Blue Jays Unorthodox Starting Pitching Defies History
How many MLB teams since World War II have won a World Series with an ace who has thrown fewer than 180 regular-season innings in his career? How about winning the Series with another of their top three starters having thrown fewer than 125 regular season innings in his career? For that matter, how many teams have won a Series with a knuckleballer taking a regular rotation turn?
The answer to the first question is Fernando Valenzuela of the L.A. Dodgers in 1981. The answer to the second is no one. The answer to the third is Tim Wakefield of the Red Sox in 2003 (and he only started in the ALDS/ ALCS). That’s it.
So why do so many otherwise sane people think that the Toronto Blue Jays will get to the Series— let along win it— with second-year man Marcus Stroman as their ace and precocious Aaron Sanchez as their No. 3 starter? To say nothing of an aging knuckleballer R.A. Dickey as the No. 4 starter?
The Blue Jays pitching equation for a World Series success is unmatched in the modern MLB. They’re thumbing their noses at three very large precedents in history. So far this season, Stroman and Sanchez have seemed like the real deal. Stroman is 2-0 in April. Sanchez was overpowering in Boston Sunday, allowing two hits in six innings for the win. There’s a long way to go in the season; that’s the real litmus test for young phenoms. Dickey, meanwhile, has been Dickey— an innings eater who’ll be a .500 pitcher at best.
The main reason you don’t hear that much about it is the giddy excitement about Toronto’s prodigious power offence. Common opinion seems to be that José Bautista, Josh Donaldson and Edwin Encarnacion will each hit 40 homers and negate the inexperience of the key starting pitchers. To say nothing of a 21-year-old bullpen stopper. The Jays’ vaunted offence is, so far, firing at less than optimal explosive power, but it’s been enough to nudge them along in the AL East for now.
So why is everyone so optimistic? Because the heart wants what the heart wants. Blue Jays nation (see below) is still ga-ga for the team since last fall’s run where every ball dropped in safe and every pitch teased the black (for a while anyhow). The hope we described months ago remains that the Jays new management team can make another David Price trade in midseason to bolster the young guys one more time.
Because if they don’t get reinforcements like Price they’ll have to make history. The hard way.
The inestimable Gregg Zaun tweeted that last Wednesday’s Blue Jays/ New York Yankees game drew a whopping 888,000 viewers to Sportsnet One, a specialty channel lost on people’s TV dial. That record (it was the highest rated show in the history of SN One) came on the same night the Stanley Cup playoffs began. The playoffs that contain zero Canadian franchises.
UPDATE: Viewership for the opening round is down 58 percent overall from where it was a year ago. CBC’s ratings have taken a 69 percent drop. These ratings will likely give people in the Canadian broadcast industry pause about how bulletproof hockey is in this day and age. That would have been unthinkable in the past.
The surge in baseball and basketball numbers and the drop in hockey ratings has led some to wonder if hockey is in trouble in this country. I recently participated in a CBC Radio round table about the health of the sport in Canada. The answer to that question is, it depends on where you live in Canada.
In the heartland of the Maritimes, northern Ontario or the Prairies, hockey’s position as No. 1 is inviolate in Canada. Young boys and many girls still put hockey first in their list of sports to play. But in the urban areas of Montreal, southern Ontario and the lower mainland of B.C. the preeminence of hockey is increasingly in question. New cultures and new assumptions about sport are changing the paradigm.
Paul Riley, former commissioner of Canada’s National Basketball League, described on The Current how increasing numbers of young people are gravitating to basketball in urban areas. In part it’s the spillover of the Raptors popularity across the country and the electric presence of NBA superstar Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors.
But it’s also commentary on the relative cost of basketball versus hockey. All you need is a ball and a hoop and you can play basketball. Hockey requires ice time, expensive equipment and goalies. In addition, families must debate the safety merits of hockey concussions against the relatively benign impact of basketball on the brain.
Substitute soccer for basketball and all the same arguments work for most o Canada’s biggest cities. Canada’s men’s soccer team drew 54,000 to a game in Vancouver last month, an omen that, if the Canuck men’s soccer team can become competent, the sky’d the limit. Already women’s international soccer is a huge draw in Canada.
Hockey remains a prime TV product, but this spring shows what might happen when there’s a low loonie and no crests to root for. Given a first Stanley Cup since Montreal’s 1993 win, the ratings will soar again,. But don’t be deceived. A corner has been turned in the multicultural mosaic of Justin Trudeau’s new Canada. It’s just a question of how much turf hockey will surrender to other sports.
Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy
Bruce's career is unmatched in Canada for its diversity and breadth of experience with successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada's top television sports broadcaster, he is also the best-selling author of seven books. He was a featured columnist for the Calgary Herald (1998-2009) and the Globe & Mail (2009-2013).