Keeping hope alive? The Jays pull out a series win in Detroit

On the Palacios play, the Charlie Discourse, Dante Bichette, Jordan Romano, Alek Manoah, José Berríos, Scuttlebutt, the Week Ahead, and more!

The Jays actually won a series, and managed to keep their faint playoff hopes alive until the next heartbreak. So let’s talk about it!

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Friday (Blue Jays 1 - Tigers 2)

I’ve decided to not write about Thursday’s loss to the White Sox and skip straight to this one. Too much happened in that one, and it was too long ago by now to be relevant. A very entertaining game — my first live one since, I think, Vlad’s debut — in which the wrong team came out on top. There was a time in this season where a four-game split with the White Sox would have felt reasonably good, but with the Jays’ playoff chances quickly evaporating, this did not feel like that. It was not, however, one of a string of recent “rock bottoms” the Jays have hit. They saved that for Friday in Detroit. Here’s three down…

▼ The Palacios/Dickerson play

You know the play I’m talking about. A pinch-hit inside the park home run from Victor Reyes that put the Tigers ahead 2-1 in the bottom of the eighth of a game where there was absolutely no margin for error. The Jays made an absolute meal of it, starting with Josh Palacios’s too-aggressive dive. Ill-advised in any ballpark, this was an especially tough mistake to make at Comerica, where the expansive outfield gives the ball plenty of room to roll, and especially with Tim Mayza on the hill. Mayza has pitched extremely well all season, and particularly of late. A single in that spot isn’t all that threatening. Palacios’s inexperience clearly showed through. We’ll discuss why Palacios was in there in the first place a couple sections down. First, the play.

I apologize for making you re-watch that, because oof. There go the Jays’ already slim playoff chances rolling away. But, of course, I called this the Palacios/Dickerson play for a reason. And that reason is: WHAT THE HELL IS THIS THROW?

Surely this brutal throw cost the Jays another base. Maybe Reyes ends up scoring anyway if this only ends up a triple. Don’t get me wrong, Palacios’s mistake was easily the bigger one. But this was pretty awful too.

Of course, mistakes get magnified when you keep wasting great pitching performances because you can’t hit.

▼ ONE RUN

Another day, another 1-for-8 with runners in scoring position. Tigers starter Matt Manning — who came into the game with a 5.91 ERA and just 29 strikeouts in 53 1/3 innings — went six innings allowing one run on six hits with one walk and five strikeouts.

It’s true that teams go through stretches like this at times. The Yankees, for example, had a wRC+ of just 87 as a team back in the month of May. (Heading into Sunday afternoon, the Jays had produced a 93 wRC+ since the end of their glorious first homestand back in Toronto, but for August as a whole the number was 99). But it’s more than just a complete lack of production that’s afflicted the Jays of late. It’s been an issue of timing, and that has led to all sorts of armchair speculation about what might be going on.

One person who actually has skin in the game has his own theories. Dante Bichette, who is of course the father of Jays shortstop Bo Bichette, was an extra hitting coach for the club in 2020. He moved in to a special assistant role this season, rather than spending the entire six month season with the team, but has now returned to the dugout for the rest of this season. Mike Wilner of the Toronto Star spoke to him in Detroit this weekend, and as usual he offered some rather interesting insight.

“These are young kids. They’re not tired,” he told Wilner. “But what will happen is, with a young team, they’ll ride the roller-coaster more than an older player will. They’ll ride their highs and they’ll really friggin’ be low with their lows. And that kind of fries the brain a little bit. When you fry the brain in this game, it catches up with you late in the season.”

OK, so how do they fix this?

“You’ve got to rely on your routine,” he explained. “That’s your sleep. That’s your nutrition. That’s your prep work in the cage. Think of it like a marathon. The guy who finishes in first place may be happy, but he’s just as beat up as everybody else. So everybody’s beat up right now. The younger players just need to learn how to stay on their routine.”

Important long-term advice for some of these guys’ careers, and I don’t think it’s ever a bad idea to have another veteran voice on the coaching staff — especially one who got paid during his career, because that’s the name of the game for these guys, so he’ll definitely have a receptive audience. Will this move do anything except add to the narrative of Bichette as some kind of a talisman when the team inevitably progresses back to the mean? Colour me skeptical.

▼ The Charlie Discourse

It’s truly surprising how many intelligent people who watch this team genuinely believe that changing out Charlie Montoyo for some other manager would have changed anything about this season. I’m not here to make a big rant about this, but it’s just so weird to me how well a scapegoat can ease frustrations and ward off deeper reflection about why things are the way they are.

In this one people grumbled about Charlie having the inexperienced Josh Palacios in centre field in a tie game with the steady hand of Randal Grichuk on the bench. Since the start of June, Grichuk has been the eighth worst hitter in baseball by wRC+. For the season, he’s been five runs below average by DRS, which is the third worst mark among 27 CFs with at least 300 innings out there. His UZR/150 is -6.7, which is also third worst among that group. He’s not a defensive replacement. Plus, Palacios is a guy that the organization has given Charlie to use, and there should be absolutely zero doubt that how and when the front office thinks he should be used has been communicated — just as their thoughts on what to do with Grichuk surely have as well. You might as well get mad at a coin for coming up tails instead of heads.

All season long these kinds of simple realities — things like what sort of restrictions the High Performance department may be placing on certain players — have tumbled down into a gigantic blind spot for a lot of fans, while layer upon layer of confirmation bias builds a narrative that Charlie is somehow uniquely stupid and alone is making weird decisions that too often backfire. It’s true that decisions have certainly backfired too often all year, and the path to change those does run through the manager to a degree, but it absolutely doesn’t start and stop with him. John Schneider would be getting the same input from above, would be having the same conversations with Pete Walker, and would be under the same restrictions from High Performance. The cheat cards that help fielders with positioning and catchers call pitches would be the same.

Someone else could synthesize the information a little bit differently, or have better luck calling coin flips, but the idea there would be some major swing in the team’s fortunes with someone else there and no other changes is a bit silly given what we know about how this team operates and what the Jays wanted in a manager when they brought him in.

Meanwhile, on Sunday, Bo Bichette made his first error at shortstop in 25 games, as his defence has tightened up significantly over the course of the year. Vladimir Guerrero Jr., despite some recent struggles at the plate, has blossomed defensively and offensively this season. Alek Manoah has been continually trusted with the ball and keeps on rewarding the Jays handsomely. Alejandro Kirk continues to grow on both sides of the ball as he gets closer to becoming a genuine everyday catcher.

Are we so sure those developments all happen on somebody else’s watch? The environment that Charlie helps to foster certainly seems to have had a positive impact on all of those players, and their progress has probably been more valuable on the whole than whatever in-game managerial decisions Charlie may or may not have blown.

“Ah,” you say. “But that’s mostly on the players themselves, and there are also other coaches and a whole process involved.”

Yes, exactly.

Saturday (Blue Jays 3 - Tigers 2)

Never in doubt! Here’s three up…

▲ Jordan Romano

I generally try not to begin these write-ups at the end of the game, but I really have no choice here, because the story in this one was Jordan Romano. And also the fact that the Jays actually allowed him to pitch two full innings in order to close this one out — the first time he’s recorded more than three outs since June 25th, and only the third time he’s done so this season.

Romano wobbled after the "sticky stuff" ban came into effect in mid-June, but has since rebounded, and what's amazing about it is that he's rebounded into a completely different pitcher who just happens to also be awesome. That's easier to do when you can throw 100 mph.

In April he threw his slider 50% of the time and his four-seamer 46% of the time. In August it's been 70% of the time for the four-seamer and 28% for the slider. Just as the slider, due to the lower spin rate he's been able to achieve since the ban, is a different pitch now, so too is the heater. In April, Romano averaged 96.8 mph on his four-seamer, and in August it's up to 98.3. He has been throwing both the four-seamer and the slider in the zone more often as the season has gone on, going from 41.9% of his pitches landing for strikes in April to 53.5% of in August.

He’s not up there throwing tons of sliders and trying to get guys to chase, he’s attacking hitters more. Impressively, this has led to guys chasing even more often than before, though it’s generally the fastball they’re chasing now, not the slider. Particularly with two strikes. In April, batters chased 29% of his fastballs out of the zone in two strike counts. That number has increased every month since, and in August it’s up to 55%. Having to gear up for harder and more frequent fastballs in the zone, with the slider still there to keep them honest, is giving hitters all kinds of trouble.

You hear the phrase “trust your stuff” when it comes to pitchers a lot, and despite the diminished spin rate (which is rebounding here in August after bottoming out in July), Romano clearly still has stuff worth trusting and then some. It appears that he’s doing just that, and what it’s led to is a month in which he’s striking out batters at a higher rate than even at his peak back in May.

Even when Romano isn’t getting strikeouts — and he only got two of them in his two innings against the Tigers on Sunday — he’s been hell on batters of late. In this one he worked around a one-out single from Miguel Cabrera in a 10-pitch ninth. He then came back in the tenth with a runner on second, needing to keep the Tigers off the board to get the win after Vlad had stumbled home with the go-ahead run on Corey Dickerson’s single in the top of the frame. Harold Castro smacked a ball to Bo Bichette who made a heads up play to get the runner at third base, and it was smooth sailing from there. Willi Castro flied out to Teoscar Hernández for the second out of the inning, then Derek Hill struck out swinging on a 97.3 mph fastball — the fifth straight one he’d seen.

It turns out that having reliable relievers is pretty great!

▲ Alek Manoah

Things went a little sideways on Alek Manoah in the seventh, as he gave up three singles around a strikeout of Cabrera — a childhood hero of his having grown up in the Miami area during Miggy's Marlins days — which cut the Jays' lead in half. Trevor Richards then came in and nearly got the double play ball that he needed to keep a second run off the board (and Manoah's line), but catcher Eric Haase beat the throw from Marcus Semien.

We know that pitchers tend to get worse results when facing batters for a third time, but there was obviously good reason for the Jays to have pushed Manoah in this one. Not only is their bullpen still a bit dodgy, but the rookie was once again brilliant for most of the day. Heading into that seventh inning he'd allowed no runs on just one hit with eight strikeouts.

The Jays have needed performances like this from their starters, given the way their offence has mysteriously dried up recently, and once again Manoah delivered. I think he might be for real.

▲ An extra inning win??!?!?

Alejandro Kirk's home run to give the Jays a 1-0 lead in the sixth was big. Bo Bichette singling home Randal Grichuk an inning later was big, too. With the way the Jays' bats have been going, any kind of offensive output is huge right now. And yet the biggest run of the night was, basically, a fake one: Corey Dickerson's single that plated Vladimir Guerrero Jr. — who began the frame on second base because of the extra inning rule — with the go-ahead run in the top of the 10th.

This was the Jays' 12th extra inning game of the season. It was their third win. And, hoo boy, did it ever feel like it. The others came on Opening Day in the Bronx, and at "home" in Dunedin against Atlanta way back on May 1.

It’s been quite a season so far, hasn’t it?

Sunday (Blue Jays 2 - Tigers 1)

Another nail-biter. Another low scoring affair. Another 0-for-10 with runners in scoring position. But a win, at least. Gonna need to roll from here, boys! Here’s three up…

▲ José Berríos

▲ Kevin Smith’s home run

It's been a bumpy start here at the beginning of Kevin Smith's MLB career, at least on the offensive side of the ball. But this was a good one. His first big league home run came at a time when the Blue Jays badly needed it, and held up as the winning run. Smith also took a walk and managed to get on base via a hit-by-pitch. His wRC+ for the season jumped from -24 all the way up to 65. That's progress!

Also a great moment.

(We, uh, won’t mention the error at third that led to the Tigers’ lone run.)

▲ Bo Bichette

Of the first four months of the season, Bo Bichette's worst was May, when he was above league average by just a hair with a 102 wRC+. In April his wRC+ was 123. In June it was 138. July? 148.

Heading into Sunday, Bichette's wRC+ for the month of August was just 49. His walk rate has nearly dropped by half compared to July. His strikeout rate jumped from 14.7% last month to 20.4% in August. And his power has been nonexistent (.062 ISO). Only 10 of 166 qualified hitters in MLB have had a worse month.

So what does he do? Just goes 3-for-4 with a walk and an opposite field bomb in the first inning.

OK, OK, perhaps dad’s presence is actually paying off.

Scuttlebutt

There are a few newsy and/or notesy things to pass along, mostly involving injuries and roster spots. Time for some scuttlebutt!

• The biggest news of the weekend, of course, surrounded George Springer. You probably noticed that he didn’t play in Detroit. He will, however, very likely play when the Jays return home to face Baltimore — perhaps as soon as Monday night, as MLB Network’s Jon Morosi spoke to him in Detroit on Sunday, and tweeted that “Springer ran sprints at high intensity before today’s game and told me afterward that he’s hopeful about being activated to play Monday.”

• The roster news before Sunday’s game also involved an outfielder, as Jarrod Dyson — claimed on waivers from the Royals on Friday — was activated, taking the place of Santiago Espinal on the roster. Espinal survived getting hit on the back elbow by a Michael Kopech pitch on Thursday, only to strain his hip flexor while running to first base on Saturday, so he heads to the injured list.

Dyson is an interesting add who could be useful if this were, say, not 2021. He’s still a very good defender in centre according to the metrics, but there’s just not much else there. Base stealing isn’t only about sprint speed, but this season his sprint speed to first base ranks in the 74th percentile (Teoscar Hernández is in the 84th percentile, for reference). And it’s almost not worth noting that he’s a lefty hitter, because he can’t hit at all. Dyson is slashing .227/.269/.309 (56 wRC+) against right-handed pitching in 106 plate appearances this season, which is better than he did last year, and about where he was at in 2019 (65 wRC+) in 400 PA.

• Sportsnet’s Shi Davidi noted at the time of the Dyson addition that the Jays “got him for his defence and baserunning.” He also added that he took the 40-man roster spot of Elvis Luciano. You may recall that Luciano was released last week, but in Shi’s tweet he adds that he believes the Jays plan to re-sign him. That’s a nice move if they can pull it off. Luciano isn’t worthy of a 40-man spot at the moment, but there’s still potentially something there. He only pitched once in the month of August and has logged just 34 1/3 innings this season in Double-A, where he produced a 3.41 ERA but was a run worse by FIP and was walked more than four batters per nine innings.

Here’s what Eric Longenhagen of FanGraphs said about him back in February, as he listed him among his prospects in limbo:

His pitch data from the alt site (in 2020) has him sitting 93-94 with average slider and changeup movement; I have nothing on the command. I think the workload leap teams’ pitching staffs are about to experience and the fact that Luciano has option years makes it likely that we see him in the big leagues at some point in 2021. He’s still only 21, and would be a 35+ FV prospect (major league-ready up/down relievers live there) were he eligible.

• In similar reliever news, the Jays announced after Sunday’s game that C.J. Edwards — aka Carl Edwards Jr. — has cleared release waivers and is now a free agent. Edwards had been on the 60-day IL, and so this move was evidently made because he’s healthy enough to pitch again, but the Jays simply didn’t need him and were unwilling to remove someone from the 40-man for him. It was a good try though, I guess.

• More reliever stuff, Ryan Borucki was added to the roster in Buffalo on Sunday. This appears to be a change from just a few days ago, when the Athletic’s Kaitlyn McGrath reported that Borucki was on the “development list, which is for the purpose of conditioning or development.” At the time, she wrote, he was making use of the pitching lab in the Jays’ player development complex in Dunedin rather than going on a rehab assignment — something that was, apparently, Borucki’s choice. Hopefully the change just means he closer to full health.

• Two relievers who could really help the Jays down the stretch — you know, assuming there’s any sort of push for a playoff spot left to help — are Nate Pearson and Julian Merryweather. Both pitched on Saturday for Buffalo. Pearson threw 18 pitches, 14 of which went for strikes — which is good! Less good is the fact that he gave up back-to-back singles to start his frame and ended up allowing a run on a sac fly. Merryweather also had to deal with some baserunners but I don’t think it was as bad as it sounds.

The walk, if we believe MiLB’s pitch location data, wasn’t as bad as it sounds.

The week ahead

The Jays remain 5.5 games back of the second wild card spot in the American League as they head back home for three games with the Baltimore Orioles, while the Red Sox, who hold the second spot currently, get a much tougher assignment in the form of a series at the Trop against the Rays. It’s just about now or never for the Jays to go on a run, and the opportunity to do so — and to get their offence going again, especially with Springer coming back — is right there in front of them. They get the A’s, who they are also chasing, on the weekend, and then the Yankees for four next week. Those could be huge games. But they have to take care of business against the Orioles first.

Pitching matchups:

• Monday, 7:07 PM ET vs. Baltimore: LHP Robbie Ray (9-5, 2.72 ERA, 192 K/37 BB/152 1/3 IP) vs. RHP Chris Ellis (1-0, 3.86 ERA, 10 K/1 BB/7 IP)

• Tuesday, 7:07 PM ET: LHP Hyun Jin Ryu (12-7, 3.88 ERA, 115 K/30 BB/143 2/3 IP) vs. LHP Keegan Akin (1-8, 7.26 ERA, 63 K/29 BB/70 2/3 IP)

• Wednesday, 7:07 PM ET: LHP Steven Matz (10-7, 3.81 ERA, 111 K/32 BB/118 IP) vs. RHP Matt Harvey (6-14, 6.18 ERA, 93 K/35 BB/119 1/3 IP)

• Thursday: Off

Worth noting:

• Chris Ellis, who the Jays face on Monday, has a pretty nice stat line through two big league appearances this season — one of which came with the Orioles and the other for the Rays. His numbers in the minors, however, don't look quite so tidy. In 15 outings (13 starts) for the Rays' Triple-A affiliate in Durham, NC, this season, ellis posted a 6.32 ERA, thanks in part because of the fact that he gave up more than two homers per nine innings of work, and also because he walked 4.42 batters per nine.

• The 28-year-old Ellis has just eight big league innings to his credit, yet I think it's already safe to call him a journeyman. Drafted by the Angels in 2014, he went to Atlanta in the Andrelton Simmons trade in 2015, a year later he was flipped to the Cardinals in a package for Jaime García. The Rangers took him from the Cards in the 2018 Rule 5 draft. The Royals purchased him from the Rangers immediately after the selction, but he was returned to St. Louis in April 2019. The Cardinals released him in May 2020, he signed for the Rays for this season, but ended up claimed on waivers by Baltimore earlier this month.

• The Jays faced Akin back on June 26th and punished him for six earned runs over just 4 1/3 innings. Ryu also started that game, a 12-4 Blue Jays win at Sahlen Field in Buffalo. Some more of that would be nice!

• Former Mets teammates Matz and Harvey square off on Wednesday, and if I were a Mets fan I’d probably want to tune in rather than watch my own tire fire of a franchise at this point!

• Just win these games, you jerks! OK???