The 2016 trade deadline didn’t come close to matching the euphoric highs of the 2015 deadline. You can’t trump David Price and Troy Tulowitzki. Nobody was asking first-year GM Ross Atkins to shock the world, and most Jays fans were impressed with the shrewd, but impactful acquisitions he did make. And the depth provided by Melvin Upton Jr. and Francisco Liriano has already proved invaluable with all the outfield injuries and Sanchez’ mini-vacation to Florida.
But if you’ve been following this team since the Ricciardi days, then perhaps the decisions to ship Jesse Chavez and Drew Storen off in exchange for other relievers was more stunning than last year’s fireworks. Toronto had never shelled out millions on a rental ace at the deadline, but it’s also not the Blue Jay way to throw out their bullpen garbage and roll the dice with fresh arms.
The last time I can remember something like this happening was when Anthopoulos traded away the struggling Francisco Cordero (along with Ben Francisco and a minor league package highlighted by our dear friend Joe Musgrove) to Houston in exchange for J.A. Happ and two relievers.
It’s not like Scott Feldman was a clear upgrade over Chavez (as we found out the very same day), but it’s at least a shake-up, a change of scenery, a middle finger to inertia. Standing pat with a struggling bullpen can be perceived as a show of confidence in your guys, but when you stand pat year after year it starts to reek of complacency.
I’m not saying that Atkins revolutionized the bullpen. Being in a position to land Andrew Miller would’ve been nice, or Jeremy Jeffress. But Toronto’s relievers have accumulated the 1.5 WARP as a group since the break, trailing only the Yankees and Rangers by that metric. The Cleveland series may have taken some winds out of some sails, but while this bullpen is more or less the same as it was talent-wise, it feels different somehow – more energized, dependable.
So in honour of Atkins’ refusal to go gently into that good night, I’ve decided to open up the vault and look back at some of the team’s worst bullpen moments over the past unkind decade. You’re probably already cycling through some names in your head: Jon Rauch, Sergio Santos, Frank Francisco. Maybe you’ve got a better memory: Tomo Ohka, Brian Tallet, Jesse Litsch. I’m really sorry if I made you think even for a second today about Jo-Jo Reyes.
I’ve already rambled too long, so I’ll keep the methodology explanation simple. I used the Baseball Reference Play Index to search for all the appearances under 1.0 IP by a Toronto reliever since 1977 and sorted the list by Wins Probability Added (WPA). WPA has nothing to do with how good a pitcher is, it’s entirely based on context – this isn’t a ranking of the worst Blue Jays relievers. Here’s the full list if you’re interested.
9. -0.913 WPA: Casey Janssen (September 5, 2014)
After the Red Sox rallied for three runs in the bottom of the 8th against Aaron Loup to send the game to extras, Dioner Navarro singled in Marcus Stroman – who was pinch running for Edwin Encarnacion – and the Jays retook the lead with a two-run 10th. Boston had a 9.4% Win Expectancy when closer Casey Janssen entered the bottom of the 10th. Four straight singles and a sac-fly later and Boston’s Win Expectancy was up to 71% with men on first and second.
With the score knotted at 8-8, David Ortiz grounded sharply to second baseman Steve Tolleson, who had come on as a defensive replacement for Munenori Kawasaki. Instead of starting an inning-ending double play, Tolleson’s throw sailed past second base and set the stage for Yoenis Cespedes’ walk-off single.
8. -0.917 WPA: Kevin Gregg (May 20, 2010)
Kevin Gregg somehow saved 37 games for Toronto during a 2010 season in which the starting five featured Ricky Romero, Shaun Marcum, Brett Cecil, Brandon Morrow, and Mark Rzepczynski. He was a pretty good pitcher by 2010 Jays standards, but it’s funny how a few terrible appearances colour our memory of a player.
The Mariners entered the bottom of the 9th down two runs with a Win Expectancy of 8%, and quickly got within a run on two singles and two walks. Gregg then recorded his only out of the inning on a sac-fly that tied things up before allowing a walk-off single to Ken Griffey Jr.
7. -0.923 WPA: Sergio Santos (May 2, 2014)
What happened with Santos in 2014 reminds me a lot of Storen this year. Electric stuff, previous success… cringe-worthy trainwreck. After serving up a game-tying two-run jack to Pedro Alvarez which brought Pittsburgh Win Expectancy from 9% to 57%, Santos got a quick fly out before Starling Marte crushed a 2-1 offering for a walk-off win. It was Santos third blown save in a little over a month as the Jays closer.
6. -0.946 WPA: Mike Timlin (July 15, 1996)
The O’s needed four runs in the bottom of the 9th to win this one. They got five. Cal Ripken Jr. led things off by reaching on a fielding error, and two batters later Bobby Bonilla tied things up with a three-run shot. Timlin struck out the next batter, and Manager Cito Gaston left him in to close out the bottom of the lineup.
Didn’t quite work out that way. Pinch-hitter Luis Polonia bunted on the first pitch and narrowly beat out the throw, setting the stage for a walk-off homer by catcher Chris Hoiles.
5. -0.947 WPA: Darren Hall (June 4, 1995)
The high-powered Jays offence scored seven runs in the 1st inning of this game, but an uncharacteristically terrible start from David Cone made it an 8-6 game heading into the 9th. Still, the Indians had just a 5% Win Expectancy after Carlos Baerga failed to bunt his way on base to lead things off. A couple of singles and an RBI groundout by Jim Thome got Cleveland to within a run, but their Win Expectancy was still just at 11%.
Down to their last out, first baseman Paul Sorrento stepped up to the plate and belted the first pitch he saw from Hall into the seats to give the Indians the win. One swing, -0.890 WPA. The craziest thing is that Hall only threw eight pitches in the appearance.
4. -0.950 WPA: Casey Janssen (September 10, 2007)
Almost exactly a year after sending Detroit to the World Series with a walk-off home run against the A’s in Game 6 of the ALCS, Magglio Ordonez came to the plate with two outs in the bottom of the 9th and his team down a run in a game with important Wild Card implications.
Roy Halladay was toying with the Tigers all night, and after getting a quick ground ball double play to start the 9th it looked like Doc was headed for another complete game. Detroit had a 1% Win Expectancy when Sean Casey singled, and after another single Gibby pulled Halladay for Janssen.
As a general rule, even if Halladay has thrown 123 pitches, you don’t pull him for anyone with one out left. Janssen proceeded to load the bases before throwing an 0-0 meatball that Ordonez slapped into right for a two-run walk-off single.
3. -0.954 WPA: Jeremy Accardo (September 8, 2007)
Just two days before the Ordonez walk-off, a skinny center fielder named B.J. Upton came to the plate with two outs in the bottom of the 9th and his team down a run in a game that didn’t matter at all for either team.
This one had played out a lot like the Ordonez game: Jays starter A.J. Burnett cruised through eight innings before handing the ball over to Accardo to wrap things up. An error by Troy Glaus opened the door for a two-run shot by Delmon Young, but Accardo recovered with a quick grounder for out number two and the Rays Win Expectancy was back down to 5%. Accardo would proceed to walk Jonny Gomes before serving up a first pitch walk-off homer to Upton.
2. -0.959 WPA: Dennis Lamp (August 16, 1984)
What do Pat Tabler, Brook Jacoby, and Joe Carter have in common? They were all on the 1984 Cleveland Indians. Really makes you think!
Looking to close out a quality start from Dave Stieb, Lamp allowed four straight base runners to open the 9th. With the bases loaded, Lamp briefly recovered to get two quick outs before giving up a walk-off two-run double to DH Andre Thornton.
1. -0.960 WPA: Cliff Politte (June 7, 2003)
The main reason why Politte takes the top spot is that WPA is an aggregated stat, and for some reason he was allowed to throw 32 pitches in this outing. Even after allowing a game-tying three-run homer to Jason LaRue, Jays Manager Carlos Tosca didn’t think to yank him. Maybe the bullpen phone was broken that night.
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