Much has been made of Toronto’s historically poor start. A lot of the criticism has been deserved, but to an extent it’s an unfortunate cloud that will hang over this team’s head for the foreseeable future. Every franchise has a “worst” this or “best” that – regardless of actual performance. Some group is always stuck at one extreme and will be held up as the benchmark until their place in history is threatened.
There’s no promises that the 2017 Blue Jays will be remarkable. There’s a non-zero chance that they’ll be remembered solely for this rough start. But that’s cold and heartless, robbing future fans of the stories and oddities that flutter in and out of notoriety. Because history, when it’s told, is just a collection of notable moments. Sometimes they snowball into bigger and better things. Sometimes they become parts of a sad, slow-burning tale; footnotes to a tragedy.
Those moments deserve their acknowledgment as well, because that’s what fandom demands. You can’t pick and choose which parts of this team to enjoy. You embrace the team at its best and its worst, warts and all. That’s not to admonish so-called “bandwagon fans,” either. I love the Jays and happen to think it’s pretty cool that other people do too regardless of how, when or why they got there. It’s just impossible to choose which parts of Jays history you care for. Newcomer or otherwise, you own Toronto’s baseball past. Unfortunate moments are woven into the franchise’s history just like the good ones.
Luckily for those of us who’ve sat through a tough start to 2017, we stood witness to something special. It might still be happening around us, though there’s no way to be sure until it’s gone.
It’d be an understatement to say that Jarrod Saltalamacchia has struggled early in his Toronto tenure, as he sits atop of the league’s leaderboard in strikeout rate among position players. Fourteen strikeouts in 22 plate appearances will do that for you.
He’s also found himself in tough spots far more often than he’s used to, as he currently sees pitch number one sail in for a strike 68.8 percent of the time, though it was up at 72.2 percent prior to Tuesday’s game. His previous career-high is 64.2, which came all the way back in 2009. Surely that, and in turn his overall strikeouts, will drop over time. Starting down a strike at an abnormal rate will play its part, especially when we consider that over 51 percent of his 978 career strikeouts came with him behind in the count. But we’re not necessarily interested in all of that right now – we’re amidst a historic performance, capturing the stakes of the moment.
While there are a few differing reports out there, it sure seems like Salty set the major league record for consecutive strikeouts by a position player with 10 straight from April 13th to the 22nd. For now we’ll say that he did it, in the process breaking the previous record of nine consecutive Ks which was shared among Mark Reynolds, Bo Jackson, Reggie Jackson, Eric Davis, Steve Balboni and Adolfo Phillips. Interestingly enough, Sandy Koufax holds the record with 12 straights Ks, a feat he accomplished all the way back in 1955.
But back to Salty, whose Ks in the early going give him a strikeout rate of 63.6 percent, which is easily the highest mark in Toronto franchise history when we filter out everyone who had fewer than 10 plate appearances. Even if we don’t, he’s only topped by a smattering of relievers and spot starters who aren’t actually paid to make contact with baseballs via bat.
Among those with at least 10 PAs, Saltalamacchia is pretty much alone on the non-pitcher leaderboard as a player who’s more than a footnote (to this point, though I’m no fortune teller) in Blue Jays lore. To wit, he sits above Kevin Barker (12 games), Tom Quinlan (14 games), Ted Wilborn (22 games) and Eric Crozier (14 games) in the K rate ranks.
But of course, it’d hardly be fair to extrapolate that kind of performance over a larger sample. Saltalamacchia owns a career K rate of 30.7 percent so it’s likely that we’re seeing some kind of miracle run of futility at the plate. In short, we know that his strikeout rate will decline. But will it be enough to keep him out of the team’s record books?
Among players who received at least 100 plate appearances, Juan Francisco leads the pack with a 36.3 percent mark in just 320 PAs. He has a fairly comfortable lead with Ben Shepherd and Jayson Werth at 32.5 and 31.7, respectively. Jeff Mathis is fourth at 30.0 while Melvin Upton Jr. rounds out the top five at 29.7 percent. Considering Saltalamacchia probably won’t top 250 PAs, it’s likely that he’ll crack the top five given his improbable start and career numbers. Even an extra week or two of this strikeout binge could put him close to the top when it’s all said and done.
Somewhere deep in the Norfolk Tides’ clubhouse, Francisco breaks into a cold sweat. His crown is up for grabs.
Beyond the raw totals, Salty finds himself having struck out in all seven games in which he’s made a plate appearance. It feels like more. It’s not close to history just yet.
If and when he gets to 10, we’ll talk. 10 straight games with a strikeout would mark the 80th such streak in team history. He’d vault into the top 50 with 11 straight, while a baker’s dozen would put him into the top 20. Of the five 14-game streaks in Jays history, fellow contact-averse catcher J.P. Arencibia owns four. Beyond 15 games, the company becomes scarce. Saltalamacchia will need a serious run in order to approach Kelly Johnson’s team record of 22 consecutive games with a strikeout.
Given John Gibbons’ tendency to use Saltalamacchia as a pinch hitter so far, it’s unlikely that he’ll be able to sustain this streak for much longer. But that’s the thing about such historic runs – they’re improbable until suddenly they’re the new reality.
Sometimes it’s not about the How or the Why – it’s just about enjoying the What before it fades away. Like a shooting star that causes a gentle breeze around home plate, Jarrod Saltalamacchia’s current run could be gone in an instant. I can’t say whether or not the 2017 Blue Jays will give us anything truly memorable, but I can promise you that history has already been made. Perhaps there’s more to come.
*An immense thank you to Baseball Reference’s Play Index for making this a relatively simple trip down memory lane