Off Day Blues Vol. 8
Thursday, September 16 2021 @ 08:36 AM EDT
Contributed by: Eephus
It's like I'm falling out of bed
from a long and vivid dream
The sweetest flowered fruits are
hanging from a tree
A well timed hot streak has been the separator for the Blue Jays, placing them in prime position for a wild card berth while previous company Oakland and Seattle lag behind. Things can always change quickly, for good or for evil, so Toronto will have to continue playing good baseball no matter what happens on the out-of-town scoreboard.
Hey, it's September, and they're right in the playoff race. No one promised it would be easy. The only certainties this time of year are stress, emotional roller coasters, highest of highs against lowest of lows, blind confidence against irrational bleakness. It's a playoff race, lets buckle in my friends. What an absurd year it has been.
My usual random thoughts:
Top of the Eighth
After watching this team for the past five months, and again please stop me if this sounds completely crazy... but I'm starting to think maybe this team seems to have a lot of fun out there? Insanity I know.
This season, as noted fifty words ago, has been a total emotional roller coaster and the sheer joy this team plays with (when things are going well) has definitely been an infectious peak of that ride. Whether it be the home run jacket, Vlad Jr. simply unable to sit still in the dugout, Teoscar Hernandez's night-illuminating smile... I'm absolutely certain those heartbreaking losses wouldn't have hurt as bad if this team just wasn't so darned likeable.
Every team in any season, even terrible ones, will have occasional dugout shenanigans. The 2021 Blue Jays though must truly be in the highest percentile of such things, as it seems nearly every game there's something silly and fun going on with these guys. I mean, Vlad Jr. getting tied up with tape by his teammates still has to be one of the funnier moments of the season (later that game was when he was with Luis Rivera and telling the infield where to shift). If I'm forgetting any other fun moments please chime in.
My Sweet Lourdes
A running storyline for much of this season, often simmering in the background, has been: "When is Gurriel Jr. finally gonna heat up?". Aside from a truly dreadful start (.572 OPS when April ended) Gurriel Jr. had been fairly okay until his recent inferno upon the league. What interests me is how before this hot streak, he hadn't exactly been an unplayable bat. I mean, an 85 OPS+ left-fielder with extremely erratic defense... you probably want to do better than that... but his lack of production never felt like it was hurting the team all that much. Perhaps his .326/.373/.518 line in 218 PA with runners on base helps explain that notion. By comparison, Randal Grichuk's .247/.290/.461 line in 238 PA with men on seems positive rally poison, with 15 double plays hit into against Gurriel's 7.
What is also curious (to me anyway) is how Gurriel Jr. has now far surpassed his career high in games played (even including minor league games, such as 2019 when he was banished to AAA for a month) and it seems right around cracking that barrier is when his bat became literal lightning. You just can't predict these things, and this guy seems about as unpredictable as they come. He's capable of being the hottest hitter on planet Earth for considerable stretches of time, and then quickly looking like he hasn't a clue where a pitch is coming from. Not a guy you want to have to rely on, but clearly a player you don't give up on since he's electric enough to carry a team once in a while.
Catch Me If You Can
How many times have the Blue Jays ever had three serviceable major league catchers? (I'm suspect Magpie knows this one). Well, considering how many of the greatest Jays catchers over the years have came from other organizations... has the team ever had two homegrown catchers as good as Jansen and Kirk at the same time?
With Jansen back and miraculously scorching the ball, the Blue Jays have an interesting catching situation. Reese McGuire (though I consider him semi-overrated back there) has the best throwing arm of the trio, Alejandro Kirk the best bat (and seemingly somewhat underrated back there... I mean he's a far better receiver than Gary Sanchez for instance) and Danny Jansen (if actually a 90-105 OPS+ guy) the middle ground between the two, and a fine defender himself. Who catches who? Who made who?
I'm just going to conclude that it's a good problem to have, though maybe Danny Jansen could learn third base? Ahhhhh? Okay yes... I've completely lost my mind.
Above The Mark
Just a small note that with Wednesday's 82nd win of the season, this will be Toronto's first winning (162 game) season since 2016. In that same span, the Baltimore Orioles (defeated in the 2016 Wild Card game of course) have not achieved a winning record in any season, and soon will lose over 100 games for the 3rd time in 4 years. Some credit for an effective, speedy rebuild is in order. Blowing it up doesn't always work this well.
Bottom of the Eighth
I mean, if the Blue Jays keep winning 13 of 15 down the stretch... we don't really have much to worry about in regards to making the playoffs. To steal a thought from the Spin Rate podcast, another such run isn't impossible, merely improbable.
To estimate, I'd say going 11-5 in these final sixteen games should be enough for one of the Wild Card spots. Thing is, as flawed as they are respectably, the Yankees and the Red Sox will not go gently into that good night. Say Toronto splits them, 8-8, that's still 90 wins but you'd need one of Boston or New York to likewise have a losing record during that same stretch... entirely possible but not something dependable. Consider also the Yankees are in a soft part of their schedule (Orioles, Cleveland and Texas) before a pair of huge series on the road in Boston and then Toronto, six games which likely will decide their season. As for the Red Sox they don't play a team above .500 (unless the Mets get hot) the rest of the season aside from that Yankees series. Hey, nobody said it would be easy.
It's obvious to anybody watching, from the broadcast booth or viewers at home, all the way from the catcher behind the plate to the most distant observer in the outfield 500 level... George Springer is playing on one functioning leg. He's still finding his way around the bases (like his daring advance from 1st to 3rd on a wild pitch walk just yesterday) but some of these swings he takes in the box approach Kirk Gibson 1988 World Series level. You have to wonder how sustainable this is, whether a couple consistent days off these final weeks can keep him in the lineup and semi-productive (as he's been) or a bad moment is inevitable either on a bad swing or a bad turn around a base that knocks him out for good.
I certainly hope not. Even in this compromised form Springer is still dangerous enough at the plate to worry opposing pitchers, stretch the lineup further and get on base for the sluggers behind him. Plus as we saw Wednesday, his baserunning is still aggressively excellent.
Around The League
The divisional races across MLB are mostly decided, with only the NL West battle between the Dodgers and Giants even being within 4 games of one another. To paraphrase Charlie Kelly from It's Always Sunny... cut the brakes! It's wildcard season!
To be honest, the race for the NL Wildcard is currently a competition of who can lose the least. Both the Padres and the Reds (damnit boys) have played enough middling ball to let the Cardinals sneak into the playoff picture, which is exactly what I said I didn't want to happen last time I wrote one of these! San Diego is loaded with young electric players, Cincinnati has Joey freaking Votto... the Cardinals are boring and nobody wants an 84 win St Louis team somehow taking down the Dodgers in a one game playoff. That narrative is worn and tiring...
Anyhow, I thought it might be fun/interesting at this late point of the season to look upon my own preseason predictions, just to pick out an example where I was right! And many more examples where I was so glaringly wrong...
The Giants of the Bay
I picked San Francisco to win 77 games in 2021. Seeing as they already have 95 victories on the year, have had the best record in baseball for the majority of the season and seem rather poised for a long playoff run... yeah I may have underestimated this one.
Two things happened here, one which I mentioned in March crucial for them to have a chance: their legion of veteran hitters having bounce back seasons in their early-mid 30s. And that's what happened: Buster Posey is back to being in the MVP conversation (if he'd played 130 games instead of 100 there's an argument), Evan Longoria has been brilliant when healthy, 34 year old shortstop Brandon Crawford has never hit this well in his life... Brandon Belt, like Posey, has been dynamite when in the lineup. Plus a rotating cast of very effective spare pieces like Darin Ruf, Wilmer Flores, LaMonte Wade Jr, you can even fit Kris Bryant into that category... their depth has been an enormous strength.
Pitching wise, they've gotten the absolute best of Kevin Gausman (who may well finish top 3 in NL Cy Young voting), Anthony DeScalfani, Johnny Cueto has survived the graveyard, young arm Logan Webb has been Alek Manoah just with 30 more innings... everything has gone right for this team in 2021. In terms of talent, I'd say the Dodgers and Padres are superior... but I wouldn't ever bet against momentum, and I'll never wager against sheer happy fortune.
Like A Rock
I picked the Colorado Rockies to win 64 games. They're at 67-78 so they beat me on that front, but in terms of being interesting I think my indifference is still correct.
No Dessert In The Desert
Thinking the Arizona Diamondbacks would finish only four games back (73 wins versus 77) of the Giants... probably my most grotesque preseason error. The NL West is all or nothing: three extremely interesting teams, two also rans with not even a star player to keep track of.
Brew Crew Chew
The Cubs sure ain't gonna win 91 games this year (or anytime in the next few years) but the Milwaukee Brewers sure will. Picking them to go 80-82... also a bad prediction on my part. Despite underwhelming years from Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain, and a "maybe a pitcher should pinch hit for this guy" season from free agent addition Jackie Bradley Jr... the Brewers will easily win the NL Central and there are two reasons why.
First: Willy Adames. Since getting him about a third way through the season, Adames has been Milwaukee's best position player and it isn't close. I hate on the Rays often and willingly, but this sure seems like an example of a very mutually beneficial trade considering what Tampa has done with Rasmussen (and clearing a spot for Wander Franco).
Second: well they have three starting pitchers (Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff, Freddy Peralta) who would likely be Game One starters for almost any other MLB team. None of them allow hits or are homer prone, they all strike out everybody (10+ per 9) and aside from Peralta (3.7 per 9) they don't surrender free passes either. I'm not bullish on their playoff chances only because I can't imagine them scoring runs against elite pitching, but those three aces plus that bullpen (also elite)... they should be in some close games you would think.
The NL East
I feel pretty good about this one. The Nationals gave up and sold some pieces, making my 80-82 prediction rather unlikely, but beyond that I think it'll play out like I said: Braves, then Mets, then Phillies. The Mets clearly are Mets-ing their way into that irrelevant second place finish, while the Phillies stars and scrubs approach will be sunk again by a lack of pitching depth. Somewhat of a shame considering the season Bryce Harper is having. Strange to think the dialogue of the game has somewhat overlooked a 28 year old player with 264 home runs and a 142 career OPS+. Harper hasn't even been an all-star as a Phillie. There are just a lot of young, exciting stars in the game right now overshadowing the electric Bryce. Heck, his replacement in Washington (Juan Soto) has already far surpassed him in perception thanks to the 2019 Nationals championship.
The AL West
Picking the Angels to win 93 games, while picking Seattle to win 74... well don't blame the process of my logic at least.
The Angels are a bad team yet again, despite employing perhaps the two absolute greatest baseball players who walk the planet. One has been hurt and unavailable the majority of the year, and the other will likely win the American League MVP. There's no guarantee Shohei Ohtani can do this every year, this truly is one of the most unique and damn impressive seasons in the history of baseball. He deserves it, and lets enjoy it while he does it.
The Minnesota Twins rank 14th of 15 in runs surrendered among American League teams. That's pretty much where it all went wrong for the 2021 Twins, a team I chose to win 90 games and instead might not crack 70. Strange to think, with their stellar young pitching staff, how Cleveland's future quickly looks more promising in the near and long term.
Also, it's a terrible division that likely will only have one team over .500 out of five... and a vulnerable team at that. Frankly even I, a sucker towards attention to detail, can scrape little else to say about this sad pennant race that wrapped up in early May. Hardest "meh" possible.
I'm pretty much done on this off day... beyond one last question for all the readers out there. I'm just curious what it is we enjoy when we watch these players play for our favourite team, and what about them really stands out? Whether it be Robbie Ray putting every ounce of strength he possesses for that next fastball inside (and grunting loud enough to hear from the Toronto Islands), Vladdy rearing back and swinging his bat like Simon Belmont unleashes his whip in Castlevania, Hyun-Jin Ryu constantly inventing new speeds and new pitches while being three pitches ahead of any batter... Bo Bichette trusting his hands and flaring balls to right field... Alejandro Kirk consistently checking his swing like a ten year veteran... there is so much to enjoy when watching this team, just little fun bits witnessing this semi-misfit crew be so cohesive.
Please do chime in with your own aesthetic joys watching this team. Me personally, I love a Vlad Jr. at bat, a sharp Ryu, Alek Manoah's unshakeable attitude especially when he locates his slider and, maybe best of all... Admiral Kirk and his short swing up there spitting on good pitches many other more experienced batters chase. Have at it and enjoy the off day.