I call it ‘The First Three Weeks of April, 2013′.
I was speaking to a friend of mine who does’t follow baseball on Sunday night, and knowing what I do for a living, she wondered about all the angst she’d been hearing and seeing on social media over the Jays’ start. “So, what’s their record now?” she asked me. When I told her that, at the time, it was 8-11 she was incredulous. “That’s it!?! And how many games do they have left?”
“A hundred and forty-something,” I replied.
Incredulity thicker than black strap molasses.
When a non-fan can see what’s in front of the face of so many people living and dying by every pitch, I think it’s safe to say that something has gone mighty haywire. The term isn’t short for “fanatics” for nothing, I guess, and yet the fan base also isn’t short on people who don’t need– and are getting as bored reading as I am frustrated by feeling the need to write– what seems to have become a daily talking down from off the ledge.
But I genuinely do feel that need. I think it’s my job to understand and be a part the conversation about the team, and that it’s always been this blog’s mission to try and cut through the bullshit in that conversation. In the process I don’t want to alienate those who are, I think understandably, sick of anything to do with either sides of the conversation that currently consumes us, but as far as sidestepping it goes, there just aren’t a lot of great alternate topics options that I’m seeing.
Or maybe I just want to have this fight. Worse, maybe it’s a compulsion that I couldn’t stop, even if I wanted. But whatever the case, it wouldn’t feel right to just pretend that the creeping sense of dread hasn’t got right on fucking top of much of the fan base, like bad acid, and to do nothing to try and beat it back from, if nowhere else, getting into my own brain.
Partly, too, it’s because I love baseball and don’t want to see it ruined for people who were so enthusiastic about it less than a month ago, and because what I see ruining this thing that would be– will be– so much better when we’re all in it together isn’t the fact that the players, coaches, and management of the Toronto Blue Jays, all of the sudden, collectively decided that now would be a good time to start being terrible at their jobs. What’s ruining it, in my view, is the bipolar, hyper-aware approach to a game that’s been structured to fit a slower, bygone era.
A baseball schedule is grand, like an opera, or a naive first foray into psychotropic drugs. Not everything will reveal itself in the first forty minutes, and for best enjoyment you need to be equipped with the knowledge that things are going to happen that you simply do not understand.
Bringing it back– before I get too far up my own asshole here– to baseball and this year’s version of the Jays, already the insufferably negative line on this club has run through several permutations that speak to the meandering nature of the schedule and events in the game itself. After Monday’s loss in Baltimore it had become something along the lines of, “Good teams don’t lose games like that”– which, of course, they totally do.
Munenori Kawasaki’s costly throwing error was inexcusable, of course, but to extrapolate something from it more than the fact that the timing of his first misplay was goddamned abysmal doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. He’s still a very capable defensive shortstop who should keep his place on the team, while Jose Reyes is out, as long as he keeps having good at-bats. What I think makes it hard for some folks to see as much after a gut punch of a play like that, though, is how absolutely warped it seems in importance in a situation where the margins for error so thin as to demand nothing short perfect execution.
It’s not an excuse, but simply something that ought to be pretty clearly understood: Kawasaki isn’t in the position he’s in on Monday night if not for Baltimore’s first run, which came about in the sixth inning after Colby Rasmus and Brett Lawrie missed a pair of balls hit towards them by inches, and a crossed up J.P. Arencibia cost J.A. Happ a wild pitch that advanced the runners. Or if the club manages any offence whatsoever against a thoroughly bad pitcher in Chris Tillman.
Manage to hit on the right couple of inches in any one of those events and the error in the ninth becomes an unfortunate footnote, rather than grievous. Of course, that doesn’t matter to a lot of people who seem to just want to vent, and who’ll insist that the team is cursed, doomed, terrible, and whatever else they’re not.
Simply put, they’re not playing well. The good pitching performances haven’t lined up with the good hitting performances and the defence has been sloppy. But there isn’t some magic potion John Gibbons can feed to his charges to make it all better. In fact, with the starters starting to roll, Jose Bautista and Brett Lawrie at full health, and Kawasaki solid at short– sorry, but it’s true– run prevention has become much less of an issue than it was in the very early going, when Dickey threw that batting practice session against the Red Sox, Bonifacio was kicking things around at second, balls were routinely whizzing past a statue-like Mark DeRosa at third, and Rajai Davis was zig-zagging his way around the outfield.
The hitting has been a bigger issue of late, but it’s very obvious that patience will be rewarded there, as well. We saw Edwin Encarnacion hit a couple of balls hard against the Yankees on Sunday, only to have them find Vernon Wells’ glove– one in rather spectacular fashion. He has a wRC+ of 68 right now, and there is literally zero chance that doesn’t improve. Melky Cabrera hasn’t hit his stride yet, Jose Bautista, with a sub-.300 OBP, isn’t quite himself, Brett Lawrie has barely had a chance to get going, Adam Lind– being setup as best as possible to succeed by having him avoid left-handers– is only walking and hitting for no power. Even Emilio Bonifacio and Maicer Izturis, who are hardly world beaters at the plate to begin with, are thirty and seventy points below their career wRC+marks, respectively.
Yes, a baseball player’s talent sometimes just evaporates into thin air for no perceptible reason, but collectively like this? With their long and impressive track records?
And some are ready to decide as much after twenty fucking games?
The mind is a funny, myopic thing sometimes, and especially when it comes to these sorts of impulses there are horrific blind spots. Good teams shouldn’t lose games like that? If the team was any damn good they’d have hit better? Ergo, this team fucking sucks?
Would you care to be reminded that on seventeen occasions in 1993 the Jays– the vaunted, World Champion, hitting-the-fuck-out-of-everything WAMCO Jays– scored one run or fewer. They had a stretch where they went 4-9. They had another stretch where they went 3-8. And another where they went 2-12! Move any one of those stretches to the start of the calendar and people would have been losing their fucking minds, too, and for just as little reason.
That isn’t to say– as so many thick-skulled fans would like to insist people like me are saying– that wins in April don’t matter, or that they don’t make the club’s long-run task more difficult. Of course they matter. But what also matters is to keep in the forefront of one’s mind how absolutely warped perceptions can be when there is such a limited amount of data in a team’s record.
Remember, this isn’t a sport like hockey, or soccer, where game-in and game-out the more skilled, better organized side usually wins. Lucky breaks and underperformance happen in those sports, too, of course, but there would seem to me to be a much greater correlation. Baseball teams, though, can’t come in and force themselves down an opponent’s throat at will, because every event in baseball has to be just so or the outcome can be drastically different. I guess that’s the same in those other sports as well, but hopefully you understand how I mean that it’s different. It takes time and piles of data for something resembling a real picture of talent to show through in the statistical record– on a micro level over the course of a game, and on a macro level, over the course of a season.
Even then, the result is hardly a perfect distillation of talent. A pitcher like Chris Tillman can get away with murder for a night, and team like the Orioles of 2012 can sneak past everyone on little more than ghosts. But that doesn’t mean that we give up on the notion that talent will ultimately show through.
For last year’s New York Yankees, who won more regular season games than any other American League club, the number of games scoring one run or fewer was eighteen– including eleven of those before the end of May. They scored only two runs or fewer on thirty-three occasions– that number was thirty-seven for those ’93 Blue Jays.
So… it happens to good teams. It can’t happen too much if a team expects to survive the long grind of a season, and I would never claim to be willing to look the other way forever– nor have I in the past, as I think those who’ve been around here a long time, and are probably the sickest of these sorts of posts, would attest– but it is early, and it hasn’t happened too much. Trends simply have not developed yet in any kind of meaningful way. The Jays are no more a .400 team than the Rays are, currently, a .474 one, or than J.P. Arencibia is really on pace to smash the single season home run mark for a catcher by fourteen or team WAR leader Colby Rasmus is set for a six-and-a-half win season while striking out 40% of the time.
If they’re going to be bad they’re going to be bad, and no one with a head on his or her shoulders can possibly tell anyone to not feel as though mounting losses hurt. It’s just, they’re really not mounting as badly as it seems. And even if they were, again, there’s no magic wand John Gibbons or Chad Mottola could wave to make anything better. We’re stuck with this team pretty much as is, and for those of us able to remember the giddiness of November and the twists and turns of lengthy seasons past, that should still stir a pretty damn good feeling.
It takes some mental gymnastics, I know, but not a whole lot– 8-12 is worlds better than the 2-12 suffered by the 1993 Jays at their lowest point, it’s just intensely magnified by the fact that this club started the season that way, rather than having had a 48-30 record going in. The fact that we haven’t seen that kind of a run yet makes it all the easier to wonder if this poor start really is indicative of the true talent level of the club, even when we know– we know– it’s not the case.
The Red Sox will not continue to play at a pace to win more games than all but four teams in the history of baseball, and the Jays will not continue to play just a shade better than a 100 loss pace. Patience is all that that will resolve this, though, and in the interim, the “Yeah, but what if… ?” games serve no one but those looking to further warp and already warped reality into something hopelessly negative that it is not. The Jays have not made it easier for themselves with this start, but they’ve hardly, at three-and-a-half games out of a Wild Card berth with 142 left to play, made it a lot worse.
And if anyone suggests otherwise, incredulity is indeed the appropriate response. If you won’t take it from me, at least take it from someone who is genuinely well above the fray. It’s staggeringly early.