Columnist image
Steve Phillips

TSN Baseball Insider


As we get deeper into the Major League Baseball season, we are starting to find out more about this edition of the Toronto Blue Jays.

They aren’t hitting yet, but stay tuned as outfielders George Springer and Teoscar Hernandez are close to being activated. The offence will come.

The rotation has been a bit of a carousel, with the Jays using 10 different starters in the first 17 games of the season. That is the most starters used by any club in either league. The bullpen has been a real strength so far, and has the second-best ERA in baseball.

The team’s defence was a focus of the off-season and a big part of the logic in signing Marcus Semien to play second base and Springer to play centre field. Semien is solid defensively and Springer will be too when healthy.

Another part of the plan was to move Cavan Biggio to third base, which would keep Vladimir Guerrero Jr. locked in at first, his best position. But Biggio has struggled in every component of the game, especially his throwing.

We often hear about a player being in a slump at the plate, but that can also happen on defence. When a player is playing a new position and makes a mistake, the voices of doubt can creep in. That doubt can make a player afraid of committing another error, which can lead to more mistakes.

When a player isn’t hitting, he can take that negativity into the field with him and it affects his defence. It feels like that is what is happening with Biggio. He just needs to have some success and the rest of his game will follow. On the technical side, Biggio needs to remember to get his feet moving in the direction of first base on his throws.

Biggio not the only Blue Jay struggling on defence

This will be a big season for Bo Bichette’s defensive future.

The Jays considered signing Andrelton Simmons, who is arguably the best defensive shortstop in baseball, during the off-season. Instead, he signed with the Minnesota Twins. But even the thought of signing Simmons meant there was a willingness to move Bichette off of shortstop.

Semien is only signed to a one-year deal. That gives the Jays the flexibility to pivot in a number of different directions. They can keep the status quo and re-sign Semien at the end of the year, or go out and get one of the big free-agent shortstops in the off-season and move Bichette to second. Bichette is an adequate shortstop, but he could be a very good defensive second baseman.

Left fielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr. has also been a bit shaky defensively so far, but he will calm down. He has more than enough athleticism to be a good outfielder, he just needs more experience.

There aren’t many perfect players in baseball. Some are better on offence, while some are better on defence. Some are fast and some are slow. Some have good arms, while some are weak.

When building a team, a general manager tries to compensate for weaknesses by building strengths in other areas. The Jays are going to have to outhit some of their errors and mediocre starting pitching while they wait for those areas to improve either by experience or through personnel additions.

MLB and the spin rate debate

It will be very interesting to see what MLB does with Los Angeles Dodgers starter Trevor Bauer and other pitchers who have had baseballs removed from games to be evaluated for foreign substances. MLB can study the balls in question, but the challenge will be attributing any substance found to the pitcher and not a catcher, infielder or any other player who may have touched the ball.

Some believe that since this has been a consistent practice for decades and that baseball should just approve a substance for pitchers to use and not worry about it. The problem is that at one point pine tar was used by pitchers to ensure grip in cold weather. But with the growth of pitching labs, players have figured out that they can gain a competitive advantage by increasing spin rate with a sticky substance on their fingers.

There are three reasons why it is critical that the league polices this issue.

First, it is important for the integrity of the game. Bauer has said that using pine tar is a bigger advantage than steroids ever were. We can’t let pitchers gain that kind of advantage.

Second, we are looking for ways to increase offence and clearly pitchers are dominating hitters with the increase in spin rate gained by the foreign substance. It needs to stop.

Finally, pitchers can use a sticky substance in their season before free agency and increase the spin rate on their pitches by 400 revolutions per minute (rpm). This allows them to be much more effective with their pitches, but it’s not a true representation of a pitcher’s ability. They are cheating. A team might sign a player to a mega-deal based upon his performance during a season, only to find out later that he really isn’t that pitcher after all. We saw this during the steroid era. I always believed that players who cheated to get big contracts were committing fraud. 

Yankees stumble out of the gate

Panic abounds among New York Yankees fans as the team is off to its worst start since 1991. The big boppers in the lineup have done very little so far, leaving the team with one of the worst offences in baseball.

Many believed the Yankees would run away with the AL East this season. I certainly didn’t see it that way. I believed they would hit, and I still do, but their starting pitching behind ace Gerrit Cole is a bit dicey.

They have a lot of question marks in their rotation but have a really good bullpen. Does that sound familiar? The Yankees are not much different than the Jays.

The Yankees are going to be just fine. It’s early and their good players aren’t playing well yet. There is too much talent there for their struggles to continue.

There are a lot of teams with big expectations that are off to slow starts. Consider that the Twins, Yankees and Astros are all in last place in their divisions, yet they are among the preseason favorites to make the playoffs. If I had to make predictions today based upon what we have seen so far, I would still pick all three to win their divisions.

If you need evidence that things can change quickly for a team, look no further than the Oakland A’s. They started the season 0-6 but are now 12-7 – including winning their past 11 games.

Slumps can be followed by hot streaks. I believe the Yankees, Twins and Astros will all be in first or second place in their divisions when Memorial Day rolls around.