30 April 2007: Treading Water

Monday, April 30 2007 @ 05:00 AM EDT

Contributed by: Magpie

The Blue Jays take a .500 record into their last April game. Roy Halladay will try to end the month on a winning note before the team heads out on a six game road trip.

Halladay has been his usual outstanding staff, far and away the best news on the pitching staff. A.J. Burnett has been erratic; he's been very hard to hit, but he's been walking people at a rate that brings back memories of Mitch Williams. But I don't expect that to continue. The back end of the rotation is as clouded as ever. Gustavo Chacin has the ugliest ERA (5.60) and the prettiest W-L record (2-1), and provided the fewest innings per start of any of the five April starters. Tomo Ohka has been getting a little better each time out; yesterday's outing was his best yet. Neither of them is striking out even 4 batters per 9 innings, though. Which is a tad worrisome.

As for the other spot, Towers out and Zambrano in - I'm not particularly surprised. If a team has options, or thinks they do, a pitcher like Towers will always be on the shortest leash.

It's one of those weird baseball things. Everybody talks about how those bases on balls will kill you - general managers and coaches, managers and analysts. Everybody knows that the best pitch in baseball is strike one. Everybody says it, but nobody believes it. As soon as they see some hotshot with a 95 mph fastball, they turn into teenage girls, swooning over Justin Timberlake. Which is why pretty well every staff in the majors features five guys who can hit 95 on the radar gun for every one who walks fewer than two hitters per nine innings.

I'm fairly indifferent to the switch myself. I assume Zambrano will get his chance, and then it'll be John Thomson's turn. His rehab appears to be progressing nicely. By which time, Gustavo Chacin will probably have hurt his elbow again. I now assume the back end of the rotation will be a revolving door. This team has lots of options, and they'll probably make a point of going through them all.

I'm a Towers fan, and I wanted him in the rotation because of his upside - Towers at his best is better than Zambrano at his best, or Ohka at his best, and probably Chacin at his best. But we haven't seen it, and the team has other options. And when a pitcher like Towers, who doesn't look like Justin Timberlake...

Towers, it seems to me, is a pitcher in transition. He's becoming something new, and he's not quite there yet. He's neither the fine control artist of 2005 nor the walking disaster of 2006. And he isn't the scuffling, almost league-average guy of the years before that. I have long believed that pitchers go through a change of life around ages 29 or 30, and this Josh Towers is unfamiliar to me. Since when does he strike out 8.2 hitters per nine innings? He did this in the spring, too. I paid no attention at the time - it was spring training, and I assumed a few AA hitters were involved. But he's continued right along. He's becoming something new, I don't know what, but he's not there yet.

Towers hasn't pitched extensively out of the bullpen since 1997, his second year as a pro, when he made 30 of his 48 minor league appearances as a reliever. Just 9 of his 87 major league games came in relief. It's odd, though - the first pitcher Towers reminded me of, when he first arrived in Toronto, was Paul Quantrill. The Mighty Q washed out as a starter, but had a number of outstanding years in relief. Quantrill, of course, had as resilient an arm of any pitcher I have ever seen - Q preferred to pitch every other day, and never had a sore arm.

But Towers really isn't much like Q - neither of them walk anybody, and they both give up lots and lots of hits. But Quantrill was an extreme ground-ball pitcher who never gave up home runs, either. Towers gets many more ground balls than he used to, but he's still vulnerable to the Big Fly. And Quantrill was basically a one-pitch guy - sinking fastball, low and away, again and again and again. It didn't work twice through the order. Towers is a fastball-slider guy, who mixes in the occasional off-speed pitch. When he was on top of his game, he turned out to be more like Brad Radke than anyone else. But that was the old Towers. I don't know what we have now.

If Zambrano doesn't get it done, they'll turn to Thomson. If that doesn't work, one presumes they'll give the Kids a Chance. Marcum and Janssen have both done some impressive things in April - they've both done some unimpressive things as well. Marcum's mistakes have drawn more attention - giving up home runs in the late innings will get noticed. Marcum allowed 4 homers in just 12 innings. You can't succeed doing that. Janssen didn't do that. Janssen doesn't believe in the three true outcomes. In his 13.2 innings, he allowed 0 homers, 1 walk, and struck out just 2 batters. The ball was always in play, but at least it was always playable. But you can't succeed doing that, either.

Doc is the pitcher of the month, obviously. And Aaron Hill gets my vote as player of the month. It's awfully close, because Vernon Wells had a nice April as well. Wells can play better than he did, though - I think this is about as good as Hill can get. It's plenty good enough. Curiously, Hill and Wells had almost identical offensive numbers.

Honourable mention to John McDonald. Not just for the 10 game hitting streak - he's slugging .605. John McDonald! If he goes 1-22, he'll still be hitting .300. And face it folks - who on this team is more likely to go 1-22 than Johnny Mac?

Well Jason Smith, obviously. Jason Phillips... yeah, I think so (oh, Jason, it's OK to mix in an extra base hit from time to time.) And I can easily see Royce Clayton pulling that off. I suppose Sal Fasano's also got that sort of thing in him, although he'd probably mix in a few HBPs along the way...