Discover more from THE BATFLIP
Stray Thoughts... - Belt's Better: Beware
On World Series odds, Seattle's folly, Vladdy's swing, Rogers Centre dimensions, Brandon Belt, Chris Bassit, Tellez vs. Donaldson, Michael King, Joey Votto, and much more!
The worst possible outcome for the Blue Jays as we inch ever-closer to the playoffs remains a possibility, and yet it still felt like a very good morning as I began to write this here on Tuesday. The Seattle Mariners lost to the Houston Astros on Monday night—their fourth loss in a row, taking their record in the month of September down to 8-15.
Back on August 17th, I wrote about a Bob Nightengale report that John Schneider might be on the managerial hot seat if the Jays ended up missing the playoffs, concluding then that I wasn't “sure we really have to worry about this just yet—what? are we afraid of the Mariners?”
It turns out that we did have to worry about them—Seattle was just two games into what would become an eight-game win streak when I published that post, and they'd finish August 11-2 from that point forward—and still do. But the threat levels are abating.
The Mariners sit at 84-72 now, with six games to go. One more loss and the most they can win is 89. One more Jays victory and they're at 88. Seattle holds the tiebreaker, of course, so there's no chance for the Jays to clinch here on Tuesday, but it could happen as soon as Wednesday night, with two Jays wins and two M’s losses.
There's no need to get ahead of ourselves yet about that stuff, especially factoring in that Jays-killer Michael King will be on the hill for the Yankees tonight at Rogers Centre, and that he'll be followed tomorrow by Gerrit Cole. But it would be a huge thing for them if it could happen that soon. Get some banged up guys off their feet a little? Get Brandon Belt and Davis Schneider a bunch of at-bats to try to get themselves right? Line up the pitching to give themselves the best chance possible in a playoff series? Yes, please. (In Nick Ashbourne’s latest for Yahoo, he adds figuring out Jordan Romano and deciding on what to do with Cam Eden to an otherwise similar to-do list).
We’ve reached a moment where, as Nick said on Monday night’s podcast and tweeted again here on Tuesday, the Jays have the best odds of any team in the AL East to win the World Series according to FanGraphs.
That’s pretty remarkable, considering one of those teams won’t even have to play in the first playoff round. But I get it. The Rays are banged up (or potentially facing jail time in the Dominican Republic), the Orioles have lost their unbelievable closer and are lacking for quality starting pitching, and the Jays—especially if Belt comes back as effective as he’s been all season and Vladdy can keep hitting the way he’s supposed to (182 wRC+ over the last 14 days)—look very strong offensively, defensively, in the rotation, and in the bullpen.
FanGraphs, in their latest power rankings, still have the Jays fourth, trailing only Atlanta, Tampa, and the Dodgers. What a strange season, huh?
Here are today’s stray thoughts…
I’ll be honest here, friends. This site keeps the lights on for me, but it isn’t a cash cow. And I could live a lot more comfortably than I do right now if I was willing to put some of my work behind a paywall and push a bunch readers who are on the fence into becoming paid subscribers. But, the thing is, I know that times are tough for a lot of people and I really don’t want to become inaccessible to anyone. So, if you can afford it, and you value what I do and aren’t already a paid subscriber, I’d ask that you consider upgrading your free membership to a paid one. Thanks.
Vlad: No longer bad?
As I’ve mentioned above, and as you’ve surely noticed yourself, Vlad is on a little bit of a heater lately. His 145 wRC+ so far in the month of September tops all of his monthly marks since April (148) by at least 27 points, and it has certainly felt like it. His six home runs on the month are already his highest total of any month this year. He's been striking out the least (9.6%), and walking the most (15.2%) compared to any other month. He's got his highest slugging percentage (.519), and his highest OPS (.900) too.
And yet, according to Sportsnet's Joe Siddall, he's still not quite where he needs to be.
Postmedia’s Rob Wong tweeted on Tuesday morning about Mark DeRosa’s breakdown of Vlad’s recent adjustments, which I wrote about in Monday’s Stray Thoughts, and brought it to Joe’s attention, suggesting that Vlad just might be back. The analyst—and former big league catcher for the Expos, Marlins, and Tigers—has been paying close attention to Vladdy’s swing all season and isn’t quite on board.
The differences are subtle, and I’m not going to claim I have the kind of expertise required for any of my comments here to be relevant, but you can see in the side-by-side video above that Vlad’s hands are starting to move as soon as his left foot sets down in the 2021 clip, yet that in the 2023 one he’s not rotating as quickly and the barrel of the bat isn’t travelling through the zone for quite as long. It’s not exactly the same swing that powered him to such heights in 2021. But to these eyes it looks fairly close—more so, I assume Joe would say, than what we’ve seen from him at other stages of this season—and that the results have followed can only be a good thing.
That is perhaps especially so because Vlad and his teammates will be concluding the regular season in a park where many of them have had more than their fair share of struggles this season: the Rogers Centre.
Vladdy has a 136 wRC+ and 16 home runs while playing outside of Toronto this season. At home those marks are 100 and 10.
For Bo Bichette it's 136 and 11 on the road, 107 and nine at home.
Matt Chapman's numbers tell a similar story: 116 and nine on the road, 102 and six at home. Ditto Danny Jansen, who is at 131 and eight on the road, but just 101 and nine at home. And Daulton Varsho's do in a big way: 106 and 12 on the road, just 55 and six at home.
Now, there are certainly Blue Jays who have bucked that trend. Alejandro Kirk and Cavan Biggio have both been quite good at home and poor on the road. Brandon Belt and Davis Schneider have hit wherever they've played. And George Springer has been disappointing no matter which colour of uniform he's been wearing. But it's been pretty noticeable that the Jays' offensive struggles seem to have been amplified at Rogers Centre this year.
In 81 road games, the Jays have hit .263/.334/.431 with 103 homers (111 wRC+). In 75 home games so far, they’re at .247/.323/.398 with 77 homers (102 wRC+).
That last set of numbers comes from the latest by Sportsnet’s Shi Davidi, who looked into—and asked Jays players about—why the Rogers Centre has played so much like a pitcher’s park this season, despite changing outfield dimensions that most expected would have made it more hitter-friendly.
The whole piece is worth a read, so I won’t spoil too much of it, but the thing that jumped out at me in it was a statement from Cavan Biggio, who says that “the ball hasn't been flying at Rogers Centre really well at all since 2019.”
As Shi notes elsewhere in the piece, the Jays didn’t play at Rogers Centre in 2020 because of pandemic restrictions, and only spent their final 36 home games there in 2021. That presents a real gap in the data, and it’s a gap that coincided with a fairly major but little-discussed change that took place: the introduction of a humidor to store all game balls at a consistent temperature and humidity.
On that subject, Shi links to a Ben Nicholson-Smith piece from 2021 in which Corey Dickerson tells us that. even by mid-September of that year, players “definitely could tell” that something was different, and that “the ball [wasn’t] travelling as well.”
Part of this may be attributable to an overall dip in offence, due largely to Rob Manfred's balls and how thoroughly they've been mucked about with over the years. But the humidor is also a factor in how far a ball will travel. Ross Atkins even acknowledged this in Ben's piece, explaining at the time that the club anticipated "a minor batted ball distance decline overall," but were happy to accept that because it meant “the ballpark playing consistently from April to September.”
He wasn't wrong about the decline. The average batted ball distance at Rogers Centre among Blue Jays players went from 182 feet in 2019 to 158 feet in 2022.
That number has bounced back to 163 feet this season, presumably because Manfred has re-juiced his balls a little bit after last year's ones were notoriously dead (except when the Yankees were playing). But still, I think a pretty good guess about what's happened here would be that the humidor is having a bigger effect than we realized.
We likely didn’t notice this last year because the Blue Jays’ offence was so good relative to the league (they went from having a 112 wRC+ with 262 home run in ‘21 to having a 118 wRC+, albeit with just 200 homers in ‘22), and now were maybe getting a truer sense of how the Rogers Centre would be playing even if the outfield dimensions had stayed the same.
This doesn't explain why the Jays' home-road splits are so wonky this season, but I could buy it as to why we're not seeing the hitter-friendly Rogers Centre we all expected.
Belt getting loose
The Jays announced here on Tuesday afternoon that self-appointed team MVP Brandon Belt been activated from the injured list. The former World Series winner had been out for more than two weeks with what the team has called "lumbar spine muscle spasms," and will return to a lineup that isn't quite as desperate for his bat's thump as it had been for most of the summer (though will obviously still welcome him back with open arms).
Belt technically leads the Blue Jays with a 134 wRC+ this season, though that's somewhat misleading given that he's only managed 382 plate appearances and rarely faces left-handed pitching. But when you factor in that it felt like he was going to Saltalmacchia his way out of the league back in April, and has posted a 151 wRC+ since May 1st, slashing .269/.394/.512 over that span, it's pretty hard to complain.
Plus, I mean, someone is going to have to unlock the mystery that is Tuesday’s Yankees starter Michael effing King, right??
The player who won’t get an opportunity to do that is Spencer Horwitz. The youngster acquitted himself well during his time in the majors, but as an extremely poor man's version of Belt, doesn't really have a role now that the genuine article is back.
I'm sure plenty of fans would have given some consideration to sending Santiago Espinal down instead (though he's hit well enough lately and is really the only guy on the roster outside of Bo that should be playing shortstop, so from the team's perspective that was likely moot). Cam Eden might also have been a candidate, though he really does seem like a potential weapon on the bases. And as much as Davis Schneider may be slumping at the moment, he's certainly earned the right to work through some struggles. So it had to be Horwitz.
He's technically been optioned down to the Florida Complex League, though that's likely just a paper move because Buffalo's season has already ended.
Joing him "in" "Florida" will be Nate Pearson, who certainly hasn't emerged this season as the kind of bullpen weapon the Jays have been so starved of in recent years. Fortunately, things in the 'pen have gone well enough that it doesn't really matter at this point, but we're getting to make-or-break for the big-armed former top prospect, who came into this season with two minor league options remaining, meaning he'll go into 2024 on his final one.
Jay Jackson is back in the big leagues as the corresponding move. (Yay!)
• DO NOT FREAK OUT C-BASS
• I know we're all having a nice moment here, what with the playoffs looking as likely as ever for this Jays team, but I thought this was a pretty interesting chart. Minnesota, Texas, and Baltimore could all get playoff wins in the coming weeks (as could the Diamondbacks and Cubs), which would leave the Blue Jays in a pretty ugly place here if the worst happens and they miss or get swept out of the wild card round again. Especially considering their most recent playoff win came back in year-one of the Shapiro-Atkins regime. File this one away for the long, cold winter, just in case.
• I’ve seen a bunch of Brewers fans be all like, “You don’t get Rowdy’s sense of humour, he’s was just deadpanning or talking about some good-natured ribbing,” but I don’t know, man. I’m not sure the “you walk into the clubhouse, you introduce yourself to your new teammates” thing jibes with that. Anyway, potential drama among a couple of Blue Jays legends!
• Speaking of Yankees-Blue Jays connections—which we are, because if Donaldson had spent all year in, say, Arizona, I doubt anybody would have cared about that Tellez story enough to make it go viral—Sportico’s Barry M. Bloom suggests that if the Yankees choose to fire manager Aaron Boone after the season, “don’t be surprised to see [Blue Jays bench coach Don] Mattingly’s name among the potential replacements.”
OK, but then who would be there to save John Schneider from his worst instincts? 😂
• An interesting bit of human interest stuff here, as Sportsnet's Donnovan Bennett takes us inside the Blue Jays' team barbershop for a day.
• I know there are folks who still bristle about it, and I was speaking with a friend recently that thinks there’s just not enough time to enjoy the richness of the ballpark experience anymore because games move so rapidly—which… fair enough. But when it comes to the pitch clock, I find it hard to argue with the results.
• Great stuff from Blue Jays Nation, as Brennany Delaney takes an early look at the guys in the Jays’ farm system who will be eligible for the Rule 5 draft this coming winter. The return of Mitch White—who finished the season with 35 Ks to 10 walks in 26 1/3 innings for Buffalo, with a 1.37 ERA over five starts—will be maginficent.
• Sounds like things are coming to a head for the Padres, as Kevin Acee of the San Diego Union Tribune reported this week that “in part because they are out of compliance with MLB regulations regarding their debt service ratio, according to multiple sources, the plan is to go into 2024 with player commitments of around $200 million.”
This season their payroll reached $253 million. And while there are enough players coming off their books that they should still be able to keep most of their core guys, I doubt that’s going to stop fans this winter from dreaming up some incredibly creative trade proposals that will absolutely never happen in reality.
• Sticking with the Padres, this seems accurate:
• Lastly, Toronto's own Joey Votto! (OK, Etobicoke)! The 40-year-old's contract with the Reds contains a club option for 2024 with a $7 million buyout that will likely be exercised this winter. He's never played for another organization. And though the Reds sill have an outside shot at getting into the playoffs (I think!), it seems unlikely, and even less likely they they would do so and survive the wild card round to play another home game this season. Votto has not said if he plans to retire, but based on the crowd reaction in Cincinnati ahead of potentially his last home at-bat on Sunday, it's clear how badly Reds fans want to see him back. Great moment.
• OK, OK, one more thing. Michael King? Seriously?? Seriously? Michael King? Michael King is the guy you can’t hit? Tonight’s Yankees starter Michael King? Come on boys, it’s been like 20 innings of this now over the last couple years. Michael King? Come on. Seriously? Let’s gooooo already.
⚾ Be sure to follow me on Twitter // Follow the Batflip on Facebook // Want to support without going through Substack? You could always send cash to email@example.com on Paypal or via Interac e-Transfer. I assure you I won’t say no. ⚾