Thursday, June 19, 2008

Zen Dayley: Building the most inoffensive team possible...

A night away from the Jays spent waiting out a rain delay at The Zip (great to be back out at the ballpark), and nothing's changed ... 5-4 to the Brewers.

Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi's response to a question about a trade for Cincinnati's Adam Dunn during his Jays Talk appearance last night was pure pathos.

The Jays had teams during Ricciardi's early seasons that could bash out homers and the GM got roasted for it by all the know-it-alls in the Toronto media since those teams had hitters who struck out a lot didn't steal bases, which makes baseball more exciting, at least when you're 12 years old. Now they've gone the other way,tried to go with patient hitters who put the ball in play, bunt runners along and can't score any runs to save their lives (12th in the American League). J.P.'s diatribe about Dunn reflected how much his thinking has undergone an apparent 180 (which is about what the Jays are hitting with runners in scoring position).

J.P.: What do you know about Adam Dunn?

Caller: Well, he's a great hitter, he's a power hitter ...

J.P. (interjecting): He's a great hitter?! He's a lifetime .230, .240 hitter that strikes out a ton and hits home runs.

Caller: Yes, he hits home runs, which none of the Toronto Blue Jays are doing.

J.P.: You know the guy doesn't really like baseball that much?

Caller: He doesn't like -- he doesn't like baseball?

J.P.: No. You know the guy doesn't have a passion to play the game that much? How much do you know about the player? I mean, there's a reason why you're attracted to some players and there's a reason why you're not attracted to some players. I don't think you'd be very happy if we brought Adam Dunn here. I think you'd be one of the guys callin' me on Wednesday night complaining about, what, you know all the deficiences that the guy has. We've done our homework on guys like Adam Dunn and there's a reason why we don't want Adam Dunn. And I don't want to get into specifics, but we've done our homework on a lot of the guys that you guys keep mentioning to us. We're way ahead of you guys in looking at things and there's a lot of things and lot reasons why we wouldn't go get those guys.

David Mamet should write dialogue this layered. In the course of about 90 seconds, it was as if Ricciardi betrayed everything that's been said about the sneaking suspicion that his thin skin has been manifested in trying to build a team that would never offend the so-called baseball purists, including a couple who are on the staff of Toronto newspapers. It's understandable, except for the fact that his job is to put a good ballclub on the field and not worry about anyone who believes baseball games are tests of character and fortitude, when they're about who can pitch and who can hit the ball.

It's almost like he's said, "Fine, you want a team full of hitters who are all fundamentally sound fielders, who don't strike out a lot and put the ball in play? I'll give you one and we'll see how it works..." (under his breath) "... Jerks."

Obviously, that wasn't the plan, but it's sure worked out the way. Only three teams in the American League have struck out less than the Jays. They are third-last in runs scored, next-to-last in slugging percentage and home runs and last in extra-base hits. It's hard to imagine a team that could use a huge bullhunkus in the middle lineup such as the 6-foot-6, 275-lb. pound Adam Dunn, with his 18 homers this season, more than any two Blue Jays.

(Update, 1 p.m.: Dunn called the Jays GM "a clown" in response. Frankly, it's hard to argue with him.)
The reality that Ricciardi was trying to cover up last night was that teams which strike out a lot actually tend to score more runs than those who don't (also, when you strike out more, you hit into fewer double plays, something the Jays lead the world in). The Jays are reaffirming this on a nightly basis. Who knows, perhaps those high-strikeout teams swing the bats with a little more of that "urgency" that Roy Halladay mentioned back in spring training instead of hitting easy grounders to the second baseman.

The simplest way to test this was to compare the average runs total for the three biggest-whiffing teams in the AL -- the Ryan Howards -- with the most contact-crazy clubs, the Rance Mullinikses over the past few seasons. This is way too simple, and sure, there are numerous other variables that smarter people can account for, but for four years running (or jogging), the Ryans have been beating the Rances:

Ryans: 803
Rances: 778

Ryans: 794
Rances: 778

Ryans: 855
Rances: 754

Ryans: 879
Rances: 797

Ryans: 728
Rances: 749

The Rances came out ahead in 2003 -- and by a slim margin -- since the Ryans' average was dragged down by that 119-loss Detroit Tigers club, whose hitting was so bad it should have been stricken from the record. (It's the same story in 2002 -- the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, a 106-loss club, didn't strike out a lot because they had a bunch of potent hitters, they just plain sucked.)

The Baseball Prospectus Pennant Race Book has a chapter comparing static teams with dynamic teams that bunt and steal more often. The sit-on-your-ass, wait-for-the-home-run teams not only score more runs, but apparently field just as well as the smallball teams, so you're not sacrificing that much on defence.

That 25-run advantage over 162 games might not sound like much. Please keep in mind that the Jays are 11-17 in one-run games. Those 25 runs, especially if they were bunched up via the odd three-run homer, could mean a few extra wins.

For God knows what reason, Ricciardi seems to have changed tactics after years of being skewered for a so-called Moneyball approach (the critics ignored that no one ever said Moneyball was a sure-fire way to win the World Series -- Michael Lewis' book was simply about the history of an idea). Jays fans seem worse off for it, because it's led to a team whose hitters are less than the sum of their parts.

In fairness, it's really easy to simplify from this vantage point. The way the game is being played is in an upheaval in the wake of the Steroid Era, but the reality hasn't changed all that much. A team needs home-run hitters. Ricciardi, by his inaction and by his words last night, seems to be in complete denial of his team's need for power, which is why it's probably time for a new general manager.

It's absolutely asinine to be defensive over the imagined reaction to Adam Dunn's low batting average (his on-base percentage is always around .400, though), high strikeout totals and, uh, lack of polish in the field. He's a sideshow and seeing as baseball was a fallback when he couldn't become the starting QB for the University of Texas football team several years ago, so he might not eat the game for breakfast, lunch and dinner, in A.J. Burnett's immortal phrase. So what, though?

The Jays have tried to make sure they have a nice, well-rounded players at each position -- no big holes, but they also have no ways to fill holes. Trying to do it Ricciardi's right way, so-called, is failing. Like a character in The 40-Year-Old Virgin said, they need to try some wrong.

Other business...
  • J.D. Drew is worth the money. Really, he is.
  • Please read John Brattain's take on how he soured on Ricciardi. They should have been able to find a left-fielder who can actually produce an OPS above 750 (which isn't even good) by this point. Corner outfielders with that level of production should be a dime-a-dozen.
  • Here's hoping people who watched the Ottawa Lynx last season have noted that Joe Thurston is stinging the ball pretty well. He's hitting .322/.371/.459 for the Pawtucket Red Sox with 49 runs scored, most among International League middle infielders.


Big V said...

AT least the Jays drove in a couple runs last night when they had a runner in scoring position with one of none out.

sager said...

That's like saying at least Bush remembers to wear a suit ... that's what they're supposed to do.