Ray Day!

PLUS: Atkins speaks!

On Wednesday night the Toronto Blue Jays quickly turned the page on Tuesday’s loss with an epic pitching performance in a game with playoff-like atmosphere. So let’s talk about it!

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Tuesday (Blue Jays 2 - White Sox 5)

So much for momentum. Here’s three down, and a half-hearted three up…

▼ José Berríos

Is Berríos tipping his pitches or something? The fact that he struck out six White Sox hitters suggests maybe not, which is a little concerning. Berríos hasn't quite come as advertised yet. Rather, he’s looked more like this guy.

Which is, of course, him.

Prior to 2020 he was a little better at suppressing Average Exit Velocity and HardHit%, but that Max Exit Velocity has always been a thing for him. When he gets hit, he can gets hit pretty hard. That, it seems, is just a fact of life when Berríos is on the hill.

Another fact of life, though, is he makes it work. Berríos had a 4.00 ERA in 2020, and this year, after Tuesday’s four runs over three, his ERA moved up to a tidy 3.70. Since coming over to the Blue Jays, however, that number is 4.81. His BABIP as a Blue Jay is .392.

It sucks a lot that he’s had this blip just as he’s joined the Jays — and maybe there’s something about the upheaval of being traded away from the organization he’d been with since being drafted in 2012 that has something to do with it — but surely that’s all this is. Over his last 747 1/3 innings, Berríos has an ERA of 3.79. His fWAR over that span is 13.9 — the 17th best in baseball among pitchers. His 14.6 RA9-WAR ranks 20th. I’ll bet on that track record.

▼ Vlad’s bases loaded GIDP

Tell me Vlad’s struggling without telling me Vlad’s struggling.

There was a time not so long ago that it was more likely than not that young Vladdy would have hit a fastball like the one he saw in the sixth pitch of this at-bat to the goddamn moon. Not so on Tuesday night, as the Jays’ most promising rally — bases loaded, one out, down 4-1 — ended on a ball smashed to a perfectly placed shortstop for a routine, inning-ending double play. Oof.

▼ A golden sombrero

Four strikeouts on the night for the just-called-up Josh Palacios, three of which were pretty ugly. He took a slider from Dylan Cease that was easily in the zone and was called out on strikes in the third. In the fifth he waved at a 2-2 changeup that was in the other batters box for strike three. He led off the eighth against Michael Kopech and sat back down after four pitches without having swung the bat — though in his defence on this one strike three was outside. Then, with one out in the ninth and runners on first and second, he saw four fastballs from Liam Hendriks: one that he took for a ball, even though it caught more of the plate than strike three the inning before, one that was out over the heart of the plate that he simply watched go by, another over the heart of the plate that he swung through, and then one more that was way high over the middle of the plate, which he waved at also. Not great!

One might point out that McGuire actually had come through with three hits in he previous two games, including a couple big ones, but 1) he was 1-for-21 in his eight starts before that, and 2) I'm not sure I'm ready to live in a world where Reese McGuire is ever a viable pinch hit option.

▲ Corey Dickerson

Hey. A home run. I remember those.

▲ Connor Overton

The Jays obviously needed innings out of their bullpen in this one, and Overton delivered three big ones from the sixth through the eighth to (theoretically) keep the team in the ballgame. His final line: no runs on four hits (one of which was a single credited to José Abreu, who was thrown out at second base by Lourdes Gurriel Jr.), with one walk and a couple of strikeouts. Overton isn't a strikeout guy, doesn't throw particularly hard, and isn't especially good at generating ground balls, but he keeps the ball in the ballpark and sometimes that's enough.

And what sort of reward did he get for his good work? A trip back to the minors as the Jays activated Joakim Soria from the injured list on Wednesday afternoon.

▲ That throw from Josh Palacios

Nice play, rook! You at least had that going for you.

Wednesday (Blue Jays 3 - White Sox 1)

The Jays were back in the win column on Wednesday after eking out another nail-biter on the back of a tremendous pitching performance. Here’s three up…

▲ Robbie goddamn Ray

Robbie Ray shoved in this one, just like Robbie Ray has shoved just about all season — especially lately. One run on five hits over seven innings with just one walk and 14 strikeouts. A legitimately elite performance — punctuated by his strikeout of Tim Anderson to end the seventh inning (and his night) with a pair of runners on base and the game still tied 1-1.

Robbie Ray is your American League leader in bWAR (5.1) and RA9-WAR (5.3) among pitchers. FanGraphs’ (FIP-based) version of the metric likes him less (2.8), ranking him eighth in the AL. Baseball Prospectus’s WARP has him third.

He is a legitimate Cy Young candidate, and might even actually be able to win the damn thing. Can’t say it’s undeserved! Nor will I be able to say that about his next contract — which indeed will likely look a whole lot like Zack Wheeler’s five-year, $118 million pact with the Phillies at this rate.

Pay the man.

▲ Alejandro Kirk’s eighth inning at-bat

Don’t get me wrong, the whole bottom of the eighth in this one was great. A number of characters could get an up arrow here:

• Teoscar Hernández for battling his way to a full count, two out single, and eventually using his speed to come around and score the go-ahead run.

• Charlie Montoyo — yes, that’s right! — for correctly pinch hitting Breyvic Valera for Corey Dickerson.

• Breyvic Valera for somehow slapping a single through the infield to push Teoscar to second and pass the baton to Kirk.

• Yoan Moncada for the error that loaded the bases.

• Kevin Bummer for somehow walking Randal Grichuk with the bases loaded to give the Jays an insurance run.

However, the man of the hour was clearly the largest of our adult sons. After a mini-battle with Aaron Bummer that saw him go down 1-2 with runners at first and second and two outs, Alejandro Kirk watched a pitch in the dirt, then took a beautiful pitch on the outside corner and dunked it into right field — an impressive display of plate coverage, bat control, and understanding of the zone.

▲ Jordan Romano

Tim Mayza was great in the eighth inning, but Jordan Romano absolutely battled to lock this one down. Luis Robert singled to lead-off the inning, and then Andrew Vaughn got himself into a 3-1 count before a swinging strike and a couple foul balls later he hit a perfect double play ball to shortstop, which Bo Bichette and Marcus Semien turned effortlessly. The next at-bat wasn't easy either. César Hernández fouled off four pitches and looked at a couple of balls before hitting a routine fly on a Romano slider to end it.

That slider hasn't been as effective lately for the Jays' closer as it was prior to MLB's crackdown on spin rate-enhancing "sticky stuff," so Romano has had to change things up. He's relied more and more heavily on his fastball as the season has gone on.

The fastball isn’t really an out pitch, so there have been some battles, but he keeps on winning them. You love to see it.

Atkins speaks!

On Tuesday afternoon, Jays GM Ross Atkins made an appearance on The Bob McCown Podcast, chatting with the longtime Fan 590 host and cohost John Shannon about a wide variety Blue Jays topics. Here are the highlights…

Where has the offence gone, especially with RISP?

We've obviously shared the pain of the fans and of our players. It has been a tough stretch for us. I think we're exceptionally proud of how they've handled it. We're not quite where we want to be as a team, where we're having these lulls like this. But they're handling it well. You can see the fire and you can see the confidence that's still there. Really, it's a combination of a couple of things, in our view, the potential reasons that the offence has not been quite as dominant as it was the entire year over the last couple of weeks. Part of it is youth, part of it is just being a young team, and part of it's roster make-up, which is on us. And just how, you know, similar some of our hitters are, and how we're being attacked by certain pitchers is something that — we will adjust. We will adjust in the front office and, obviously, our players will adjust to the pitching.

Oh my god he admit it!

I think Atkins is pretty much right here, that this is kind of just one of those things, but that it can’t be so lightly dismissed as simply that as to ignore that there could be a roster construction issue. Less so on the RISP thing — which I would think is probably more luck-based or due to guys pressing — and more the late-and-close stuff, where a very right-handed team that is merely average against high velocity — the Jays rank 14th by wOBA against pitches at 97 mph and above, whereas at 95+ they rank sixth — might struggle against your typical late inning reliever.

Atkins continued…

Doesn't help that we didn't have George Springer over the bulk of that stretch, but at the same time many teams are dealing with injuries at this point and still performing at very high rates. But we are confident that this is just one of those stretches during the course of the season that is happening at a bad time. We can't have those if we're going to be a year in and year out contending team, and — I'm exceptionally confident that this team has developed a personality. There's no doubt in my mind. And now what we're developing is our identity, and coming together as a group. So, I'm glad to see that this group is resilient. I'm glad to see that they still are exceptionally confident and believe in themselves, and there's no doubt in my mind that we'll have another good run this year.

He brought up this personality/identity stuff a couple times in this interview. Must be from one of those book of his or somethin’.

Springer status?

He's feeling better and better every day. I think you guys are aware that he was out on the field running, doing baseball activity, throwing, hitting live BP. So it's just a matter of making sure that he's pain and symptom free, and then having checked the boxes of making sure that he can run at full speed, run the bases at full speed. And wouldn't imagine that he needs a rehab assignment, depending on how long that takes. So encouraged that his return could be relatively soon.

As we heard on Wednesday, Springer won’t be activated until Friday’s game against Detroit at the earliest. The fact that he won’t be going on a rehab assignment is good news!

Asked about bringing him back early and DHing him, Atkins replied, “We'll want to make sure that he can play centre field before we return him back, but we may use the DH as a part of our progression.”

He’ll be back soon I think.

On the starters going deeper into games lately

I think it's just based on talent and performance, and then execution. You can see from watching the game, not just watching the course of pitchers' performance, but just watching the game to see how hitters are reacting, how they're adjusting to starting pitchers, and obviously, how starting pitchers are adjusting to the hitters, and their ability to maintain their stuff. And that impacts those decisions that are made by Charlie and Pete every game. But it really comes down to the ability to do that, to get through the lineup several times. Good to see Alek Manoah battle through with a high pitch count and flip that lineup one more time (Monday) night — was huge for us. Obviously with Berríos and Ryu. Robbie Ray has been absolutely phenomenal. Steven Matz has been solid for us. But four of those guys have consistently been able to go deep into games, and that has been exceptionally encouraging. As everyone knows, it's one of the hardest things to do in building a starting pitching staff. Feel good about, especially in the AL East and in these ballparks — and our ballparks having been Dunedin and Buffalo, which don't exactly play large — our starting pitching has done a phenomenal job.

“Those decisions that are made by Charlie and Pete every game.” COUGH.

How do you account for the lack of success of this bullpen?

It's a very fair question. I think there's been times when the bullpen was good this year. There's been certain individual performances that have been steady. Maybe not phenomenal. Romano and Mayza have been pretty solid. I think Cimber and Richard have also been pretty solid. But having the injuries and then the lack of performance of others has been difficult for us this year. So, it's something that we have to be better. We have to be better. And that starts with the front office — that starts with me. And how we can better construct that group just to be more consistent. Because we've had the pieces there over the course of the year, even with the injuries, and we haven't been able to create the consistency.

Some swing-and-miss would be nice! Jays relievers rank 17th as a group by swinging strike rate.

He went on…

I think now, hopefully getting Joakim Soria back here soon, hopefully we can get Brad Hand to be just a little bit more who he's been over the course of his career, and we're optimistic that he does have a nice run in him as well. Potential of adding others that are on our 40-man bullpen into the fold. Potentially Nate Pearson, who we hope will be a starting pitcher. Potentially Julian Merryweather at some point. Joakim Soria, as I mentioned, should be very close to returning. So if we get to a certain point where we feel our starting pitching is covered we could consider Thomas Hatch as well. But there's no skirting around it, it hasn't been something that we've executed well on this year.

Soria, of course, ended up being activated in time for Wednesday’s game. Atkins later discussed Pearson and Mertweather specifically.

On Pearson

His last outing he gave up a home run, but has really been very, very effective over the course of his progression back into pitching in those games. His velocity is elite, the curveball and slider have both been very effective, and he's been on the plate. So he's done very well.

Pearson has had an outing in Buffalo since then, and it didn’t exactly go swimmingly.

So here’s the thing about this tweet though: take away the four pitch walk — which obviously isn’t great — and it took him seven ball and six strikes. Not great on the surface, but maybe not as bad as it initially looks? Command is obviously the big thing with him at this point. Well, other than health.

Asked about a timeline for Pearson and Atkins explained:

It just really depends on — we wanted to make sure he had several outings before he came back into the fold. He's still a very young pitcher and still has not had a ton of development opportunities. So we want to be fair to him and make sure that he has a decent foundation in the short-term, coming back into the major league fold. And we'll see. We're evaluating it after each outing that he has.

Atkins was also asked about the sports hernia that has plagued Pearson all year, and whether he’ll be getting surgery on it in the off-season.

(There’s) the potential of that, where he'll have the sports hernia repaired. And we'll see how he finishes at the end of the year. I think that's a logical and potential outcome, but want to make sure we have all the information before we proceed on that.

Pretty close to a yes, if say.

He was then asked whether and how the hernia impacts his performance.

I think it was something that was happening later, over the course of workload. That he was feeling something, where that's where the pain would occur. Hence the move to the bullpen for this year. But at the same time it was always something that he was navigating and managing, so probably impacted confidence and the ability to be consistent with his lower half.

Let’s hope so! Also worth noting that on more than one occasion Atkins was clear to stress that Pearson’s move to the bullpen is only meant to be temporary — a slight change from just after the problem was finally diagnosed, when he seemed a little less firm on that.

On Merryweather's recent “setback”

With soft tissue injuries I think it's different for every individual, and as he ramps up sometimes he'll feel tightness and soreness and it's just a matter of managing that. So the setback isn't one that is a start over, it's a let's hit — not even pause, but like, let's slow a bit on your progression towards game activity. Which he's already been in, and will be in again soon. It's just a matter of pain tolerance at this point.

You definitely worry that Merryweather just might be one of those guys whose body just can’t handle the stresses pitching in the upper 90s puts on it. But you can also fully understand, based on his talent, why the Jays are doing everything in their power to stick with it and get him on track.

All of the decisions being made during the course of the game from the dugout?

Switching gears a bit on this one, as we wander into the Charlie Discourse…

Yes. Absolutely. It would be breaking the rules if that weren't occurring. They are absolutely making those decisions, and that will always be the case as long as I'm the general manager. We certainly believe in empowering people and them having the ability to — not just for their own, um, because of their experiences, and because of what managers and pitching coaches and bench coaches have experienced over the course of their careers. But also they're living it. They're in the heat of the fire, and they understand not only what the players are going through, but also how certain decisions impact them and their confidence levels.

OK, sure. Fair. My follow-up would be, do you maybe think they’re sometimes a little too concerned about confidence levels and not concerned enough about the outcome of the game at hand?

On re-signing Semien

Yeah man, I can't say enough about Marcus Semien. He is legitimately — I don't know if I've been around a more consistent professional, I really don't, as it relates to professional athletes. He is absolutely the same human being and professional every single day, with exceptionally high work ethic and toughness. Never veers off of that. Exceptionally consistent as a teammate and has been exceptionally consistent as a performer. That's all you can ever ask for. So I would expect it would be a very competitive market for him, and we will certainly be in it.

“We will certainly be in it” is good! But it sure sounds like we shouldn’t be expecting an extension before he officially gets to free agency.

Could you foresee a $200 million payroll here?

Yeah, I hope so. I hope so. The thing is, you don't want to — I don't want to commit to numbers and dollars over the course of when that happens and how that happens. We'll see. But I certainly hope so. And you have to be careful not to do too much at once, and we've talked a lot about that. I know that can be frustrating for fans, and to say 'why not?' to go all-in all at once, it's hard to do based on the talent that is available and with the two avenues to do that, by using money or by trading prospects away. So doing that all at once is exceptionally difficult. We want to make sure we're on a steady climb to maintain a fun and exciting and contending team.

Intentionally pulling up short of putting the best team on the field possible seems weird! But OK. $200 million? OK.

On Robbie Ray's quick decision to re-sign last winter

I haven't talked about it publicly, and I haven't seen it really talked about, but I think what's so exceptional about that is that he didn't know where we were going to be playing, and knew there was a very strong chance that it could be Dunedin or Buffalo, which might be the two worst places to pitch in professional baseball. Major league baseball. And he didn't blink. I think it was his excitement to be with Pete Walker and his belief in the staff, from manager to our athletic trainers and strength and conditioning staff, and just the group and the team that he was with. And his belief in himself to come in the AL East, regardless of where he was pitching, and I think you guys have seen why. It never something that I'm not taken back by when you see that level competitiveness and that level of conviction that has been phenomenal this year.

Pay. The. Man.

Atkins went on…

I'm so happy for him, I couldn't be happier for him. The guy has worked exceptionally hard, and like I talked about, the competitiveness, and we'll see. Obviously we'll remain interested and would love to get him back here and will do everything in our power to make that happen.

Pay him!

On the toll of playing in Dunedin/Buffalo

I think that it has clearly not been a strength for this year. That has not been something that we thought would be a competitive advantage. The way we've tried to think about it is, how can it be a competitive advantage moving forward? And how do we turn this into something that is part of our identity, and is part of what we've overcome. I think you see with all teams that do exceptional things there was something they had — some significant challenges that they had to overcome, and I think ours would arguably be one of the greatest that any major league team had this year. I just can't say enough about how the guys focused on what they could control and really did a good job of continuing to go out there and compete and then be the best players they could be regardless of where they were doing it.

Both Atkins and Mark Shapiro have been careful all season not to use playing in Dunedin and Buffalo as an excuse for the way the team has underperformed their talent this year. That’s admirable, and also smart, because I doubt fans or their players would want to hear it. But it isn’t exactly difficult to imagine the team being in a better situation in the standings if they’d played the whole season in Toronto, is it?