Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Who knows?

In keeping with the long-standing tradition of reviewing the first half at the All Star break and looking ahead to the second half, this post is necessary. But I have to say on the front end that a lot of the first half has been so incomprehensible that it seems like an exercise in absurdity to make predictions about the rest of it. Still, traditions are traditions because folks tend to do them whether they make sense or not.

Obviously, the tragedy of the first half is the inexplicable mystery of the offense, but the fact that the Jays hitters have collectively been so hard to understand has masked something that most Jays fans probably have taken little notice of: for all the very real difficulties this team has had, in 70% of the games they have played this season, they have been a perfectly good team in terms of results - the sort of team that we would all be excited about right now.

Take a look at the schedule they have played, on April 1, and look at what you think the team “should” do (i.e. lose 2 of 3 in NY, win 2 of 3 hosting Boston, occasionally sweep the O’s) and use it as a point of reference.

If we isolate two different relatively short stretches, and look at all other games - the ones they lost which they “should have won” (statistically) and vice versa basically balance out. The cumulative record of the team outside those two slumps is just what you would have thought it would be if you’d predicted it before the season. That’s a total of 67 games in which, though they might have done this or that poorly on any given night, they were the team we thought they would be. In those 67 games, they were 41-26 (.612) - that’s a pace to win 99 games.

But twice, for a stretch of 14 games each time, that team disappeared. Each time, they went 3-11 over a period that they might reasonably have been expected to finish around .500. It is those two isolated slumps, totaling 28 games, that has defined the Jays season to this point. The first of these took place during the second half of April. That was the beginning of that insane run of failure to drive in runners in scoring position which would go on beyond the end of the slump.

(That stat, by the way, will be skewed the rest of the season by what took place primarily in the last two weeks of April and the first week of May. It will be hell for the average fan to understand that the failure w/RISP in late April tells you nothing about how well they are doing in that regard in July).

One can, for the most part, excuse that slump. After all, the Jays promptly went out and posted a 20-10 May that pretty much fixed all the ills of late April. On June 1, a Jays fan ought to have felt pretty darn good about the Jays’ chances of making the playoffs. Late April had been an unfortunate slump, of the sort that pretty much every team, no matter how good, has. If you don’t believe it, check the records and you will find comparable slumps this season by almost every contending team.

True, the Jays started June with an unfortunate event in Anaheim and that maddening Giambi HR in NY, but honestly, don’t you pretty much expect to lose 2 of 3 in NY and LA? On the morning of June 6 you still should be feeling pretty good. After all, you have only six really challenging games in the next 24, and three of those are home games against a Cubs team whose one weakness was that they could be beaten on the road.

We all know what happened that night. Brian Tallett (who had given up all of two runs in the previous month allowed three runs to cross, and the immortal Armando Benitez, who had given up only one in seven previous appearances, gave up three more and a 4-0 lead turned into a 6-4 deficit. And thus began another tailspin. Two of three at home to the O’s lost, then two of three to the Mariners who were particularly helpless on the road, by June 21 the Jays were again six games under, just as they had been on April 30. Since then, they have played their best ball, in terms of results - 12-7 in an admittedly small sample.

The maddening question before us as we look ahead is this - which team can we expect? The team which is outstanding most of the time? A team that will win at that high rate the rest of the season and be at least a dark horse in the wild card race? Or the team that inexplicably goes completely off the rails every-so-often and drives its fans to distraction?

Honestly? Who the fuck knows?

What I do know is that the team needs another over-achieving stretch to make up for their latest slump. That is, then need to run off 8 or 10 in a row, or go 12-3 for a couple of weeks, and then play around .600 ball the rest of the time with no more skids. The margin for error is used up. It seems to me the test of that is immediately before us. Looking at the quality of opponent, the best chance to make up ground is over the next calendar month. A month that will be spent without Vernon Wells, without Dustin McGowan, largely without Aaron Hill, and potentially largely without AJ Burnett. Intimidating to be sure.

So it seems to me that, as seems to happen every year in July, we are in limbo. It’s possible for the Jays to prove they are out of it before the end of the month. If they are still essentially a .500 team on July 31 then Burnett and all other tradeable assets are gone and we resign ourselves to another quiet October.

On the other hand, what if the Jays take advantage of the crashing Rays and do it right against Baltimore and Seattle this time and win 10 of the next 13? Keep AJ and make a run? I think, long shot though it might be, if I’m JP that’s exactly what I do. I have to try to redeem something positive out of this season. From August 15 until the end of the season, 33 of the Jays remaining 40 games are against AL East opponents. Certainly the opportunity is there.

And it wouldn’t be the first time. In 1989 the Jays were 38-43 at the halfway mark, and they won 89 games to take the division title under a manager who had taken over during that season named Cito Gaston. In 2008 the Jays were 38 and 43 with half the games played (and they are one game better now than that team was after 95 games). Stranger things have happened.


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