Columnist image
Steve Phillips

TSN Baseball Insider

Archive

People who travel frequently for work have likely experienced waking up in the morning and not remembering which city they’re in. I know I have. The Toronto Blue Jays have been vagabonds for the past two seasons and must experience that feeling fairly regularly.

The Jays haven’t been able to say to an opponent that they were headed “home.” Instead they were headed to Buffalo or Dunedin, which is where they have been playing their home games. But make no mistake about it, they are not home. Toronto is home. They’ve been living out of their suitcases the past two years, which can be a miserable existence.

The Jays thrived in Buffalo last season, finishing with a 17-9 record. They made the best of the Airbnb-like stadium rental, completely unaffected by the inconvenience of not playing in their own stadium north of the border.

In fact, the young Jays acted as if it was an advantage. Manager Charlie Montoyo deserves credit for ensuring the situation was never something the players complained about. Instead, the players were grateful for the upgrades the organization made to the stadium to make it as close to a major-league experience as possible. I fully expect that the Jays will have the same positive regard for Sahlen Field this year because the franchise has invested in further upgrades.

The Jays were 10-11 in Dunedin this season as the park proved to be a bandbox. The ball sailed there just as it did in Buffalo last season. The two stadiums are definitely hitters’ parks.

Opponents might be tempted to look down their noses at Sahlen Field. They may feel like they have graduated from Triple-A and shouldn’t have to go back to those days. So, the positive nature of the Jays, coupled with the negative perspective of the opposition, could provide another advantage this season. 

Of course, the entire Jays organization and fan base are waiting for the day the Jays will return to Rogers Centre. It’s unlikely the stadium will be at full capacity upon their return, but it won’t matter to the players. Returning to their home stadium to play in front of some number of their fans and sleeping in their own beds will make a huge difference.

Players’ families have had it hard as well. At season’s end, there is a chance they will have had to find a place to live in Dunedin, Buffalo and Toronto. Setting up shop in three different locations is a real pain. The challenge of getting a short-term lease is real. If families choose to live in a hotel with young kids, the walls can close in quickly. The players’ wives often get stuck with trying to organize the moves while their husbands are at the ballpark working. It is a stressful job, even for people making good money. 

deGrom dominating with devastating arsenal

We hear a lot about how the average velocity of fastballs has risen to extreme heights. In fact, in the late 1990s the average major-league fastball was 88 mph for left-handed pitchers and 90 mph for righties. Today, the average fastball is just about 94 mph.

In 2020, there were 199 pitches thrown at 100 mph or faster. This season there have been 269 such pitches. Believe it or not, 88 of them have been thrown by New York Mets ace Jacob deGrom.

He is, by far, the best pitcher in the game today. In fact, a case can be made that he has the best arsenal of pitches ever. His average fastball this season is 99.1 mph. His average slider is 91.6 mph, while his changeup is 91.2 mph. Some 334 pitchers who have thrown in the majors this season have an average fastball speed slower than deGrom’s changeup.

The two-time Cy Young Award winner has a 4-2 record with a 0.71 ERA. He has tossed 51.2 innings and has allowed only 22 hits and seven walks while striking out 82. deGrom is a remarkable athlete.  He was a shortstop and pitcher in college and only made the transition to being exclusively a pitcher after being drafted by the Mets in the ninth round of the 2010 draft. 

His athletic ability can be seen in his delivery, which is so refined that he is able to repeat it over and over maintaining his release point on all of his pitches. He is 6-foot-4, yet he releases the ball with seven feet of extension in his delivery. This means that he releases the ball 53 feet and six inches from home plate, which is extraordinary. Hitters feel like he is letting the ball go halfway to home plate, making his stuff even more overwhelming.

deGrom also fields his position well, being a former shortstop. Plus, he can hit. He is batting .450/.450/.500 (9-for-20 with a double). Amazingly, he has produced seven runs (four runs scored and three RBI) while only giving up four earned runs.

He is also a tremendous teammate and representative of the organization. Jays fans may get a chance to watch him July 23-25 when the Mets host Toronto at Citi Field in New York. It will be a treat no matter the outcome of the game. 

Spitting Seeds

- There are so many great juniors in baseball today. Fernando Tatis Jr. and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. are young superstars in the game. We know a lot about their fathers and their exploits in the majors.

There is another great junior in baseball and that is Atlanta Braves outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr. But we don’t hear much about his father, Ronald Acuna Sr.

We signed Ronald Acuna Sr. to a contract when I was general manager with the New York Mets. He wasn’t a senior then, just Ronald Acuna. Senior was a good minor-league player who spent eight seasons in affiliated baseball. He played six years in the Mets organization, one in the Blue Jays farm system and one in the Athletics organization. He never played higher than the Double-A level.

He could run like his son (187 career stolen bases) but couldn’t generate the power (18 home runs) that Junior has. Senior (now 41 years old) was a fine young man who was all about baseball. He played hard and was a good teammate.

Certainly, the major-league careers of Vladimir Guerrero Sr. and Fernando Tatis Sr. have helped their sons become great. But Ronald Acuna Jr. has learned a lot from his father as well, maybe more. Sometimes failure and struggle teach us more than our successes to share with our kids.

- The Chicago Cubs find themselves in first place in the NL Central after going 19-8 in May. This likely means that Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, Anthony Rizzo and Wilson Contreras won’t be traded at the deadline, significantly reducing the number of impact players available for teams looking to add pieces for the postseason race.

- Washington Nationals ace Stephen Strasburg is on the injured list (neck strain) for the 14th time in his career. He is in the second year of a seven-year, $245 million deal. I’m afraid he will become the poster boy of why teams should not sign 31-year-old pitchers with significant health histories to long-term deals. The Nationals have experienced the best long-term mega-deal ever for a pitcher with Max Scherzer and that success may have empowered them to make the Strasburg deal. Unfortunately, the contract could cripple the Nationals.

- Indians reliever James Karinchak might have been caught red-handed, or should I say sticky-handed, on Tuesday. In a game against the White Sox, announcer Steve Stone pointed out on camera that Karinchak was dabbing his fingers near the web of his glove where there was a dark stain. It is likely there was pine tar in his glove. Major League Baseball will try to confiscate the glove if it is still around and add it to the growing evidence that pitchers are using foreign substances to enhance their pitches. Reports indicate that MLB will be taking action soon because the issue is only getting bigger. Commissioner Rob Manfred presented the broader investigation’s findings at the owners’ meetings this week. It is just a matter of time before pitchers will be held accountable. 

- There is pitching to a scouting report and then there is pitching to a scouting report. Red Sox third baseman Rafael Devers has struggled against the fastball this season, hitting just .173. In Boston’s recent series against the Astros, Houston pitchers threw Devers a total of 62 pitches –61of which were fastballs. He went 3-for-14 in the series. He is way too good of a hitter to be that bad on heaters. I suspect he will make an adjustment and get hot soon. It helps to know which pitch is coming and it seems pretty obvious that teams have a clear plan for attacking him.