Off Day Blues Vol. 3

Monday, June 07 2021 @ 06:36 AM EDT

Contributed by: Eephus

Sometimes I get
That's when you
see sparks
They ask me where the hell
I'm going
At a thousand feet per second

The tourist 2021 Blue Jays have put Dunedin behind them for perhaps the friendlier confines of Sahlen Field in Buffalo. Despite these premature rumours of my demise (self-promoted, sadly) I have indeed been following the team over the last couple weeks and here again are some varied thoughts on an exciting group that seem excellent at winning 2 of 3 out of every 2 of 3 series.

Top of the Third

Here's Looking At You, Kid -- So... all it took was losing 30-40ish pounds for Vlad Jr. to become the best hitter in baseball, eh. Maybe if I lost that much weight I could get my fastball back... back to 60! (drumroll please!)

Seriously though, the last time the Blue Jays employed a hitter this constantly demanding of your attention was probably Jose Bautista. I mean early Joey Bats when we still had those awful black and silver jerseys and foolish pitchers still challenged him with fastballs down the middle. 2015 Donaldson was a lot like that also. Here in 2021 though, I think I'm convinced. Vlad Jr. has arrived. My theory is that ditching the excess weight has clearly unlocked some untapped physical quickness (which has suddenly also made him a rather good first baseman) and he's just simply so strong... his swing so lightning fast and powerful that he can simply muscle baseballs out anywhere he wants to put them. Oh yeah, he's only 22 folks.

To dig deeper, I do think his approach has vastly improved also. He isn't striking out less (14% compared to 16% career) which frankly hasn't ever been a problem for him. He's just hitting the ball harder, in the air more and thankfully less on the ground... but now it seems like a shock when he chases a pitch and misses it. When Vlad Jr. came up he was clearly capable of fighting the league to a draw, but certain pitchers quickly picked up how much this 20 year old fella thought he could hit anything... and so those wily tossers would locate tough pitches accordingly. 20 year old Vlad could still hit those, because he can hit everything... it's just that he'd roll them over to the third baseman more often than not. Now he's consciously decided (you can see his mannerisms in the batters box reminding himself to lay off) to be more selective, to swing at the pitches he's learned he can truly crush. It's wondrous and delightful to behold. He's here, everybody.

Handsome Randy -- I was tempted to mention him last time I wrote one of these, but talked myself into that classic "Ah... it's just one of his hot streaks... he'll bat like .220 for like two months and the gravitational pull of the universe will align itself as it always does".

I still am reluctant to believe he's really this guy, but I do think he's made a significant improvement. Significant enough that his contract sure doesn't look like a hot potato anymore. Defensively, he's an eye test over metrics exhibit: I think he's been totally fine in centerfield this season, a position coming into this year he wasn't expected to play everyday don't forget. I mean, it's possible he looks good compared with Gurriel The Ripper out in left beside him (though geez, he has some arm doesn't he?), but I seriously think considering the circumstances this is by far the most you could've ever hoped for from Grichuk. He's very average out in centerfield... okay range, okay arm... but consistently catches the balls he should catch, makes the right throw... there's serious value in that when you're a better than league average hitter.

Speaking of that... is he? Grichuk is still allergic to walks, he'll still chase pitches he has no business even thinking he can hit... but I do think he has adapted in a subtle way. Buck Martinez will ramble on (as Buck will) about how he's hitting to the opposite field nowadays, and I do find his weak oppo singles quite well timed... but this season he's hitting more balls to dead center than anything. No, his improvement is simply making contact more frequently. He hits the ball hard regardless, it's just that now he's whiffing less. His strikeout rate is at 27 percent for his career, but 2020 and this season he's down to 21 percent. At this point I think it's a large enough sample to conclude he's figured something out.

Mount Manoah -- I simply have to mention the big rookie fella (he's older than Bo Bichette by the way). His debut was one of the most delightful games I've watched in a long while, truly a balm for this young scraped soul. Objectively, I think he reminds me of the last Blue Jays pitcher to wear that #6: good fastball movement, knows how to locate, needs to rely on changing speeds, not afraid of anybody... breaking ball needs to be better. I'm not Andrew Stoeten and am not convinced he's the savior of the team (I suspect Stoets says this in jest) but I do think there's a real chance he can help. There will be some bumps along the way, like his start against Miami, but hey lets see how he adjusts.

Speaking of debuts... a have a couple of yarns to spin. I remember Ricky Romero's ML debut vividly: I was sitting along the first baseline and he was facing Rick Porcello (also making his major league debut!). The Jays won 4-2 I think? I'd look it up but I'm hoping Magpie will beat me to the punch, heh. It was April 2009 if that helps! And I'm certain Romero went six innings.

The more memorable one though for me was seeing Jesse Litsch's debut, mostly just because I barely knew who the heck this guy was. I was way up in the 500s and simply amazed how this doughy looking kid (he's two years older than me? Hilarious) was baffling hitters with junk. Clever junk: slow fastballs that moved all over the place. I remember his second start seeming like a big event (the 2007 Blue Jays were not remarkable) but I sacrificed watching that for a softball game that never materialized.  

Bottom of the Third

Bullpen Nope-en -- I believe I wrote in the first installment of this series how the bullpen had been the MVP of the team at that point of the season. Well... that rocket has returned to Earth.

They still have reliable dudes: Jordan Romano is wonky, and occasionally worrisome when he loses the strikezone for a batter or two every other outing... but he has the makings and dominant flashes of a real late inning weapon. Rafael Dolis is infuriatingly slow in pace, but you can tell nothing ever fazes the guy and there's truly a comfort in that.

Beyond that though... who is the third best available reliever on this team? Trent Thornton? He's more of a multi-inning, "we're winning or losing by 5" guy. Joel Payamps? A pleasant surprise, but I'm not calling on him in a one run game. Anthony Castro? I like the frisbee slider... but he has a dozen major league innings to his name. The injuries have brutalized this group: losing David Phelps for the year is a big blow, losing Borucki has pushed Tim Mayza into a more prominent role (which he struggled with at first, he's been better lately) and Tyler Chatwood is healthy but now has suddenly completely forgotten where the strikezone is? He's done this before.  

I suspect, if the 2021 Blue Jays are to contend for the playoffs, a significant bullpen addition will be required. I also suspect that they have another one down in AAA, not lighting the world on fire despite his stuff being beyond electric. I will make this case: bring up Pearson in late June/early July and give him the Trent Thornton role. Two innings here and there, let him get comfortable facing big league hitters and learn what it takes, what he has, to get them out. The upside is enormous... as long as it doesn't make him get blisters for three depressing seasons afterwards.

You Can Call Me Ray, Or You Can Call Me Jay -- This is just me griping how much I hate the Tampa Bay Rays. Move to Montreal already and stop trying to make me hate baseball.

Take The Bench -- If the Blue Jays are to contend in 2021, their second biggest need (beyond getting Max Scherzer) I think is some thunder from their part-time players. I like Santiago Espinal's glove at third base, he's really quite good over there... but yeahhhh he can't hit. Reese McGuire is a terrific "catch and throw" backstop, and he did kick start a rally recently... but he's basically wishing for Jeff Mathis' career. Joe Panik! Um.... when Joe Panik is consistently your best pinch hitting option... yeah you need some better choices.

But who? Whenever George Springer reappears will certainly shove someone to the pine (or send Rowdy Tellez to the minors), but at this point maybe that versatile bench piece is Cavan Biggio. Make a trade for a real (sorry Cavan) third baseman and now you have that Swiss Army Knife type player (sorry Joe Panik, you're an excellent second baseman but at third you're pretty stretched) in Biggio. If Marwin Gonzalez was five years younger (and still good)... there's a fit. Adam Frazier from the Pirates? Make it so.

Who knows though! This team is currently good enough to believe in, flawed enough to imagine it collapsing tomorrow, and enjoyable enough in the meanwhile to take a step back, sip a beverage and hopefully wonder what happens next. Baseball: there's just nothing like it. And it is good to be back, hope you all enjoyed my mad look at our favourite home 9. Have at it.