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Say What Jays Talk

The Good, the Bad, the Ugly from Blue Jays Nation. Follow us on twitter! @saywhatjaystalk

Lessons for Leafs from Loveable Losers? Chicago Cubs rebuild and what Maple Leafs can learn

Should the Toronto Maple Leafs be looking to Chicago for guidance on how to build a Stanley Cup champion? Yes, but not from those perennial contenders that play hockey, but from the World Series Champions. The Chicago Cubs serve as a clear and positive role model for hockey’s “loveable losers” and could offer the Leafs a road map to sustained glory.

Now, I should start by addressing the obvious - hockey and baseball are different sports, very different sports (I have no ambition of convincing you otherwise). I will not be comparing and contrasting Auston Matthews stats with that of Kris Bryant. The Cubs’ drafting strategy of hitters over pitchers has no relevance to the Maple Leafs or hockey in general. Also the NHL has a strict salary cap, the MLB does not. So please don’t take this as literally as that. I’m here to argue that the Cubs have demonstrated how a sports franchise can hit rock bottom, regroup, and come out a champion (and break a league leading drought to boot). The Buds should be taking notes.

The Cubs celebrate victory after 108 years of disappointment.

Culture of losing

Let’s first look at the history. Before beating the Cleveland Indians in game seven on November 2nd, the Chicago Cubs held the most shameful championship drought in professional sports. They had gone 108 years without a World Series title and from this emerged a romanticized culture of losing. The Cubs century-plus of losing featured a goat, a curse, a black cat, an oblivious fan on the third base line and, of course, enough heartbreak to fill 108 seasons.

The Cubs "Billy Goat Curse" involves a Cubs fan who was asked to leave Wrigley because his goat was making a mess, so the man put a curse on the team. Sounds ridiculous but this became entrenched in Cubs folklore.

The Maple Leafs “curse” is not nearly as long or interesting as the Cubs. But at 54 years and counting Toronto holds the distinction of the longest current NHL drought without a Cup. The Leafs curse involves a contract negotiation gone awry (a $500 discrepancy) for a second rate Leafs defenceman. The Leafs’ GM Punch Imlach

low- balled Larry Hillman by $1,000 and ended up fining him another $2,400 for holding out (an unimaginable penalty in the era of the union). Hillman vowed the Leafs would never win again and so far it appears to be holding up.

Now the “Hillman Hex” isn’t as culturally relevant in Toronto as the Billy Goat Curse is in Chicago, but both cities have these dark clouds lingering over their franchise. In both cities there has emerged almost a religious like devotion to their clubs. Like many religions, fans of these two teams have remained devoted even in the bleakest of times and are willing to suffer in the here and now in exchange for being rewarded in the sweet hereafter.

The Cubs’ management found a way to shake this culture of losing, ignoring such conspiracy theories and focused on putting the best team together on and off the field. The Leafs may still be a ways from lifting Lord Stanley’s mug but they have taken several progressive steps in acquiring the best hockey people available on and off the ice. And by doing so they may be rebuilding the self-esteem of this fan base as well.

Leafs fans know all too much about heartbreak as they hold the longest Stanley Cup-less streak (50 years if they don't win this season).

Winners in suits

The Cubs finally shattered their loser mentality this season, but the process really started five years ago. In 2011, Chicago turned to one of baseball’s greatest minds, Theo Epstein, who was best known for breaking Boston’s “Curse of the Bambino” in 2004. Now some superstitious people may not give Epstein credit, portraying him simply as an antidote to a curse or an appeasement to the baseball gods. But ultimately it was his meticulous planning and reorganizing of the Cubs franchise that made the club relevant once more. Epstein did not fall ass backwards into another World Series title. In 2011 he left a cushy job at Fenway and took over a team that had just lost 91 games, finished 19 games out of a playoff spot and had the one curse in baseball that outlasted the Bambino’s. To put things in perspective, from the 2011 club that Epstein took over, not a single player remains on the 2016 Champion edition.

Epstein realized this team would need a total rebuild. And through smart and somewhat unconventional drafting, timely free agent signings and brilliant trades, Epstein and company created a perennial contender. Starting in 2015, the Cubs went out and acquired one of the best managers in baseball, Joe Maddon, to push them into contention. Sound familiar?

Two of the brightest men in baseball (Theo Epstein left, Joe Maddon right). Both played major parts in the Cubs' World Series win.

If 2011 was the start of Chicago’s five-year plan to win a championship then the Leafs might be circling 2019 for their Stanley Cup victory. In April 2014 the Leafs announced Brendan Shanahan as their team president. And although Shanahan took over a respectable 84-point club it was clear that he was set on tearing the roster down. In his first two full seasons in Toronto, Shanahan has put out a 68 and 69-point club and has traded away marquee players like Phil Kessel, Dion Phaneuf and James Reimer in the process. Although the losses hurt, the Leafs did manage to snag William Nylander (8th overall in 2014 draft), Mitch Marner (4th overall in 2015 draft) and Auston Matthews (1st overall in 2016). All three look to be cornerstones of the Leafs franchise moving forward. If you look at the 2016 Champion Cubs, top draft picks from the dark years like Javier Baez (9th overall 2011), Kris Bryant (2nd overall 2013) and Kyle Schwarber (4th overall 2014) all played integral parts in their regular and post-season success.

Like the Cubs, the Leafs have gone out and acquired champion calibre leadership, in GM Lou Lamoriello (three Stanley Cups) and Coach Mike Babcock (one Stanley Cup). With both these clubs, there has been a clear plan to rebuild after decades of failure and heartbreak - five years in the Chicago Cubs are Champions. A season and a half into the Shanahan era and the Leafs have done the tearing down, but we’ll have to wait to find out how the rebuilding goes.

Maple Leafs ownership decided to bring in some proven winners with coach Mike Babcock (right), GM Lou Lamoriello (centre) and President Brendqn Shanahan (left).

On the ice/field

In Chicago, Epstein came in and let big ticket players walk and traded the others, acquiring the likes of Addison Russell, Anthony Rizzo and Jake Arrieta in the process. In Toronto, it appears to be a bit early to determine whether Shanahan was successful with his trades of Kessel, Phaneuf, Reimer but like Epstein he managed to take veterans that were not helping and turn them into prospects. The salary cap in the NHL makes trades a little trickier. When trading a useful vet like Dion Phaneuf, the Leafs had to take what they could get, due to their Captain’s robust salary. So it waits to be seen whether the Leafs acquired any Tyler Seguin’s or Tuukka Rask’s in those trades.

But what Leafs’ fans will need to keep an eye on is how their club manages the free-agent market. In recent history Toronto has done poorly in free agency. The likes of Mike Komisarek, David Clarkson and John Michael Liles, stand out as disappointing off-season signings. When the Cubs saw their competitive window opening they went out and filled their holes with some major contracts. After the 2014 season they signed ace Jon Lester to a 6 year/$155 million contract and last off-season they signed veteran starter John Lackey for 2 years/$32 million, utility man Ben Zobrist for 4 years/$56 million and outfielder Jayson Heyward for 8 years/$184 million. Although Heyward struggled in year one of his contract, all these signings were meant to plug holes not addressed by their solid young core.

The Cubs had 7 All Stars this year. Zobrist, Fowler and Lester were free agent signs; Russell, Arrieta and Rizzo were trades; Bryant was drafted.

Much was made this summer about whether the Leafs should acquire Steven Stamkos via free agency. The argument against it was that the Leafs were not in their competitive window. Adding one of the best forwards in the NHL would’ve been nice but not knowing how the rest of the team would look - it just wasn’t the time. After Epstein’s first full season in Chicago, his new club had lost 101 games. But it was not till three years later in 2014 that Cubs management saw their opportunity to dive into the free agent market. Like Epstein, Shanahan isn’t panicking about losing and seems to be playing the long game.

Leafs have acquired a young core during the Shanahan era.

The Maple Leafs have made several steps in the right direction since the start of the Shanahan era but still have a ways to go till they are again a serious contender. The 2016-17 season has been an exciting/frustrating campaign so far for this young Maple Leaf club. And although Toronto is still in the playoff picture, the general consensus seems to be that this season will be yet another lost cause.

The rebuilding process can be a painful ordeal and is not always a guaranteed thing. But the Toronto Maple Leafs have been taking some steps in the right direction. Much like the Cubs the Leafs have recognized that they needed a culture change. From 2004-2014 the Cubs made the playoffs only twice, with their 97-win 2008 campaign being the only noteworthy season. The Leafs have made the playoffs only once in 12 seasons, making a brief appearance in the strike-shortened 2012-13 season. Epstein came in to Chicago and burnt the Cubs’ roster to the ground and took the Billy Goat Curse head on. Rebuilding is always tricky and unpleasant but with an unwavering commitment to acquiring as much young talent as possible, the Cubs showed us there is hope. Now we can only sit back and watch to see if Shanahan and Co. remain committed to the long-term objective.

Breaking Up is Hard to Do: can Jays survive departure of big 3 bats?

As the champagne starts to dry in Cleveland and the Cubs are crowned champions, it is now time for MLB’s 29 other teams (the Cubs can have a few extra days) to start looking to the future. The Jays are coming off a second straight successful campaign but now find themselves at a crossroad. Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Bautista, Michael Saunders (and their combined 88 homeruns) are set to become free agents and Mark Shapiro and Co. must decide how they will build this team moving forward.

Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion have been the heart of the Blue Jays for the better part of a decade. So what would a world look like without them?

Over the last two seasons, the Jays have lived and died by the long ball making them at times the most electrifying team in baseball and other times the most frustrating. Both Toronto’s 2015 and 2016 post seasons ended with runners in scoring positions, a recurring theme throughout this era. And during this offseason, Jays’ management must figure out how to diversify Toronto’s one-dimensional offense.

So could letting the sluggers walk be beneficial to the 2017 Jays’ bottom line? The reality is Toronto needs to diversify their lineup and if this means reallocating dollars and resources from their sluggers to more well-rounded players that is just a price they will have to pay.

Why do the Jays need change?

Since the last two seasons have been Toronto’s best in decades, people may wonder why management would change directions? Well if you look at the overall stats and records of the ’15 and ’16 Jays, they do indeed appear to be perennial contenders. But if you dig a little deeper you discover that this feast or famine offense was wildly inconsistent over the full season. Here are a few examples of Toronto’s ups and downs in that two-year span.

Toronto was under .500 for the first two months of both the 2015 and 2016 season. The ’15 edition seemed destined to miss the playoffs again but was saved by an absurd 40-18 run after the trade deadline. In 2016 the Jays again had a big summer that put them back in contention.

Toronto seemed posed for another AL East title this season until the floor fell out from under them in September. Their inconsistent offense almost cost them the playoffs, barely clinching a Wild Card spot on the final day of the season.

And of course in the ALCS saw Toronto bamboozled by a depleted Indians rotation. Although Andrew Miller was a one-man wrecking crew, it was the Jays inability to plate runs against inexperienced starters like Trevor Bauer, Josh Tomlin and Ryan Merritt that saw them lose winnable games.

The heavy slugging Jays have been defeated 2 years in a row in the ALCS. The Kansas City Royals and Cleveland Indians both won with the small ball.

And although the Jays led the league in HRs in 2015 and were fourth this season, that was the extent of their offensive repertoire. The team was 12th in the AL in batting average (.248), 12th in average with runners in scoring position RISP (.249) and 13th in stolen bases (54) all areas that will need to be addressed this off-season. And Saunders, Bautista and Encarnacion don’t bring much to the table in any of those categories.

And when it comes to the post-season we’ve seen heavy hitting teams rarely go deep into October. The crafty, well-managed, small ball clubs (like the ‘16 Indians, ’15 Royals) tend to sneak their way past the flashy power clubs and leave their opponents scratching their heads. In the last 10 World Series, only one team that led the league in homeruns (the 2009 New York Yankees) has won. And if we take the last 10 winners and calculate their average rank in homeruns it comes out at a less than impressive 12.7, right in the middle of the pack.

This is not to say that power is not helpful. If Shapiro could resign Bautista and Edwin and find the funds to fill their various other needs, then surely there would be no complaints. But when slugging comes at the expense of the team’s overall hitting, change is needed.

What changes would be made?

Speculating about next season’s budget and what various free agents will sign for is fruitless, so I won’t.

But radical changes to the Jays offensive philosophy may be just what the doctor ordered. Has Toronto’s homerun heavy offense created a ‘lazy batters’ mentality? The numbers show the current team lacks serious fundamental baseball skills. In game seven of the World Series, the Indians’ backup catcher (Roberto Hernandez) laid down a “perfect bunt” to move up the runner, who eventually scored. In a close game, in a close Series, having lesser players step up with heads up baseball is crucial, and this was something the 2016 Jays either refused to do, or were not able to do.

When experts were pressed on why the Jays struggled with the non-slugging aspects of the game, the general response was a shrug of the shoulders and a generic unhelpful commentary like “you don’t pay these guys to bunt.” Before the ALCS, Gibbons was asked if he was concerned at all about his team’s lack of small ball he said in classic Gibby-style:

“Generally, a guy on second, no outs, guys are going to try to get him over anyway… Usually. There are guys you don’t want trying to do that.”

Saying everything and absolutely nothing all at once.

This might explain why in Game 3 of the ALDS with runners on first and second, with no outs, Jose Bautista was allowed to swing for the fences. Bautista struck out, Russell Martin hit in to what should have been a routine double play but Odor threw the ball away and all was forgiven. But was Bautista “trying” to move the runner over? Or maybe Bautista qualified as one of those bats Gibbons wouldn’t want to sacrifice to move over the runners. But in the post-season with the winning run in scoring position, should there really be any player that is above the goal of victory?

Jose Bautista struggled mightily this off season with a .182 BA, .302 OBP and 12 strikeouts in 33 AB.

After being acquired at the 2015 deadline, speedster Ben Revere stated, "I just come over here, just try my best, just get on base for the big hammer guys…If I get on base, nine out of 10 times I'm probably scoring."

Jays’ fans were thrilled that Revere, a stolen base specialist, would bring a new tool to Toronto’s offense. But the results never materialized. In 366 at bats in Philadelphia he managed 24 stolen bases in 29 tries, in Toronto he had 226 ABs and only 7 SB in 9 attempts. Now whether this was Revere’s decision or whether it came from above is unknown but upon arriving in Toronto Revere’s most effective skillset seemed to disappear. Did the Blue Jays’ big bats make Revere change his approach? It certainly seems so.

After being handed the leadoff spot this spring Kevin Pillar made a similar statement, suggesting that batting in front of Toronto’s big-3 would be easy.

“I promise you, with Josh hitting behind me, if he’s in the two-hole I’ll get some better pitches to hit. . . We always talk about walks, and yeah walks are going to happen. But I’m out there to hit. If I get a good pitch, I’m not going to sit around and try to walk.

The Pillar leadoff experiment was a disaster, as he managed just a .198 average and one walk in 86 ABs before being moved down in the order. But again Pillar’s comments suggested that the homerun hitters would carry the team, relieving him of the pressures of leading off.

Now letting Bautista swing away in a playoff game (when a single would do) may not be a huge problem. But the fact is when you have a leadoff man who doesn’t believe in walks, a stolen base artist who suddenly stops stealing and a coach who doesn’t understand why he’s players can’t move runners over - something is fundamentally wrong.

Change is coming in BJ Nation. For the last several years the potential departure of Encarnacion and Bautista has been portrayed as the end of the “competitive window.” Lingering over the fan base as an impending doom. But much like last off-season Jays’ management has a choice. Last year the Jays decided to pass on David Price and eventually he signed a record 7-year/$217 million deal with the Red Sox (making $30 million in 2016). Instead Toronto decided to spread the wealth re-signing RA Dickey, Marco Estrada and JA Happ (who made a combined $33 million in 2016) to round out their rotation. The results have so far favoured the Jays, as both Happ and Estrada had Cy Young type seasons and Price had arguably his worse season since his rookie year. So if re-upping on Saunders, Bautista and Edwin, handicaps you from addressing other areas of concerns then Shapiro should feel no hesitation to pass up on these big ticket guys.

Mark Shapiro received a lot of criticism last year, for letting David Price leave in the off-season. How would fans react if he let Edwin, Bautista and Saunders leave?

Toronto has a history of bad and awkward breakups. You look around the Wall of Excellence at Rogers Centre, you’ll find a bunch of stars that either left for greener pastures or were shipped off. Career Jays just aren’t a thing. It’s hard not to get sentimental when thinking about Edwin and Bautista. Both men made their name in this town, making this team relevant once more, so it’s hard to envision either of them dawning an opposing team’s jersey. But as we learned last year the emotional move is not always the best. Toronto does stand at a crossroad this off-season but it is not the doomsday scenario that it seemed a few years back. It would certainly be nice to see Encarnacion and/or Bautista ride off into the sunset wearing Blue Jays blue (much like David Ortiz did this season) but life rarely has such fairytale endings.

David Ortiz put the finishing touches on a brilliant Red Sox career. The Jays rarely see their stars finish in Toronto like this.

Tricky Dickey: Could Jays retool RA and his magical knuckler into a bullpen weapon?

***this article was written before Dickey's Monday start and before the announcement that Liriano would be moved to the pen

With over eager Jays fans already planning Toronto’s playoff roster, the only idea that seems unanimous is that Dickey will be watching from the bench this post-season. With the release of Dickey’s personal catcher, Josh Thole, last week, the future of the 41-year old knuckleballer has been further put into question. Although management has reiterated that the six-man rotation is still the plan for now, we all know how quickly Shapiro and company can change a set plan (remember the Sanchez to the pen debacle?).

My dad and I were watching a Dickey start back in April and RA was having another typical awful first month (1-3, 6.45 ERA). Fed up with yet another slow start from the Jays and from Dickey, my dad declared “why don’t they send him to the minors?” My initial reaction was because there’s no one to replace him. With an already questionable rotation Dickey’s ability to eat 200-innings was arguably more important than his win-loss record. When my father persisted suggesting Toronto’s highest paid starter move to the bullpen, I dismissed the notion as ludicrous. A knuckleballer as a relief pitcher - unheard of!

Many are suggesting that RA Dickey should not be on Toronto's playoff roster. But could he be retooled as a relief pitcher?

But now with Dickey looking a long shot to make the October roster, could he be retooled as a long-relief type? The thinking goes you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but as first-round draft pick who redefined his career at age 31 and didn’t have his best season till 37, Dickey is anything but your typical old dog. So let’s take a look at a few of the question marks surrounding a Dickey to the pen move.

1.With the unpredictability of the pitch can a knuckleballer really be a reliever?

One of the main concerns about a knuckler in relief is what happens if he comes in with runners on? Dickey could be a passed ball or two away from blowing a lead. Well, here are two good examples of knuckleballers who succeeded in the pen.

Phil Niekro, the God Father of the knuckler, came up as a relief pitcher with the Milwaukee Braves. Niekro would go on to have a 24-year, Hall of Fame career in which he was often swapped between the rotation and the pen. In his first three seasons he pitched 79 games for the Braves and only started one of these games. In his first full season in 1967 Niekro started 20 games while relieving 26 games and recording nine saves. In total he had 148 career relief appearances and recorded 29 saves. But admittedly Niekro played in a different era of baseball, where roles were not as strictly defined and things like innings and pitch limits, were not enforced. So let’s look at some recent history.

Tim Wakefield was not yo-yoed as much as Niekro between being a starter and a reliever. Of his 627 career games only 164 were from the pen. But in 1999 when Red Sox closer Tom Gordon was injured, they decided to experiment with their knuckler to close in the ninth. From 1999-2002 he pitched 32, 34, 28 and 30 games in relief, moving back and forth from the rotation to the pen as needed. But the example from Wakefield’s career that may be the most relevant is his performance as a relief pitcher in the post-season.

In Boston’s run to the 2004 World Series, Wakefield was the unsung hero in a come-from-behind ALCS against the Yankees. He came in and ate up 3.1 innings in a Game 3 laugher in which New York won 19-8. Although Wakefield himself was roughed up, giving up 5 earned runs, he did keep Boston’s bullpen refreshed for game four. In game five Wakefield was again called in to relief, this time going three scoreless innings in a wild 14-inning affair that Boston would eventually win and the knuckler would be the victorious pitcher.

Wakefield played an instrumental part of the Red Sox 2004 World Series win, with key performances in game 3 and 5 of the ALCS.

This doesn’t prove that RA could hack it as a relief option but it does show there is a precedent. There is also something to the theory that bringing a knuckler in after a power pitcher could disorient an opponent’s offense. In 2015 there was a lively debate in BJ Nation over whether Dickey should pitch game two of the ALDS. The logic being that after facing a power pitcher like David Price in game one, Dickey’s slow knuckler would completely mess up the Rangers grove. Ultimately Toronto decided to use Marcus Stroman in game two but imagine if Toronto could use this switcheroo technique mid-game. If you’ve been facing the heat of Aaron Sanchez all night, imagine coming to the plate in the late innings and have to adapt to the madness of the knuckleball.

2. Who would catch Dickey if he came in as a relief pitcher?

During Dickey’s four year Blue Jays career, he has pitched the vast majority of his games to his “personal catcher” Josh Thole. When RA first came over, the Jays then starting catcher JP Arencibia said he would try and catch Dickey – this quickly came to an end. Thole and Dickey were reunited. And so the narrative of Dickey and Thole being an inseparable duo began. But JP has left the building and the Jays now have one of the best defensive catchers in the game.

Martin (arguably the best defensive catcher in the MLB) is more than capable of catching Dickey.

Admittedly catching the knuckleball can be a traumatic experience and Martin explained some of his struggles to Jeff Blair in 2015. Martin said,

“The other balls, I’m able to catch in the glove. The knuckleball, I never catch it in the sweet spot…With that one, it’s rattling around in my glove, so every once in a while it will catch me on the inside part of the thumb and it jams it a little bit. It’s not broken. Just bangs it a little bit.”

The fear became that, although Martin could catch Dickey, forcing him to catch the knuckler for the duration of the season could lead to injuries, fatigue and even offensive regression. Kyle Matte of Capital Jays compiled some offensive stats from Martin’s 2015 campaign. On days where Martin caught Dickey he hit a Thole-esque .171 BA, .224 OBP, .333 SLG compared to a respectable .241/.339/.444 when not catching the knuckleball. So the thought from management was that if he’s going to hit like Thole, why not just let Thole do it and save Martin the hassle. But if Dickey was coming out of the pen, Martin would surely manage better than having to catch a whole game.

Although it is no secret that Dickey cherishes his working relationship with Josh Thole, this idea that he needs the light-hitting catcher to function is highly exaggerated. When commenting on the release of Thole, Dickey said, “My hope is that he’ll come back and it’s my expectation that he will but you never know.” He is prepared for life if Thole decides to sign somewhere else and even highlighted that Martin “has done a phenomenal job when he’s been up catching me.” So in a relief situation, there would be no need to switch your catchers mid-game as Russ would do just fine catching Dickey for a few innings, without the offensive side effects from catching him for a full game.

Now Red Sox fans may remember the near disaster in 2004 that was caused by Terry Francona allowing Jason Varitek to stay in the game to catch Wakefield. In the 13th inning of a tie ballgame, Wakefield struck out the leadoff hitting but the batter reached on a pass ball. Two more quick outs before Varitek let another pass ball pass by, runner to second. Eventually they decide to intentionally walk the batter. So first and second, two outs and wouldn’t you know it another passed ball, the runners both move in to scoring position, second and third. Perhaps a cautionary tale, but again Martin is quite adaptable and Dickey himself admits he’s been “phenomenal.” In 21 starts in 2015 where Martin caught RA he allowed 19 passed balls. Although this fails in comparison to Thole’s 16 in 47 games this season, the chances of Martin allowing three passed balls in an inning seems unlikely.

Although Boston's number one catcher Jason Varitek didn't catch most of Wakefield's start, he was capable of catching him in relief.

3. How would Dickey do in relief?

The stats would suggest that Dickey might not be a great relief pitcher, in the traditional sense. When we look at his career numbers in high leverage situations he has an abysmal 13.43 ERA (34.62 in 2016) and with runners in scoring position has a career 11.92 ERA (12.74 ERA in 2016). So bringing in Dickey in a no-outs, bases loaded scenario would probably not be the best idea but as an inning-eater, long relief type, could he be valuable to a playoff club? Like Wakefield did in that 2004 championship run by the Red Sox?

If you look at his career stats as a relief pitcher, isolating the pre-2006 stats (before he became a knuckler) he has a 3.65 ERA in 98.2 innings. Another stat that could be used to gage whether Dickey would be a worthy relief pitcher is the times through the order penalty (TTOP). The theory behind this stat is that each time a batter faces a starter he becomes more effective. The first time through is advantage pitcher, second time neutral, and third time advantage hitter, fourth time BIG advantage hitter. Essentially the pitcher has the element of surprise, initially but as the ABs go by the bats start catching up to the pitch. This element of surprise could be even more drastic for a knuckleballer, because there are so few practicing ones it really takes a batter time to acclimatize. If we look at Dickey’s 2016 TTOP we notice an alarming trend – third time through the order and he’s done.

Dickey has somewhat redefined the pattern as he tends to struggle in his first round, (3.98 ERA, .302 BA) improve his second (3.84, .205 BA) and get blown out in his third (5.93, .247 BA). But even so, if you shave off the 44 IP he’s had gone third time through the order he would have dropped his total ERA by about half a point from 4.43 to 3.90 (which is comparable to Scott Feldman’s 3.65 ERA so far this season). Also, none of these stats factor in the immeasurable numbers like how a batter would adapt to a knuckleballer midgame. Knowing you are going to face Dickey as a starter you can go and watch as many tapes as you need to prepare yourself but if he’s just a weapon out of the pen, the element of surprise will surely be all his.

The other day I heard an interview on Baseball Central with CBS writer Jonah Keri. He was selling the idea of starter Francisco Liriano moving to the bullpen for the stretch run and playoffs. Seems like a very worthwhile gamble. Keri’s argument was that the Jays need an effective lefty in their pen if they’re to go far in the playoffs. With their two current options, Brett Cecil and Aaron Loup, sporting a 4.82 and 7.45 ERA respectfully Jays fans have little faith in their lefty options (although Gibby continues to go back to the Cecil pond). With his strikeout-an-inning stuff and his power Liriano would seemingly be a great fit in the pen. His 2016 TTOP goes 2.56, 5.19 and 9.38 suggesting a a move to the pen may be beneficial.

But this got me thinking, who then would be the odd man out of the remaining starters? Estrada, Happ and Sanchez would be locks, and if Liriano was moved to the pen to become the lefty specialist, leaving Stroman and Dickey to duke it out. The decision last year was easy - Hutchison had been clearly the worst starter and Mark Buehrle appeared to be out of gas. But this season, banishing Stro or Dickey from the playoff roster seems questionable. With the shakeup of the rotation, Gibby may have already tipped his hand about who will be the fourth starter in October. The last three games went Estrada, Happ, Sanchez and Stroman pitched Friday. Although Dickey has been extremely frustrating at times in 2016 he does bring a unique set of skills to the table. Having bullpen depth in the post-season can go a long way. But if the Jays were to have both Dickey and Liriano in their arsenal for late innings, this could help them avoid some of the bullpen disasters that occurred in 2015.   

Dickey could offer Gibby a secret weapon in October from the pen. But would it be worth the gamble?