North of the 400

North of Toronto, South of a championship

Looking back at the 2014 Toronto Blue Jays

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For a while, it seemed like something could happen: the Toronto Blue Jays could win the AL East! And then, it all kind of fell apart. Well, c’est la vie.

 

I only made it to two games this year, both of them right around the end of June. One was a loss to the White Sox, the other a walk-off win against the Brewers. When I think back to these games, a few moments stand out: an amazing video of Colby Rasmus wearing a straw hat and pretending to fish; watching Edwin Encarnacion hitting a game-winning home run (first time I’ve been in the stands for one of those!); a huge mass of people lined up for the subway at Yorkdale in Jays gear. Oh, and the new, not very good Pizza Nova pizza.

 

It’s been an interesting year for the Jays. Through May they were outstanding: they went 21-9, were slugging their way through games, leading the AL East and separating themselves from the pack. It peaked on June 6, with a 3-1 win over St. Louis: the Jays were 39-24, had won six games in a row and were six games up in the AL east. And then it all kind of fell apart: the hits stopped coming, the injuries started mounting (Izturis went down in April, then Brett Lawrie in June and Encarnacion in early July) . Per Baseball-Reference, Toronto scored 60 fewer runs in June. Combined with Baltimore’s steadily improving pace, Toronto was solidly in second place when I saw my first game in person.

 

The AL East was a little weak this year, but the American League itself was pretty damn hot for most of the year. When Baltimore passed the Jays on July 4, Toronto also fell below the second wild card spot, behind both the LA Angels and Seattle. For most of the year, the AL West was well above everyone else, with the Oakland Athletics looking amazing and two good teams a few games behind.

 

As fun as that was for a casual fan – there was some great stuff happening on the left coast – it wasn’t great for Toronto: even through the end of July, there was a logjam for the second wild card. Most of the Central was in play, particularly Cleveland and Kansas City, plus Seattle and New York. Hell, Tampa was six games out with two months remaining. But by September, Toronto was more or less out of it, even with a nine-of-11 win streak.

 

They had the bad luck to be merely decent in a year when a glut of good teams competed for the second spot. And Toronto was basically just okay: they hit a lot, but they allowed a lot of runs, too. As of this writing, they average 4.4 runs per game, but allow about 4.3 per game. The usual things to blame started popping up on JaysTalk: injuries, underperforming stars, bad management.

 

My favourite is how the Jays didn’t make any big moves at either trade deadline. But to get something, Toronto would’ve had to give something up. It’s a risk/reward proposition; giving up, say, Jose Bautista for, say, David Price (a deal I just made up, I should add) might shore up the rotation, but it’s gutting the team’s offensive production. Does that reward outweigh the risks? It’s a tough call. With prospects it’s trickier: you’re dealing with unknowns.

 

The same proposition goes down through the way the roster’s built. Once players started getting hurt or slumping, the same idea applied to replacements. Rasmus, for example, was hitting awfully all summer: for example, he went .197/.288/.380 in July. By September, Anthony Gose replaced him at centrefield. But Gose isn’t much better at the plate, hitting .221/.310/.270 this season. But he’s better at defense. It’s a variation on the same question: does that defense outweigh the lack of offense? Especially when compared to someone who isn’t producing at an expected level?

 

The same question popped up elsewhere. Does Kawasaki’s merits outweigh his liabilities at the plate? What about Adam Lind: against right-handed pitchers, he’s been outstanding (.357/.415/.548), but against lefties, he’s awful: .061/.162/.223. And here he is, playing regularly at first and DH.

 

When I think back to the 2014 Jays, I keep thinking back to the same few questions: what was happening when it all worked for the team? And why was it so unsustainable?

 

There was a great post on Drunk Jays Fans earlier this season about Dustin McGowan’s pitching. To that point, he’d been pretty good as a mop-up reliever. But a look at his numbers and pitch location showed some dangerous trends: his pitching was regressing and his pitches were often in high-risk areas. Soon enough he exploded on the mound: three hits, three walks and three runs in a blown save against Tampa. He’s melted down a couple of other times, too.

 

That seems to be the Jays in a microcosm this season. In some areas, they were great. Like hitting: for a while, the Jays had scored the most runs in the majors and they’re still near the top. But their bullpen was a mess all season. McGowan struggled, but he was occasionally good, too. But Sergio Santos, brought in as the new closer, barely made it through July before getting the boot. Steve Delabar’s is slightly better ad 4.91. Even closer Casey Janssen, nearly automatic for the first half of the year, has struggled of late: since August, he’s allowed 11 runs and 19 hits in just over 14 innings.

 

At the same time, I’m not sure how much I blame management for this season. I’d hardly call myself a baseball expert, but of the few questionable things Gibbons has done this season, I generally seem to get their logic. Like Gose over Rasmus, like relying on Janssen even after his ERA exploded last month. Some I don’t – what was Frank Francisco doing in the lineup so damn long? – but they don’t seem like something to fire someone over, either.

 

Likewise, Alex Anthopoulos seems generally okay by me. He didn’t add anyone by the deadlines, but he didn’t give up anything key to the team either. This year, there’s some weird tension over spending; who knows what’s been happening upstairs now. And, again as has been noted at DJF, it’s worth noting the Jays have focused on drafting high school players since 2010. Wrote Andrew Stoeten:

“… consider this: a high school draftee from 2010 is now around just 22 years old. Aaron Sanchez is one of them, and he’s just now reaching the big leagues, and one of the youngest pitchers in the majors.  To repeat: a prototypical guy from A.A.’s first draft is now an exceptionally young big leaguer.”

 

It seems unreasonable to fire a guy over 22-year olds not playing like, well, they’re a few years older.

 

For everyone calling this Jays season a bummer, it’s worth pointing out it was a pretty fun year, too. The Jays won a 19-inning game, led their division into June and even had a stretch where Bautista basically carried the team: this month he’s hitting .288/.440/.545. And for all of his crappy starts, JA Happ has also pitched pretty well at times, too. That was maybe my favourite surprise of this season.

 

And for the first time in years, the Jays actually felt like they were in the thick of things. There was a palpable feeling in the air when I went to games, even outside the stadium. When I walked down to see them play the White Sox I was surprised by the amount of Jays jerseys, shirts and hats I saw everywhere: on the subway, hanging out at Yorkdale, even on the street. But then again, when I was in Toronto last weekend, on a day when the Jays played in New York, it was the same thing. There was people milling outside the Rogers Centre, people watching the game at bars up and down Yonge Street and a blue everywhere.

 

It reminded me a little bit of being outside the Air Canada Centre when the Raptors were in the playoffs. That was a big group of great vibes, people not just glad to see the Raptors in the playoffs, but just having a good time to boot. And after last year’s disastrous Jays season, it felt great to have a team winning more often than they lost.

 

Sure, there were rough patches. And the Jays might even finish this season under .500. But I’m also going to miss baseball being on almost every night once it’s gone, too.

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Written by M.

September 22, 2014 at 1:48 pm

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