If you've been cruising the baseball intertubes for a while, you've heard of John Brattain. He writes twice a week for The Hardball Times, makes frequent appearances at Baseball Think Factory, and now writes for Baseball Digest Daily.
While he covers all of MLB, his first love (well, second, just below beating Bud Selig with a rubber hose) is the Toronto Blue Jays. With the Jays arriving for a three-game set at Miller Park, John was kind enough to take some time away from beating Bud Selig with a rubber hose to answer my questions.
Q: Let's counter expectations and start with something positive. BJ Ryan is back, and the bullpen is a bright spot for the Jays. The core of the pen has been very effective despite quite a few walks. Are there any big surprises in this group? Do you expect these guys to keep it up for another 95 games?
A: Yes (I think they will keep it up), I predicted the Jays would have a good bullpen this year--they’re about league average in walks surrendered which is actually an improvement on the fairly recent past where they were around 5 BB/9 (they’re 3.93 BB/9 at the moment). Despite the walks, they have a better than league average WHIP and are very stingy with the long ball (.76 HR/9 IP--AL avg: .87). Part of their success is that they are not overworked (12th in IP). However, they’re 4-14 because they’re often forced to protect very, very slim leads and when they give one up, the offense rarely gets it back since (1) the offense sucks--there’s no kinder word for it and (2) the starters go so deep into games there aren’t enough innings remaining to mount a comeback (not that it would help with the Jays’ lineup).
The biggest surprise has been how quickly B.J. Ryan returned from Tommy John surgery (although he’s clearly not all the way back) and Jesse Carlson was a minor league journeyman who really hadn’t done anything notable above A ball. Jeremy Accardo’s collapse was a nasty surprise and Jason Frasor is downright infuriating--an electric arm who tends to wet the bed in big situations. He has closer stuff but when he’s been placed in that role become the other team’s secret weapon. He should be a star reliever except he he celebrates the Brewers next division title when the pressure is on. If the game is close and Gibbons brings in Frasor, I suggest Brewer fans pop the bubbly and get the celebration underway.
Q: The Jays are in last place, though with the best record of any last-place team in baseball, just a smidge below .500. They are also performing well below their Pythagorean record, which is 38-33. Is it possible for the team to sneak back into contention? If it is, what needs to happen?
A: J.P. Ricciardi needs to be fired.
J.P. Ricciardi needs to have an epiphany--he needs to get a big bat. With the bases loaded, the Jays are hitting .215/.256/.446, men on second and third, .224/.302/.265, man on third, two out .157/.257/.224, RISP/2 out: .197/.311/.285.
This lineup cannot even make productive outs--so many times they’ve had man on third, less than two out, bases loaded, none out/one out, second and third none/one out and couldn’t get a fly ball or ground ball to score the man from third. They’re 0-4 at home in extra innings and in those four extra-inning losses at home, 11 times they had man at third, fewer than two out and were left stranded. They’re 4-for-25 in hitting with RISP and less than two out in extra innings with zero extra base hits and three GIDP. They have had many opportunities to win games without needing a hit--just a deep fly ball or slow rolling ground ball would score the winning run--and failed.
There is nobody that can be counted on in key situations. One of the best overall situational hitters this year is David Eckstein--that says it all. If Ricciardi refuses to upgrade the offense then he should be fired--period. The Jays production from left field and DH are among the worst in the AL. From these two positions combined, league average production is .258/.346/.431--that’s just league average. The Blue Jays are getting .224/.319/.351 from those spots. Having league average offense from left field and DH would represent a huge upgrade for the offense but Ricciardi is unwilling or unable to find league average hitters for those holes.
Chances are good Adam Lind (hitting .331/.389/.534 in Syracuse) could produce at average-ish levels in left field (he certainly can bat better than .234/.319/.316--what Jays LF are hitting in 2008) leaving only the DH spot to fill--a platoon partner for Matt Stairs would suffice.
This team would contend with a competent GM--Ricciardi’s inability to fill these key offense spots with league average performers indicate that he clearly is incompetent.
Q: Like the bullpen, AJ Burnett is striking out a lot of guys and walking a lot of guys. He's not embarrassing himself on the mound, but he also might be the Jays' fifth best starter right now. In light of his recent comments about the Cubs, do you think he'll be a Blue Jay in August? (Please note: Cash prizes are available for answers that include both "he sucks" and "he'll be a Cub very soon.")
A: Heh … I’m more than happy keeping him and taking the draft picks. If the Jays can get a decent bat I’m all for letting him go simply because A.J. could throw nothing but goose-eggs up on the scoreboard for the rest of the season and the Jays would still be floundering with the current lineup.
A.J. is frustrated and I don’t blame him one bit. The entire pitching staff should storm into Ricciardi’s office with a noose in hand and a demand--upgrade the offense now or become the poster child for Blue Jays choke jobs in 2008. I think he’ll be a Blue Jay all year because Ricciardi is not only in love with the status quo--he does the nasty with it on his desk during his lunch hour. If he does deal Burnett, he’ll probably get a middle infielder hitting .320/.400/.410 in low A ball that will be left unprotected in the 2010 Rule 5 draft.
Q: The Toronto offense is almost shockingly punchless, with no double-digit home run hitters. Is there anything in particular to blame? What should be (or should've been) done to make the offense respectable?
A: It sounds heretical in sabermetric circles but they need to be more aggressive at the plate. Now when I say aggressive, I don’t mean hack-tastic. I’m talking about going up there looking for a pitch to cream and turning on it when it appears. Sadly, the Jays current infatuation with uber-patience means they pass on first pitch meatballs so they can begin working the count from an 0-1 deficit in hopes of drawing a bases loaded walk to stay out of the double play.
Nobody in the lineup seems to realize that pitchers like to get ahead on the count--especially with men on and may be inclined to throw a first pitch fastball.
They’re letting pitchers dictate the at bat and forcing themselves to swing in pitcher’s counts at pitcher’s pitches with predictable results. OBP is nice but walks don’t get the runner home unless the sacks are juiced. They Jays have almost as many walks (6) as extra base hits (7) with the bases loaded and because they get themselves into bad counts with their approach--they also have 13 K and 7 GIDP with three aboard.
Mahatma Gandhi has been reincarnated as Gary Denbo and is the Blue Jays hitting coach. Passivity rules!
Q: Two and a half years on, what's your take on the Lyle Overbay trade? So far, we've gotten a bunch of mediocre relief innings from Zach Jackson and an aggravating starter in Dave Bush. Better than a kick in the ass Kevin Mench, right?
A: Overall I’ve been happy with it. The broken hand Overbay suffered last year really set him back and just now he seems to be the Overbay of old. Having said that, during the Jays recent 4-10 skid (where Toronto is hitting .181 with RISP with 22 hits and 14 GIDP with 109 men LOB) Overbay is hitting just .174/.291/.239--although I think (hope, pray, completely deludin’ myself here) that‘s just a bit of random variation since he was batting .291/.389/.491 over the previous five weeks with that Olerud-esque sweet swing of his. Regardless, I think the whole lineup needs a major enema.
On the bright side, the clubhouse is full of a bunch of swell guys that J.P. would be proud to introduce to his grandmother’s church knitting club and partnership for a celibate society--and that’s all that counts in the AL East … right? Not a sinner in the bunch--why they’re such gentlemen they go out of their way not to waste Ted Rogers’ money by hitting baseballs out of the field of play so they can be re-used again and again. They even make sure that they leave minimal marks on the balls so they remain nice and clean for grandma’s club to enjoy watching.
Such nice boys too--they even know it’s impolite to hit!
I need a good stiff drink.
Next round's on me. Thanks John!