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Steve Phillips

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What a start to a career. Bo Bichette is crushing it: 13 extra-base hits in his first 11 games, including doubles in nine straight. I described him as a doubles machine when he first came up and he hasn’t disappointed.

What has been most impressive about him so far is that he has countered what pitchers have tried to do to him.

When young hitters come up to the majors, opposing pitchers first try to see if they can hit the fastball away. Bichette has shown the ability to drive that pitch into the right-centre field gap. After a hitter proves he can handle that, pitchers go to the breaking ball. Bichette has hit three homers on curveballs thus far.

Once a young hitter proves he can hit the pitch with a wrinkle in it, they decide to pound him inside with fastballs. In the game on Wednesday, Bichette took such a pitch and drove it down into the left-field corner for another double.

The young man has had answers for everything they have thrown at him so far. He won’t be a .408 career hitter, but Bichette’s approach at the plate gives the Jays every reason to be excited and hopeful that he can be a middle-of-the-lineup bat. I project him as a .310 hitter with 25 homers and 45 doubles.

I fully expect opposing pitchers to really start busting him inside with fastballs. They will try to stand him up or get him to fall over the plate avoiding the pitch, making him overly conscious of that inside corner. When hitters think about the inside part of the plate they tend to cheat and start their swing a bit early, making them vulnerable to breaking balls away.

The thing I love the most about Bichette’s fast start is that he doesn’t seemed surprised by it. He expects to be doing this. He has a humble confidence, which the best kind of stars have. He is a very good player and is engaging with the fans and media. He’s a good interview and has the potential to be a spokesman for the team. That ability and willingness will take pressure off of guys like Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and Cavan Biggio, who all seem to prefer avoiding the media spotlight.

 

Guerrero gets hot

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It’s not a surprise to me that Guerrero’s performance has spiked over the last few weeks. He had a bit of a slow start out of the All-Star break, but is hitting .425 with four doubles and three homers since it was announced on July 28 that Bichette would be called up after the trade of infielder Eric Sogard to the Tampa Bay Rays.

Internal competition is a wonderful thing. Core position players elevate each other’s games by pushing each other. They did it at the minor-league level and it will continue in the majors.  

Guerrero is playing with a new level of confidence that may have been sparked by his Home Run Derby performance, plus the environment of familiarity with all of his buddies from the minors together in Toronto. How a player feels affects how he performs. There’s a sense of togetherness with the young Blue Jays, as indicated by their sincere celebrations of each other’s success.

From a physical standpoint, Guerrero is laying off pitches on the inside and driving pitches that are out over the plate. Most of his hits are on pitches in the middle of the plate and away.

At the end of the season, Guerrero will have put together an impressive rookie campaign. He still has an outside shot at the AL Rookie of the Year Award but he is going to have to stay hot and hope that Astros slugger Yordan Alvarez cools off.

 

Sanchez stars in Houston

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There is nothing worse for a general manager than making a trade and seeing the player you dealt away play great. It’s even worse when the player you received back performs poorly on the same day.

Last Saturday was not a good day for Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins. Aaron Sanchez tossed six no-hit innings for his new team, the Houston Astros, en route to a combined no-hitter over the Seattle Mariners. To add insult to injury, outfielder Derek Fisher, who was one of the players traded for Sanchez, had to leave the game after he misplayed a fly ball and it hit him in the face. 

This obviously sent everyone into a tizzy in Toronto and Houston. But remember, one game does not determine the outcome of a trade. If Fisher had hit three home runs it wouldn’t have meant the Jays front office are geniuses, just as Saturday’s performance doesn’t mean they are dunces.

There is no denying that Sanchez was phenomenal in his first start for Houston. He had a different approach in the game as he pounded the strike zone and didn’t walk anybody – pretty nice progress for a guy who led baseball in walks per nine innings.

He also threw more four-seam fastballs up in the zone instead of two-seam heaters down in the zone, which is a strategy implemented to neutralize and counter launch angle. Plus, Sanchez’s curveball had a different shape to it. The Astros call it tunneling. They want pitchers to imagine the ball running through a curved tunnel in a certain shape or form. His curveball last Saturday was more of a sweeping breaking ball across the plate instead of a downer like it had been in Toronto.

Sanchez quickly bought into the plan the Astros had for him because of their high level of credibility. Players believe that you must be something special if the Astros like you. Sanchez automatically regained a level of confidence just because they chose him to be one of them.

Plus, Astros aces Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Wade Miley have all improved in the Houston pitching program. If those guys got better, why would any new pitcher to the team question what they’re being told to do?

The reality is the Astros are likely getting Sanchez to make some of the adjustments the Jays wanted him to apply. His resistance to new ideas is gone because of the credibility of the Astros.

The Astros, Dodgers and Yankees all have a level of credibility because of their reliance on analytics and how it has helped propelled certain players’ performance and overall team success. If Sanchez turns it around in Houston it’s not all the Blue Jays’ fault; it will be in part because Sanchez became more willing to change.

Remember, the best trades are the ones that work for both teams. It will be okay if Sanchez plays well for the Astros as long as Fisher plays well for the Jays. 

 

Spitting Seeds

- Many Blue Jays fans are worried about the fact that the Jays don’t seem to have any impact pitching prospects at the upper levels except for Nate Pearson, who is currently at Double-A. They’re looking for the pitching prospects who will eventually play with the team’s talented position players. Let me calm your concerns. It’s much easier to find pitching than it is to find impact position players. The last three World Series champions have had 33 pitchers who threw in the series and only three of them were drafted and developed by their championship club (Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers Jr., of the Astros and Matt Barnes of the Red Sox). That’s it. Those clubs rebuilt around their own position players and added pitching wherever they could find it. 

- I like the Jays recent waiver claims on Brock Stewart from the Dodgers and Zack Godley from the Diamondbacks. You don’t get good pitchers when they are throwing well; you get them when they are struggling. Both Stewart and Godley have shown flashes of excellence in the past. Why not put in a claim and see if you can resurrect them?                   

- Here come the New York Mets and there go the San Francisco Giants. The Mets have worked their way back into the NL wild-card race by winning 12 of 13 games, including six straight to sit just a half game out of the race. The Giants have lost six of their last eight and seem to be fading in the wild-card race, now three games behind. The Mets bought when they should have sold, but it might just work. They added Marcus Stroman at the trade deadline with the intention of trading Noah Syndergaard and Zack Embedded ImageWheeler. They couldn’t find suitable deals for either pitcher, so they held on to them and now the team is red hot. The Mets have the best record (19-6) since the All-Star break, due in large part to great performances from their starting pitching and bullpen. With Stroman in the mix, the Mets and Nationals have the two best rotations among the NL wild-card contenders. They will throw the most quality innings for the rest of the season in that race, but now they have to translate those quality innings into wins. The bad news for the Mets is that 34 of their remaining 46 games are against teams over .500.  They are only 28-40 against such teams this year.

- The Giants, on the other hand, are like an NBA team that was 20 points behind and went on a run to close the deficit to four points before they ran out of gas. They are fading. They now have the two wild-card leaders and four other teams in front of them in the Embedded Imagerace, not to mention the three division leaders. They’ll end up regretting their decision to not trade ace starter Madison Bumgarner, setup man Tony Watson and closer Will Smith. The return in those deals could have really propelled their rebuilding process. I predict they will finish six-to-eight games under .500 and in fourth place.

- The Cleveland Indians will win the AL Central. They have come back from 11 games behind and are now just one back of the division-leading Minnesota Twins. Indians ace Corey Kluber made a rehab start Thursday and will return in a couple of weeks, further fortifying the division’s best rotation. Plus, 39-year-old Twins slugger Nelson Cruz suffered an injured wrist in Thursday’s game that could prove to be devastating. He is an offensive force for young Twins team. It’s the second time he has suffered the injury this season. The Twins should be able to hold on to a wild-card spot, but it will be a disappointing result considering they have been atop the AL Central since April.