     AVG     OBP     SLG    HR    RBI    OPS+

1998 .292 .385 .592 38 115 150
1999 .272 .377 .571 44 134 137
2000 .344 .470 .664 41 137 182
2001 .279 .408 .540 39 102 141
2002 .277 .406 .549 33 108 153

That is some serious production. So far this year, Delgado has been the best hitter in the American League. He is hitting .335/.454/.665 and leads the AL in runs (45), RBIs (51), homers (15), extra-base hits (32), on-base percentage (.435) and slugging percentage (.665). He also leads the AL in the more advanced hitting metrics, like EqA (.361), EqR (48.9), RAR (33.0), RAP (23.2) and RARP (30.0).

While Delgado has been the best overall hitter in the AL, Vernon Wells has been the best centerfielder. Wells is hitting .299/.340/.540 and has driven in 49 runs, which is second in the AL to Delgado. Back at the beginning of this season I said I would trade Torii Hunter for Vernon Wells. At this point that looks like a pretty safe thing to say, but I actually got quite a few emails when I said it, most of them basically calling me an idiot. Wells is younger, cheaper and appears (so far this season) to be a better player than Hunter, at least offensively. Plus, Wells is a damn good defensive centerfielder too. The only thing "missing" from his game right now is plate discipline. He walked only 27 times in 159 games last year and, although he is walking much more this season, he still has only 15 walks in his first 53 games. If that ever comes, look out.

In addition to ranking first in the AL in offensive production at first base and centerfield thus far, the Blue Jays also rank #1 in the AL in offense by their catchers, which is more than a little surprising. The Jays have accomplished that with perhaps the best platoon in all of baseball: Greg Myers (against righties) and Tom Wilson (against lefties). Now, neither of those guys are great defensively, but they aren't horrible. And boy do they make a perfect combo.

Greg Myers vs righties - .359/.451/.590

Tom Wilson vs lefties - .300/.390/.420

(Wilson has actually done even better against righties than he has against lefties, hitting .300/.352/.560 against them in just 50 at bats)

Here is what Toronto's two-headed catching-machine's numbers look like, projected out to a full season:

 AB     PA     AVG     OBP     SLG    HR    2B    BB    RBI    RUN

605 688 .318 .396 .518 25 47 78 105 111

That line would be awesome coming from a star first baseman. The Blue Jays are getting it from two journeyman catchers that are being paid a combined $1,116,000 this year and required absolutely nothing to acquire.

Greg Myers is 37 years old and in his 16th season as a major league baseball player. He started his major league career with the Blue Jays in 1987, after they selected him in the 3rd round of the 1984 draft. Since then he has bounced around from Toronto to Anaheim to Minnesota to Atlanta to San Diego to Baltimore to Oakland and now back to Toronto, where it all started. Myers is on pace for a career-high in plate appearances this season.

Tom Wilson has an even better story. When you hear people talking about there being "freely available talent" in the minor leagues, Tom Wilson is the type of player they are referring to. Wilson was a 23rd round pick of the Yankees all the way back in 1990. He made his major league debut on May 19, 2001 - approximately 11 years after he was drafted.

Perhaps more amazing than his willingness to stick around in the minor leagues for over a decade without playing a single day in the majors is that no team was willing to give him a shot at some point between 1990 and 2001. Wilson put up some very impressive numbers throughout his various stops in the minor leagues...

.269/.390/.486 at Triple-A Buffalo (Indians) in 1996.

.296/.416/.516 at Double-A Norwich (Yankees) in 1997.

.303/.380/.462 at Triple-A Tucson (Diamondbacks) in 1998.

.288/.405/.510 at Double-A Orlando (Devil Rays) in 1999.

.279/.410/.591 at Triple-A Durham (Devil Rays) in 1999.

.276/.410/.518 at Triple-A Columbus (Yankees) in 2000.

Look at those numbers and tell me how a catcher that puts them up cannot get even a sniff of the major leagues? Tom Wilson was one of the best hitting catchers in minor league baseball from 1996-2000 and he couldn't even get a cup of coffee with any of the four organizations he played with.

Finally, after he hit .282/.394/.440 for Oakland's Triple-A team in 2001, the A's gave Tom Wilson a call-up to the majors and he played a total of 9 games for them. After the 2001 season, it didn't look like the A's would be giving Wilson a major league job anytime soon. At that point, I bet Wilson thought he had just seen his last/only/best chance at a major league career vanish. I mean, if the Oakland A's, the team for giving minor league vets a chance and the only team to give him a chance decided he wasn't worth keeping on a big league roster full-time, what chance did he have at finding another team willing to do so?

Well, Wilson finally found himself a little luck. J.P. Ricciardi left Oakland's front office and took over as the General Manager of the Blue Jays. Ricciardi, who no doubt saw Wilson as a hidden gem and player that could be valuable to a major league team while they were both with Oakland, traded a fringe minor leaguer to the A's in exchange for him. Wilson not only played for the Blue Jays in 2002, he appeared in 96 games and totaled 265 at bats. He did fairly well playing catcher and first base and did particularly well hitting against left-handed pitchers (.337/.412/.506). So well in fact, the Jays brought him back for this season and made him one half of their catching platoon (his half being the "lefty-masher" portion).

It's really a great story all-around. Tom Wilson finally gets a chance to be a major league baseball player after more than a decade of struggling through the minor leagues. And J.P. Ricciardi and the Blue Jays get themselves a valuable player because they were willing to do what no other team was willing to do during Wilson's entire career - give him a chance.

The Blue Jays' offense has been outstanding all season long and completely dominant in May, but the reason for their complete turn-around this month has been the dramatic improvement of their pitching:

                     - APR -             - MAY -

Corey Lidle 36 5.75 39 3.20
Roy Halladay 33 4.91 45 3.22
Tanyon Sturtze 32 5.57 18 6.50
Mark Hendrickson 31 7.26 30 3.20
Pete Walker 24 5.92 2 13.50
Jeff Tam 16 6.32 12 1.54
Cliff Politte 12 3.65 11 4.22
Aquilino Lopez 12 5.40 13 4.15
Kelvim Escobar 10 13.06 15 1.20
Trever Miller 9 6.75 7 4.91
Doug Creek 9 4.00 5 1.93
Doug Linton 7 3.86 -- ----
Jason Kershner 5 10.80 -- ----
Doug Davis -- ---- 23 4.70
Total 237 6.08 221 3.67

Anytime a team drops its ERA from 6.08 one month to 3.67 the next, the improvements are going to come from all over, and they have for Toronto. Almost everyone has been as good or better in May than in April, with the exception of Tanyon Sturtze and Pete Walker. Not coincidentally, both Sturtze and Walker were bumped from the starting rotation recently.

The main cause for the pitching improvement has been the starting pitching and specifically the front three starters - Roy Halladay, Corey Lidle and Mark Hendrickson. After going 4-7 with a 5.94 ERA in April, those three starters are currently 14-0 with a 3.23 ERA in May. 14-0!

I still think the Blue Jays are a year away from beginning to put their best team on the field. They have a ton of talented young hitters, both at the major league level and in the minor leagues. Their pitching quality and depth are not nearly as strong, but Halladay is a guy to build a staff around, Lidle has proven to be a dependable #2/#3 starter type (although he is a free agent after this year) and the Jays have a prospect named Jason Arnold in Triple-A that I think will be a very good starting pitcher, possibly as soon as late this year (I rated Arnold as my #37 prospect in baseball back in January). Plus, they also have some other "interesting" pitching prospects in the lower-minors.

Waiting for the future and the full development of this Toronto team is nice and I do think they are set up for a very successful run from here on out, but this team is definitely ready to seriously compete right now. We are one-third of the way through the season and, despite Toronto starting the year 10-18, here is what the AL East standings look like:

Team         W     L    Win%     GB

Boston 31 20 .608 ---
New York 30 22 .577 1.5
Toronto 29 24 .547 3.0

I don't know if they will contine to stay as close to the top of the division as they are right now, but I do think they can continue to play .547 baseball (their winning percentage as of last night's win). This is a very good offensive team and the pitching staff is starting to come around. Plus, it's kinda fun to root for an "underdog" against the two "big dogs" in the AL East, isn't it?

What J.P. Ricciardi and the rest of the Jays' front office have been able to do with this team and the entire organization since taking it over just a short time ago is amazing. They have been making outstanding "minor" pickups like Tom Wilson, Greg Myers, Frank Catalanotto, Corey Lidle and Mike Bordick, which has led to them having a serious contender on their hands this season. And, at the same time, they have set up a phenomenal core of young talent in preparation for what appears to be a very successful run of winning in the very near future. Oddly enough, the winning seems to have started just a little bit before a lot of people (including myself and possibly even the Blue Jays) anticipated, but, as good as this current Toronto team is, the Blue Jays teams you see in the next several years are going to be even better.

It is no longer a two-dog division.

For more on the Toronto Blue Jays, visit my good friend Craig Burley and those wacky Canadians over at the best team-specific site on the internet...

Batter's Box: Opinions and observations about the Pastime, from a Toronto perspective


Minnesota 4, Oakland 3

From's "play-by-play":

B Kielty hit for L Rivas.

Barry Zito pitches to Bobby Kielty

Pitch 1: ball 1

Pitch 2: ball 2

Pitch 3: strike 1 (foul)

Pitch 4: strike 2 (foul)

Pitch 5: ball 3

Pitch 6: foul

Pitch 7: in play

B Kielty homered to left, D Mohr and A Pierzynski scored

(A Gleeman smiled from ear-to-ear)

Today's picks:

Oakland (Halama) -100 over Minnesota (Mays)

Seattle (Moyer) -155 over Kansas City (Affeldt)

Detroit (Maroth) -105 over Cleveland (Rodriguez)

Texas (Benes) -100 over Tampa Bay (Gonzalez)

Total to date: + $1,070

W/L record: 101-100 (1-4 for -370 yesterday, with one rainout. Ouch.)

*****Comments? Questions? Email me!*****

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