This Week in Blue Jays: A Tumultuous First Week for Toronto

The beginning of a new baseball season always brings with it a sense of renewed hope – the feeling that anything and everything is possible. When the Toronto Blue Jays took the field on Opening Day last Sunday, many fans felt more than just hope – they welcomed the 2016 season with the belief that it would finally be Toronto’s year. Two wins to start the season against division rivals in a stadium that has played like the Jays’ own personal house of horrors, and it seemed as though ghosts of the past had finally been laid to rest. The good time rolled to a sudden stop on Tuesday, however, when the Jays lost the first of four straight in the most dreadful manner – a blown lead by the bullpen followed by the first test of a new slide rule that cost the Jays the tying run in the ninth inning.

What has followed since has been greatly disappointing, with a need to remind oneself that these six games mean little in the context of 162. As Jose Bautista stated: “It’s a long season. We’re in the first week. These guys are extremely capable of doing their job.” While it would be absurd to hit the panic button after just six games, it is clear that this is not the way the Jays would have liked to start this season. The four straight losses certainly have taken some of the shine off, but we all saw last year how quickly this team can turn it around. To do so, they’re going to have to make some adjustments. Here are my takeaways from the first week of the Jays’ 2016 season.

The Good

By far the most positive aspect of the first six games was the performance of Aaron Sanchez on Tuesday against the Rays. Despite little doubt that he had earned a spot in the starting rotation out of spring training, there was still trepidation on the part of some fans as to whether or not Sanchez possessed enough of an arsenal to be relied upon as a starter. Those lingering questions were answered when Sanchez dominated the Tampa Bay Rays, demonstrating command of his fastball while baffling batters with his curve and changeup. And although one game is the smallest possible sample size for a starting pitcher, Shi Davidi writes that there is no doubt as to where Sanchez belongs because “he’s so much different than that guy [who started games last season], physically, mentally, and moving further and further away from his bubble-wrap buildup in the minor-leagues by the day.”

Much can be attributed to Sanchez’s determination to make the rotation this year, working hard during the offseason to build muscle to help with his control. But, as Ken Fidlin points out, one cannot overlook the fact that “when you put all that talent in the hands of a master craftsman like Martin behind the plate, the choreography can be important as the talent on the hill itself.” Martin ensured that Sanchez used all his pitches, which is key to both developing those offerings and establishing confidence. And, though Sanchez will likely be moved to the bullpen at some point in order to manage his innings, any gains he makes as a starter will pay dividends for both him and the Jays in the years to come.

The Bad

There was a lot of positivity heading into the season with regards to what was considered the Jays’ most significant weakness last year: the bullpen. The trade for Drew Storen complimented Roberto Osuna and Brett Cecil, and made this seem like one of the better back ends. Simultaneously, the acquisitions of Gavin Floyd and Jesse Chavez meant that the Jays would finally have middle-relief depth. Yet, it was the bullpen that squandered three of the four games lost by the Jays.

First, in his bid to set a new record for the most consecutive appearances by a relief pitcher without giving up an earned run, Brett Cecil surrendered a decisive two-run home run to Logan Forsythe in a 3-2 loss on Tuesday night, ending a streak of not allowing an earned run at 38 appearances (a tie for the major-league record). The next night, it was Arnold “Not a High-Leverage Guy” Leon’s turn to cough up the advantage when Steven Souza homered in the bottom of the eighth to give the Rays a 5-2 win. Though I would have considered an escape from the Trop with a split of a four-game series a minor victory in the past, the manner in which the four games were squandered left behind a bitter taste.

With the off-day Thursday and the much-anticipated home opener Friday night, the Jays were hoping to get things back on track. As Brendan Kennedy points out, “The first game in front of your home fans is not worth any more than any other, but it can be a mood-setter for the season.” The mood at the Dome was indeed that of a party to which the entire city was invited. A sold-out crowd exuberantly chanting “MVP! MVP! MVP!” when Josh Donaldson launched a grand slam to give the Jays a five run lead, but it would be short-lived. Marcus Stroman, who was not at his best, loaded the bases in the sixth inning, giving way to Jesse Chavez who promptly served up a grand slam to Brock Holt, opening the door for the bullpen to be charged with its third straight loss. The Jays found a new way to lose on Saturday, when Dickey’s dancing knuckleball proved to be too hot to handle for Josh Thole, and the offense – save for two majestic home runs by Jose Bautista – just couldn’t match that of the Red Sox. The offense, though it did rack up 46 strike outs in the first four games, really isn’t a cause for concern. They are, after all, the best offense in baseball. The bullpen, on the other hand? As Brendan Kennedy wrote: “only time will tell whether the increasingly urgent concern for the Jays’ revamped bullpen is worth all the early-season hand-wringing.”

The Ugly

There were two truly ugly moments this week, both occurring on Tuesday and both relating to one another. The first was Jose Bautista’s controversial slide in the ninth inning which, instead of tying the game, led to both he and Edwin Encarnacion being called out due to the new so-called “Chase Utley Rule”. It was a confusing play, in part because it was the first time the new rule had been implemented during a regular-season game. Craig Edwards of Fangraphs breaks down the new rule to explain why, to the letter of the law, it was the right call. However, as Richard Griffin points out, “there’s the letter of the law and the spirit of it, and this decision violated the spirit.” There was no attempt to injure the fielder, but because an “intent to injure” requires rendering a judgement call as to the runner’s mindset, this new rule is meant to protect fielders while removing any ambiguity. Clearly, the MLB will have to review their new rule and make adjustments so that the intended spirit is upheld while still allowing hustle plays that ultimately mean the game is decided by the players on the field, and not those reviewing video replay.

However, it was the controversial comments of manager John Gibbons who understandably was angry after the game, that were the one true ugly moment this week. In response to the new slide rule, Gibbons said “maybe we’ll come out wearing dresses tomorrow. Maybe that’s what everybody’s looking for.” I think it’s quite clear what he meant – that the new rule undermines the manliness of the game, that the MLB is treating the players like wusses and that wearing dresses would epitomize perceived weakness (Some have argued with me that Gibbons meant that wearing dresses would simply look silly and that the new rule is silly, ergo Gibbons meant nothing derogatory towards women. Given the context and tone of his comments, and the fact that he did not clarify his meaning when given the opportunity, I do not believe this was his meaning).

To be clear, I do not find these comments derogatory or inflammatory simply because I am a woman; the issue is that such comments are at the heart of a pervasive issue in sports culture (as well as mainstream culture) that “real men” have to behave a certain way, and anything less than that is, well, “less than.” I believe a parallel can be drawn between this comment and the controversy over the homophobic slur written in Yunel Escobar’s eye black four years ago – that anything other than the heterosexual hyper-male identity is somehow something to be ridiculed. Conformity to such a mindset is not something that should be cultivated; though I do understand that Gibbons and many others rose through the baseball ranks at a time when such thinking wasn’t even given a second thought, and I do not believe his dress comment is indicative of anything other than the old-school notions that have been so ingrained in him.

But words have meaning. Gibbons struck a chord with many because he had so many other words to choose from to make his point, one that would not have used women as “a quick and easy metaphor for baseball weakness,” as stated by Stacey May Fowles. As one of my male students (who plays baseball) suggested, Gibbons could have said “Maybe we’ll come out wearing bubble-wrap tomorrow.” Had he done so, he not only would have made his point, but he would have done so with a humour that does not perpetuate gender identity stereotypes. Nearly half of all baseball fans identify as female and, as Bill Baer writes, “imagine having a hobby that you really like a lot but the people with whom you share that hobby make casual comments that make you feel unwelcome or devalued.”

While I and other female fans have endured thinly veiled (and outright) sexist comments with regards to our baseball fandom by some of the more Neanderthal-esque males, there is a greater issue here. We need to create a sports (and, ultimately, societal) climate in which being seen as “feminine” is not synonymous with “weak” or “less than” – that males who don’t fulfill stereotypical ideas of masculinity aren’t labelled as “wusses” or “pu–ies”. The MLB had made an attempt to address the most heinous act of aggressive masculinity through its domestic violence policy, which is a very welcome and progressive change. But, it’s the little things that will make baseball culture more inclusive and less stereotypical. It’s time baseball watched its language.

Quick Hits

  • While some fans continue to lament the loss of David Price, particularly the fact that he went to a division rival, David Ortiz has suggested that Edwin Encarnacion would be the “perfect replacement” once he retires at the end of this season. It would seem as though the stars are aligned for Edwin to go to Boston – they are really the only team that has both a need for a power-hitting DH and the means to offer the lucrative contract he’s looking for. Quite frankly, I would be surprised if Encarnacion doesn’t end up in Beantown. As it was with Price, it’s just business.
  • Speaking of Price, Steve Simmons tells us that there was a plan in place to sign David Price, but Alex Anthopoulos resigned before executing it. The idea, according to Simmons, involved letting Marco Estrada go to free agency and trading R.A. Dickey to clear enough payroll space for Price. I have absolutely no insight on this, but this feels like quite the troll job from Mr. Simmons. That’s not to say it isn’t true, I frankly have no idea, but I see absolutely no point in reviving a dead issue, particularly in the wake of several disappointing pitching performances. Price is gone. So it Anthopoulos. It’s past time to move on.
  • “Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is barely 17, and he has not yet played his first professional game. However, on the practice fields of the Blue Jays’ minor-league complex in Dunedin, Florida, his legend is growing.” John Lott has an excellent article on the Jays’ young phenom and the more I read about him, the more excited I am to watch this kid play ball.
  • Barry Davis introduces us to the Jays’ newest reliever/comedian Joe Biagini, the Rule V pick-up with a sarcastic sense of humour.
  • The Jays’ playoff appearance last season not only reinvigorated its fan base, but it sparked interest in young children eager to play the game. Youth baseball organizers have said that registration is up by as much as 30 percent over last year – an increase not experienced since the Jays’ championship wins in the early 1990s.
  • And, finally. Marcus Stroman penned a love letter to Toronto in his piece for The Players’ Tribune. He’s here to tell the world that Toronto is a baseball city, and so much more. The fans feel ya, Marcus. We ain’t got nothin’ but love for you, too.

Lead Photo: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

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