Quick Note: This post was written just after the All-Star break, but didn’t make it onto the website due to user error for an extra 9 days. I have chosen to leave the post as written, instead of using hindsight to revise parts.
Welcome to the second half of the season! A time for optimism, a time for young relievers to make their mark, a time for Alex Anthopolous to decide if one of the best offensive teams of all time is worthy of at least league average pitching.
In sports, as in life, it is easy to only focus on the final prize and forget to pause along the way and enjoy some of the smaller victories. If you ultimately only care about winning championships, there isn’t going to be a lot of joy even for the most successful franchises. It is with this in mind that I figured I would hand out some mid-season awards to this year’s group of Blue Jays. While being .500 100 games into the season isn’t ideal, there have been many memorable performances and players so far this season that we should recognize.
Best Blue Jay Surprise
Candidates: Devon Travis, Chris Colabello, Roberto Osuna
Winner: Chris Colabello
This category contains three very productive additions to the Blue Jays this year, and if I hadn’t arbitrarily decided to cut off nominations at 3, Kevin Pillar could very easily be on this list. Travis’ campaign for the best surprise performance was off to a great start but ultimately was derailed by his shoulder injury. Osuna has been lights out for the first half of the season, and looks to be settling into the closer position. The only reason Osuna isn’t the winner of this award is because there were expectations coming into the season that he could reasonably have an impact on the club. I am not sure anyone saw Colabello coming. After essentially washing out of Minnesota Colabello has hit for power, battled in at bats, and provided a lift when our outfield lineup included Pillar and Cabrera as stalwarts. While his play in the field has been erratic and downright embarrassing at times, the fact that we put an infielder in the outfield as often as we did and received career best production in return is amazing. Colabello is having a career-defining year.
Play of the Year
Josh Donaldson kills fan to preserve perfect game in Tampa Bay
Kevin Pillar climbs the wall to rob a homerun
Bautista destroys Darren O’Day and skips merrily around the bases
The Winner: Donaldson kills fan.
This was a very tight competition, and one that I have flipped back and forth on multiple times. The reasons I ultimately went with Donaldson as the winner are:
I love when fans take a beating – Obviously I am not talking about serious injuries like what happened to the women in Boston earlier this year. I am talking about smaller non life threatening injuries, like this lady paying the price for sitting in courtside seats and not watching the game. Watching Donaldson make the kid in the front row disappear with a knee to the noggin makes me laugh every time I watch it. Thankfully the Jays fan was okay.
The situation in the game – That play represented the first out in the 8th inning of a 0-0 game with a division rival while Marco Estrada was pitching a perfect game. That might have been the most pressure packed moment in a Blue Jays game in the last 15 years.
We never have to see Jeter go headfirst into the crowd again – Move over Jetes. You owned the corner of “guy going head first into the crowd to make an out” for far too long. In fact, Jeter’s famous play (intentionally omitted) wasn’t even that cool. He actually caught the ball in foul territory, and then decided to dive into the crowd for effect. I think we can all erase that play from our memories now, as Donaldson is clearly better.
Special shout out to Jose for ruining Darren O’Day. In terms of the F U scale of sports moments its hard to get much better than that in a regular season game in April.
This game had it all. Homeruns, about 10 fielding errors, angry managers, disgruntled relievers, blown saves, the emergence of a new team leader, and feeling that this team could do something special regardless of how many runs the bullpen gives up. It was this game that made me realize that we are never actually out of a game, and that we will never be able to put a game out of reach. It was the precursor for games like the comeback win in Boston as part of the magical winning streak, as well as the 7-0 comeback against the Royals that the bullpen went on to lose 11-9. If there is one game that best sums up the first half of the season, it was that game.
This is such a no brainer I almost thought of not even including it on the list. Donaldson is clearly the leader of this team, the best offensive player and a much better than advertised fielder. His walk off homeruns, diving plays and public comments to his teammates about the “try league” all left an indelible mark on the first half of the season. There were entire weeks were it felt like he was single-handedly keeping the team in the race for the division. It is a scary thought to think of how many wins this team would have if it had started the season with Brett Lawrie as the day to day third basemen (who ultimately would have been hurt in April creating an opportunity for Colabello… but I digress).
Best Gibby Moment of the Year
Candidates: Home game experience with hecklers, Fastest ejection of all time vs Baltimore
Winner: Tie. I want to touch on both moments, because they happened in very different settings. One occurred in front of everybody at a packed house on a sunny Friday night, the other one occurred on a Wednesday with the dome closed and about 15,000 fans in attendance.
The Baltimore ejection was perplexing and ultimately not Gibby’s fault at all. After Jose was plunked in the first or second inning (I don’t really remember) and the Umpire issued both teams a warning (a concept so stupid that I have unsuccessfully attempted to write about it twice but always fail to capture its ineptitude succinctly) Gibby ran out to complain only to be sent packing faster than Steph Curry can get off a jumper. There is no way Gibby said more to the manager than “Hey whats---“ before he was punted. He then did a great job of stomping around the infield and holding up play for at least 5 minutes while the crowd cheered him on, before giving him a standing ovation on his way to the clubhouse to undoubtedly crush more beers than the 300 pound fan in my section who stole a beer from a vendor and then tried to hide from the Police.
This was in stark contrast to my other favorite Gibby moment, which happened when I was sitting front row back in May against the Angels. Gibby elected to go to Delabar to secure the tight game, much to the chagrin of a heckler sitting directly next to the Blue Jay’s dugout. This “fan” proceeded to let Gibby know what he thought about Delabar, and that he was holding Gibby personally responsible for whatever happened next. This occurred while Gibby was sauntering back to the dugout from pulling Hutchinson. The interesting thing about the interaction was that Gibby looked the heckler in the eye the entire time he was yelling, and never once showed a single emotion or altered his sloth like sauntering back to the dugout. With the dome closed and a small crowd there, the entire infield could clearly hear every word being said with more clarity than most home theatres offer.
Fast forward 20 minutes and Delabar has imploded and turned a lead into a deficit that was to be insurmountable. Gibby strolls out to pull him and starts his long walk back to the dugout. Our heckler is leaning over the rail by the Jay’s dugout and proceeds to scream “You suck Gibson! You need to be fired!! Fuck You!!!” repeatedly.
Gibby started his walk back from the mound looking at this individual and continued to take the slowest saunter into the dugout I have ever seen him have. He stared at the heckler the entire time, which only upset the individual more and more. The heckler was worked up into an even bigger frenzy as it became apparent to everyone in the infield that Gibson literally had zero concern for what this individual thought of him, and was not upset or agitated in the least by this interaction. Say what you want about his managerial skills, Gibson has the thick skin required to be a big league manager.
Further to that point, I have thought of that moment a couple of times in the months since I witnessed it when I was involved in an unpleasant interaction. Thankfully I have never found myself in a situation where someone hates me so much they curse at me and want me to lose my primary source of income (which somehow isn’t this website…) but it has helped to take a step back and remember that some people suck, and having thick skin sometimes is a good thing.
Biggest Dissapointment of the Season
Candidates: The Starting Rotation, The Bullpen, Alex Anthopoulos
Winner: Tie. The Bullpen and Alex Anthopoulos
This might be the only thing that Anthopoulos and the Bullpen work together on to win this year.
The starting pitching is included on this list and although statistically it is considered more below league average than the bullpen is, I actually feel good about what we have right now, and how much they have been competing. Mark Buehrle has been talking bout retiring after the season, but I have no idea why. He continues to do what he has always done by working out of jams and confusing hitters with about 45 different velocity and angle changes. RA Dickey isn’t the ace of a staff that he was advertised to be, but he certainly has been serviceable and a valuable part of a rotation performing close to a league average pitcher statistically. Hutchinson has been half of a pitcher, good at home and horrible on the road while Marco Estrada has far exceeded expectations and performed very well. I certainly hoped that we would get more from Sanchez and Norris than we have, but the concerns about the starting pitching that existed in April and May have been significantly reduced by the performances of late.
The Bullpen is a completely different story. Whenever you lose/don’t want back your closer and you decide to start your set up man in the minor leagues in April there are significant questions about the group you are putting together. It is hard to blame Gibby for a lot of the concerns that we have seen this year, and there isn’t much to say other than some players haven’t performed the way we expected (Delabar, Loup, Cecil, Castro) and it has cost us many games.
One area I wanted to touch on was Brett Cecil’s unsuccessful run as the team’s closer. Cecil is a fine member of a bullpen, and a serviceable arm for matchups. However, when you look around the league and the role of closer, it is very rare to find a guy who fits that roll who doesn’t throw a baseball at least 95+ MPH. Sometimes everyone in the park knows you are going to reach back and fire a fastball down the pipe as hard as you can, and you need to get away with it. The best closers can get away with it. Cecil’s best pitches end up out of the strike zone.
I am glad that Osuna has assumed the role of the closer, and we can get Cecil back to what he is best at… Making situational batters swing at pitches with such futility that those of us in the stands say stupid things like “ha, I could do that” or “what an idiot… why would he swing at that”. A decision to add Sanchez to the bullpen could go a long way to stabilizing the back end of games.
As bad as the bullpen has been, the biggest disappointment of this team has to rest squarely on the shoulders of the general manager who wins the award for assembling one of the most imbalanced baseball teams of the modern era. With the offensive performances the Jays have put up so far this year, it is staggering to think of what the team’s record could be with even replacement level pitching. The Jays are averaging over 5 runs a game, have scored 95 more runs then conceded, and have lost as many games as they have won.
I understand wanting to give opportunities to young arms, and trying to build up the team without giving up all of your prospects, but this approach of picking up players from the minor leagues or from the scrap heap around the league simply isn’t working. I want badly for Phil Coke or Jeff Francis to return to the form they once had, but it certainly doesn’t seem likely. Anthopoulos hasn’t been shy about trading for talent or paying for batting, but has failed to either attempt or be as successful as he hoped in attracting pitching talent.
At this point of the season, the price tag for acquiring a top starter or reliever is going to be very high as everyone is looking for the same thing and believes their team can make a run. There are no bargains on arms to be found, and while Anthopoulos has done a masterful job of crafting a lineup that has solid defense (I’m not getting into Reyes this week…), speed on the base paths (minus Reyes running into outs…. I said I wasn’t going there) and insane power, he has equally failed in securing reliable arms to lock down games.
Yes this Blue Jays team is .500 and currently 4 out of the wild card, but it does have a chance to be special. It does one thing historically well, and just needs to be competent on the other side of the ball to take control of a wide-open American League. The Jays need a little bit of luck (Sanchez becoming a lock down bullpen artist, or maybe a Stroman sighting) and a pitcher or two that isn’t on the roster today. While this team is a ton of fun to watch and is never out of a game, at some point your prolific offense will be shut down, and you will need to beat an ace in a low scoring game. I hope that Alex is able to add an arm or two at a reasonable price, but the likely truth is that he missed his window to do this over the past 12-18 months. I hope I am wrong, because with our offense it would be nice to never be out of a game, and also have a feeling that you could lock down a win before the handshake line starts.
This week the Jays look to build on a series win over the Rays to start the second half of the season by heading out west.