Today In Poorly Formed Thoughts

As another season winds down, two questions are at the forefront of the minds of Blue Jays fans: 1) What happened to the Brandon Morrow we knew from last season; and 2) How can the Blue Jays strengthen their bullpen ahead of next season.

Or at least so says the stats man for Blue Jays broadcasts, Scott Carson, who once infamously suggested that BABIP was one of the most important numbers to look at in deciding the talent level of a pitcher. Mr. Carson’s latest article for Rogers Sportsnet takes a stab at solving both issues with one answer.

Aside: I once used the phrase “kill two birds with one stone,” and a woman who overheard chided me, suggesting that “feed two birds with one hand” would connote the exact same message without the unnecessary violence.

Anyway, Carson opens his article like this:

The Jays need to find a credible closer, but their best option may already be in a Toronto uniform.

Hmm. I don’t know if I’d say they need a closer as much as they’ll need to shore up their bullpen if, as expected, Frank Francisco and Jon Rauch sign elsewhere this offseason, but I’ll digress. Besides, this sounds as though we might be getting some reasoning to allow Casey Janssen a crack at the closer’s role next season. I don’t know if I’m on board with such a move, but it’s an interesting idea and certainly better than going out and burning money on a free agent closer this offseason.

When all is said and done and the 2011 regular season is in the books with the Toronto Blue Jays finishing in their familiar spot of fourth place in the American League East, much debate will go on in the blogosphere about just how successful this season really was.

Allow me to save the blogosphere a lot of time. The team will finish precisely where anyone with any sense would have predicted they’d finish. However, in doing so, they acquired and showcased several pieces of talent that will serve to help them improve in the coming years and compete for playoff spots. The world is not quite as black and white as Mr. Carson suggests.

Jose Bautista’s defence of his home run title, the full throttle arrival of Brett Lawrie, the speed element brought to the table by Rajai Davis . . .

Really? We’re equating Rajai Davis’ running to Jose Bautista’s home runs and Brett Lawrie’s emergence? Sure, I suppose the 2.4 runs above average that Davis contributed through his baserunning was impressive, if only it wasn’t for the 15.4 runs his batting and fielding combined to cost the team.

. . . and the regression of Travis Snider and Kyle Drabek will be a few subjects dissected and discussed.

I think the stats man would do well to look up exactly what “regression” means.

As will the breakout performances by Eric Thames and Henderson Alvarez.

I’m not sure that “breakout” is the term I’d choose to use for either a player who gets on base only 31% of the time or a pitcher who has had seven career starts, five of which were against Baltimore, Oakland and Seattle, but I’ll digress once again.

But in my mind, the lack of a credible closer — leading to an A.L.-high (or worst, depending on how you look at it) 23 blown saves to date — was the biggest reason the Jays were unable to at least reel in the Tampa Bay Rays and stay within striking distance of the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox.

Apparently, Mr. Carson is unaware of what a closer’s role comprises of on a Major League Baseball team. Carson quotes “23 blown saves to date” as evidence of the need for a “credible closer.” However, of those 23 blown saves, a dozen occurred before the ninth inning when a “credible closer” would’ve been unlikely to have been used. In fact, only eight potential save opportunities were blown by a pitcher entering the game in the ninth inning. And one of those came on a day when neither Jon Rauch or Frank Francisco, the two pitchers charged with closing duties through most of the season, were available for the ninth inning.

Let’s just say that in a miracle world where a “credible closer” didn’t give up a single save all season, and the same benefit was not extended to the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees or Tampa Bay Rays, the Blue Jays would still be eight games back of the Yankees, four and a half games back of the Red Sox and a game and a half back of the Rays, with 15 games to play.

Frank Francisco and Jon Rauch were brought in during the winter to replace Kevin Gregg who, despite posting 37 saves in 2010 (fourth highest total in franchise history), was allowed to leave via free agency as a compensation draft pick was deemed the better option.

Kevin Gregg signed with the Baltimore Orioles for a laughable $10 million over two years, and the Toronto Blue Jays acquired Dwight Smith Jr. with the 53rd overall pick in the draft. There isn’t a credible general manager in baseball who wouldn’t choose Smith over Gregg.

Gregg, while never to be confused with a top-shelf closer and caused much hand-wringing amongst the masses, blew only six saves during his lone season in Toronto.

And Jason Frasor blew one save in the ninth when Gregg wasn’t available, so that’s a total of seven blown saves in the ninth inning, which is only one less than the amount of ninth inning blown saves this year. For the record, Gregg has also blown seven saves this season for the Orioles. So, you could say that the Blue Jays have gotten a Gregg value in Rauch and Francisco without committing to paying them in 2012, plus the 53rd overall pick in the last draft and potentially more compensation picks from Rauch and Francisco signing elsewhere this offseason.

Front office moves like this is what the phrase “everyday of the week and twice on Sunday” should be reserved for.

I’m not saying that they made the wrong call by taking a compensation draft pick . . .

Good. You shouldn’t.

. . . but in hindsight, Gregg might have been a more easier-to-swallow option than Francisco or Rauch . . .

Does your hindsight suffer from an astigmatism? How would the exact same results with less compensation and more money being spent be easier to swallow in any way whatsoever?

. . . who have combined to blow 11 saves and both spent time on the disabled list this season.

Francisco and Rauch have actually combined to blow nine saves, only seven of which were in the ninth inning.

So where does this leave the Jays now, looking forward to the 2012 season?

The easy way to remedy this problem is through free agency, something that many of you have wished for in the chat rooms and on Twitter. The obvious choice, based upon who might be out there this winter, is Red Sox fire-baller Jonathan Papelbon, whose 217 total saves since 2006 are second only to first-ballot Hall-of-Famer Mariano Rivera.

I seriously can’t believe that a man whose living is earned based on compiling baseball statistics would put any weight whatsoever in the most arbitrary of statistics. No fan should care one iota how many saves the team’s “closer” gets. The only thing of interest should be his team’s wins and the route with which they accomplish that goal.

The only problem is that Papelbon will likely command $15 million-plus on the open market. And, I’ve always been of the belief that bringing in a free agent closer is the final piece of the puzzle for a contender. That doesn’t make fans happy who worry, game-to-game, about the here and now but in the bigger picture (which still has the Blue Jays rebuilding to challenge for the playoffs in 2013), spending big money on a closer this off-season is probably not high on general manager Alex Anthopoulos’ priority list as he reshapes his 40-man roster.

It’s not high on Anthopoulos’ priority list because spending millions of dollars on a multi year contract for a reliever almost never works out.

This past offseason, these relief pitchers all signed deals as free agents that guaranteed them at least $10 million:

  • Rafael Soriano, NYY: 3 years/$35 million
  • Mariano Rivera, NYY: 2 years/$30 million
  • Joaquin Benoit, DET: 3 years/$16 million
  • Scott Downs, LAA: 3 years/$15 million
  • Jesse Crain, CHW: 3 years/$13 million
  • Matt Guerrier, LAD: 3 years/$12 million
  • Bobby Jenks, BOS: 2 years/$12 million
  • Brian Fuentes, OAK: 2 years/$10.5 million
  • Kevin Gregg, BAL: 2 years/$10 million

None of these pitchers, not even Rivera, rank in the top 50 (out of the 137 qualifying) for clutch performances (measured by performances in high leverage situations) this season, and two of them haven’t even pitched enough innings as a reliever this year to qualify. Of the nine, only three (Rivera, Downs and Crain) are being used in enough high leverage situations to rank in the top 20 among relievers for highest average leverage when entering the game.

In other words, teams that have spent a lot of money on relievers, aren’t getting the high leverage performances that they presumably expected, and in most cases, aren’t even using those pitchers in the highest leverage situations. So much for the “credible closer” thing.

Therefore, unless a trade brings in a closer this winter, the options will have to come from within. There’s been talk of Jesse Litsch or Casey Janssen being options, or young prospect Nestor Molina, whose meteoric rise through the system has caught the eyes of many in and outside the organization.

I’m not thrilled at the prospect of either Litsch or Janssen, for very separate reasons, closing out games, and Nestor Molina spent the majority of this season playing A Ball. Even if he gets invited to the big league camp and pitches twenty innings of shutout baseball in Spring Training, he’s unlikely to make the opening day roster.

In my mind, the Jays have their best option already in uniform and the type of swing-and-miss arm that they need to pitch in the ninth with the game in the balance.

His name is Brandon Morrow.

I beg your pardon?

Before most of you accelerate carpal tunnel syndrome by responding to my suggestion at the bottom of this column, hear me out: Morrow has closing experience with the Seattle Mariners before being sent to the Jays for Brandon League (whose 34 saves this season rank him third in the A.L. and saw him pitch in the All-Star Game — gulp!) a week after they traded Roy Halladay to the Philadelphia Phillies in December of 2009.

For the record:

  • Brandon Morrow (as a Blue Jay): 6.7 WAR.
  • Brandon League (as a Mariner): 1.5 WAR.
But the All-Star Game!?!?!?!?! Well, then. The Blue Jays sure lost that deal.

We all know just how dominant Morrow has been as a starter; his 17-strikeout, one-hitter against the Rays in 2010 was one of the best starting performances in franchise history, but those moments have been few and far between.

Please show me a pitcher for whom 17 strikeout, one hit outings aren’t few and far between.

And one has to wonder just how durable the 27-year-old diabetic is and what affect the disease might have on his performance.

I’m really surprised that Mr. Carson chose statistics when medicine seems to so obviously be his true calling. He must not have had much effection for that type of career.

A statistical breakdown of Morrow’s career to date certainly adds to the debate:

STARTER > 4.73 ERA, 1.38 WHIP, .243 Opp Avg, 0.97 HR/9 IP

RELIEVER > 3.65 ERA, 1.46 WHIP, .217 Opp Avg, 0.84 HR/ 9 IP

Thank you for adding to the debate, now let me finish it:

STARTER > 25.9% K Rate, 10.5% BB Rate, 3.74 FIP, 3.76 xFIP, 378.2 IP.

RELIEVER > 25.5% K Rate, 15.1% BB Rate, 4.17 FIP, 4.53 xFIP, 118.1 IP.

There isn’t a scenario known to man in which Brandon Morrow, with this ability and these numbers, isn’t worth more to a team as starter rather than a reliever.

While Morrow hasn’t exactly been an automatic in save situations (16 for 22 career), the fact that he’s one of the top strikeout artists of his generation adds to the intrigue. Over his two seasons with the Blue Jays, Morrow’s rate of 10.41 Ks per nine innings is tops in the majors. And while digging into the numbers, it also dawned on me that Morrow, in 183 career appearances spanning just under 500 innings pitched, has induced just 20 double-plays, including zero this season.

Double plays? Seriously? The stats man is going to complain about the quality of a pitcher because he’s not inducing enough double plays? How many double plays has Jered Weaver or Jeremy Hellickson induced this year? Morrow isn’t a ground ball pitcher. He throws a hard four seam fastball, and he throws it, rightly so, up in the zone.

Morrow really is just a one-trick pony. It has been strikeouts and little of anything else.

Please, Mr. Carson. Mr. Carson, please. Do yourself a favour before embarrassing yourself any further. Go back to the introduction of DiPS Theory and just think about pitching reasonably. Think about what BABIP really measures. And think about what a pitcher can actually control from the mound. Think of the outcomes that a pitcher actually has a say in. Do all that, and then tell me that it would be best for the Toronto Blue Jays to use Brandon Morrow less rather than more.

More than anything else, his constantly high pitch counts keep him from going deep into games. He has averaged just 5.2 innings per start as a Blue Jay due to throwing 17.4 pitches per inning. That has led to an already suspect bullpen being overworked. It’s classic cause and effect.

Unless the cause is someone writing completely out of their element and the effect is this article, I’m not sure I follow.

Strike-throwing closers have been scarce around these parts. Outside of Tom Henke and Duane Ward and, for single seasons, Victor Cruz and Billy Koch, they have been the rarest of birds. I’m sure there will be many options discussed this off-season, but Brandon Morrow might prove to be their best option.

Why stop at Morrow. Why not have a rotation of closers and include all the best pitchers on the team. That way you never lose a game in the ninth inning and there’s always a great pitcher ready and fresh to go. I’m thinking that Ricky Romero could pitch the ninth in the first game, then Morrow in the second game. The third ninth inning could be handled by Brett Cecil, then Henderson Alvarez, and finally Kyle Drabek (fingers crossed he’s good enough) could be counted on to close out every fifth game. Just think about that.

The starting rotation might suffer a little bit, but the Blue Jays would never lose a game in the ninth inning again.