Mid-Season Review – Part One: The Starting Rotation
While not the official midway point through the season, the allstar break certainly serves as the unofficial midway point in the long, 162-game season that is major league baseball. I thought it would be fitting to take advantage of the allstar break to prepare a report card of sorts and break down the different aspects of the Blue Jays organization. This is part one of the series: The Starting Rotation.
Going into Spring Training, the rotation was much discussed as one of the strongest in baseball – on paper. Leading the pack was last year’s NL Cy Young award winner, knuckleballer R.A. Dickey. Dickey only seemed to get better in his first three seasons in the show as a knuckler and there was no reason to doubt the trend wouldn’t continue. To follow Dickey, the Jays had Brandon Morrow – a hard throwing righty soaring with potential. In 2012 he ended the season with a sub-3.00 ERA and was thought to be a dark horse for the AL Cy Young in 2013 if he was able to stay healthy and throw at least 200 innings. Then we have the ever-consistent, Mark Buehrle. With a decade of at least 10 wins and 200 innings, the Jays knew what they were getting. The number 4 on the squad – likely a number 1 or 2 in most rotations – Josh Johnson. And in a contract year. Many felt Johnson might just end 2013 with the best numbers in this rotation – even with all the depth. At number 5 to round things out, the Jays were going to turn to its opening day starter the previous two seasons – Ricky Romero. Sure, the lefty struggled mightily for 3/4 of the 2012 season, but prior to that he had gotten better every year, pitched to a sub-3.00 ERA in 2011, and had great success in the AL East. J.A. Happ was the insurance policy. Happ? An insurance policy? He could be a number 4 on most teams! The rotation was a lock to carry the load and limit the innings of a perceived weak bullpen.
Fast forward to present: The 6 starters above have a total of just 18 wins in the first 94 games. The team has just 45 total wins (meaning 27 wins have come from pitchers outside the ‘group of 6′) and the team ERA ranks 10th of 15 in the AL at 4.22. Take away the bullpen ERA, you ask? The Jays starters has pitched to a whopping 5.07 ERA – 29th of 30 teams in the MLB. Only the lowly Twins are worse. So what the hell happened? What went so horribly wrong? Well, injuries for one thing. The Jays have already used 13 different starters this year. No team in the MLB has that sort of starting depth. But also the guys that haven’t hit the DL haven’t pitched up to par. Let’s take a look at each of the 13 starters for the team and evaluate.
R.A. Dickey (128.2 IP, 8-10 record, 4.69 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 93 K’s) - Dickey struggled out of the gate and has been inconsistent all year long. He’s early struggles were blamed on a minor injury he was pitching through. He had tightness in his back and neck which caused a drop in velocity and therefore a loss of control. For instance, last season Dickey issued 54 walks. This year he has already issued 47. Because he lacked velocity, he was forced to abandon his vintage 78 – 82 mph knuckler and focus on a 68 – 71 mph variety (just a tad harder than Tim Wakefield threw). The slower knuckler and lack of control mean two things – 1) when Dickey gets behind in the count, he turns to a low-80s fastball that pretty much looks like batting practice if a batter is ready for it, and 2) while a slower knuckler is harder to control because it has more break (which leads to hitters counts where hitters look for bp fastballs), when it does flatten out it’s much easier to crush. Dickey gave up 24 homers last year. This year? 20 already. With the back and neck issues behind him, Dickey has been pitching better, albeit still inconsistent, of late. In his last 10 starts, he has allowed 36 earned runs of which 31 came in 5 starts. It seems like he has been awesome or awful with no middle ground. I find it hard to believe that the 616.2 innings Dickey threw in the prior 3 seasons were a fluke. With the minor injuries behind him and his velocity back, I look for him to have a solid second half and dominate with the best of them.
Mark Buehrle (116.0 IP, 5-6 record, 4.89 ERA, 1.37 WHIP, 77 K’s) - Buehrle was absolutely awful in April and it has severely skewed his overall numbers. Over his last 10 games, he has pitched to a respectable 3.63 ERA – this includes a 8 earned runs outing in his final start before the break. Buehrle’s trouble this year has been avoiding the longball. He’s actually on pace to give up close to his average in homers per season and HR/9, but this season it seems like he’s either giving up 3 per game or none at all. Look for Buehrle’s home run numbers to even out a bit in the second half and for him to continue his decade long streak of at least 10 wins and 200 innings.
Esmil Rogers (71.2 IP, 3-4 record, 3.64 ERA, 1.34 WHIP, 49 K’s) - While Rogers started the season in the bullpen and only came into the rotation due to injuries (his performance in the ‘pen certainly didn’t warrant a look as a starter), he looks very comfortable in the rotation with a new-found sinker. His secondary stuff is probably below average, but he has the ability to throw his curveball for strikes which has been keeping hitters off balance. When his sinker is on, he has looked nearly untouchable. Where he can get into trouble is when he opens his front shoulder early in his delivery which causes his throwing arm to drag – which causes his sinker to flatten out. If he can learn to more consistently repeat his delivery, he should have no problem maintain a rotation spot when both Happ and Morrow return from the DL. His sinker is that good.
J.A. Happ (33.0 IP, 2-2 record, 4.91 ERA, 1.55 WHIP, 26 K’s) - Happ’s season has included a lengthy DL stint thanks to a frightening ball to the head and a sprained knee during his fall to the ground. Prior to the injuries, Happ pitched 7 games and gave the Jays pretty much what you would expect. When Happ attacks hitters and keeps his pitch count down, he is tough to beat. His issue is when he gets behind and tries to nibble the corners of the plate too much. When behind he either ends up throwing down the middle (which leads to hits) or pitching around certain batters (which leads to walks). A 1.55 WHIP is too high for a starter hoping to have success and higher than his career 1.40 mark, but it was only 7 games and a small sample size. I like Happ as a number 4 or 5 guy in a rotation and I’m happy that liner off his head didn’t result in a more serious injury. Happ is scheduled to be back early August and, at the moment, looks to replace Todd Redmond in the rotation.
Brandon Morrow (54.1 IP, 2-3 record, 5.63 ERA, 1.49 WHIP, 42 K’s) - Morrow’s season has been a complete bust thus far and once again the high-potential righty finds himself on the DL. After posting a career-best 2.96 ERA in 21 starts last season, Morrow – for some crazy reason – decided to change what he was doing and develop a cutter. He started using it in Spring Training and made only 10 starts before hitting the DL with right forearm soreness. This is one of the biggest “if it ain’t broke, then go out and change everything” moments that becomes a complete head scratcher for fans and scouts alike. Morrow also almost completely abandoned his curveball, which was such a huge change-of-pace pitch for him a year ago and perfectly complimented his hard fastball and slider. Fans can only hope that Morrow can finish his forgettable season strong – he’s due back mid-August from the DL barring any further setbacks. Hopefully when Morrow returns, he’s read this paragraph, dropped the cutter, and focuses on the deadly fastball, slider, curveball combination that made him so great last season (when healthy).
Chad Jenkins (15.0 IP, 1-0 record, 3.60 ERA, 1.47 WHIP, 6 K’s) - Jenkins did the job filling in the rotation for 3 starts after only throwing 5 innings in double-A prior to his call-up. The sinker specialist is always going to give up hits, but he’s also likely to get double-play ground balls when he’s going well. I know his 3 starts were just a very small sample size and I understand that he has struggled since his demotion to triple-A and the fact that he projects to be a longman/spot starter with his stuff, but for a rotation seeking to fill holes having cycled through its vast handful of pitchers already this year, it’s makes a fan wonder why Jenkins was ever sent down after only 3 starts in the first place.
Josh Johnson (66.1 IP, 1-5 record, 5.16 ERA, 1.49 WHIP, 67 K’s) - Arguably the biggest disappointment on the entire Jays roster this season, Johnson hasn’t lived up to the “ace contract-year” hype. Call me crazy, but I’d be looking to extend Johnson on a one-year deal with a club option right now. He’s too good of pitcher with too good of stuff to continue going this poorly. His value is arguably at a career low in a free-agent year. Johnson could be well served to sign a one year deal and try and improve his market value for 2015/16. If the Jays really believe they have a window to compete through the 2015 season, they should be trying to buy low on Johnson now. He has almost no trade value as a 2-month rental pitcher with the way he’s pitched this season. For a guy who has thrown more strikeouts than had hits allowed in his career and boasts a career 3.29 ERA, the Jays should try and lock this down. What’s one more year with a club option? If he still stinks next season, the Jays can dump him for nothing at next year’s deadline – because they aren’t going to get anything for him this year and I think he’ll shine in the second half.
Ramon Ortiz (25.1 IP, 1-2 record, 6.04 ERA, 1.78 WHIP, 8 K’s) - Everyone loves a feel-good story and for 2 starts this season, the Jays had one with 40-year-old comeback pitcher, Ortiz. Then reality set in. There is a reason he has bounced between the MLB and triple-A for the last 5 seasons – he just isn’t that great anymore. After 2 solid starts for the injury-ridden rotation, fans were calling it a great comeback. Then fans were quickly reminded that pitchers rarely, if ever, get better beyond their late 30s. Ortiz will always have a soft spot in my heart, though. When he shredded his elbow and winced in pain on the mound before throwing his glove in the dirt in disgust and beginning to cry, it was the first time in my life I witnessed a player recognize that, due to injury, he had just thrown his last major-league pitch. I’ll never forget that moment and the emotion I saw in his face. He is a warrior. Unfortunately, he’s not much of a pitcher at the MLB level anymore.
Todd Redmond (16.2 IP, 1-1 record, 4.32 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, 14 K’s) - Redmond has pitched well in his 2 starts for the Jays (he also made 3 relief appearances). His sub-1.00 WHIP is very impressive and his ability to reach back for a big strikeout when needed has helped him out of some jams. But before anyone gets too excited, I’ll remind everyone that there is a reason Redmond was pitching in triple-A. There is a reason that his triple-A ERA is above 5.00 this season. There is a reason he has been a career minor leaguer. Redmond just isn’t that great. Although he has impressed in this very small sample size, the reality is that late-bloomers are rare and I highly doubt Redmond is one of them. Hopefully he can continue to hold his own until Happ makes his return in early August. If not, perhaps we give Jenkins or Chien-Ming Wang another go.
Chien-Ming Wang (24.0 IP, 1-1 record, 7.13 ERA, 1.83 WHIP, 11 K’s) - Wang, a fantastic low-risk signing by the Jays, pitched extremely well in his first 3 starts and extremely poorly in his last 2 before being demoted to triple-A. The former Yankee allstar and multiple 19-game winner has had arm issues that derailed his career. Through his first 3 games with the Jays, Wang pitched into the 7th inning each game to the tune of a 2.61 ERA. Then in his next 2 starts he couldn’t get through the 2nd inning and allowed 13 earned runs in 3.1 innings – sending his ERA to 7.13. Yet, I think the Jays were too quick to demote Wang. Granted that Redmond has pitched well in his two starts, but I still feel Wang gives the team a better chance to win. The 2 blowouts were vs. the Red Sox and the Tigers – 2 teams that have offences capable of sending any starter to the showers early. Since his demotion, Wang is 1-1 with a 2.08 ERA in 13 innings. I really like him as a back-of-the-rotation or depth pitcher. It wouldn’t surprise me to see him back with the team at some point this season if there are further injuries to the rotation.
Aaron Laffey (2.2 IP, 0-0 record, 6.75 ERA, 2.63 WHIP, 0 K’s) - Last season, Laffey stepped into the injury-plaqued rotation and did a decent job. This season the Jays picked him up off waivers hoping for more of the same. After one start where Laffey issued 5 walks and couldn’t get out of the 3rd inning, the Jays demoted and subsequently released him. Laffey hasn’t pitched another game in the majors since. Why he wouldn’t accept his minor-league assignment with the Jays organization is a bit of a head scratcher.
Sean Nolin (1.1 IP, 0-1 record, 40.50 ERA, 6.00 WHIP, 0 K’s) - I really hate when a club calls up a young kid, he has a bad first start in his major-league debut when he’s full of nerves, and then he is immediately sent back to the minors. That’s exactly what happened to Nolin and it’s a shame. Although he got hit around in his debut, he showed good stuff and continued to throw strikes. I would have liked to see him get at least 3 starts before sending him back down. Especially with so many rotation holes due to injuries. For what it’s worth, Nolin has gone 6-2 with a 2.09 ERA and more than a strikeout per inning in double-A this year – I think the kid is ready for the next step.
Ricky Romero (4.1 IP, 0-2 record, 12.46 ERA, 2.77 WHIP, 4 K’s) - Oh how the mighty have fallen…. Romero continues to work in triple-A after being called up too early by the Jays hoping he was ready to get back to the show. After being the opening day starter the previous two seasons and slated to be the number 5 going into 2013, Romero was cut towards the end of Spring Training and was told to re-work his mechanics with the goal of gaining better command of the strike zone. Fast forward and Romero a 2-3 record, a 5.56 ERA, and nearly a 1:1 BB/K ratio in triple-A. With an un-tradeable contract and limited signs of finding his former self, Romero’s fall from grace is absolutely mind blogging. The Jays are stuck with him so they might as well be patient and hope (and pray) that he can work through his control issues. Oh… and he has since abandoned the new mechanics in favour of the old ones since the new ones did nothing for him. I wish the best for Romero, but I’m not holding my breath.
So what does the rotation need to do to turn things around? They need to get and stay healthy and pitch to potential. That’s all. Easier said then done? Yes. Possible for the second half? Very.
Hope you enjoyed part one in the mid-season series. Stay tuned for more….