Taking Stock


Last night Adam Lind went 2-for-4, raising his average to .339 and his OPS to .937. After three years in the wilderness Lind had been written off by most, but, at 29-years-old, Lind seems to have reinvented himself as a patient hitter who hits for a bit less power, but uses the whole field. Entering the season it was taken as a given that Lind’s option in 2014 would be declined and, while some questioned whether Lind should be in the lineup at all, even his defenders didn’t dare to predict a resurgence of this magnitude.

Meanwhile, Brett Lawrie, who many expected to take a huge leap forward this year and establish himself as one of the American League’s best young players, remains on the disabled list with a .209 batting average and a .642 OPS. Before being injured Lawrie was striking out more, walking less, and hitting for less power than in either of his previous two years in Major League Baseball. Furthermore, an incident earlier in the year raised questions about both his selfishness and his baseball IQ.

Colby Rasmus has provided good value as an above average hitter and a strong defender who plays a premium position. And Munenori Kawasaki has surprised everyone by supplementing his defence with enough plate discipline to justify putting him and his engaging personality on the field every day in Jose Reyes’ absence. In fact, the idea of starting Kawasaki at second base once Reyes returns (inconceivable only a couple of months ago) now seems like a legitimate possibility. This, of course, is only the case because both of the Jays second base options coming into the season have been unmitigated disasters to this point. Maicer Izturis and Emilio Bonifacio both have more than 180 plate appearances and are performing below replacement level. They each have an OPS below .600 and have struggled defensively.

On the other side of the ball, the Jays bullpen, thought by many to be a weakness coming into the season, has performed very well. The team’s relievers sport a 3.16 ERA while holding opponents to a .687 OPS. Meanwhile, the vaunted starting staff has suffered numerous injuries and been largely ineffective across the board even when healthy; they have posted an ERA of .514 and an opponents OPS of .812.

This dichotomy between success and failure was even perfectly exemplified within a single game this week. On Tuesday a struggling J.P. Arencibia came up with runners on first and third and his team down by one in the eighth inning. With the infield playing at double play depth any ball in play other than an infield fly ball or line drive would have scored the tying run. Not only did Arencibia fail to make contact, he managed to strike out without seeing a single pitch in the strike zone, thrice chasing balls in the dirt. That was followed by an easy double play off the bat of Izturis. Fortunately for Toronto, Jose Bautista rendered Arencibia and Izturis’ blunders moot by hitting a dramatic 2 out, 2 strike home run in the ninth inning and the Jays scored two in the tenth for an uplifting win.

Overall, it’s been a trying year so far for baseball fans in Toronto. The team loaded up in the offseason and were tagged with predictions that they would make a postseason appearance. Unsurprisingly, the front office leveraged the hype into ticket sales and expectations ratcheted up, but more than a third of the way through the year the team sits mired in last place in the AL East. Yet, there remains some hope for this team. They’ve gone 20-15 over their last 35 games (a pace that would translate to 92 wins over a full season if not for their 10-21 start) and are expecting Jose Reyes back shortly.

That is what the 2013 season has looked like so far for the Toronto Blue Jays- a combination of pleasant surprises and massive disappointments; peaks of optimism and valleys of failure. It has been these oscillations that have made this season truly unique, right? Actually, no. If you believe that you probably haven’t been watching a lot of baseball until recently. In fact, this is what it is to be a baseball fan. It’s what it always has been. True, each season is unique, but the ebbs and flows the Jays have gone through, both as a team and as individuals, are not unprecedented.

We don’t have to look too far to see that this is the case either. In New York, former Jay Vernon Wells appeared to be turning back the clock when he hit for a .911 OPS in April. But in June he has just 5 singles and one walk in 47 plate appearances and his OPS has slipped to .657. And Jays fans don’t need to be reminded how drastically the 2012 Miami Marlins under performed the expectations they were saddled with.

In the modern era there is no limit to the amount of data that we can collect and analyze and baseball, more than any other sport, is a game that lends itself to data. It is made up of a collection of binary outcomes and has a long history. This plethora of data has allowed us to develop statistical measures with which we can place players’ abilities within their historical context. These statistical measures give us confidence that we know whether a player or a team is likely to succeed, but the thing about statistics is that they require large sample sizes and are full of exceptions. What is true of the aggregate is often false when one looks at the particular and it is easy to jump to conclusions too early.

Complicating things even more is the fact that players’ abilities are not static and the line between success and failure in baseball can be a thin one. Players are constantly suffering injuries and making adjustments that alter their likelihood of success. In 2009 it appeared as if we had enough data to conclude that Jose Bautista was a mediocre baseball player. At the beginning of 2012 it seemed obvious that Adam Lind’s 2009 season was a fluke.

Fluctuations are inevitable and their existence allows people to build narratives that often appear to run contrary to statistics. The early season successes and failures I’ve listed above will no doubt change as the season goes on as well. In reality, it is sometimes the statistics that are misleading and sometimes it is the narrative that is incorrect. While we realize that it’s a long season and that it takes months for players’ streaks to even out it can be hard for fans not to overreact to a particularly tough stretch or a particularly fruitful one. Some of the joy in following baseball comes from trying to sort out whether to believe your eyes and ears or whether to believe the numbers, so I’ll leave you with the following information for today:

  • MLB.com lists the Blue Jays chances of making the postseason as 3.4% as of today
  • On June 4th the Jays chances of making the postseason were 0.9%
  • On September 3rd, 2011 the Tampa Bay Rays chances of making the playoffs (a feat they accomplished) were 0.5%
  • The Toronto Blue Jays have 96 more games on their 2013 regular season schedule

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