Baseball must live on

MLB attendance is down league-wide as the average game length continues to increase

Baseball must live on

Attention spans have shortened and with the rise in popularity of competing sports leagues, the NBA has replaced the MLB as the second most popular sports league in North America, behind the NFL.

In an recent episode of The Bill Simmons Podcast, host Bill Simmons says that he believed that people under 35 generally do not care about baseball. “When you go to the games, half the people are on their phones,” he said. “I got LAFC MLS tickets and you go to the game and people are into it, and its two hours and you’re out!”

The slow pace and long schedule of baseball has increasingly become a problem. The MLB has adopted new rules: the number of mound visits per game are limited, intentional walks are no longer thrown, and managers have only a 30-second window in which they can challenge a play. Each of these changes was made with the end goal of speeding up the pace of play.

In the end, there is no way to control how many hits or walks will occur during a game, and there is no limit on how much time a pitcher is allowed to take between pitches. The long, tense nature of the sport is unavoidable. And despite rule changes, in 2017, the average game length reached a record high, at three hours, five minutes, and 11 seconds.

Another point made in Simmons’ podcast is that an overdependence on statistics may actually be hurting fan engagement. When I find myself watching baseball with my roommates, one asks, “Hey what’s OBP? What about RISP?” and none of us know. Interesting baseball discussions have boiled down to analytics, a jumble of numbers, citing past matchups, and hitting averages against lefties or righties — the list goes on.

Simmons explained that the league has become so “stat obsessed” that there is no room for arguments. Meanwhile, basketball fans can argue about a player for hours since there are many arguments that do not refer to statistics.

Chuck Klosterman added that baseball arguments are often about “should we even care about batting averages?” and that he is “constantly being told what stats not to think about.”

Baseball’s dependence on numbers has halted conversations and simply made baseball debates less engaging. Ultimately, we must ask whether the level of argumentation is truly a reflection of the sport’s health. In my household, baseball games mainly provoke statistics chatter — much less engaging than our chats during the NBA season.

Now, let’s get down to the numbers regarding the MLB’s troubles. In June, Fortune reported that attendance is down 6.6 per cent since the same time last season and that there hasn’t been such a drastic dip in attendance since 1995. MLB attendance is now at its lowest in the past 15 years and there is a chance that average attendance dips below 30,000 for the first time since 2003. This may support the argument that the sport’s overuse of statistics and lengthening games has not done well for the MLB’s ratings.

Ironically, the advanced statistic Three True Outcomes percentage (TTO) is the clearest signifier of baseball’s slowing pace. TTO shows the percentage of at-bats that result in a walk, strikeout, or home run. Reporters have noticed that baseball has transformed from a “game of intense strategy, scrappy hitters, crafty pitchers and defensive wizardry,” into a sport that solely emphasizes the matchup between batters and pitchers. This year TTO reached a league average of 33.5% of at-bats, the highest rate in history, which means the league has never seen so few balls hit in play.

As the average number of home runs and walks reach their highest rates in history, the games only get longer. The MLB is walking a tightrope as there is pressure to shorten the game, but there is also pressure to promote excitement — which means base runners and home runs.

The recent decrease in ticket sales and TV ratings display that the sport is in obvious trouble, but baseball is still too special and popular of a game for it to die out completely.

Personally, the game’s slow pace adds a level of tension that no other sport can offer. Every motion and every inch in baseball can decide out or safe, win or loss. The use of statistics creates a fascinating strategic element that is unparalleled in any other major sport. It remains the only sport where players can depend more on technique and knowledge than pure athletic prowess.

While young, flashier soccer and basketball players have put pressure on the MLB to reinvigorate its own fan base to see a rise in viewership, I strongly believe that this is only a phase and there are many decades of great baseball ahead of us.

Why the Blue Jays needed to move on from Roberto Osuna

The former Blue Jays closer was charged with assault in May

Why the Blue Jays needed to move on from Roberto Osuna

On May 8, Toronto Blue Jays fans woke up to disconcerting news. The news wasn’t related to an injury or a sudden trade — instead, star closer Roberto Osuna was arrested for domestic violence. The 23-year-old was charged with assault and put on administrative leave by Major League Baseball (MLB) commissioner Rob Manfred. Osuna later received a 75-game suspension retroactive to his arrest date.

The arrest left Blue Jays fans scratching their heads, wondering how to react. Osuna is the first Blue Jays player to be suspended under the MLB’s new domestic violence policy, effectively allowing him to set a precedent for how the team and fans would react to a similar situation in the future.

Do we, the fans, burn his jerseys? Should the team bring him back? On the scale of ethics and objective athleticism — which side does domestic abuse weigh more?

It’s first important to explore the domestic violence policy that dealt the punishment to the young pitcher.

The official transcript of the policy, established in August 2015, noted that the MLB would conduct an independent investigation into any occurrence of domestic violence, but did not specify how or with what means the investigation would occur.

Since the policy’s debut, only a handful of players have been suspended under its pretense: Aroldis Chapman, José Reyes, Héctor Olivera, Jeurys Familia, Derek Norris, Steven Wright, José Torres, and now most recently Osuna, whose 75-game ban is the third longest given out under the new policy.

Immediately following the arrest, Blue Jays’ General Manager Ross Atkins announced that the team had no interest in trading Osuna and that once his suspension was lifted on August 5, he would be re-integrated into the team. The announcement fueled the cloud of confusion that hung over an already-discouraged fanbase. Osuna was once the bright spot on a team filled with mediocrity.

As a Jays fan, I’ve spent countless evenings at the Rogers Centre listening to a lulled crowd suddenly get jolted by a burst of energy, spirits lifted when saw they a certain relief pitcher exiting the bullpen and the sound of his walk-up music echo throughout the stadium.

Osuna was the cherry on top of the whipped cream: he gave hope to fans and rejuvenated a game. A tie in the 11th? Well, it’ll stay that way because Osuna is on the mound. Up one run in the bottom of the ninth? We’ll get that W because we can always count on Osuna.

The conundrum that took hold of Toronto due to Osuna’s behavior is an indication of the current culture and outlook surrounding domestic violence that is held by the MLB. The league’s new domestic violence policy, though not nearly extensive enough, is a positive step in attempting to correct a culture decades-long in the making. Other leagues, such as the NHL and the NFL, don’t have any specific policy for domestic violence to begin with.

However, the new policy’s mere existence does not erase the dark history of ignoring violence that mires the MLB. The outlook that the MLB had on domestic violence for decades prior to the naissance of the policy reinforced a culture rife with the acceptance of violence, so long as the perpetrator was an asset to a team. This culture is still very much alive to this day. The essential agreement among managers, players, and many fans, has been: who cares what a player does in his personal life as long as he delivers on the field?

The debate about the extent to which players should be punished for actions in their personal lives has turned reporter against colleague, fan against fan, and — possibly — player against player. To dive deeper into this discussion, it is important to first decide what components make up an athlete. Is style important? Personality? Would Mike Trout be lauded more confidently as this generation’s best player if he had more swagger? Do we take into account things other than the objective mechanics of pitching, hitting, or catching when discussing a player?

According to the MLB — and the awards that it gives out — the answer is yes.

The Roberto Clemente Award — most recently awarded to the Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo — is annually given to a “player who best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, and community involvement”. The league very publicly rewards players for their behaviour and community participation off of the field — in effect, affirming the idea that many components make up an athlete, ones that surpass muscle and sweat.

If the MLB wants to publicly reward its players for doing good off of the field, then it should handle opposing manners with the same publicity and vigor. Athletes have long been considered role models. They grace our cereal boxes, talk to us from the screens of our TVs while promoting a new Adidas shoe, and make their presence felt in whichever city they are representing for the given time.

Osuna’s incident isn’t just an unfortunate incident of violence: it is an endorsement of a lifestyle and outlook that has always been promoted within sports culture. It is representative of a culture that surpasses baseball; one that reveres Chicago Blackhawks winger Patrick Kane, despite the disturbing rape allegations that plagued him in 2015 and 2016.

It is a culture that emphasizes charity and community, but buries instances of violence and abuse. It is a culture that teaches young people that they can be violent and receive minimal punishment — because let’s face it: at the end of the day, to Osuna, who is a multimillionaire, a 75-game suspension is nothing.

The most prevalent question is: do we care that a guy beats up his girlfriend if he’s throwing over 100 miles per hour? The answer should always be yes. The rings, the banner, and those frosty, tense, baseball nights in late October should be a reward for good behaviour — not a guarantee.

And thankfully, the Blue Jays’ front office got it right. On July 30, less than 24 hours before the trade deadline, Roberto Osuna was traded to the Houston Astros, for three right-handed pitchers: Ken Giles, David Paulino, and Hector Perez. None of these pitchers have numbers as spectacular as Osuna’s — but none of them have been arrested for domestic violence either.

It is easy to get lost in numbers, statistics, and sabermetrics when it comes to baseball. It is easy to view every player as an amalgamation of averages and percentages. The Blue Jays — in the midst of a season where nothing is going right — did something good. They chose morality over athleticism; a decision that will no doubt cause controversy and be scoffed at by local fans and enemies alike.

It seems ridiculous to trade a young, controllable, skilled player — but this move also breathes some humanity into a league that is obsessed with moneyballing every trade and acquisition. It also sends a clear message: Osuna will not use Toronto’s mound or people as the basis for his redemption. No one is beyond redemption, but Atkins and his associates made it clear that Osuna would not get the satisfaction of forgiveness from a crowd that, prior to May, loved and revered him. The Blue Jays’ stance on violence is therefore unmistakeable: it will not be tolerated.  

I, for one, am glad I don’t have to see Roberto Osuna sport a Blue Jays uniform any longer. I will be sporting my own blue-and-white jersey with pride.

Jerry Howarth: voice of a generation

Reminiscing about Howarth’s 36-year career with the Toronto Blue Jays

Jerry Howarth: voice of a generation

For many, the start of spring is signaled by several sounds: birds chirping, the quiet pitter-patter of rain. For Toronto Blue Jays fans, the beginning of spring is marked by one man’s iconic voice as he calls the ballgame over the radio.

Jerry Howarth had been the Jays’ play-by-play announcer for 36 years until he stepped away from his duties earlier this year. Howarth spoke with The Varsity about his career and beginning a new life away from the radio.

Broadcasting for a professional sports team is no easy job. While the public is only tuned in for a couple hours, an announcer’s work starts hours beforehand. Prior to a single word being transmitted across the air, Howarth spends hours preparing and studying for the upcoming game. However, now in retirement, Howarth has found a new way to spend his time.

“It’s pretty much the same… the hours I used to spend… getting ready to broadcast and then actually broadcasting for three hours, I do now in the form of duplicate bridge,” says Howarth. “Now I’m back to preparing, doing my homework, and getting better and better playing duplicate bridge with partners in a big room of 50, 60, or 70 people. And that’s for three hours as well… My every day is pretty much the same, substituting bridge for baseball.”

Howarth also adds that time away from baseball allows him to spend time with his wife, two sons, and three grandsons. Of course, you can take Jerry Howarth out of baseball, but you cannot take baseball out of Jerry Howarth.

“I go out to the first game of every series; I’ve been out about 15 [or] 16 times,” he says. “What I do is I get out on the field at about quarter to four — I visit with [Manager] John Gibbons, the coaches, the players.” Howarth also greets the media staff, and in particular, reunites with those of the visiting team. “You give each other hugs and it’s a wonderful time,” he adds.

Through the 36 seasons of baseball that Howarth called, the Blue Jays achieved two MVPs, four Cy Youngs, a Rookie of the Year, a no-hitter, two World Series, and a Hall of Fame player in Roberto Alomar. But two memories stand out the most.

On the evening of October 24, 1992, the Jays needed just one win against the Atlanta Braves to win their first World Series Championship. The broadcasting duties were split between Howarth and award-winning announcer Tom Cheek. The innings were split with Howarth calling the game in the third, fourth, seventh, and eighth innings, while Cheek called the other five. If the game was to go into extra innings — as we now know it did — the two would alternate innings, with Cheek starting the 10th.

In the top of the 11th, Howarth called Dave Winfield’s two-run double, which gave Toronto a 4–2 lead heading into the bottom of the 11th. “When we went to a commercial break, I realized, ’Hey Jerry, Tom has been doing this since day one,’” recalls Howarth. “The Blue Jays were on the verge of winning their first-ever World Series. All of Canada is waiting. It’s only right that [Cheek] calls the bottom of the 11th inning.”

GEORGE TOROK/CC FLICKR

“When we came back after the commercials, unbeknownst to Tom, I simply said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve had the pleasure of calling Dave Winfield’s two-run double. Now here’s my partner Tom Cheek taking you the rest of the way.’”

“Tom was so surprised and happy all at the same time. He just sat right up, said ‘Thank you Jerry’ and called the bottom of the inning. Atlanta scored one run, but the Blue Jays would win it 4–3 at the end of 11 innings.” The decision felt right to Howarth; he believes that it made him happier than if he had called it himself.

The second memory is one that many diehard Jays fans hold close to heart. One of the most emotional home runs in franchise history came off the bat of infielder John McDonald. In 2010, McDonald’s father passed away, and according to Howarth, his dying words to his son were, “John, hit a home run for me.” McDonald wasn’t known for his power; in 16 major league seasons, McDonald had only managed to hit 28 home runs.

Days later, on Father’s Day, Howarth witnessed a scene straight from a movie, as the Jays were playing at home against the Chicago White Sox.

“John came in for defensive purposes and he came to the plate for his first at-bat since his dad passed away. He hit a line drive down the left field line. It just got over the wall — home run! We knew it was for his dad,” remembers Howarth. “As he rounded the bases, everybody was just crying and so was John. I was too when he hit home plate. He looked up to the sky and pointed there. It was only later we found out what his dad had said to him. It was certainly divine intervention that day, and that goes down as one of my most memorable calls.”

KEITH ALLISON/CC FLICKR

Howarth’s career also gave him the opportunity to support Indigenous communities. While many are aware of the use of racialized stereotypes in certain team mascots, Howarth only really understood what impact these had after receiving a letter in 1992. “The Blue Jays went to the World Series in ‘92. I was talking to the fans of the tomahawk chop and took a pitching coach out to the mound for a powwow with his pitcher,” he recalls. “I was part of all of that.”

“One day I received a letter from someone from a member of the First Nations up north,” he continues. “[It] said, ‘Jerry, I love your work. I know what you do on the radio is important to you; it’s also important to all of us. I heard you talk about the tomahawk chop and powwows and talking about the Braves and it’s offensive to us who live that life. We have very little say here in our own country. If you think about it, I would encourage you to just think about this please. The next time it comes up, maybe you can think about how hurtful it is for our people and what we have to be subjected to regarding those names and how we find them so offensive.’”

“I wrote him back… and I said, ‘Sir, thank you very much. That was right straight from your heart. I really feel for you and what you’re going through regarding this. I’ve never felt that way before… because of you for the rest of my career, I will dedicate myself to never using the words Braves or Indians or [the NFL’s Washington Redskins], especially with Cleveland’s redface mascot Chief Wahoo.’”

From that point on, Howarth says he “didn’t use those words at all” and that he “didn’t want to draw attention to himself.”

Howarth’s personal decision to exclude these names was essentially unnoticed for over two decades until listers started to catch on. In an interview with Jeff Blair of Sportsnet, the two discussed the decision of eliminating these words from the broadcast. The interview went viral.  

“I was very happy that it all came about that way, so that people began to recognize at least an issue that maybe they hadn’t thought of before,” says Howarth.

Yet the decision came with some backlash. Some made it clear that Howarth should “just stick to calling the game.” To this, Howarth responds:

“We’re talking about life, not so much ‘does politics have a place in sports?’ You do what you think is right from a human element [and] human standpoint. Colin Kaepernick did what he thought was right regardless of the consequences. He didn’t put himself first. He knelt because he felt that there were issues regarding race in the United States, which there definitely are; when you take a look, there’s no questioning that. This is life; it’s not sport separate from life, it’s not politics separate from life. It’s all a part of life.”

Howarth continues, “You have to weigh what you think you can do best to accommodate other people to just eliminate as much as you can — racism, whatever it happens to be, and just try to do the right thing… Let’s make that happen for life so that people can enjoy their lives.”

While Howarth and many protesters of the Cleveland’s red-faced Chief Wahoo logo look forward to its elimination from on-field attire in 2019, more systemic changes are on the way for Major League Baseball. Coming off the inaugural season of the Las Vegas Golden Knights, the NHL has begun its shift to 32 teams, something that seems to be on the way for baseball. But Montréal Expos fans should not get excited for a potential refurbishment of the Expos, according to Howarth.

“There’s a possibility, maybe not as strong a possibility, as perhaps some other cities might be involved too. Montréal, while they had a history together, they left because the fans didn’t come out to Olympic Stadium,” says Howarth. “The Olympic stadium doesn’t fit that bill anymore.”

“Will the fans not come out again? Will they draw eight thousand a game? Well, what about another city that would be fresh, [that] would have a brand-new stadium, and [that] would be happy to have a team that they might end up drawing an average of 30,000 to 35,000 fans for a game?” Howarth adds, “I think Montréal [is] certainly in the running whether they get a team or not. I think they’re long odds right there to do that.”

Despite stepping away from the radio, Jerry Howarth is not done telling stories. His autobiography is scheduled to be released in February 2019, featuring over 100,000 words on his life on and off the field, from high school, to the army, to his 36 years as the Blue Jays’ radio play-by-play announcer.

Are the baseballs juiced?

Why the MLB needs to come clean about the historic rise of home runs

Are the baseballs juiced?

Aaron Sanchez, the Toronto Blue Jays’ young ace, was sidelined for most of the 2017 season because of a blister. In July, Sanchez’s teammate and fellow pitcher Marcus Stroman was also unable to pitch due to a blister. Stroman publicly commented on the matter, claiming that blisters had become an “epidemic” within baseball.

Noah Syndergaard, David Price, and Taijuan Walker all battled blisters throughout the season as well. These blisters left multiple fanbases scratching their heads, confused at how perfectly healthy players and even aces were left unable to pitch because of what seemed to be an issue with the physical composition of the ball.

These blisters, which seemed to contribute to most pitcher-related injury news in 2017, foreshadowed a larger problem in MLB. A few weeks ago, FiveThirtyEight confirmed an alteration to the balls used in games.

The signs were all there. For one, the number of home runs per season has dramatically increased over the past year — and no, that’s not because of Giancarlo Stanton. The average number of home runs per game in 2017 was 1.26, which is almost 50 per cent higher than 2014’s average of 0.86. There was a 46 per cent spike in home runs between the two years.

In order to explain this spike, it is important to talk about the anatomy of a baseball. There’s the cowhide shell, which is the white leather exterior of the ball, the cork and rubber core, and the yarn that separates the two. The core, however, is where most of the alterations seem to have occurred.

The core of a baseball is made up of four parts. First, there’s the cork pellet that sits in the very centre of the ball. Then there’s both black rubber and a rubber ring, all of which are held together by pink rubber. In a study comparing the densities of balls made in 2014 and balls made in 2017, the ESPN Sport Science team, headed by Dr. Meng Law, found that the pink rubber was around 40 per cent denser in the older balls than in the new.

This decrease in density can be explained by a study done by Kent State University. Looking at the molecular composition of the cork as well as the pink rubber, researchers found that the pink layer of the core had 10 per cent less silicon relative to older balls.

These changes may seem subtle, but they have an impact: baseballs now weigh on average 0.5 grams less than they did a couple years ago. They are also bouncier, which The Ringer estimates can add three feet to the distance a ball travels off a slugger’s bat. This means that a hit that would normally be caught on the warning tracks is now likely carrying over the fence for a home run.

You may be wondering what the problem here. Are more homers bad? Is baseball now an objectively easier game to play? Will 50 home run seasons, like those of Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge, become the norm? No, no, and maybe. It is important to clarify that the problem with this revelation isn’t that the balls are being ‘juiced,’ but rather, the lack of transparency on the side of the MLB. Keeping mum on alterations to equipment can have serious repercussions, both in sabermetrics and in injuries.

Houston Astros pitcher and 2011 American League MVP Justin Verlander commented on the matter to his nearly two million Twitter followers. “All I’m saying is I don’t care if balls are juiced (seriously),” he tweeted this month. “We’re all using the same ball so it’s a fair field. My issue is I don’t like being lied to. I knew something was different. Century old records are being broken and numbers are skewed.” Verlander was specifically referring to the findings that the exit velocity and launch of a baseball now had a higher correlation to the chance of a home run — something that can be explained by the less dense balls.

Whether the lower densities initially caused the blisters is uncertain; what is clear is that the athletes are frustrated and the fans are frustrated. It seems that everyone except the MLB is frustrated. This then poses the question: why keep the alterations a secret? And why vehemently deny — as Commissioner Rob Manfred has done numerous times — something that was ultimately proven to be true?

Maybe the secrecy is due to some kind of contractual obligation with Rawlings, the company that manufactures the balls in Costa Rica. Or perhaps it comes from fear of backlash — from those who refer to themselves as ‘purists’ and oppose any and all change, scoffing at pitch-clocks and the like. It is true that the culture surrounding the game of baseball has been challenged over the past couple of decades, from social issues, like attempts to remove racist rhetoric from vocal celebration, to technical elements, like adding instant replay. Baseball culture is notorious for rejecting any evolution the game may go through.

This has to change. Progress is good — it is as simple as that. In 1858, baserunners weren’t obligated to touch all the bases in order. In 1884, a player needed six balls to attain a walk. In 1885, bats could have one flat side.

Were it not for change, we would be watching a game where pitchers threw spitballs, players wore no protective gear, and the bats resembled canoe paddles. Baseball is a game that has been transformed into the phenomenon it is today thanks to changes it has undergone throughout its almost two-century existence. It is high time that fans, both old and new, regard the evolution of baseball as a benefit to the game instead of a detriment. For now, however, the MLB owes its athletes and its fans transparency. The way in which Manfred goes about explaining and justifying this issue will be indicative of the MLB’s commitment to the truth — or lack thereof.

The Jays can extend their World Series window

An insight into the Toronto Blue Jays’ offseason

The Jays can extend their World Series window

Entering last season, expectations for the Toronto Blue Jays were high, despite the losses of slugger Edwin Encarnacion and relief pitcher Brett Cecil. However, the Blue Jays were unable to deliver on experts’ predictions of a playoff finish, ending the 2017 season with a .469 record, nine games back of the final wildcard spot in the American League.

Missing the playoffs after consecutive trips to the American League Championships Series has left fans pondering a dangerous question: has the Blue Jays’ World Series window slammed shut? If so, then a rebuild would be on the cards, and a difficult one at that. Toronto boasts one of the oldest rosters in the MLB, and they are burdened by the untradeable contracts of veterans Troy Tulowitzki and Russell Martin, both earning $20 million for each of the next two seasons. The future is bright with Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette on the way, but they still find themselves playing High-A ball in Dunedin.

With the notion of a rebuild out of the question, how can the Jays squeeze out another shot at the playoffs? Let’s consider the team’s options this offseason.

 

The addition of an infielder

The Jays boasted a middle infield comprised of Ryan Goins, Tulowitzki, and the oft-injured Devon Travis last season. A healthy Travis started at second, with Tulowitzki at shortstop, and Goins deputizing both positions.

Injuries to Travis, Tulowitzki, and Josh Donaldson exposed the lack of depth in the infield and resulted in Toronto playing some combination of Darwin Barney, Chris Coghlan, Rob Refsnyder, and Goins — none of whom are with the club today — alongside Justin Smoak. This leaves Richard Urena and Gift Ngoepe as the Jays’ only depth at middle infield, making a utility infielder a top priority.

Eduardo Núñez is one such utility infielder. Valued at almost $12 million, he can play virtually anywhere in the field should a starting player go down with an injury. Batting .313/.341/.460 with 12 home runs, 58 runs batted in, and 24 stolen bases last season with the San Francisco Giants and Boston Red Sox, Núñez would bring some speed to an aged squad.

Speaking of speed, Dee Gordon may find himself leaving Miami soon, as new Marlins CEO Derek Jeter attempts to lower the club’s salary. A left-handed batter with a high on-base percentage makes Gordon the ideal leadoff man. He even snagged 60 bases last season, making him an attractive trade option for the Jays. Gordon would take over at second full-time, benching Travis, and making Goins the backup shortstop, creating depth by pushing the incumbent starters down the chart.

Depth at starting pitcher

The Jays’ rotation currently features Marcus Stroman, Marco Estrada, Aaron Sanchez, and JA Happ, leaving a vacant starter slot. Toronto have rightly expressed interest in Jake Arrieta, one of the top pitchers on the market and a World Series winner with the Chicago Cubs. With a Cy Young Award and two no-hitters to his name, Arrieta’s proven track record makes him a tantalising option for the Jays. The downside? Arrieta would command almost $27 million per year on a long-term contract.

The most interesting option is dual-threat Shohei Ohtani, who is free to be signed on a minor league contract. Unproven against MLB opposition, he is considered a promising starter with a good bat. The one caveat to signing Ohtani is that all teams in MLB have a shot at signing him, so the Jays need a contingency plan should they fail. Toronto should take a run at him, but they will show reluctance to play him in the field if they succeed, as they’ve shown reluctance to push young players, such as Sanchez, too hard for fear of injuries.

Expect Toronto to pick up a few low-cost starters to improve pitching depth. Don’t rule out a return for Brett Anderson. 

Not splurging on sluggers

The loss of Jose Bautista has left the Jays short of a slugger in right field. With big-money power threats JD Martinez and Jay Bruce hitting free agency, it can be tempting for a club to spend big on a long-term deal for either, but they shouldn’t. If Toronto is serious about reaching the World Series in 2018, they need more than just Martinez or Bruce — they’d need to improve the infield depth and the pitching rotation to stand a chance against teams like Houston. Such moves would prove costly in the long term, as the Jays would be stuck with the hefty contracts of Martin, Tulowitzki, and any free agent acquisitions.

Instead, the team should place their faith in Teoscar Hernández, who showed some pop during a September call-up, to spare themselves the stress of carrying several overpaid veterans in the future.

Verdict: the Jays will express caution, making deals to improve depth and hope that last season’s misfortunes were but a blip. This team is good enough to turn things around on their own, and should get back to winning ways with minimal alterations.

Varsity Blues baseball win OUA Championship

Blues pitcher Peter Nash describes the impressive feat

Varsity Blues baseball win OUA Championship

An 8–3 victory on October 15 saw the University of Toronto Varsity Blues baseball team win their first OUA title in five years. A match where the Blues never relinquished their lead, the gold medal game was a reflection of the team’s strong season and even stronger lineup and roster, rallied together by first-year head coach Mike Didier.

Peter Nash, a senior in the Masters of Exercise Science program, was unanimously selected as the starting pitcher for the game and pitched six innings with dominance, recording six strikeouts while surrendering only two runs. A current coach in the Leaside Baseball Organization, Nash grew up admiring Roy Halladay and Justin Verlander while playing baseball in Ajax. Reflecting on his team’s 9-7 season, finishing tied for third in the OUA standings, Nash said, “It was obvious that [the Blues] were a top contender. Each game we lost, we knew we either beat ourselves or were right there. I had confidence at each position around the diamond, which I would argue is more than any other team could claim.”

Once October 13 rolled around and the playoffs for the OUA Championship officially started, Nash’s confidence was put to the test. Shutting out the Guelph Gryphons in the first round and defeating the Waterloo Warriors 7–3 in the quarter finals, the Blues moved on to face the Wilfrid Laurier Golden Hawks in the gold medal game.

“I was both excited and nervous for the top of the Laurier order. They run three good lefties to start and follow it with the hitter of the year in the 4-spot,” said Nash, describing the strategy he and catcher Tanner Young-Schultz discussed going into the match.

“You could tell that, over the course of the game, they started to recognize my change-up and lay off when it ran off the plate,” continued Nash. “Nonetheless, the change-up was good enough to get sufficient outs. The bottom half of their order saw a bigger mix of curves and fastballs with a greater amount of righties.”

A critical defensive play came in the bottom of the fourth, when a Warriors runner was caught stealing by Young-Schultz.

“I was confused why they decided to run, as Tanner’s pop time is just fine, and I didn’t have a leg kick going; they really killed their own rally being over aggressive,” commented Nash on the opposition’s questionable decision. He added that despite the encouraging play, there was no room for letting guards down, as “momentum is easier to believe as a fan.”

The offense supported Nash’s terrific start; outfielder Michael Deluca scored three runners by collecting hits in both the first and second innings. Second baseman Marco Bandiera, outfielder Bradley Bedford, and infielder Roy Suzuki also collected runs batted in (RBIs) throughout the game. This offensive outburst allowed pitcher Graham Tebbit a comfortable cushion to close things down, and in his three-inning appearance, he only allowed one run.

Nash had difficulty choosing his favourite moment of the game since there were so many RBIs to “get you excited,” but he enjoyed striking out Davenport with a 3–2 change up in the first inning. Davenport was the hitter of the year.

“I would put that second only to seeing my rookie, Mikey, hit a long fly out to the oppo gap that really showed his development over the course of the season offensively,” said Nash. “He went from the bottom of the order to hitting line drives and loud outs consistently, which poses good signs for a first year outfielder. Seeing guys improve is what makes me tick.”

As for the future, Nash will continue coaching elite youth baseball and playing for the Pickering Red Sox senior team.

“[The Blues] have talent on the bench and on [the] pitching staff, so I have faith that U of T will be strong next year,” he said.

 

 

Does anybody really win with wins?

Baseball’s analytical community understands that a pitcher’s win-loss records shouldn’t matter

Does anybody really win with wins?

Every November, after a gruelling 162-game regular season and an intense postseason, Major League Baseball awards its athletes in both the American and National Leagues with various accolades. Most Valuable Player, Silver Slugger Award, and the Gold Glove Award make up a few of the prestigious honours that can crown a player’s season. Meanwhile, pitchers are fixated on one specific achievement, the Cy Young Award, which recognizes one pitcher as the best of the season as determined by the Baseball Writers Association of America (BWAA).

Last year, Boston Red Sox pitcher Rick Porcello won the award over the Detroit Tigers’ Justin Verlander and Cleveland Indians’ Corey Kluber. The manner in which the BWAA voted sparked a controversy, though, because of inconsistencies between ranked-ballot votes for Porcello and Verlander. The Red Sox pitcher received eight first place votes, while Verlander received 14 but was completely removed from two of the ballots.

When each pitcher’s individual statistics are broken down and further examined, it becomes apparent that there’s a brazen discrepancy between what the BWAA aims to reward and the way in which the selections are determined. Last year’s voting illuminated a problem with modern pitching sabermetrics: the importance the win-loss record holds far outweighs the information that the statistic actually encapsulates.   

Baseball is an analytical game — managers and fans alike act as statisticians to make sense of a player’s success or struggles. The win-loss statistic is one that applies solely to pitchers: a pitcher is awarded the win if he was the last to pitch before the winning team took the lead for the final time. It’s a divisive statistic because it says very little about a pitcher’s abilities yet holds a lot of weight when it comes to discussing performance. In 2016, Rick Porcello ended the regular season with 22 wins and four losses, whereas Justin Verlander went 16 and nine.

There is a continuing trend of prioritizing a pitcher’s win-loss record over other, more complex and telling statistics. Maybe it’s because the win-loss record is straightforward, but the dissonance is staggering between wanting to accurately characterize a pitcher via his stats and relying so heavily on wins and losses. As soon as the baseball community collectively labels a pitcher’s winning record as obsolete, there will be more integrity and fairness in deciding who excelled in a season.

It is necessary to determine what attributes makes a pitcher stand out from his peers: value to his team is not mutually inclusive with talent. Performance can be quantified by Earned Run Average (ERA), for example, which denotes how many runs a pitcher allows on average in his outings. Strikeouts are another good measure of success.

To quantify value, however, Wins Above Replacement (WAR) is the best statistic to look to since it indicates how many of the team’s wins were brought solely by the pitcher. A Quality Start (QS) is also a viable option, recorded when a pitcher allows three runs or less, and serves as a constructive statistic since it incorporates a pitcher’s command and control on a given night.

But to truly discredit win-loss statistics, it’s crucial to discuss run support, the average number of runs a pitcher receives from his team. In 2016, Porcello had a Major League leading 6.53 runs in support of him per outing, whereas Verlander only had 3.97. To further exemplify: in 2013, the AL Cy Young winner, then-Detroit Tigers pitcher Max Scherzer, ended the season with 21 wins while, on average, his team scored him 5.59 runs. Second place Texas Rangers pitcher Yu Darvish had only 13 wins, partly because of his 4.28 run support. There is a strong correlation between high run support and more wins, which should effectively delegitimize the statistic from its pedestal, yet no such demotion has taken place quite yet.

On August 15 of 2016, when the Toronto Blue Jays’ R.A. Dickey faced the New York Yankees, the knuckleballer pitched five strong innings, giving up only one run — an uncharacteristic feat for the right hander who often struggles with his command. Toronto went on to lose 1-0 that night and Dickey collected the loss. However, in a game only two months prior, on June 25, Dickey gave up four runs against the Chicago White Sox, and still collected the win in a 10-8 Blue Jays’ victory. In neither outing was his performance rightfully rewarded, yet games such as these happen every night and are the basis for the existence of a pitcher’s record.

There is no question about it: based on his statistics, Verlander deserved the 2016 Cy Young Award. And so begs the question: if analytics hold the most importance come awards season, how could such an act of larceny be committed against Verlander? 

Porcello, who had a higher ERA, a lower WAR, and less quality starts and strikeouts, rode his league-leading 6.53 run support to finish the year with 22 wins and crown his five-and-a-half months of play with one of baseball’s most prestigious awards.

Though not as controversial, it is arguable that former Dodgers pitcher Zack Greinke was in a similar situation as Verlander in 2015, when he came second to the Cubs’ Jake Arrieta in the Cy Young vote. Despite having the league’s lowest ERA for a starting pitcher and having the most quality starts in the MLB, Greinke’s 19-win season did not seem as accomplished as Arrieta’s 22.  Arrieta can thank his teammates for that — since their 4.18 run support was substantially larger than his competitors.

Baseball has always been a game oozing with logic and rationality; its fields are geometric and its rules are philosophical, so it’s quite ironic that the league uses so little logic when it comes to sabermetrics. Aside from hockey goalies, no other sport assigns individual players a win or a loss — so why place so much importance on a pitcher’s record? If a pitcher is only as good as his battery mate, why not assign the outcome of the game to the catcher as well? These are all questions that shouldn’t just plant the seed of doubt when it comes to the discussion of the integrity of wins and losses — they should water the seed until it grows into green, soft stadium grass.

Verlander’s loss in 2016 and Greinke’s in 2015 prove that a pitcher’s abilities and accomplishments lie far beneath the surface-level wins and losses. As soon as the MLB, and baseball more broadly, divorces itself from records and begins to rely on more complex and cogent pitching statistics, both criticism and praise will become drastically more justified.