TSN Baseball Insider Steve Phillips answers several questions each week. This week, topics cover the Blue Jays sudden success, Anthony Gose's role with the Blue Jays, keeping confidence in tough times and scouts who keep the MLB alive.
1) Why are the Toronto Blue Jays winning so much of late when they scuffled last season with virtually the same roster? Is it purely the return to health of key players (Reyes, Bautista, Janssen)? Is it John Gibbons assigning personal catchers, managing the pen, managing team attitude? How do you explain the difference? Or is this just a short blip for a team that will eventually crash back to earth?
So will the real Blue Jays please stand up?
What are we to believe? Are the Jays the team that terribly disappointed us last year or are they this years surprising first place club? How is it possible that effectively the same team could have been so bad last year yet so good this year? All very legitimate questions for sure.
There are clearly three major differences from 2013 to 2014. Firstly, the offense is hitting on all cylinders. The Jays are leading the AL in runs scored so far this season. They have the most home runs and the best OPS. They are slugging the ball like the team they were constructed to be.
Clearly health is a major factor the turnaround from last year to this year as well. A healthy Jose Reyes at the top of the lineup establishes the offences as aggressive. His speed provides more fastball for the hitters behind him in the lineup and they are capitalizing on those opportunities. Jose Batisista looks like the same guy from 2010-11 who hit for average and power and was a run producer. He is showing no ill effects of past injuries.
Edwin Encarnacion has literally been Mickey Mantle in the month of May as he tied Mantle's AL record for most homers in a month with 16. Melky Cabrera is slugging like the Melky Cabrera who used steroids in the past. Oops did I say that out loud? I don't think he is using again. It was just a joke.
The second major turnaround from last year to this year is in starting pitching. In 2013, the Jays starters ranked 14th in the league with a 4.81 ERA. They struggled, often leaving the club in an early hole which was nearly impossible to dig out of, as it affected the quality of the at bats that the hitters delivered. This season the Jays starters are ranked fifth in the AL with a 3.83 ERA. They are almost a whole run per game better. This is a huge difference. The starters have a win-loss record of 26-13 where as they only won 46 games all season a year ago. This is proving that with such a vaunted offense, if the starters can keep it close, the Jays have a chance to win.
The third major improvement for the Jays has been their defence. They have committed the second fewest errors in the AL so far this season. A year ago, they committed the fourth-most errors. This means that the pitching staff doesn't have to get nearly as many extra outs.
One thing to beware of is the schedule. The Jays are 32-23 so far. But they have only played 13 games against teams with a record over .500. In those games they are 7-6.
I believe Toronto can sustain their success because they have a winning formula: Good starting pitching with a solid defence and a powerful offence. They have some vulnerability in the rotation as Mark Buehrle just can't continue at this pace and the back end has been a bit inconsistent. They really need to add another starter. The bullpen hasn't been nearly as consistent as a year ago which means they may need to address that at some point as well. They certainly have some flaws but quite honestly, so does everyone else in the AL East.
They can win this division!
2) Anthony Gose has thrived in centre field with the Toronto Blue Jays since Colby Rasmus went down with injury. With the team in first place and riding a hot streak, what's the best way to get him in the lineup when Rasmus returns? Or does Gose just go back to the bench (or the minors) and wait for his next chance?
It is time to figure out what Anthony Gose can become. The Jays need to figure out if he is part of the problem or solution by the season's end. Gose's speed can energize a team when they are struggling to score. He could bolster his teammates on day games after night games when everyone else feels a bit sluggish. He has a chance to be a valuable asset.
Melky Cabrera and Colby Rasmus are both free agents at the end of the year. The Jays need to know if they have a low-cost alternative for one of their outfield spots for next year. The only way to figure that out is to let the young man play at the major league level and get some at bats.
Colby Rasmus gives up too many at bats. He loses focus or concentration and strikes out far too much. Yes, Rasmus has more power than Gose but Gose's speed adds an element to the Jays' offence that can be tough for the opposition to deal with. I think Colby Rasmus needs competition. He needs to fight and produce for playing time. There is a way to manage the outfield with Rasmus and Gose splitting time in CF and giving occasional days off to Cabrera and Batista. John Gibbons can keep everyone hungry and everyone sharp.
When I was Mets' general manager I made a trade with the Dodgers for Roger Cedeno, a speedy outfielder, who had not proven himself at the major league level. I was able to keep him in the majors and paired him up with Rickey Henderson. Henderson's knowledge and experience rubbed off on Cedeno and we developed a player with discipline at the plate and blazing speed on the bases.
Gose needs to be in Jose Reyes' hip pocket and learn as much as possible. The Jays need to win now and develop for the future as well.
3) Earlier in the week, Jeff Samardzija finally picked up his first win of the season. He had gone 16 starts without a win, despite having one of the lowest ERA's in the majors this season. You were an executive with the Mets when Anthony Young lost 27 straight decisions (both as a starter and as a reliever) in the early 90's, despite being a decent pitcher. How does the team best manage a player's psyche when they go through stretches like this? And how much of that kind of mental health massaging actually goes on in the Big Leagues?
So many of today's young baseball executives are administrators. They have a mathematical or statistical background. They are number crunchers. Paul Depodesta, who was Billy Beane's assistant in Oakland (the Jonah Hill character in Moneyball) and later the GM for the Los Angeles Dodgers once said that if he couldn't quantify something about a player then it didn't matter. But what he missed was that it is people who play the game not robots. The way a player feels affects how he plays.
I have a psychology degree. It doesn't give me the ability to read people's minds but it certainly added to my understanding of what makes people tick. Plus as a player, my mind is what held me back from being a big leaguer. I experienced how the mental part of the game can impact a player's performance.
I could run. I was strong. I had a good arm. I made myself into a more than adequate defender. I was a good teammate. But I was a "try-er." When things went wrong I pushed harder and worked more. I took extra batting practice almost every day of my professional career. I told myself, "No one will ever out-work me. If I don't get to the big leagues it won't be because I didn't put enough effort in to it." I realize now that I tried too hard. I worked too much. If I took nine good swings in batting practice but a bad one on my 10th swing I held on to the bad swing. I beat myself up over it. If I struck out I didn't feel the pain of one strike out, I carried the weight of the fifty before it as well.
It takes all kinds of people to make the world go around. Players with the most confidence ever and least confidence never can reach the major leagues, but the players with the right balance of confidence, humility, concentration, intensity, etc. are the ones who best sustain success.
I am living a life of recovery now and one of the tools of the program is the Serenity Prayer. It reads like this:
God grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
the Courage to change the things I can;
and the Wisdom to know the difference.
One of the toughest lessons for players to accept is that they don't control the outcome of everything in the game. They can only control what they can control.
You would be shocked by the fine line that baseball players walk between confidence and complete and utter fear of failure, even among the very best players. I asked New York Mets star third baseman David Wright in spring training if he ever thought when he signed to play ball out of high school if he would have this kind of career. He said he didn't and then added that he questions himself all of the time if he can still do it. When he has a bad day he battles those (voices) that make him wonder if he might not be good anymore. If he has those thoughts, I clearly had no chance with the way I thought.
When players struggle like Anthony Young and Jeff Jeff Samardzija they can feel helpless and hopeless. They wonder what they can possibly do differently. They start to feel like they need to be perfect. Striving for perfection is dangerous. When a pitcher isn't getting run support he feels like he needs to miss bats and pitch a shutout. When pitchers try too hard they often compound their problems. The same for batters. It is not a matter of trying harder to perform better in baseball. It takes concentration and intensity. Unfortunately, "trying" to generate intensity often leads to tension. Tension leads to overthinking and over trying which leads to more struggles. It is a vicious circle that can start all over again.
The key to overcoming struggles is to maintain one's composure and confidence. Players truly need to understand that they don't have to be perfect. Remember, this is a game where hitters fail 70% of the time and are deemed extremely successful. Coping with failure is the attribute that separates the men from the boys in the major leagues. It was my downfall. Failure devoured me. I actually felt physical pain when I was struggling. I obsessed about it, it ate me up.
Remarkably, Anthony Young and Jeff Samardzija had the ability to not get paralyzed by their failure because within the failure they were able to see some success. They learned that a loss didn't mean they were a loser. They didn't let their performance or their job become their identity. The ability to own their role in the result and not take on the entire responsibility of the result was critical.
My experience is that when people share their personal struggles around failure it helps the person going through a tough time. That is what sponsors do in recovery and coaches do in baseball.
I am still so amazed by athletes that can cope with failure. I know the challenge it can be. I still have to battle the negative thoughts that come with failure. I am better at it than I have ever been mainly because I have given myself a lot of practice.
In recovery we talk about "Progress not perfection." It works in baseball too.
4) Next week baseball will hold the First-Year Player Draft. Eligible high school and college kids in the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico can be drafted in the forty rounds (plus compensation picks) of the draft. Once drafted the kids will negotiate a contract with the selecting team and when they sign they will enter the minor league system for their organization and start to work their way to the majors.
Many fans show up at major league games and have no idea about where the players come from. Baseball develops its own players. It is one of the things that distinguishes it from football and basketball. The NFL and NBA are satisfied in letting the NCAA develop their players. Fans don't understand the investment that baseball makes to acquire and develop its talent.
Each organization in baseball spends about $15-$20 million on their minor leagues and scouting department. Those departments are the research and development areas of the operations. The money to pay for that comes directly off of the bottom line of the revenues generated by the major league team. Teams reinvest in themselves every year. If a team calls up four rookies in a season then they are effectively spending about $5 million per player per year. That is a significant investment.
The men and women that make up the minor league and scouting departments are the lifeline of every organization. They are the foundation upon which the organization is built. Without them there would be no need for a business operations department, accounting department, ticket department or marketing department. There would be no stadiums or ground crews if not for the people who choose and develop the players.
For the most part this is a group of no-name faceless baseball lifers who love the game and are committed to their respective organization. They have a keen eye for talent and a knack for getting to know what kids are made of. They rarely get recognition beyond that which they give themselves at a banquet at the Baseball Winter Meetings. Each year a scout or two is recognized for long and meritorious service.
As we approach the draft give some thought and thanksgiving for those who have committed their lives to your baseball enjoyment. They love the game like you do and their only hope is that they can pick players who will make you happy. They never get the attention they deserve. I hope one or two read this.