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You Can Learn A Lot By Watching – Apr. 10, 2011 – Toronto at Los Angeles/Anaheim

April 11, 2011

Heading into this afternoon’s tilt, the Blue Jays have now played eight games and have impressed for the most part, winning five and keeping the other three reasonably close throughout. Adam Lind has resembled the hitter who earned a large money contract in 2009 instead of the guy who could not touch left-handers. His career splits show an OPS of .857 against right-handed pitchers against a meagre .617 against lefties. Looking at a sample size of a mere 12 at bats this year, Lind has been pummeling southpaws for an OPS of 1.000 so far. That is mostly simple contact. Lind has not walked yet this season (against any pitcher) and has struck out only three times in 35 at bats. His batting average on balls in play is .333 -above average, but not unreasonable for someone barreling the ball consistently.

On the down side, Rajai Davis has put the ball in the air more than one would hope for from a speed merchant. On his career, Davis hits the ball in the air more than one ground, with a groundball/flyball ratio of 0.87. That ratio is even more flyball heavy so far this season, entering today’s game at 0.69. That means that he has had less opportunity to wreak havoc on the basepaths, as the majority of those flyballs land in opposition gloves. A more groundball oriented approach would allow Davis to provide more value to the Jays.

The pitching has been a little mixed. Jesse Litsch has looked better than I can ever remember him having pitched. On the other hand, Brett Cecil looks like my memories of Litsch. Something will give over the upcoming weeks, as both hurlers continue to fight for a spot in the 2012 rotation.

Jo-Jo Reyes takes the hill this afternoon for the Jays. After a very impressive Spring Training, Reyes was pounded in his first regular season start, surrendering 9 hits while accruing only 10 outs. No matter how you might spin those numbers, it’s bad. Facing a line-up with only one left-handed batter today (Bobby Abreu), more crooked numbers might prevent Reyes from getting another start.

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Leading off against Angels’ ace Jered Weaver, Rajai Davis, found himself in a quick 0-2 hole, before holding up on a pair thrown out of the zone. To little avail though, as he then swung on top of a low pitch for the out. Having returned late in the previous game to pinch hit in extra innings, Yunel Escobar must have felt a return of his dizziness as he, too, struck out in quick order. Jose Bautista –  and this is nothing new – found himself being worked around. Not one to expand his zone unnecessarily, Bautista soon found himself strolling to first base on a finger shy of a handful of pitches out of the zone. Picking up on yesterday’s 18 runners left-on-base, Adam Lind stranded Bautista, as the first ball put in play off of Weaver was popped up to deep short, in other words, not very far.

Jo-Jo began his half of the first with a pair of 92-MPH fastballs in the zone before trying to get Angels’ leadoff batter Peter Bourjos (fastest centre-fielder in the game) to chase a slider down. No dice there, but the out was earned on the 4th pitch, popped foul and into Jayson Nix’ glove. Howie Kendrick, who opened yesterday’s game with a home run to centre, found himself in a quick hole before working the count to a walk. Six of the seven pitches thrown by Reyes in that at bat were of the fast and straight variety. Reyes then coaxed Abreu to hit a groundball to the right side of the infield. A few steps in either direction and there might have been an inning-ending double play. In this case, Abreu’s grounder went under a ranging Aaron Hill’s glove, giving the Angels baserunners on both corners. Torii Hunter capitalized on the fortuitous grounder by dumping a base hit in front of Travis Snider in left field. 1-0 Angels. Vernon Wells failed to keep the train rolling, continuing his poor start to his Angel’s career by popping out to Lind along the first base line. 3rd baseman Alberto Callaspo ended the inning with a fly ball that landed in Rajai’s mitt in centre field. With a tired bullpen, John Farrell was likely concerned with Reyes’ largesse, throwing 31 pitches in a difficult 1st.

Listening to Jays’ former manager and current announcer, Buck Martinez, I can appreciate his ability to spot mechanical aspects of the game that I might have missed. However, when he gets into stats, I remember my pleasure that he is no longer running the game. Speaking about Weaver, Martinez mentioned (not for the first time) that the starting pitcher’s job is to stay in the game until it has been decided. He must have already forgotten the previous night’s game, not being decided until the 14thinning. As if the pitcher has any control whatsoever on how his offense is performing. Moreover, Buck still hasn’t quite cottoned on to the fact that pitchers have only minimal influence on what happens to balls once they are put in play against them. Leading off the top of the 2nd, Aaron Hill was Weaver’s third strikeout victim in five batters faced. Juan Rivera and Travis Snider kept the inning short, placing more pressure on Reyes to perform after a quick 1-2-3 inning.

Reyes got the Angels’ half of the second started crisply, getting a deep fly ball from Angels’ rookie 1st baseman, Mark Trumbo for a 1-pitch out. Catcher Bobby Wilson kept the line moving with a meek ground out to Lind on his second pitch. Failed prospect Brandon Wood then made short work of Reyes, singling over Nix’s glove on the second pitch – if you have to give up a hit, might as well be in a quick at bat. Wanting to let his bullpen rest, Reyes handled leadoff batter Peter Bourjos deftly on his second time up, striking him out on three pitches, the last a fastball around the letters that Bourjos could not catch up to, proving that his speed is largely limited to his legs. Through two innings, the Angels still held a minimal lead of 1-0.

Jayson Nix, having already outlasted Mike McCoy as the Jays lead utility player, led off the top of the 3rd against Weaver, who cut him up, working the corners to a 2-2 count, before fooling Nix with a fastball down the middle for a called third strike. Jose Molina, not known for his offensive prowess starts his at bats with a very open stance, ostensibly to give himself more time to see the ball. Conversely, it requires that he move more to get into position to swing. That was made evident as he could not adjust to the movement in Weaver’s slider, resulting in a swinging strikeout. Rajai Davis, up for a second time, could do no better with the added practice, striking out swinging once again to end the inning.

In the bottom of the third, Reyes failed to continue his good tempo of the 2nd, plunking Howie Kendrick in the back to open the inning, forcing him to work from the stretch again. Bobby Abreu, who has made Jays’ pitchers work each time he has come to the plate in this series found himself in a 2-2 count before fouling off a fifth pitch and sitting on a sixth, a fastball in the dirt. Another foul ball and the Jays’ bullpen, now including Scott Richmond for the first time since late in the 2009 season, caught their collective breath. Abreu succeeded in only driving up Reyes’ pitch count, as he struck out on a high fastball in the eighth pitch. Having thrown fastballs with over 80 percent of his first 55+ pitches, the Angels might have started to sit on the heat. Reyes would have been well served to mix in more sliders. To this point, he had thrown only two changeups, and one gave the Angels their first run. That is, he threw only two before Torii Hunter steppe to the plate in the 3rd. Reyes then doubled that total, the last of which had Hunter swinging over top for a second out. Vernon Wells finally went easy on the man who was never his teammate, flying out to right field on the first pitch. Three innings, sixty pitches for Reyes, still 1-0 for the Angels.

Yunel Escobar gave the Jays only their second baserunner leading off the top of the fourth. Bautista followed him by quickly taking his place, grounding a ball to third base resulting in Escobar being easily erased at second, although the ball was hit slowly enough that Bautista was able to beat the throw to first. Having erased Escobar, Bautista proceeded to erase himself, leaning too far towards second, and getting picked off. The Jays have been running far more often under Farrell than was the case under Cito Gaston for the last few years, but it seems that the years of attrition have dulled their instincts. The official stats say they have only been caught stealing twice so far, but that fails to take into account the multitude of times a Jays’ runner has been picked off, while the opposing defense simply botched the run-down gifting the Jays an extra base. Adam Lind, suddenly finding Weaver pitching from the full wind-up, went down quietly, giving Weaver his 8th strikeout in 4 innings.

Leading off the home half of the 4th, Alberto Callaspo lined a ball off Reyes. Although not hurt, Reyes could not pick up the deflected ball in time to beat the runner to first. Mark Trumbo seemed to give Reyes a quick out, skying a ball to Rajai Davis in centre field. Davis misplayed the ball in the unmolested sun of Southern California, and the Angels quickly had a pair aboard with three outs still in play. In similar situations, the Jays have bunted. With a weak hitter like Bobby Wilson at bat, that strategy must have crossed the mind of Angels’ skipper Mike Scioscia if he trusted Wilson to bunt and trusted Reyes to give him a pitch that lent itself to being dropped in front of home plate. Last year, Scioscia’s Angels finished second in the American League in sacrifice attempts and if he were to make the call, a chance to push two runners over with a toothless third-string catcher at the plate would be the right time for it. Instead, with two strikes, Wilson pushed a fly ball to the warning track in left field, where Travis Snider corralled it in. One out, but the ball was hit deep enough to allow Callaspo to tag up and reach third base. The book on 9th hitter Brandon Wood says that the one-time tyro can hit a straight pitch a long way but can’t touch a ball that wiggles. Reyes started him off with three fastballs, getting to a 1-2 count before weaving in a slider that Wood, lo-and-behold, could not touch for the strikeout. With two outs and a slap hitter like Peter Bourjos up, Reyes must have thought that he could attack the hitter with the same heat that earned a strikeout two innings prior. This time, Bourjos was able to adjust, launching a ball into the centre-right gap and to the wall, scoring both Callaspo and Trumbo as the speedy Bourjos glided around the bases, stopping only at third with a triple. The Angels were very close to getting a fourth, as Howie Kendrick hit a dying quail in front of Jose Bautista in right. Charging in and diving, Bautista made the catch only inches from the ground to strand the runner at third base. 3-0 Angels after four innings.

I wish I could wax poetic about the Jays’ half of the fifth, but Jered Weaver would not allow it. First Aaron Hill and then Juan Rivera struck out quickly and quietly. 14 outs, 10 of which could have happened without fielders. Travis Snider finally gave Toronto their first hit of the afternoon, a hard hit groundball up the middle. The ball never left the infield, but required that Howie Kendrick dive to his right, away from first. He could not recover in time to catch “Heart and Hustle” Travis at first. Just a blemish on Weaver’s afternoon, as Jayson Nix could do nothing between Weaver’s fast ones and sliders. Like Reyes, Weaver primarily focuses on fastballs and sliders, with Weaver mixing things up on occasion with a curveball. The main difference up to this point has been location and movement.

Moving to the bottom of the fifth, the Jays have taken centre fielder Rajai Davis out of the game. While he looked bad losing a fly ball in the previous inning, this move suggests that the cause may have been more than sun. To accommodate the switch, Travis Snider shifted from left to centre field (for the first time in his MLB career), Jayson Nix set up a few backs back of third base and into left field while John McDonald entered the fray at third. After two quick outs, Travis Snider ended the inning with a nice running catch of a winding fly ball off the bat of Vernon Wells.

Beat a man once, you should be able to beat him again. In the series’ opening match, the Jays needed 4+ innings to scratch a ht off of Ervin Santana. After that first hit, they were off, ultimately ringing up a come-from-behind 3-2 victory. Having earned their first base hit in the previous inning, Jose Molina led off the top of the 6th with a double down the right field line. John McDonald followed him up with a base hit to shallow left, moving Molina to third. Escobar came next swinging on a first pitch fastball on the inner half. The ball landed in front of Wells in left, scoring Molina and giving the Jays their first signs of life (and their first run) in 15 innings of baseball. Still without outs, Jose Bautista stepped to the plate. Bautista made Weaver work before going down on strikes, a questionable pitch off the outer half getting the call. Adam Lind, not one to sit idly by with pitches he can swing at coming his way, teed off on Weaver’s first offering. The ball was flown harmlessly out to Wells in left, who forgot how many outs had already been recorded. As he took his time directing back towards the infield, both runners moved up 90 feet, a mental error that won’t show up in the scorecard. Like Lind, Aaron Hill is not wont to wait around. Swinging on the second pitch, he ended the threat with an infield pop-up snagged by the first baseman. Halfway through six, the Angels still led, 3-1.

Reyes’ improved efficiency and location allowed him to take the bump again in the home half of the 6th. After a one-pitch at bat got him one out, Mark Trumbo gave the Angels their sixth safety of the afternoon, on a groundball driven through the infield. Having reached the 100-pitch mark, newly recalled Scott Richmond began warming up in the Blue Jay bullpen. The line between Reyes and the bullpen grew thinner, with one more baserunner seemingly making up the difference.  Thankfully for the Jays, that baserunner would not come in the sixth, as Bobby Wilson grounded one right at McDonald at third base, who kicked off a smooth 5-4-3 double play to end the inning. Six sharp innings, and Jo-Jo has earned a third audition at a starting pitcher job.

Given another chance to prevent Reyes from picking up the loss, Juan Rivera led off the top of the 7th with an infield pop on the first pitch. Travis Snider and Jayson Nix each made Weaver throw a multitude of pitches, but each man struck out. Through seven innings pitched, Weaver whiffed 14 Blue Jay batters.

In a mild surprise, Jo-Jo came back out for the Jays in the home half of the 7th. He quickly made Farrell look smart, striking out Brandon Wood (yet again – getting strikes on two change-ups and one slider to end it) to open the inning and then eliciting an infield pop-up from Peter Bourgos for a second out. One pleasing sign to Reyes’ pitching in the 7th is his velocity, still reaching 92MPH on his heater, equal or nearly so to his work in the early innings. Howie Kendrick pushed Reyes for six pitches, before pulling a nubber up the first base line. Reyes fielded the bouncing rabbit himself and fired it to first to end the inning. In spite of his early location problems, Reyes has had a very solid outing, surrendering only 6 hits and a single walk through seven innings. Were it not for Davis’ muff-job in the 4th, the score may have been tied. Through seven innings, the Angels led 3-1.

Moving to the eighth, Jered Weaver, with 14 strikeouts to his credit, faced the dilemma of all strikeout pitchers: strikeouts require multiple pitches. There is no such thing as a one pitch strikeout. Now well over 100 pitches himself, the 8th was Weaver’s last chance to extend his career high of strikeouts in a game. He opened with two quick strikes to Jose Molina, who battled back to fill the count before lining out to Vernon Wells in left field. John McDonald then continued his pesky ways, filling the count again before earning his way aboard with a walk. Escobar then came to the plate representing the game’s tying run. He has been seeing the ball incredibly well all season and began the encounter with two balls watched and then a third.  And then a fourth, much closer, but still outside the strike zone.  Then things became really interesting. With 119 pitches already thrown, and having walked two consecutive batters, Weaver now had to face Jose Bautista. Working away, Bautista watched the first three pitches, two balls and then one strike. A fourth pitch on the outer half, similar the one which got Bautista a called third strike in his last at bat was called for a third ball and then Bautista tipped the next pitch on a checked swing to fill the count. Weaver stepped up with the first breaking ball of the at bat. A beautiful pitch, Bautista could do nothing but swing over top of it. 125 pitches, 15 strikeouts and Mike Scioscia strolled up to the mound to thank his ace after a masterful performance. With Adam Lind coming up, early season numbers aside, Scioscia went to his lefty, bringing in Hisanori Takahashi. On any given pitch, anything can happen, but this at bat would give Lind another key data point in his quest to prove that he can hit pitchers of all stripes and sides. Or not. Lind hit a comebacker on the second pitch that Takahashi caught easily, flipping it to first to end the threat and the inning.

While under normal circumstances, a righty heavy lineup such as that of the Angels would call for right handed relievers almost exclusively. As they were all used up in the previous night’s marathon game, and Scott Richmond was up warming up over two separate innings, John Farrell brought lefty David Purcey into the game for the eighth. The first batter, Bobby Abreu, the sole lefty-swinging Angel grounded out to short before Torii Hunter drew a five-pitch walk. With a lower arm slot, Purcey gives the Angels a different look from the similarly-sided Jo-Jo. Vernon Wells, up next, has traditionally hit left-handers better than righties with an OBP nearly 40 points higher against southpaws over his career. That did not help him against Reyes and it did not help him against Purcey either, as his slump continued with an infield pop-up for the second out of the inning. The following batter, Alberto Callaspo, had little to do as Purcey could not hit the strike zone, walking on four pitches. Having seen enough from the erratic lefty, Farrell now brought in Richmond to finish the inning. With the news before the game that he would be able to throw up to 70 pitches, I should have known that a couple of warm ups would not have shut him down. Having not pitched in the majors in more than a full season, Richmond was understandably nervous going in. His first two pitches missed by no small margin before he found his slot, getting Trumbo to whiff on two letter high fastballs. A full count hanging breaking ball was driven out to the gap in right-centre, but close enough to centre for Snider to make the catch and end the inning. Through eight innings, the Angels lead the Blue Jays by a score of 3-1. Of note, that may have been Richmond’s last pitch in the majors for some time, as he was sent back down to Las Vegas immediately after the game, to be replaced on the roster by a rehabbed Corey Patterson, convenient with Rajai Davis seemingly hurt.

With the Jays down to their last three outs, the Angels brought in recently-deposed closer Fernando Rodney to end the game. Not that he was given his job back, but rather, having already pitched extensively thus far in the young season, Scioscia wanted to let his new young closer, Jordan Walden, rest a bit. Aaron Hill simplified things by popping up to centre field on the third pitch for the first out. The perpetually struggling Juan Rivera then came in to face his former teammate. With the count even at twos, Rodney struck him out on fastball up and away. Down to one last out, Travis Snider quickly found himself in an 0-2 hole and the Los Anaheim crowd rising to their feet. Snider fouled off a third pitch, before rolling over a change-up. The ensuing grounder rolled to first base, Mark Trumbo picked it up and strolled to the bag to end the game.  Angels – 3, Blue Jays – 1 and the Jays drop their first series of the season.

Looking for something to take away from today’s game, we should cast a glance towards Jo-Jo Reyes. Speaking (writing) generally, it is easier to learn about pitchers off of a small sample than it is for hitters. If a pitcher can throw something once, he can do it again, as long as the mechanics are stable. As scouts say, if he can show the tool he owns it. Less than a millimetre can change a home run to an infield pop-up. It can take a long time for a hitter’s numbers to stabilize enough to draw conclusions. For pitchers, a couple innings of work can let you know what he has in his arsenal. Jo-Jo Reyes began the game looking like it would be a quick one, struggling through the first inning and sitting on around 80 pitches through four. He bent a lot, but did not break, working very quickly through the fifth, sixth and seventh, maintaining velocity and location throughout. If nothing else, this performance, against a mostly right-handed lineup bodes well for continued competence from the 5th slot in the rotation.

Having become acquainted with the 2011 Angels, Vernon’s brain-fart aside, they look to have a fantastic outfield defense. Over the three game set, there were at least three hard hit balls to the gaps that were caught by Bourjos that would have fallen for extra bases on most other centre fielders. They bunch the gaps, preferring to prevent extra base hits while exposing themselves to bloopers up the lines. Depending on the frequency of bounces, the trade-off may give the Angels more wins than their true talent level dictates. Time will tell.

On to Seattle.

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