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You Can Learn Alot by Watching, Tor vs TB (March 14, 2011)

March 14, 2011

As we saw last week with Ricky Romero, Spring Training is a time to work on things. Last week, Romero tested his curveball in live game action for the first time of the year. Last week, it worked. Yesterday, not so much. Today, the ever-benevolent Rogers conglomerate gave us another televised game, and this time, instead of the Jays’ ace, we got to view the pitcher with the best actual stuff on the staff, as Brandon Morrow opened proceedings. One of the first signs for Jays’ fans that AA may be the franchise saviour was his heist of Morrow from the Mariners, in exchange for erratic reliever Brandon League and toolsy but very unproven minor league outfielder Johermyn Chavez. And Morrow, for the unaware, was not some unheralded find by the Blue Jay scouting staff. As recently as 2006, he was a stud amateur, drafted by Seattle with the 3rd overall pick in that summer’s entry draft, ahead of, among others, Tim Lincecum, Clayton Kershaw and Travis Snider. The Mariners simply misused and abused him and AA picked up on their poor valuation of the man with top shelf swing-and-miss stuff.

Morrow threw mostly fastballs in the first inning, struggling to find command, even as he induced more than a few missed swings. He gave up a run, but one born of hustle more than missed pitches, as Johnny Damon took a inner-half fastball the other way, and even though the ball landed well in front of Eric Thames in left field, Johnny still has wheels and isn’t afraid to use them, taking a second base when many others would have rounded back to first with a few claps of the hand for a job well done. Morrow pitched to both sides of the plate, but he missed enough corners that it was hard to tell how deliberate his placement was it this early stage.

Facing off against a definitive journeyman in Chris Bootcheck, an important test for Jays’ batters was more in how they waited for their pitch, be it simply a strike, or a driveable ball. Yunel Escobar showed good patience in walking on four straight. His position near the top of the order is not assured and the ability to get on base, whether by swinging or by avoiding the swing will be critical. Travis Snider, another who struggled to get on base without swinging last year also took three straight balls before swinging through one and then holding off on a pitch that just caught the corner of the strike zone. Even in Spring Training, working the pitcher can pay off. Snider got a pitch to drive with the 7th toss and dumped the ball into centre-right. Escobar wasn’t sent running on the full count pitch, yet managed to get from 1st to 3rd on speed alone. Shortly thereafter, Eric Thames, earmarked for time in Vegas, has shown himself to be one to watch so far. He has the tools to hit with power and has shown some selectivity, indicating that he has a plan at the plate. His play from here on out will determine whether AA puts him on the 40-man roster later this year, as well as if he will be available for a September cameo. In Spring Training, some players battle for a spot on the roster, and others battle for picking order within the organization. Who gets the first call when there is an injury? In spite of swinging at too many pitches on the inner half in his first at bat against Bootcheck, Thames may be that 1st man up should any of Lind, Snider, Rivera or Bautista miss time this year.

Morrow came out for the second with a better grip on the zone. He struck out the first hitter (Sean Rodriguez) and got the second (Elliot Johnson) to a 1-2 count before eliciting a funny hop to first base fielded well by David Cooper (he is in Eric Thames’ shoes as a man playing for next year). Morrow missed the tag, which provided us with the opportunity to view the changes in his approach between bases empty and with runners on. With the full wind-up Morrow rotates his hips pretty severely once he has reached his balance point above the rubber. Whether this adds torque to his pitches or just some deception is impossible to say without the benefit of PitchFx, but once Elliot Johnson reached first, the twist disappeared. Johnson managed to steal second regardless of the quicker windup. With two out, facing former 1st overall draft choice Tim Beckham, Morrow reminded everyone why Spring Training can be as feared as it is anticipated, as he took a line drive off the back of his pitching arm. Thankfully, he wasn’t hit hard enough to go down, or even lose his bearings, as he picked the ball up off the ground and side-armed it to first base to end the inning. Of course, even a moderate strain or bruise may see his day come to a premature end.

The Jays opened up the second reminding Bootcheck why he has pitched less than 150 innings in the majors with a 6.54 lifetime ERA, and why, at age 32, he may not get too many more chances to improve upon that record. J.P. Arencibia took one pitch to the wall in centre field, and David Cooper and John McDonald both reach base on hard hit balls to the outfield. These are three hard hits by players who are either still prospects (Arencibia and Cooper) or are aging slappy and scrappy utility fielders (McDonald). Another scrappy type, the previously mentioned Yunel Escobar, pounded another ball behind the centre fielder, driving in two but getting thrown out trying to stretch his hit into a triple.

Brandon Morrow took the hill again in the top of the third, proving that his attempt at goaltending left him none the worse for wear. Still humping fastballs, Morrow threw without any visible discomfort or diminishing stuff, as he began the inning with five straight strikes, including two on breaking balls before missing on a third breaking ball on an attempt to get Johnny Damon to chase on an 0-2 count. A fourth curve with the 7th pitch in the inning fooled Damon for the strikeout. For a sidebar note of interest, Morrow facing off against Manny Ramirez was illustrative. Morrow had Manny swinging late on early fastballs before getting him on what looked like a changeup to his arm-side for a called third strike to end the inning.

Another, though more accomplished journeyman, Cory Wade, took the hill for Tampa in the bottom of the third. So what can we take of note from Jose Bautista killing (seriously – he killed it) a first pitch delivered to his power house, sending the ball way out into the trees back of left field? He can see the ball well and stay on it. His timing as a batter is uncanny. Cory Wade, according to Gameday had never pitched against Bautista in the majors. If you can see the ball, you can hit the ball. Bautista succeeded on both measures. I’ve said it before, and I will repeat it here, Bautista was not a fluke last year.

The top of the fourth saw three events of significance. First, B.J. Upton connected off of Morrow for what had been, to that moment, the hardest hit ball off the big righthander. A linedrive over a leaping Escobar’s out-stretched glove ended up in the left-centre gap and Upton ended up on second base. A few pitches later, Morrow was called for a balk as he and J.P. Arencibia could not come to terms on a pitch. Not a big deal now, but unless Farrell wants to allow Morrow to have Jose Molina as his personal catcher again, this is something that bears watching over Morrow’s remaining Spring tune-ups. In terms of game play, the balk got Upton over to 3rd. And that’s when things became screwy. Sean Rodriguez, a young middle infielder who misses on too many swings but makes up for some of that with above-average power, swung over top of an 0-2 breaking ball, which hit the dirt before Arencibia could glove it. With one out and a man on third (but not first), Arencibia had to throw over to first base to record an out on Rodriguez. He first checked Upton at third, hoping that would keep the runner on the base. Maybe he didn’t look hard enough, or maybe Rodriguez had enough speed of his own to make Arencibia rush his throw. Upton timed it and basically stole home on the throw to first. That’s excitement, and notably from a player known for failure to hustle throughout his career, to the point of being benched by Joe Maddon for not running out the play on occasion last season.

It was good to see Dirk Hayhurst take the mound for the Rays in the 4th. His effect on Toronto was more in terms of social outreach than in the field due to a late arrival in 2009 and then a shoulder injury that caused him to miss all of last season. Based on what he showed today, Spring Training and post-injury caveats aside, it may have been fortunate that he did not get more time to add to his Major League service time with the Jays. His stuff was underwhelming and even the outs he generated were off of hard hit balls. I have to think that we probably won’t be seeing much of him against the Jays in the regular season.

Morrow’s job done, the Jays entered the 5th with Marc Rzepczynski, affectionately known by Jays’ fans as Scrabble. Rzepczynski offers a much different look than does Morrow, as a left hander with more movement than stuff. Rzep got through the fifth in a mere handful of pitches, helped on the last one by a great running, sliding catch in right field by Rajai Davis.

Travis Snider continued to show signs that he may be ready to break out in the big way this year, furthering a blistering Spring with a hard hit single off of Mike Ekstrom, the fourth journeyman to take the hill today for the Rays and the only one of the front four to have pitched in the Majors last year – for a whole 16 innings. Every time he’s been up in past seasons, Snider has shown glimpses of prodigious talent, fronted by amazing power. But he inevitably would struggle at some point and lacked the wherewithal to get out of it. Neither Cito Gaston nor his moustache helped matters, benching him, moving him around the lineup and showing an overall lack of faith in his abilities. I’d like to think that Snider’s moustache is a call to arms, erasing the doubts that Gaston’s handling uncovered within himself. Now that his new manager does not have a moustache, Snider can wear one of his own and take ownership of the consequences of his hitting. It’s a theory.

Later in the 5th, Corey Patterson made another claim for the 4th outfielder position on the Jays. A well-struck single back through the box knocked Ekstrom off his feet on its way into centre field and drove in another run (Brett Lawrie, who took over for Bautista). He then stole second, continuing a trend the Jays’ have been demonstrating all Spring long. They can run and they will.

Moving onto the top of the 6th, Rzep made quick work of the top of the Rays’ lineup, including a swinging strikeout of Justin Ruggiano and catching Manny Ramirez napping for a called third strike. If we can call the top four of the Jays’ rotation as being set between Romero, Morrow, Cecil and Drabek (no sure thing, that last one, but quite likely), the 5th spot seems to be contested between Zach Stewart, Rzep and Jesse Litsch. Jo-Jo Reyes may make the team, but I would say that his role would only be as a long-reliever. Maybe in the Brian Tallett role. Zach Stewart, while impressive thus far, has yet to start in AAA, and he isn’t yet on the Jays’ 40-man roster. I wouldn’t discount his chances yet, but he is most likely fighting for a spot on the pecking order now, and for a space on the roster in 2012. Litsch missed most of last year rehabbing from Tommy John surgery performed in 2009. He has looked much better this Spring than he had in the past, but his ceiling is inherently limited, in the sense that 5th starter is his upside. For my money, Rzep should be the front-runner. His pitches have good life, allowing an average-at-best fastball to play up. That movement makes it difficult for the hitter to square up and make hard contact against him. He has averaged just over 1 home run allowed per nine innings pitched so far in his major league career (not bad for a young pitcher with his velocity). He surrendered an opponents’ OPS of 682 as a rookie in 2009, which ballooned up to 840 in his second go round last year. Looking a bit more deeply into his numbers, his BABIP (Batting average on balls in play) against was an above-average .273 in 2009 and jumped up to .344 last year. While not a very predictable number, league average is around .300, meaning regression suggests improved results should he get more opportunity this year. In comparison, Jesse Litsch has a similar, if slightly worse home run allowed rate in his MLB career, and has allowed an opponent’s OPS of .760 with a career BABIP against of .281. Again, the suggestion of regression here is that Rzep, given decent fielding (splitting the difference between the two BABIPs mentioned above), could allow an OPS against of around 760. If Litsch has the same BABIP, we can expect his OPS allowed to rise from that same 760 he accomplished with much  better luck on balls in play to a more unseemly 820. He’s still young and may yet improve, but the Blue Jays would be better served by going with Rzepczysnki as their 5th starter.

In the bottom of the 7th, the Jays’ batters gave more cause for future excitement and present trepidation, as Brett Lawrie had a solid at bat resulting in a single which was followed by Eric Thames turning on a pitch by another minor league pitcher (Dane De La Rosa) sending it out over the wall in right field. The next batter, J.P. Arencibia, continued a rough spring at the plate (earlier double notwithstanding) going down swinging on three pitches to that same unheralded minor leaguer. The optimist in me wants to believe that he is pressing with the job in hand and more worried about impressing his new boss with his play behind the dish. The pessimist and the realist are not quite so sure. Getting back to the future, Anthony Gose beat out an infield single on a chopper between 1st and 2nd, but for once, did not attempt a steal of second and the inning ended without further score padding.

Carlos Villanueva, hoping to make the team as a long reliever/swing-man, took the mound for the Jays in the 8th. There has been some talk about going with an eight-man bullpen, but seven men is more likely and Villanueva, impressive career strikeout rate of 8.1/9 innings aside (11.4/9 last season) is no better than even money for a spot right now. Barring injuries, spots are all but guaranteed for Jason Frasor, Frank Francisco, Octavio Dotel, Jon Rauch, Shawn Camp and David Purcey (some will argue that last name, but I’m calling it now). That’s six. And that isn’t accounting for Jo-Jo Reyes (if he doesn’t make that team, he has to pass through waivers to remain within the organization), Jesse Carlson, Casey Janssen or Carlos Villanueva, not to mention other, darker horses. If I had to handicap that battle, Jo-Jo Reyes would be my most likely pick. As a lefty, he has situational uses that Janssen and Villanueva do not. Jesse Carlson flashed brightly out of the pan in 2008 and regressed significantly in 2009 and even more so last year, regressing all the way back to Vegas. Janssen has put up solid numbers through most of his career in the majors, but a deeper look shows an interesting split between his effectiveness against lefties and against righties.


Split G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR SB CS BB SO SO/BB BA OBP SLG OPS TB GDP HBP SH SF IBB ROE BAbip tOPS+
vs RHB as RHP 162 676 626 93 170 35 3 17 1 0 30 103 3.43 .272 .315 .419 .733 262 22 12 2 6 2 14 .299 94
vs LHB as RHP 143 518 465 60 133 29 2 12 0 0 46 67 1.46 .286 .354 .434 .788 202 4 4 1 2 5 4 .312 109

Note the stark difference between the SO/BB column, measuring the ratio of strike-outs to walks. Against same sided hitters, Janssen has rung up close to 3.5 strikeouts per walks. So as he struck out Nevin Ashley, we should not have been surprised. Mayora bats from the right and he has only played in 7 games above AA (and never did that much there, either). More interesting were the earlier at bats of Casey Kotchman and Chris Carter, both swinging from the left side of the plate. Kotchman singled to left and Carter grounded into a force play at second. This sequence led to the conclusion of the game, but not to the question: how do these contenders stack up in terms of left-right splits? Let’s have a look:

Career Numbers SO/BB vs RHB SO/BB vs LHP Total OPS allowed OPS vs RHB OPS vs LHP OPS with 0 days rest
Janssen 3.43 1.46 757 733 788 728
Villanueva 2.29 2.79 744 752 735 758
Carlson 2.33 2.55 694 724 660 622
Reyes 1.05 2.44 890 949 675 N/A

According to his career splits, Jo-Jo Reyes looks like a pure LOOGY, in other words, someone to be used only against left-handed batters. An important caveat to bear in mind, though, is that all by four of his previous career appearances in the Majors have come as a starter. It is not unreasonable to think that his stuff might play up better against righties in shorter stints out of the bullpen.

Casey Janssen, looking just at the difference in SO/BB between lefties and righties, looks like the far rarer ROOGY, only to be used against right-handed batters. His OPS splits aren’t quite so stark, leaving open the possibility that he still might be somewhat effective against left-handed batters, but it is safe to say that they may be a relative weakness of his.

Jesse Carlson looks like the man to beat across the board. However, it should be kept in mind that his numbers have all been trending down since his stellar debut. Furthermore, his current injury (an inflamed shoulder) clouds his status as he is still unable to throw, according to a report out today by MLB.com’s Gregor Chisholm.

Carlos Villanueva is interesting here as his numbers show a decided reverse platoon split. Most pitchers tend to be more dominant when facing batters who hit from the same side as they pitch. Villanueva, a right-handed pitcher, has put up better results against opposite sided batters, with an SO/BB exactly 0.5 better and an OPS 17 points lower against opposite-handed batters. Acquired earlier this offseason from the Milwaukee Brewers for a player-to-be-named later, AA has yet to complete this trade. If Villanueva does not make the opening day roster, he may yet join Harry Chiti as the rare player to be traded for himself.

The last column on the right is one I hope to go into in more detail in an upcoming post, but is still one to bear in mind right now. Many relievers are asked to pitch on consecutive days, as a given situation may call for the particular skill set of the pitcher in question repeatedly. Not all pitchers can answer the call night after night without some degradation in skills as Jays fans witnessed repeatedly last year with Kevin Gregg. In the case of the four birdmen of doom, the opposite is true for both Janssen and Carlson, who have lower OPS-against marks when pitching without rest than they do with. Villanueva is a little bit worse, but not worryingly so. Jo-Jo Reyes has yet to pitch in the Majors without at least 1 day off between appearances.

I don’t think Carlson will be the answer. As much I love to root for a guy who is left-handed and built like me, his degrading play over the past three years and his current injury make him an unlikely fit. For all his solid baseball card numbers, Casey Janssen has never made me a believer. Last year was the first time he struck out over 5.5 batters per nine innings pitched, a remarkably modest measurement as the AL average trended much closer to 7 per 9. How repeatable is last season’s performance? As I said, I’m not convinced.

I think the last spot in the bullpen is going to be decided between Jo-Jo Reyes and Carlos Villanueva, with consideration being paid to which of the two is more likely to remain in the organization if not on the 25-man roster.

What do you guys think?

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Jon permalink
    March 15, 2011 11:59 pm

    After years of thinking spring training’s stats had value, I was shocked to learn a few years ago that spring training stats have basically zero correlation with the regular season. I’m not sure if it’s because of the sample size, or just because players are trying out new things. You have to be a hardcore baseball fan to watch these games. I do it with the sound off, so I don’t have to hear.. X player is in the best shape of his life, and X pitcher has great stuff.

    • March 16, 2011 12:23 am

      Jon – the stats from Spring are totally meaningless, but the performance can have value if you know what you’re looking for. If you read BP, there was an Unfiltered post today (http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=13230) with some embedded video from the recent SABR day even in NYC. In the 3rd video (I think), Vince Gennaro discusses the future of stats in that they will go more into process than result. We already see this with the proliferation of studies on PITCHf/x and the drool that is accumulating over the future of FIELDf/x and HITf/x. So I’m trying to look at the process and not the result (note that I never mentioned the score of the game). Once the regular season starts, that will change, though. Cheers.

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