Quick Hitters: Stuck in Toronto Sports Purgatory

By: Dan Grant

The Toronto sports scene is currently stuck between schlock and a hard place. With the Leafs and Raptors engaging in rapid roster revamping (the new three R’s!) and the Blue Jays tap dancing on both edges of the razor sharp sword of relevance, each franchise seems like it’s on the edge of doing something major. But will they? Won’t they? Let the debates rage!

And rage they will, because really, this time of year is a bit boring. Only baseball is actually going on and its trade deadline is still a couple weeks away, and also, mostly meaningless. So speculation rules the day! But to me, speculation is a tawdry game. Mainly, because opinions are like assholes; everyone’s got one and enjoys putting gerbils up there. What? No, YOU’RE weird. Richard Gere is a man of the people!

Moving right along, I thought that instead of speculating, we could look at some actual exciting things that have already happened (or are still happening) with our teams. Controversial, I know. Let’s start with the boys of summer.

TORONTO BLUE JAYS

Since the very beginning of the season, when the problem was worse, there has been a public outcry for this team to add pitching. Of course, adding quality pitching would absolutely help to make this team better.

The one silly line I keep hearing though, is that because the Jays sport the league’s best offensive production, that they would only need the pitching to be average to make the playoffs. And while that theory may have been sound in April, it’s holding less and less water now that we’re past the All-Star Break.

The Blue Jays pitching staff currently ranks 23rd in the MLB with a 4.18 ERA on the season. They’ve pitched to a 4.13 FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) and a 4.04 xFIP (Expected Fielding Independent Pitching), meaning that they’ve been a tiny bit unlucky, but the numbers say they basically are what they are. However, looking at the whole picture doesn’t always tell the whole story. Allow me to explain.

In April, Toronto’s pitching was a trainwreck inside the Hindenburg. They threw up a 4.78 ERA with a 4.72 FIP and a 4.35 xFIP, good for bottom three in baseball in each category. This shows that not only were they getting rocked, but that they were getting unlucky with fly balls, possibly because the schedule was positing them in hitter friendly parks. That was costing them about an extra half a run per nine innings. The Jays record in one run games that month? 1-4.

However, after that time, the staff steadily improved. May came with a 4.10 xFIP (better, still not great) but June brought 3.83! That mark was good for 8th in the majors. The team ERA dropped to 3.17 and unsurprisingly, the Jays went 18-9 in the month, including an 11 game winning streak, vaulting themselves back into the thick of things in the AL East. In July, this has held steady, as the staff has posted a 3.80 mark for the month so far, and their ERA has been…wait, what? 4.81? Is that a typo?

It is not. Despite the bullpen posting a 3.30 xFIP, they’ve been damned to a 4.84 ERA so far this month. The starters have posted a 4.06 xFIP but a 3.58 FIP. Their ERA? 4.79!

So what gives? Well, unfortunately, it’s the defense.

A familiar sight early this season for Jays fans.

A familiar sight early this season for Jays fans.

Defensive Runs Saved is a stat that ranks position players against the average defensive production for their position in MLB. Toronto ranks 21st in baseball with a team rating of -10 in DRS. Of every position player that has suited up for the team this year, only Kevin Pillar (+13), Josh Donaldson (+8), Ryan Goins (+3), Jose Bautista (+2) and Justin Smoak (+1) have posted positive numbers in the category (a couple have posted an exact 0). Chris Colabello (-15), Ezequiel Carrera (-10), Jose Reyes (-8) and yes, Russell Martin (-5) have been the worst offenders.

Yes, Colabello was forced into outfield duty by injuries and yes, Martin adds value with game calling and pitch framing that DRS doesn’t account for, but still. The team doesn’t defend well as a whole, and beyond Pillar and Donaldson, they currently don’t have even one person who is performing at an elite level on that side of the ball. It turns out that you not only need to pitch well, but you need to catch the ball, too!

Remember that 1-4 record in one run games for April? Despite their league leading offense and improved pitching, it’s only 10-18 for the entire season, and just 5-14 if you subtract that magical month of June.

If you think all of this is crazy stat talk, consider this: The Kansas City Royals, owners of the AL’s best record at 52-34, have pitched to a 4.16 xFIP this season, good for a putrid 27th overall. Their team ERA? It sits seventh in baseball, at 3.52. How is this possible, you ask? Well Kansas City happens to lead the Major Leagues with a +44 in DRS. Not so crazy now, is it?

I’m not one of those people that thinks Jose Reyes needs to be moved, whether it’s off short or out of town, but I am one that thinks Chris Colabello should never be in the lineup again without ‘DH’ beside his name. And while adding pitching will certainly help this team–better pitchers should mean easier plays for our average-at-best team defense–it turns out that the ‘average’ pitching everyone has been clamouring for? We’ve already been getting it.

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS

The Leafs already made their biggest possible move of the off-season by shipping leading scorer Phil Kessel out of town. Many fans were unhappy with the return, as they didn’t land a big name coming back and are still on the hook for 1.25 million of Kessel’s contract each season until it expires.

In 7 years.

Yuck.

I am more optimistic than most about the prospects they got in return, however. Discount Nick Spaling; he’s a third/fourth line player and was acquired because Toronto had a serious lack of depth at the centre position. If he grows into a nice role player for the team that’d be a bonus, but he was essentially flipped for Tyler Biggs because the Leafs are flush on the wings.

Spaling, Harrington, Kapanen. Depth, Role Player, Star?

Spaling, Harrington, Kapanen. Depth, Role Player, Star?

Scott Harrington is a 6’2, 210 lb defenseman who is just 22 years old. He was a former member of the Canadian junior team and, you guessed it, the London Knights! Mark Hunter is getting the band back together, it seems. Anyway, Harrington’s biggest strength seems to be that he’s trustworthy. He’s big, but not particularly physical. He’s a skilled puck mover, but not especially creative offensively. He’s sure-handed, safe, reliable. The Leafs could use reliable. I think he’ll be in our top-6 defensemen come the start of the season, with the potential to be a fixture in the defense core for years to come. Along with Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner, things aren’t looking too shabby back there in the long term.

At 5’10, 160 lbs Kasperi Kapanen continues what seems to be a new organizational bent towards small, skilled forwards. With the newly drafted Mitch Marner (5’11, 165lbs) and last years pick William Nylander (5’11, 170) already in the mix, the Leafs have a trio of elite offensive options poised to rise through the ranks. Personally, I love it. If all three of them are playing together on the Waterbug line sometime in 2017, I’ll consider this trade a huge success, whether Phil gets 50 next to Sidney or not.

Throw in an extra first round pick and this deal isn’t looking too shabby for Toronto. You just need to to be patient. And stop throwing things at me.

TORONTO RAPTORS

I mean, say it with me. NORMAN. POWELL.

OK, OK, I know it’s just a couple summer league games, but he looks fun, doesn’t he? Vines for days!

Raptors General Manager Masai Ujiri continued his overhaul of last years team by inking second round pick Powell to a contract yesterday. Right now, the roster is looking pretty set, unless a major trade is coming. And knowing Masai, it might be.

That said, it’s prudent to look at how the lineup might work if nothing else happens before the season begins. As of now, you’re looking at:

PG- Lowry-Joseph-Wright

SG- DeRozan-Ross-Powell

SF- Carroll-Ross-Johnson

PF- Patterson-Scola-Johnson

C- Valanciunas-Biyombo-Nogueira

Now, the positional designations are loose- we’ll almost certainly see lineups with Corey Joseph and Kyle Lowry playing together and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Raptors sometimes went small, starting DeMarre Carroll at the 4 with either Ross or Joseph in the starting lineup. Ross will probably log more time at the 2 this year, as Carroll will be handling other teams best forwards. It’ll be cool to see how much they play the potentially destructive defensive tandem of Carroll and James Johnson together. And it will be interesting to see if either Bruno or Bebe can crack the rotation at any point this season, or if they’re going to be spending most of their time in the 905. There is also currently a roster spot free if the team wants to sign another player off their summer league squad, something that is likely to happen.

I like the improved defensive chops- Carroll, Joseph, Wright and Powell all get after it on the defensive perimeter and the Biyombo/Scola combination give the Raptors a defensive rebounding presence that was sorely lacking last season. Biyombo can provide rim protection too, another glaring flaw this past year. I’ll be interested to see if Toronto tries running him out next to JV Nasty at all. If Valanciunas has added the mid-range game to his devastating left block antics over the summer (supposedly an area of focus), they could be an interesting change-of-pace compliment to one another.

I was going to write that I was worried about the lack of outside shooting on this team but if Patterson, Carroll and a healthy Lowry are playing 30 plus minutes a night for this team, they should be OK. Ross can obviously contribute on that end too, when he’s got it going. I just worry about what happens to the spacing if any three man combination of Scola, Biyombo, Valanciunas and Johnson is on the floor together. But that (and only that!) is why I’m not the coach!

And that’s about it for this edition of quick hitters. If you gained anything from reading this, I hope it was remembering that Richard Gere is a total weirdo. Have a great weekend everybody!

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