Blue Jays: Gotta Know When to Hold ‘Em, …

Feb 22, 2016; Dunedin, FL, USA; Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher R.A. Dickey (43) and pitcher Brett Cecil (27) and teammates arrive at practice at Bobby Mattick Training Center. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 22, 2016; Dunedin, FL, USA; Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher R.A. Dickey (43) and pitcher Brett Cecil (27) and teammates arrive at practice at Bobby Mattick Training Center. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

Is it better for a struggling player – and for their team – for them to work it out in lower-leverage situations?

Not being able to know the future is what makes sports interesting.  How many of us would watch baseball as avidly if a time-travelling space alien told us who would be the 2016 World Series winner?  But the lack of predictability is also a source of stress, to managers and to the fans.

This stress is particularly evident early in the season, when players who are expected to excel are struggling.  If your star hitter is struggling, is it better to just let him work it out over time – or to move him down in the order, or give him a few days off to rest?  How about a struggling starter, or reliever?

The case for patience

Going into tonight’s game, Brett Cecil has an ERA of 5.19 and has already blown three saves.  But on April 4th, he tied the major league record with 38 consecutive games without allowing an earned run.  It is pretty clear that BadCecil is an aberration, and that it is only a matter of time before he turns it around.

Then there is the question of confidence.  It is almost a truism in baseball that confidence is critical to a pitcher’s performance.  Being “downgraded” from a setup role to a low-leverage one, even temporarily, could affect this confidence.  It could also pose a distraction if the pitcher believed that he was being treated unfairly – see for example Drew Storen‘s 1.89 ERA in the first half of 2015, when he was the closer, and his 5.82 ERA in the second half when he lost the closer job to Jonathan Papelbon.

And finally, there is the question of alternatives.  Most teams do not have the luxury of multiple high-leverage relievers in their bullpen.  If a Cecil is hurting, does it make sense to have him swap places with a lesser reliever who might have pitched well in low-leverage situations, but who is unproven in high-leverage?

The case for action

The Jays are in an unusual situation in 2016 in that they stand a very real risk of losing Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, R.A. Dickey, Brett Cecil, and Michael Saunders at the end of this year.  That makes it all the more important that the team capitalize on their 2016 window of opportunity.  Which means that, more than ever, they need to place the team’s success first.

The Jays expect to contend for a playoff spot in 2016.  But it is unlikely that they will win by the seven game cushion that they did in 2015.  Instead, every game is likely going to count – and as the other old adage goes, a win in April is worth as much as a win in September.

The upshot of these points is that the Jays should be making the decision on these struggling players based on what is best for the team.  If a struggling Cecil gives the team a better chance to win that an (possibly overperforming?) Biagini, then they should go with Cecil.  But if not, they should let the best players play – as Houston did when they demoted a struggling Ken Giles, or Boston did with the Panda, or Oakland did with Sean Doolittle.

On the confidence question – the counter to the “don’t hurt the player’s feelings” argument is that moving him down to a lower-stress situation can give him the opportunity to rebuild his confidence.

And on the question of alternatives – how will you ever know if a Biagini or Floyd can handle a high-leverage role if you do not give them a chance?  And remember – they don’t need to be perfect.  As long as they are better than the struggling player they replace, the team benefits.

Blue Jays candidates for downgrade

In the bullpen, both Brett Cecil and Drew Storen are struggling, with ERAs of 5.19 and 9.39.  Have them tade places with Floyd/Biagini/Chavez, all with ERAs less than 3?

In the starting rotation – from 2013-2015, Dickey has averaged a 4.87 ERA in the first half of the season, and he has a 6.75 ERA so far in 2016.  He is far better in the second half.  Some writers attribute this to the difficulty in throwing the knuckler in cold/wet weather, while others suggest that it takes time each season to rediscover the “feel” for that pitch.  The Jays have the luxury of three major-league calibre pitchers in the bullpen and minors:  Gavin Floyd, Drew Hutchison and Jesse Chavez (Chavez is the anti-Dickey, in that he has a ~3.27 ERA in the first half over the last two years).  Should the Jays go with a 4-man rotation for the next month or so, using one of those three pitchers when a 5th starter is needed?

The bottom line

It is easy to say that the “season is young”, and that, given time, the team will “come around”.  Or better yet, to say that players like Dickey and Cecil are notorious slow-starters and that we should just accept sub-par performances for the first few months.  But baseball has evolved to the point where teams take advantage of known weaknesses – they shift against pure pull-hitters, use platoons, and match relievers to the hitters’ split tendencies.  Is it too much of a jump to say that players with poor first halves should be minimized until they come around?