Weekend Up: Ain't it funny how leads slip away...
On Alejandro Kirk, Yusei Kikuchi, José Berríos, Cavan Biggio, Guillermo Martinez, Yusver Zulueta, long relievers, Kendrys Morales?, and more!
The Jays rushed out to a lead on Sunday, just like they rushed out to a lead in their series against the Brewers this weekend, just like they rushed out to a lead over the Boston Red Sox — who visit the Rogers Centre for three games starting on Monday — in the AL East race this season. You’ll never guess what happened next.
So let’s talk about it! Here’s Weekend Up!…
Up: Friday: Jays 9 - Brewers 4
Alejandro Kirk, man.
In a game where Alek Manoah, without his best command, became the pitcher with the highest winning percentage before the age of 25 in more than 100 years. In a game that saw Cavan Biggio on base four times, smashing a home run, and raising his wRC+ on the season to 124 — fourth best among the 10 Blue Jays with at least 100 plate appearances this season (albeit in fewer than half the PA), including Teoscar and Lourdes (111 each), Bo (102), and Santiago Espinal (99). In a game where Gurriel and Guerrero each smashed RBI doubles. In a game in which the perpetually snake-bitten Matt Chapman finally got some decent batted ball luck, slicing a three-run double just beyond the outstretched glove of Jace Peterson, his counterpart at third base…
…all anyone could talk about was the Round Mound with his Knee on the Ground. (Note to self: Swing and a miss!). And why shouldn’t they have? Look who was there at third base, trotting home on Chapman’s hit for the Jays’ first run of the day, having singled to start the second inning.
And he wasn’t finished after that. Kirk had a four hit night, including a home run to put the Jays up 8-1. As noted on Sportsnet's broadcast, he became just the third catcher in MLB history to have two such games before the age of 24, joining Joe Mauer and Thurman Munson — the seventh and 13th best catchers of all time according to JAWS, and guys who should eventually be in Cooperstown by all rights. (While we're at it, Jays fans, how about some justice for Gene Tenace! The glory-era Jays coach ranks 13th on the same list, between Munson and Buster Posey.)
Kirk’s total bases trend from Tuesday’s game through Friday’s, which we can see in the following chart from Props.cash — player prop research made easy! — was also very tasty indeed.
At the end of Friday’s action, Kirk ranked 15th among all position players in fWAR, 13th by rWAR, and 6th by WARP!
By fWAR he was, at the time, ranked right in between Freddie Freeman and Bryce Harper. His 161 wRC+ for the season ranked ninth among all qualified hitters — and we're talking about a guy who had an abysmal April! Since May 1, Kirk's 196 wRC+ is the fourth best in the sport, trailing only Paul Goldschmidt, Yordan Alvarez, and Rafael Devers. A 23-year-old catcher!
Among the 45 catchers with at least 100 plate appearances through the end of the day Friday, Kirk ranked first in wRC+, WAR, average, on-base, slugging, strikeout rate, and I'm sure plenty of others.
It’s no wonder, then, that the Alejanbros have been out in full force voting for him to start the All-Star game! These Kirkoholics will not let their man be anonymous!
It’s also no wonder that all Blue Jays fans collectively held their breath when he had to be removed from this one after a backswing from former Blue Jays teammate Jonathan Davis hit him on the hand, requiring X-rays. Fortunately, the crisis was averted and he was back in the lineup a day later.
Down: Saturday: Jays 5 - Rays 1
Hoo boy. I’d joke that Yusei Kikuchi went out there, dropped trou, and took a big ol’ dump on the mound and everybody’s afternoon on Saturday, except if Kikuchi shits like he pitches — which is like shit! — I’m not sure it’s plausible that he’d have hit the target.
It’s been a long time, but Kikuchi on Saturday reminded me of how one of my favourite criticisms of the Shapiro-Atkins Jays used to be that they were too clever by half — so overly confident in their abilities and processes that it created problems or just annoyed the shit out of people.
Sitting Vlad on Victoria Day in his rookie season, when he was the only player on the team worth watching and the then-new “dynamic pricing” system meant that the huge walk-up crowd paid top dollar for the privilege of not seeing him, because some inflexible algorithm of the High Performance department said so? Playing hardball with Edwin Encarnacion in free agency and ending up with Kendrys Morales? Choosing not to trade Josh Donaldson in the winter between 2017 and ‘18 because of some farcical unwillingness to admit they wouldn’t contend, then watching him struggle through injury to the point that they could only, at the last possible second, get Julian Merryweather for him? Crowing about turning “14 years of control into 42 years of control” after trading away Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez?
There were a number of things like this. And now one has to wonder if the hubris it took to hand Kikuchi a three-year, $36 million contract this spring might be on its way to somewhere near the top of this list.
This wasn’t giving up nothing of value for Taijuan Walker, Robbie Ray, or Steven Matz. It wasn’t signing Ray to a one-year, $8 million. Three years and $36 million is a lot, and it was as much a bet on Kikuchi as it was one the Jays made on themselves — their coaches, their pitching lab, their analysts. And it’s a bet that, right now, they’re losing.
That doesn’t mean it was a bad bet to make, or that it can’t still ultimately be a winning one, but for right now they’ve put themselves in an ugly position, and it’s not entirely just about how much Kikuchi sucks. Which he does!
Despite the poor results he’d produced in him MLB career to that point, when Kikuchi opted out of his deal with the Mariners and entered free agency you could easily see why a team with the kind of success at rebirthing pitchers the Jays have had recently would view him as a smart guy to bet on. He’d had a very nice run over 24 starts/140 innings from the start of 2020 until about the start of the sticky stuff ban last season, at which point the wheels fell off.
Add in the fact that he has rare velocity for a left-handed starter — only Shane McClanahan, Jesús Luzardo, and Carlos Rodón threw harder in 2021 — as well as some quality secondary pitches, and clearly some very tasty ingredients are there.
A smart team could do very well with an arm like that, provided they could get Kikuchi himself to buy in on the changes they wanted him to make.
The fact that he signed here implies that he was willing to do so, but we’ve been able to see evidence of it, too. Kikuchi has dropped the pause from his delivery, in addition to other, more subtle mechanical tweaks. He’s also combined his slider and cutter into a single pitch that’s harder than the slider but has more break than the cutter. And, though he maybe still doesn’t throw it enough (sometimes — like Saturday, when he had absolutely no idea where it was going — understandably so), he’s considerably increased his four-seamer usage.
Thing is, there’s a difference between starting that project in late November and starting it March 12th, which was the day this spring that Kikuchi signed.
Robbie Ray started working with Pete Walker and the Jays’ staff in August 2020, spent time in the bullpen *COUGH*, got a full offseason to work with the Jays’ guidance, got a full spring training, and still didn't exactly charge out of the gate fully formed. Steven Matz was acquired by the Jays on January 28th, giving him at least a full spring training to work with the club, and yet he headed into the All-Star break last year with a 4.72 ERA. The great 2021 campaign that earned Matz a four-year, $44 million deal with the Cardinals was really more about a great second half, in which he pitched to a 2.91 ERA over 14 starts.
On one hand it’s heartening to remember that the transformations that the Jays helped Ray and Matz make didn’t happen overnight, and that Kikuchi is still much earlier into his process than they were when it finally clicked. On the other, the Jays painted themselves into a corner by agreeing to move forward with the Kikuchi Project so late in the game. They also painted themselves into a corner because they did this while handing him a three-year contract, making a bullpen assignment or an outright release much more complicated than it ever would have been for Matz and Ray on their one-year deals.
And now I think it’s fair to wonder if Kikuchi would have been the right guy to bet on even if all the other conditions were perfect. I don’t remember Charlie Montoyo ever being quite so pointed and openly frustrated with Matz (or just about any player) as he has been with Kikuchi, telling reporters after Saturday’s game, “I'm not going to sit here and make excuses for him. He hasn't pitched well. And he put us in a tough spot today again.”
I also don’t remember those guys being so utterly incapable of locating their fastballs as Kikuchi was against the Brewers.
Ugly stuff. Maybe even predictably ugly stuff, given how Kikuchi’s 2021 ended (though anyone snorting that front office signed a bad pitcher and got a bad pitcher is either being disingenuous or clueless about what this move was all about). And while I don’t expect the Jays to give up on this hubristic endeavor — nor should they — what I think we can all agree on is that they need to win baseball games right now, so this has to stop. At least in the form that it’s currently taking.
The solution here, of course, is simple. Max Castillo pitched well enough to get himself a start on Thursday against the Rays when Kikuchi’s turn in the rotation is next due up. Trent Thornton, Jeremy Beasley, Matt Gage, Casey Lawrence — there are some depth guys around that also can’t possibly be worse. Kikuchi needs a phantom injury and a trip to the IL for a while, or a spot in the bullpen where he can pitch in garbage time and get himself sorted while minimizing the damage he can do. Period.
Now is not the time for the kind of overconfidence or inflexibility that characterized some of the worst decisions of this regime’s early years.
(I’ve seen folks pipe-dreaming about getting him to the minors, either via options or outright. That may technically be possible given that he’s never been optioned and has less than five years of big league service time — the rules surrounding this are complicated enough for a layman like yours truly at the best of times, but it’s vanishingly rare to have a guy who came through the posting system on his second guaranteed multi-year big league contract be bad enough for this to be a consideration — and if so… cool beans? However, the most pertinent stuff I’ve been able to find on the matter says that there are some cases where service time in foreign leagues is taken into consideration regarding a player’s Article XIX-A rights — good lord my brain is already melting! — which, if granted, mean that a player can’t be optioned without consent and can refuse any outright assignment. Whether that would apply to Kikuchi is unclear to me, but my suspicion is that because his original contract with the Mariners was not subject to bonus pool restrictions — i.e. he was over 25 and had played more than six years of pro ball in Japan — it probably does. Either way, even if possible I don’t think they’d do it for a host of other reasons, including that it would be an awful look for them in the eyes of players and agents, and would probably do serious damage to the relationship with a guy who, like it or not, is going to be around for a while.)
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Down: Sunday: Jays - Brewers
Welp. There was no hubris involved in the Jays’ acquisition of José Berríos last summer. No overconfidence when they backed a truckload of money up to his house in the form of a seven-year, $131 million extension last winter. Those were high prices paid for a pitcher who fully deserved it. Just solid, smart baseball moves from an organization that looked like it finally had its big boy pants on. Moves that any team the could have done would done. A trade the Twins probably didn’t want to make! An extension they thought they probably weren’t going to get signed! An objectively great thing for the Toronto Blue Jays organization that will still undoubtedly — undoubtedly — work out well for the team, no matter how ugly the blip that has been the first three months of his 2022 season has been.
And yet, this sure is one hell of an ugly blip.
There are few things that get under my skin more than when people offer the most negative thing they can think to say as though it’s some kind of biting analysis, but what else can you say except that was really bad and can’t keep happening?
Josh Goldberg tweeted during the game that Berríos has failed to complete three innings three times already this season in 15 starts. In his entire career before 2022 that happened only five times in 147 starts. I’m sure there are all kinds of other numbers one could throw out to say that this isn't him or that what he's going through is really weird. Berríos turned 28 less than a month ago. He throws just as hard as he always has. And in this one he'd allowed eight hits and eight runs before he recorded his first strikeout.
And yet it’s worth remembering that we’re not far removed from Berríos very much looking like he’d turned a corner.
He allowed just six runs over 22 innings (2.45 ERA) with 26 strikeouts and just three walks over his first three starts in June. That kind of swing-and-miss has never quite been his game, but that's certainly more like it.
So what's was different between those games and these last two? Well, let's just look at his best June start — a 13 strikeout, seven inning gem against the Twins — and the one on Sunday.
At one point on Sunday's broadcast, Arash Madani relayed that Berríos and the Jays have been making tweaks to try to keep his arm better on time and get his fastball to the glove side. But really in neither game did he throw a lot of fastballs to that spot. He did, on Sunday, throw a ton of four-seamers though, as they accounted for 38% of his pitches, compared to just 26% against the Twins. And Sunday's heaters were generally more up in the zone.
What really stands out to me, however, is his secondary stuff. Against the Twins he threw either a curve or a sinker 53% of the time. The sinker was key, burying itself in on right-handers and getting them to swing over top of it thanks to a three-inch bump in his average arm-side run. The curve worked extremely well off of that, generating plenty of swing-and-miss in its own right as it broke low and away to right-handers. The below examples are extremes from that game, but they certainly make a hitter's job look awfully difficult.
Conversely, on Sunday the sinker was catching a bit more of the plate, and the curve wasn't really finding the sweet spot — often coming in too low and away, or backed up and out over the plate. The sinker's arm-side run was two inches below his average, or five inches less than against the Twins.
The sinker was spinning a little bit more against the Twins than on Sunday against the Brewers, by a difference of about 60 rpm per pitch, but I'm not sure that's substantial enough to cause such different movement. And both days he was throwing the pitch at almost exactly the same velocity.
So what do we make of that? I honestly don't know. And, based on how his last couple of outings have gone, Berríos and the Jays don’t seem to have any answers either.
“I wasn’t able to locate my pitches and they came aggressive to me. I wasn’t able to throw quality strikes (just) good strikes for hitters,” he told reporters after the game.
He’s going to get an exponentially longer leash than Kikuchi through all this, but man alive. I'd sure like to see Twins version of Berríos back very soon — the one that pitched against them earlier in the month, or the one that pitched for them for six years. I’ll take either!
Cavan Biggio is still at the point in his season where an 0-for-4, like he had on Saturday, can knock his wRC+ down nine points, and where five hits in three games (including two homers) can jolt it from a meagre 79 to 123 — which is where it stood before Saturday's 0-fer. In other words, those rushing to crow about his success and rub it in the face of the "haters" would be well advised to take a seat for a minute.
I don't think the story of Biggio's big league career can yet be boiled down quite so simply as "he was good, then he was hurt, now he's healthy and good again." Pitchers have adjusted over that span as well. Biggio saw a significant increase in the number of fastballs thrown to him over his first three years in the majors (though that's been dialed back slightly this year, perhaps because so far, in a tiny sample, he's handled velocity much better than previously in his career). He's also seen a big increase in how often he gets shifted, going from 76.6% of the time as a rookie to 88.5% this season. His power, though better lately, is still not where it was in 2019 or 2020.
All that said, what Biggio has been doing lately is certainly very intriguing. And I think that I can speak for all the supposed "haters" when I say that I'd much rather it be true that Biggio is a very good major league hitter than be right that there were a bunch of reasons to think it might not work out for him.
I tweeted some thoughts on Biggio on Saturday, noting that his profile is tough to make work as anything more than a league average hitter. In 2021, virtually all of the guys with a sub-.400 slugging percentage and an elite walk rate were about in that range. This year that isn't exactly the case, as Biggio's .209/.358/.372 line through Saturday had him sitting on a 114 wRC+. Thanks to Rob Manfred's balls the offensive environment has changed, and though it may be sapping his power somewhat, relatively it seems to be giving Biggio a boost.
His power was also really only sapped during his abysmal start to the season. Biggio returned from Buffalo on May 6th, and through Saturday had slashed .270/.410/.492 (158 wRC+) since then, with an ISO of .222. That's just a 79 PA sample, and the .375 BABIP is high, but there's obviously a lot to like there.
We know he has an elite eye at the plate, but we also know that when he struggled in 2021 and early 2022 that didn't matter nearly as much. Biggio's walk rate sunk to 12.6% last year and stayed in the same range through this April.
No matter what else is going on with his swing, Biggio can take a bunch of walks, but when he poses no threat to do damage when he swings, pitchers tend to be more aggressive and the walks dry up somewhat. However, since his return from Buffalo he's walked an extremely high 19% of the time, and if he can sustain any semblance of the power he's shown over the last month, I think it's logical that he can get that number back to where it was in '19/20.
That might be all it takes to make him a really valuable player — especially when deployed in order to maximize his production, and especially on this Jays team that not only needs left-handed hitters but guys who give opposing pitchers a different type of challenge.
I'm not saying that the old Biggio is back. He's going to hit a lot of balls into the shift, his exit velocities still leave a lot to be desired, and it would be foolish to look at a hot month declare everything hunky dory. But it would be a great thing for this team if it were. And given the knack Biggio has shown in the past for proving doubters wrong, I think it would be just as foolish to believe that it can't be.
Five for Fighting
Guillermo Martinez was suspended for five games for his hilarious confrontation with incompetent umpire Doug Eddings during the lineup exchange in Chicago on Wedneaday, an outcome that seems excessive, but is not really surprising. MLB doesn’t want to set a precedent that such incidents are OK, so the suspension can’t look completely toothless (it would be nice if they did this when pitchers intentionally throw at guys for some perceived slight or the breaking of some dumbshit “unwritten rule,” but alas).
If the Jays’ staff discussed what Martinez would do beforehand — which they may not have — it would seem they did their best to make the inevitable suspension as toothless as possible. Much of Martinez’s role consists of prep work, cage work, batting practice, etc. The suspension won’t affect those aspects of his job, he just can’t be in the dugout or the clubhouse once the game begins.
As for the irony of the genuinely aggrieved party in this situation — the guy whose team was umpired out of two full runs in a one-run loss — being the one getting suspended, I think my old friend Tim put it best.
Tim and Friends @timandfriendsBlue Jays hitting coach Guillermo Martinez was SUSPENDED 5 GAMES for this pre-game exchange that got him ejected on Wednesday. Did Martinez deserve to be suspended? 🤔 https://t.co/a3WnAw6SeR
• For the sake of completeness I should note here that over the course of the weekend it was also revealed that Nate Pearson is dealing with a lat strain, which is the shoulder discomfort he was lifted from a game for last week. There’s no timetable for his return as yet. (Fun-ish fact: MLB.com’s glossary includes various common baseball injuries, including typical recovery timelines. As the ones for a lat strain vary, and we don’t know the grade of Pearson’s diagnosis, it doesn’t do us much good at the moment. But the second we hear that information, if we ever do, I assure you I’ll be heading straight for this page.)
• I’d say more about The Nate Pearson Thing here but I’ve already seen at least one question come in about it in the submissions for the coming week’s mail bag (link below), so I’ll hold off until then.
• You surely know this by now, but reliever Yimi Garcia did indeed end up on the IL before the start of this series, with Jeremy Beasley recalled to take his place. Really could use finding some relief help here, Ross!
• Speaking of relief help, one option for the Jays may eventually be flamethrower Yosver Zulueta, who began the year at Dunedin, was moved up to Vancouver in May, and on Saturday was reportedly moved up again to New Hampshire. Zulueta’s fast rise isn’t necessarily unexpected, as he is a 24-year-old out of Cuba and missed most of 2021 with a torn ACL. We’ll see how he fares against more advanced competition, but the youngsters in Low- and High-A have been significantly overmatched by him, as he has 54 strikeouts in 35 2/3 innings so far this season. Zulueta has done that as a starter, and long-term you have to believe that's what the Jays will continue developing him as, but he can touch triple-digits with his fastball, has a good low-80s curve, and will have to be added to the Jays' 40-man to protect him from selection in the Rule 5 draft this winter. Smells like there could be an opportunity to add him early and use him out of the 'pen down the stretch if all keeps going well.
• Zulueta, as FanGraphs noted in their Jays top prospects list from back in January, was acquired just before the 2019 international signing period began, despite the fact that it was known he needed Tommy John surgery, using bonus pool space they acquired when trading Dwight Smith Jr. and Kendrys Morales early on in that season. May have to reevaluate my take on the Morales-Encarnación thing after all!
• Trent Thornton had that ugly blow-up against the Yankees last weekend, and yet has somehow gone 6 2/3 shutout innings with just four hits and two walks allowed since. I don't want to say that the Jays' starting pitching depth is potentially better than we give it credit for, but between him, Matt Gage, and Maximo Castillo, they've got some nice performances of late out of their long relievers. Savour it before Kikuchi takes over the role, folks!
• ICYMI, on Saturday I put out a call for questions for a new mail bag I’ll be doing in the coming days. Head over to this post and fire me off a question in the comments! (Yes comments are for paid subscribers only, etc. etc.)
• Lastly, Nick and I have our schedule set for the upcoming week, and we’ll be coming to you live with brand new episodes of Blue Jays Happy Hour at the conclusion of Monday’s game with the Red Sox and the conclusion of Thursday’s game with the Rays (first pitch for both is 7:07 PM ET). Come listen in live on Callin, drop us a Q in the chat, or even give us a call — just download the app in the App Store or on Google Play, then follow us on our show page.
Also, a note for those who may have missed it when we began doing shows for Callin: if you can’t make it for the show when it’s live and would like to listen later, these episodes will not pop up in any former Blue Jays Happy Hour feed. You’ll need to subscribe to us in your podcast app as though it’s a new show. You can do so at Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, or in the podcast app of your choice!
Monday, 7:07 PM ET: Jays vs. Red Sox (Kevin Gausman vs. Connor Seabold), TV: Sportsnet, Radio: Sportsnet 590
Tuesday, 7:07 PM ET: Jays vs. Red Sox (Ross Stripling vs. Michael Wacha), TV: Sportsnet One, Radio: Sportsnet 590
Wednesday, 7:07 PM ET: Jays vs. Red Sox (Alek Manoah vs. Nick Pivetta), TV: Sportsnet, Radio: Sportsnet 590
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