Baseball Tool Time!

By: Dan Grant

Those of you that watch SportsCentre may have seen a couple special plays this week from Oakland A’s left fielder Yoenis Cespedes. Cespedes, who apparently has a rocket launcher attached to his shoulder instead of the conventional ‘arm’ that seems to be so in fashion these days, came up a 300 foot bomb of a throw to nail Los Angeles Angels swift second baseman Howie Kendrick:

The following night, he put the hammer down and gunned out the considerably slower Albert Pujols at third:

The lesson here seems to be, don’t run on Yoenis. Even if he plays balls hit in his direction like he’s had seven beers, he still has a cannon and he’s going to make you pay.

Cespedes is what is known as a ‘five tool player’. We hear the term bandied about frequently in regards to baseball: prime prospects are often referred to as ‘five tool guys’, sometimes announcers or pundits will mention a ‘tool’ that a player is missing. So what exactly are the five tools?

In no particular order, and dubiously capitalized, they are: Hitting for Power, Hitting for Average, Running Speed, Fielding Ability, and Throwing Arm.

Cespedes’ first play, the Kendrick throw, evoked in me the kind of passion that can only come while watching baseball. It’s the split second when something amazing comes from nothing. It’s along the lines of when a deep play action pass works in football or you can see an alley-oop developing in basketball – those plays are fantastic to watch, because you know they’re coming, particularly if you’re an avid fan of the team. Some players have a tool that’s just transcendent. When runners get careless against the Blue Jays, we know Jose Bautista is just itching to try and cut them down. Seattle Mariners fans remember Ichiro doing the same for ten years in the Pacific Northwest.

I once attended a game at Shea Stadium in 2008, where the Mets took on the Mariners (battle of the titans!). Now to paint a portrait for those who hadn’t been there, Shea was massive. It was built in the 60’s as a football stadium and it’s dimensions were weird for baseball. It was… cavernous. So anyway, Ichiro, while warming in the outfield, was hurling ball after ball to fans in the upper deck of the stadium. It was freakish. Imagine if you went down to see the Jays and Bautista or Colby Rasmus was just whipping balls into the 500 level. Considering what mooks will do for foul balls these days, I am fairly certain people would riot.

The whole thing got me thinking about how many talented players the Jays have had over the years. These are the players who put butts in the seats, who make the plays we’ll always remember. The Jays have had some great ones in their history. Here is my take on the best player for each ‘tool’. Your list might look completely different! And that’s OK. The world needs morons. Just kidding! …Sort of.

THROWING ARM

Jesse Barfield has not only the greatest throwing arm in Blue Jays history, he might have the best throwing arm in the history of baseball. He manned right field for the Jays from 1982 until he was traded mid-season in 1989 to the Yankees for a little pitcher named Al Leiter. Many don’t remember Barfield well because he missed the World Series years, but he was a cornerstone of the 80’s Jays teams that just couldn’t quite get over the hump. A two time Gold Glover and Silver Slugger winner, he led the American League in outfield assists from 1985-87 and quite possibly would have done it every season if players were foolish enough to test him. He’s a great player that’s slipped through the cracks of history, as he retired at age 32 due to a variety of nagging injuries.

There are high profile legends such as Robert Clemente, Willie Mays and the aforementioned Ichiro but I’ve never seen any of them throw a baseball the way Barfield does. The ball leaves his hand like a cruise missile. It often appears to be gaining speed as it reaches the plate. Nobody put more ‘oomph’ into the throw and for my money, nobody had a better arm than Barfield. If he’s the best ever, he’s certainly got to be the best Blue Jay!

FIELDING ABILITY

This one was easy. I don’t even have to say very much. Devon White got some consideration – he was a high impact player that made big plays when it mattered most.

But he wasn’t Robby.

If you want to talk about a five tool player, Roberto Alomar is it. He had the whole package. So much so, that he could have laid claim to the next category.

RUNNING SPEED

This was the hardest category for me to call. I wasn’t giving it to Alomar, despite the fact that he might have been deserving. In fact, it was so difficult that I put the question to my softball team (Go Mallards!) last night. The overwhelming consensus was that it had to be Rickey Henderson. And if you go by pure talent, this makes sense. He’s the all-time leader in stolen bases and runs scored  However, I then brought up the question of his extremely short tenure as a Jay. Most of the guys were unaware that Henderson actually only played 44 games as a Blue Jay, plus 12 more in the playoffs. He did go 22 for 24 on steals in the regular season, but he went just 3 for 5 in the playoffs. The point is, much as I love Rickey, he didn’t serve as a Jay long enough for me to give him the crown. So who then?

Shannon Stewart and Otis Nixon were excellent Blue Jays lead-off hitters between 1995 and 2003. Jose Reyes is the teams current speedster. Anthony Gose might be the future. In terms of unadulterated speed, I think you’d have a tough time topping Rajai Davis, a Jay in 2012-13. But I’m not going with any of them. I’m going with the Shaker.

Before Ted Mosby ruined the name for a generation, there was a man named Lloyd. Lloyd Moseby played centre field for the Jays alongside Jesse Barfield and George Bell. He served as the teams catalyst from 1980-89. He led the league with 15 triples in 1984 and won a Silver Slugger in 1985, while helping lead Toronto to a franchise record 99 wins. He’s the team’s all time stolen base leader with 255. He was a great combination of power and speed and is another player who fell just short of the World Series years. Plus, ‘The Shaker’? Nickname victory!

He was also the only player I’ve ever seen fast enough to steal second twice on the same play:

HITTING FOR AVERAGE

John Olerud was slow. He did not fill up the highlight reel. Honestly, the only good video I could find of him is the one below, and it’s not even him as a Jay!

Olerud was steady. He had decent power, hitting 255 career home runs but never had more than 24 in a season. However, that same season, he solidified himself as the best contact hitter in Blue Jays history. The ’93 Jays were a team built around offense. They were the first team to ever sweep the top three spots in the batting race, with Alomar finishing third at .326, Paul Molitor second at .332 and Johnny O running away with the title, hitting an ungodly .363 and leading the AL with 54 doubles and .473 OBP.

He was a terrific and sometimes under-rated defensive player, winning three Gold Gloves later in his career and posting a career fielding percentage of .995 at first, which ranks tied for 13th all time. However, nothing compares to that sweet, sweet swing.

HITTING FOR POWER

Carlos Delgado was a monster. I think people forget just what a treat he was to watch. He played on a lot of nondescript Jays teams until he was screwed out of town by stingy ownership – he should have been here for life. His seven season run from 1998-2004 is the most consistent run of greatness from any Jays player, ever. His 2000 and 2003 seasons in particular stand alongside the very best single Jays seasons of all time, probably only equalled by Bell’s 1987 MVP campaign and Jose Bautista’s 54 homer breakout in 2010.

As for Bautista, he gets an honourable mention here. So does the Crime Dog, Fred McGriff. Both were fearsome hitters and both got real consideration for this spot – Bautista is the single season record holder for homers and his story isn’t yet done. McGriff was so good that he played his way out of a platoon with future 1991 AL MVP Cecil Fielder, forcing the Jays to let Fielder walk. He finished with 493 career homers, 20 more than Delgado – but he spent the majority of his prime years in Atlanta, not Toronto.

Delgado is the Jays all time leader in home runs, with 336. Vernon Wells is second with 223. It’s not close.

He also did this:

Case closed.

THE FUTURE AND THE PAST

There are many fantastic Blue Jays players that got no or only a cursory mention in this article. George Bell was a supremely talented hitter of the Vladimir Guerrero school, able to hit balls off his shoe-tops or at eye level. Paul Molitor is one of the best contact hitters of all-time. Kelly Gruber was a spectacular all around talent and Tony Fernandez is the clubs all time hits leader. And of course, Joe Carter is still revered in these parts as Mr. Blue Jay. These are players we’ll always remember – the sum is always more than the parts.

This current Jays team boasts a ton of special players with a variety of tools. We’ve mentioned the speed of Reyes and Gose and the power of Bautista, but Reyes and Melky Cabrera are both former NL batting champions (Melky chose to forfeit his, but still). Edwin Encarnacion is a home run hitting machine. And Brett Lawrie’s defense on the infield could win him more than one Gold Glove. This is a team full of talent. One day, one of them might crack this list. Here’s hoping.

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