Turning into a skid...
On pitching frustrations, middle relief, Manoah's slider, a confused Kikuchi, Robbie Ray, bad Berríos, Nate Pearson, All-Star voting, a dumb hat, Alejandro Kirk, trade talk, and more!
The Blue Jays have hit a bit of a skid — a thing that’s as common in baseball as it is frustrating, but worrisome nonetheless.
As was noted multiple times on Sportsnet's broadcast on Monday night, the last turn through the rotation has been an ugly one. Kevin Gausman went 2 1/3 innings against the Orioles back on Thursday, which I wrote about at the time. Ross Stripling could only last 3 2/3 against the Yankees in their series opener on Friday. The club's suprise stalwart, Alek Manoah, at least gave them 5 1/3 innings in an umpire-aided 4-0 loss before Yusei Kikuchi did his whole infuriating thing for four innings on Sunday, only to have the team's bats bail him out, and $131 million worth of José Berríos laid another inexplicable turd on Monday night (which the bats this time couldn't clean up).
Nothing's ever as good or as bad as it seems, but suddenly — and with three big home dates with the Red Sox (1.5 games behind the Jays) and five with the Rays (2.0 games back, albeit hurting after going 2-8 in their last 10 and on Monday losing Manuel Margot and Kevin Kiermaier to an IL that already includes a laundry list of pitchers, plus catcher Mike Zunino and infielders Wander Franco and Brandon Lowe) looming next week — this does feel like something they're going to need to get sorted real fast. Even the White Sox, who are 3.5 games behind the Jays with two games left in this series, are a threat.
And Frankie Montas of the A's or Luis Castillo of the Reds are not likely riding in to save the rotation — not at the exorbitant prices it's going to take to outbid every other contender for their services, especially when the Jays are already paying so much for Gausman and Berríos to be their frontline guys. Some relief help should be attainable though. *COUGH*
So let’s talk about it!
Down: Friday: Jays 3 - Yankees 12
I don't want to dwell too much on recapping these games that are already so stale, but there are certainly things we can learn from them going forward. As mentioned, Ross Stripling could only give his team 3 2/3 innings here. The base paths were busy in the second, third, and fourth innings, and he eventually gave way to Trent Thornton, whose performance in the fifth all but sealed this one for New York.
Stripling's line of two runs on five hits and two walks over 3 2/3 innings doesn't look awful for a fifth starter, but only just. And maybe only because Thornton allowed five runs while only managing to get a single out. Trevor Richards, who followed, was hardly any better, allowing three runs in just an inning of work, ballooning his June ERA to 11.25 and promptly getting sent to the injured list with a neck strain. (The joke about him straining to watch all the rockets opposing batters have been hitting off him has been made, but go ahead and make it again! It's fun, and apt!)
Though this is the only blemish on Thornton's record of late, it was a pretty big one. And these performances highlight something that Josh here has correctly been banging on about for a while now.
Stripling I'm less worried about. His kitchen sink approach, while necessary, means that there are going to be days where not every pitch is working. (Though, evidently, he likely really is keeping tabs on all that in real time — just as I suspected last week, and as Saturday's Yankees starter, Jameson Taillon, confirmed.)
There are going to be days like this, better days, and worse ones. You don't want the worse ones, but Stripling's not the guys who needs to step it up here. It's the ones ahead of him and the ones behind him on the depth chart that are a worry. Especially after Nate Pearson was removed from Sunday’s Bisons game with shoulder discomfort (prompting me to tweet that at this point it feels like he’s significantly closer to being a Merryweather than a Manoah). Ugh.
Down: Saturday: Jays 0 - Yankees 4
Alek Manoah had a 50% whiff rate on his slider in this one, unfortunately for the Jays that was mostly because Yankees hitters only swung at two of the 15 of them he offered — easily the lowest mark of the season for the pitch.
It was also the least he's used the pitch this season, though that can likely be attributed to the five left-handed or switch-hitters the Yankees threw at him. Still, that's one for the conspiracy theorists out there.
So, too, was the performance of the umpiring crew that clearly blew a hit-by-pitch call in the third, allowing Jose Trevino to take first base despite clearly having swung at the pitch, then ejecting Charlie Montoyo for arguing about it (in place of Manoah, who Montoyo was shielding from getting ejected in his own right). Sadly, Raimel Tapia's inability to squeeze a ball (admittedly on a tough play) in the sixth can really only be chalked up as something Raimel Tapia will do from time to time because he's not very good rather than anything especially nefarious.
It was, indeed, a hitter from the left side that did the most damage against Manoah in this one (though Kiner-Falefa had a day in his own right), as the switch-hitting Aaron Hicks smashed a three run double down the right field line on a 92 mph 3-1 fastball in the top of the fourth. The pitch wasn't so far off where most of Manoah's fastballs to lefties were landing as to call it a huge mistake, but I think it's safe to say it was not a great pitch at 3-1 to a guy who was ready for it and could have used a little more elevation.
Am I nitpicking Manoah a little too much because I expect so much of him? Probably, yeah. But he wasn’t at all getting the ball down and in on the Yankees’ lefties the way he had been the start before against Baltimore, and I really do think that’s where he needs to be in order to be successful. (Though it must be noted here that this was partly due to him clearly feeling much more comfortable with the changeup. It must also be noted that he's been more effective against them in June, with opposing LHB producing a .227 wOBA against him, compared to .330 in April and .373 in May.)
Anyway, hit the baseball!
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Up: Sunday: Jays 10 - Yankees 9
This one was obviously a blast — at least during the points where it wasn't soul crushing — and while normally I'd be all over posting fun GIFs and pics and whooping it up, it seems a little late for that now, doesn't it? The Jays turned in what seemed like the kind of stunner they pulled back on September 3 of last year against the A's, which propelled them to 22 wins over their final 31 games. Then on Monday in Chicago it felt like they gave all of that momentum right back, so let's just talk about what the hell us up with Yusei Kikuchi.
As mentioned above, Kikuchi was only able to give the Jays four innings in this one, bringing his total innings this year down to 52 2/3 over 13 starts, or less than 4 1/3 innings per start. In the majors this year so far there have been 137 pitchers to throw at least 600 pitches. Only five of them have averaged more than Kikuchi's 18.44 pitches per inning.
Last year Kikuchi averaged 16.32 pitches per inning, which doesn't sound like a huge difference until you look and see that the leader among qualified starters in this category here in 2022 is the Yankees' Jordan Montgomery at 14.28, and that the Jays' leader is Alek Manoah at 14.58. The ability to be efficient adds up! At Kikuchi's average rate he'll be at something like 92 pitches through five innings while Manoah will only be at 73.
And this was supposed to be the efficient version of Kikuchi! The one who throws his fastball a lot more. The one who was ideally going to take the same kind of velocity from the left side as Robbie Ray, mix the heater with a hard slider (in Kikuchi's case a mix of his former slider and former cutter that finds the 85-88 mph "sweet spot" which was just about exactly where Ray's was) and be off to the races.
It hasn't worked. So why hasn't it worked?
Though much has been made of Kikuchi's unwillingness to throw the fastball, and there may be something to that…
…the reality is that he tends to nibble with it, and be all over the place with it. Ray is hardly what you'd call a command guy, but look at where his fastballs to right-handed hitters ended up last season as compared to where Kikuchi's are this year.
I don't think it's difficult to understand why one guy is far less comfortable using the pitch than the other.
Their sliders tell a similar story.
Ray was burying a ton of sliders last year to where guys were swinging over top of them, Kikuchi isn’t doing that or coming in on batters’ hands nearly as much.
In other words, Robbie Ray he is not. To the point where he and/or the Jays may have switched something up in this one. The slider Kikuchi threw against the Yankees averaged just 85.4 mph — the first time it's been that low since his third start of the season, after which the Jays really started tinkering. And the vertical break on the pitch was -36 inches — the first time he's been below -31 since, again, that third start.
Did it work? The results say no, considering how short his outing was. Three hits and two walks with five strikeouts over four isn't bad, but when two of those hits left the yard, and when things would only have been worse if not for a couple of great throws from Alejandro Kirk, it's hard to call it a good day at the office. He did get some fastballs in on the hands of right-handers, though. And there were some pretty decent sliders inside. So maybe that’s a form of progress. Still, it wasn’t good enough, and there were a ton of non-competitive pitches — 12.5% of Kikuchi’s offerings ended up in the “waste” part of the zone, which puts that start among the bottom 200 of over 2,000 outings this year in which a starter threw at least 50 pitches.
Afterwards Adam Cimber (who has otherwise been great this year) and Max Castillo (in his big league debut) went and did the thing where the bullpen poured gasoline on the fire. A great comeback saved the game, and the series, and showed the stupid mighty Yankees that the Jays can hang with them and won’t roll over when things look hopeless. It meant something. It’s just hard to feel as great about it because we still have one more inadequate pitching performance to dissect!
Down: Monday: Jays 7 - White Sox 8
José Berríos seemed like he’d maybe started turning a corner of late. Chris Black of Sportsnet noticed that he seems to have changed where he sets up on the rubber right around the time things started getting better. I noticed, via a chart from Props.cash — player prop research made easy! — that you can see how that move aligned with the (sort of) upward trend.
Then we got six runs on nine hits and a walk over four innings with just one strikeout. And, of course, more gas on the fire from the team’s middle relief corps. Woof.
I think going to David Phelps to start the fifth with the score 6-2 was a fine move, much like Cimber the day prior. It just was unfortunate how it didn’t work out. Berríos, on the other hand, needs to be better.
And he can be! I think it’s heartening, or at least should be for most fans, that while the results have been ugly across a number of starts for him this season, the issues really haven’t been the same. He struggled with location early, which ticked up after the move on the rubber. He struggled with a “dead arm,” which seemed to go away between his start in Anaheim (92.3 mph on the fastball, one strikeout) and the one against the Twins (94.1 and 13 Ks). This time it was that the breaking ball (picked up as a curve by Statcast despite also being slider-ish) "wasn't spinning," as Sportsnet's Joe Siddall put it after the game.
"I wasn't able to throw breaking balls in the spots we wanted. We want it more glove side and tonight I was missing more arm side," Berrios told reporters after the game, including Arden Zwelling of Sportsnet. "We tried to make an adjustment. But I wasn't able to finish and get that pitch down in there."
That's a fair self-assessment, as Berríos dipped below 21% useage of the breaker for just the second time this season — the other being a similarly disastrous outing in less-than-ideal weather in Cleveland back in early May.
Manager Charlie Montoyo added, "If you're only pitching with a fastball it's tough to do well, and that's what happened today."
Indeed, to the White Sox' many right-handers, Berríos threw his sinker 54% of the time in this one, and his four-seamer 15% of the time. That's especially dicey when you consider that Berríos's hard hit percentage on the four-seamer has been literally 100% over four June starts. The White Sox put 10 balls in play at 99 mph or higher, so... yeah. He needs that breaking ball working! Which it was in his previous outings!
It’s been an ugly start to that expensive new contract for Berríos, to say the least. It’s done little, I’m sure, to quell the concerns anyone might have had about his rather pedestrian 2021 Statcast numbers, or the way they’ve trended since 2018.
But, damn it, his prior season results have just been so consistent and so compelling.
Five or six innings a start, about a strikeout per inning, and an ERA of 4.00 or under. Year after year after year. This is his age-28 season. That is a pitcher you rush to give the contract the Blue Jays gave him, and you don't think twice about it. Except, well, I know people are already starting to think twice about it!
I really do believe he’ll get where he needs to be, even if it’s maybe already a little late for this season’s ERA to end up in line with the past. It would be ridiculous to think otherwise still. But is he sowing some doubt? Yeah, maybe a little.
• Alejandro Kirk leads all American League catchers in All-Star voting by more than half-a-million votes according to the first publicly available numbers. Cue salty Yankees fans. (Just be happy you’ve have a new terrible Jays hat you can wear, dorks!)
• Kirk also this week was given a lengthy profile over at FanGraphs, where Justin Choi writes that he’s the “likeliest heir around” to the throne of best catcher in baseball. Yowza!
• Three more Blue Jays are in line to start in the All-Star game: Bo Bichette, George Springer, and Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who was just also named AL Player of the Week! Doesn’t exactly feel like a week in which the Jays deserved an award, but I suppose we’ll take it!
• We’re just a week away from the one-year anniversary of the Joe Panik-for-Adam Cimber-and-Corey Dickerson trade. Feel free to make a bullpen upgrade any time now, Jays! (Handily, Shi Davidi and Ben Nicholson-Smith of Sportsnet have a great primer on the trade market — which apparently has prompted a bunch of morons in the comments to start talking about trading Bo Bichette? Lmao.)
• If anyone is headed to Milwaukee this weekend for the Jays-Brewers series, 1) maybe try to avoid the game Corbin Burnes is pitching if you really want to see a Jays win, and 2) check out Minor Leaguer’s great advance scouting report at Bluebird Banter on how to do Milwaukee up right!
• Nice to see former Jays closer Ken Giles back in the majors, as he was activated from the 60-day IL by the Mariners this week after a long layoff due to Tommy John surgery.
• Also back in action soon? Eric Pardinho. The former top prospect had Tommy John in February 2020 and has dealt with setbacks since, but is ready to resume competitive action in the Florida Complex League.
• Here on Tuesday it’s National Indigenous Peoples Day, and while I doubt any of this could have gotten approval on a short timeline to be used by the Blue Jays this year, the art below from Parkin is pretty rad and is definitely something I’d love to see the Jays get behind in the future. (Plus, I saw in another tweet that you can DM him if you want to get your hands on a shirt!)
• Lastly, Nick and I will be back at the conclusion Tuesday’s game with a brand new Blue Jays Happy Hour live on the Callin app. Come join us!
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