Typically, at this point on a Friday afternoon, I post a column consisting of ten stray thoughts about baseball. It’s meant to give readers something to read and respond to during the productivity dead zone that only occurs on a Friday afternoon when it’s too far away from closing time to leave work early, but too late in the day to start anything new. It’s fun, I like writing it, and it usually sparks a healthy amount of conversation in the comments section.
This week, I’d like to try something a little bit different. I’d like to write about FOX Sports columnist Jon Paul Morosi, and a recent piece he authored for his website titled: “Jays off to surprisingly slow start.”
And so, without further ado, here are ten things I hate about Jon Morosi’s latest column on the Toronto Blue Jays and their pitching woes:
Reading Morosi’s column this morning, I felt conflicted. I understand that for the most part, Jon Paul Morosi doesn’t write for me, or people who would typically read my writing. His popularity and position in the mainstream sports media has been gained not by catering to what is a minority of baseball fans, but rather the majority. He writes for the type of people who “follow” baseball mainly as a distraction, and read baseball columnists largely to fill in the dots on their own preconceived narrative. In all honesty, they likely have a much healthier relationship with the game than you and I, because baseball is far less important than we typically treat it. Despite our obsession, it remains a game.
Richard Whittall, writing for Fanatico, accurately describes this phenomenon.
You’re a normal person who watches the Yankees blow a ninth inning save after bringing out a reliever that’s blown three more saves than any other reliever on the roster. You feel enraged — you’re certain it was the manager’s fault for bringing on this deadbeat. And so you go searching for someone to tell you as much — and there he (invariably, sadly) is: the guy with his head shot in the paper, giving your opinion back to you with the veneer of expertise that comes from his role within the media organization that hired him.
What they’re not going to go looking for is someone to tell them about sample sizes and 162 games.
They don’t want to hear about that stuff not because they’re dumb or lazy, but because it’s sports. In the end, who cares? They’re not reading about it eight hours a day. They’d rather be dead than join a fantasy league. But because sports is so indelibly attractive, they want to follow its narrative contours — they, like all of us, want and need sports to make sense. They don’t want to hear that it’s a weighted random number generator.
Exactly. So, I don’t fault Morosi for taking this tack. After all, it”s likely much more profitable for a sports writer to cater to these people than it is to cater to the likes of me. I get it. There’s nothing wrong with writing more accessible pieces for the better adopted individuals who don’t obsess over sports. His colleague Ken Rosenthal does a fantastic job writing for the same media outlet.
Nonetheless, I remain perturbed. What bothers me about it – and doesn’t allow me to just roll my eyes at the silly little columnist being silly – is that it’s one thing to write accessible pieces, and quite another to be so contemptible of your readership’s ability to comprehend truths that you either purposefully promote a false premise or lazily assign the very first answer that comes to mind to a pertinent question. It’s either disingenuous or ignorant.
And again, I know it’s just baseball, but no matter the topic, it remains writing that causes a negative impact. It reduces complexities and eliminates nuance to the point of creating a malnourishing pablum of falsehoods that gets spoon-fed into the mouths of the less discerning.
Morosi begins his column in a fashion that if it was reversed in terms of structure with the conclusion would act as a defeating counter argument for his entire thesis, which basically boils down to: recent outings from Blue Jays starting pitchers is a serious cause for concern.
I realize the sample size is small.
One poor game can skew statistics, particularly at this time of year. Buehrle and Johnson pitched in drizzly, miserable conditions at Comerica Park during the last two days, so it’s hard to know the significance of the diminished stuff they displayed. Their pitches may become livelier once they return to the climate-controlled confines at Rogers Centre.
It’s like beginning an argument in favor of chocolate cake by admitting that apple pie is better. It reminds me of that scene from The Royal Tenenbaums in which the Eli Cash character describes his book as such:
Well, everyone knows Custer died at Little Bighorn. What this book presupposes is… maybe he didn’t.
This is a fictional work of fiction. Morosi is essentially writing his non-fiction opinion piece:
Well, everyone knows that a small sample, taken from games in averse conditions is meaningless, but what my column presupposes is … maybe it isn’t.
Mark Buehrle’s Velocity
Morosi makes several claims in his piece using the quotes of others to back up his notions without bothering to employ the most simple fact check on what’s being said. His first attack is on the decline in Mark Buehrle’s velocity.
A longtime Buehrle observer noted that the left-hander’s fastball — often clocked between 81 and 83 miles per hour Wednesday — has slowed since his AL heyday with the Chicago White Sox. With a narrower velocity gap between his fastball and changeup, Buehrle’s changeup was less effective against the Tigers.
I’m not really sure what type of authority a longtime Buehrle observer possesses, but I’d wager it’s significantly less than basic facts. Yes, the 34-year-old Buehrle, like every single pitcher who has ever competed in Major League Baseball, has witnessed his velocity decline as he’s aged, but it’s not the least bit drastic.
Here’s his average four-seam fastball velocity since 2007:
- 2007: 86.9 miles per hour;
- 2008: 86.6 miles per hour;
- 2009: 85.5 miles per hour;
- 2010: 86.1 miles per hour;
- 2011: 85.0 miles per hour; and
- 2012: 84.9 miles per hour.
So far this season, over two starts – one in the frigid temperatures of Detroit – Buehrle’s four-seamer has an average velocity of 84.2 miles per hour. Taking into account that pitch velocity rises/falls with temperature, we’re left with Buehrle experiencing a two miles per hour drop over seven years. The only thing surprising about this development is that it’s so little.
It’s all to say that any velocity drop that is experienced would be one that was anticipated by the Blue Jays, like it would for each and every one of the 29 other teams in the league.
Josh Johnson’s Velocity
Morosi makes a similar argument about Josh Johnson’s velocity. Unfortunately, there were no longtime Johnson observers available to comment, and so the writer went to the numbers.
Johnson’s fastball was slower and flatter than usual Thursday afternoon: 88 and 89 mph in his second inning of work, compared to an average of 94.9 in 2010, according to FanGraphs.com.
The same information we looked at for Buerhle applies to Johnson, especially the velocity drop off in the frigid temperatures of Detroit. However, there’s an additional bit of deceitful manipulation at play. You’ll notice that Morosi quotes his fastball velocity in 2010 as averaging 94.9 miles per hour.
It’s kind of funny that he’d use 2010 as an example since it was a) three years ago, and b) the year before he had shoulder surgery and missed the majority of a season. It seems that the drop off is a little less meaningful when you mention this or that the average velocity on Johnson’s four-seamer in 2012 was 92.8 miles per hour, and so far in 2013 – over two starts, one of which was in bad conditions – sits at an average of 92.4 miles per hour. His first start of the season saw his four seam fastball average 93.7 miles per hour.
But all of this is only playing into Morosi’s idea that such a small sample of events is at all meaningful. It’s not. It’s two games. Sometimes pitchers are unable to throw as hard as they normally do. Sometimes it has to do with conditions. Sometimes it has to do with not sleeping well the night before. Sometimes it’s just a matter of random variation. It’s two starts, and drawing conclusions based on it is excusable if the one making assumptions is completely unfamiliar with baseball or has forgotten every previous season in which they were.
According to Morosi, Johnson’s performance this week didn’t compare well to his opposition.
Neither Johnson nor manager John Gibbons blamed the near-freezing conditions. After all, Detroit starter Doug Fister lasted 107 pitches and allowed only one earned run in eight innings.
Prior to this point, Morosi wrote solely about Johnson’s velocity. Turning it into a performance issue is a completely different topic. However, if he were to have compared Johnson and Fister in terms of velocity, he would’ve had to have explained how Fister’s average four-seam fastball velocity was 87.8 miles per hour on Thursday. In 2011, the average velocity on his four-seamer was 90.0 miles per hour. In his previous start this season – also in Detroit – it was 89.0 miles per hour. Sacre bleu!
It might be worth mentioning that Johnson pitched the majority of his starts last year in Miami, while Fister pitched the majority of his in the Motor City.
American League Vs. National League
The difference between the American League and National League in terms of pitching is obvious. A National League pitcher faces a weak-hitting pitcher most times through the lineup, while an American League pitcher faces a strong-hitting designated hitter most times through the lineup. This is a point that Morosi would like to emphasize.
The early-season frustrations of Buehrle, Johnson and Dickey could be linked to the inherent difficulty in moving to the more offensive league. Perhaps the Blue Jays (and a certain writer who picked them to win the AL) underrated the difficulty in 60 percent of a rotation making that adaptation amid postseason expectations.
First of all, Buehrle pitched in the American League for 12 seasons. He pitched in the National League for one. I think it’s safe to assume it’s not a difficult adaptation for him to make. Secondly, if you’re not going to look analytically at what data suggests about league changes, you could just as easily suggest that pitchers switching leagues hold an advantage because they’re facing an entirely new batch of hitters who will largely be unfamiliar with their approach and mechanics. For every pitcher who was great in the National League and mediocre in the American League, there’s also a pitcher who was mediocre in the National League and great in the American League.
Statistically, pitchers switching leagues perform at the same rate as a pitcher staying with his team the first year after a move. A pitcher who moves from the National League to the American League won’t have as good numbers as he did in the NL, but it’s not a magical thing brought on by an inability to adapt or certain expectations. The lineups he’s facing include an additional hitter. That’s it. They don’t get to face a hitting pitcher anymore.
To understand Morosi, there is a fundamental difference between the American League and National League. Certainly, there are major differences between the leagues that spin off from the one rule change having to with a pitcher’s role in the batting order. However, Morosi misrepresents it as something to do with American League batters swinging more than in the National League.
He quotes Josh Johnson as saying:
They swing a little bit more (in the AL), it seems like. I guess with the pitcher hitting, some guys want to get that pitch count up a little quicker. Here, you’ve got nine guys that can swing it. (There’s) a little more swinging. I’ve got to be careful with my pitches.
But Morosi doesn’t bother to actually confirm this. In fact, last season, NL batters swung at 46.2% of the pitches that they saw, while their AL brethren swung at 45.8% of the pitches that they saw. In 2011, the gap was even larger. For Josh Johnson specifically, batters have swung at 44.8% of his pitches this season, compared to 44.6% last season, but also 45.1% over the course of his career.
At Least He’s Consistent
If we are going to talk about fundamental differences though, we once again come back to the previous point that extrapolating data from two starts to support an obviously pre-existing narrative is manipulative, not insightful. Whether he does this in earnest or as a means of trolling remains to be completely understood.
However, at least Morosi is consistent.
The Jays can’t afford to be too far below .500 by the time Dickey comes around. The schedule won’t help them, either: They’re about to begin a three-game series in Kansas City, against the newly confident, first-place Royals.
Is there a better counterpoint to the importance placed on early season small samples than the fact that the Kansas City Royals lead the American League Central Division? To Morosi, a team that was playing .500 baseball prior to their series with the Minnesota Twins, largely believed to be among the worst teams in baseball, is judged to be good because they’re currently 6-3.
It’s amazing how many newly confident teams the Minnesota Twins create.
This isn’t the first time that Morosi has click-baited the fans of Toronto. This whole week has seemed like a build-up to Friday’s column.
Early impression on Jays: They will be very good as long as they figure out their bullpen. That is my biggest worry with them.
— Jon Morosi (@jonmorosi) April 6, 2013
If Toronto loses here, the Jays will be only one of two AL teams with at least 5 losses. The other is Houston.
— Jon Morosi (@jonmorosi) April 9, 2013
On the Jays: It is rare for a World Series contender to tinker this much with waiver claims early in a season.
— Jon Morosi (@jonmorosi) April 10, 2013
I’m sure it’s not an accident that Morosi’s frequent choice of the Blue Jays as a topic du jour happens to coincide with his own increased presence in Toronto on Rogers Sportsnet Radio and Rogers Sportsnet television.
A Genuine Argument To Be Made
Perhaps above all other elements causing frustration from Morosi’s column is that there is a good argument to be made about the tempering of expectations for the 2013 Toronto Blue Jays. Unfortunately, the evidence needed to suggest this isn’t found in the first nine games of the season as much as it is in questioning Josh Johnson’s ability to throw breaking pitches for strikes, R.A. Dickey’s ability to remain a mystery to batters and Mark Buehrle’s attempt to remain league average into his mid-thirties.
There are other legitimate questions about the Toronto Blue Jays that we’ve gone over in the past:
- Will Brandon Morrow finally be able to consistently pitch well from the stretch?
- Wherefore art thou, Rickey Romero?
- 2011 Edwin Encarnacion vs. 2012 Edwin Encarnacion? Who do the Blue Jays have?
- Who’s on second?
- How will Jose Reyes adapt to playing on Astroturf?
- What of Melky’s insanely high BABIP last season?
- Colby Rasmus?
- How will Jose Bautista’s wrist, ego, disgust of mediocrity hold up?
- How can a bullpen featuring a back end with two pitchers coming off of surgery and another that’s older than the rest of the team combined?
I’m far from a ra-ra homer for the Toronto team. I even enjoy a well-timed troll of Blue Jays from time to time. However, my motivation in pointing things out like Adam Lind being the worst Major League regular in baseball against left handed pitching isn’t merely to get a reaction, it’s to provoke questions about perspective. Maybe in our hurry to anoint Toronto as the team to beat, we glossed over a question or two about how the roster is constructed. Relying on the data from the first three series of the season isn’t the way to do this.
The outcomes of nine games in April aren’t meaningless. They’re every bit as meaningful as the outcomes of nine games in May, June, July, August and September in that yes, they too contribute to the overall record at the end of the season which determines whether or not playoffs are a real option. The danger remains in placing too much emphasis on such a small amount of data or relying on it to prove a preconceived notion merely because it’s placed in a noticeable way at the beginning of the season and not in the middle of it.