Jays swinging early, often

May, 20, 2009
5/20/09
7:55
PM ET
Just now watching the Toronto-Boston game, and NESN's Don Orsillo said this about the high-scoring Blue Jays:
    Blue Jays team hitting .286 as a club, is the best in the American League. Only the New York Mets have a higher batting average in the majors. And Gene Tenace as big a part of that as anything. New approach here for the Blue Jays in the last year-plus has been that of aggressiveness and swinging early, and in good counts, and the Blue Jays have taken to the philosophy a great deal and their offense has been working on all cylinders.
My ears perk up when I hear someone suggesting that swinging early is necessarily a good thing. But what's truly odd about the above is that Gene Tenace -- now the Jays' hitting coach -- must rank as one of the least aggressive hitters in major league history.

For 13 years, Tenace was an outstanding, terribly underrated hitter. He was underrated, of course, because he didn't hit for high batting averages. At his peak, though, he hit 25-30 homers per season and drew more than 100 walks. Essentially, he was good enough with the glove to catch and good enough with the bat to play first base (and did both). More the point, while we don't have pitch data for Tenace's career, I'll bet that he usually ranked among the league leaders in pitches per plate appearance. He walked a lot, and he struck out a lot (though not compared to today's sluggers).

Of course every player can't be Gene Tenace. If you ask every hitter to wait for the perfect pitch, some large percentage of them will get behind in the count and fail. Gene Tenace's brand of patience and recognition is a rare skill, and not one that can really be taught, particularly not in the majors. So it's quite possible that he really is teaching his students to do as he says, and not as he did.

Granted, the Blue Jays are currently fifth in the American League in walks (and they're closer to first place than seventh). Oddly, though, they're 12th in the league in pitches per plate appearance (and they're closer to last place than 11th). Same thing last season, when the Jays ranked 14th (last) in pitches per plate appearance. Also last season, they were 11th in the league in walks.

My guess? All that aggressiveness will eventually cost the Jays some walks, and some runs.

Last year the Jays finished 11th in the league in scoring. This year they're first. Anyone care to bet that they're not going to fall back a few spots between now and October?

Update: An inning or so later, Blue Jays rookie Brett Cecil got into a spot of trouble, leading guest analyst Dennis Eckersley to say, "That's the thing, you've got a kid like this that's never had any experience, really. Not enough. He's in the big leagues, too soon. He's got the stuff, obviously, to be a big-league pitcher. But it's just too early. You have to learn, on the job, right now in Fenway Park."

The next pitch was rapped into a double play. The next batter (David Ortiz) struck out (of course).

Which doesn't mean Eckersley is wrong about Cecil. But something jumped into my head, so I looked up Eckersley's career.

Brett Cecil is 22, with 185 minor-league innings to his credit.

Eckersley debuted in the big leagues when he was 20, and went 13-7 with a 2.60 ERA. At 22, he was an All-Star.

Granted, Eckersley did throw 444 innings in the minors before getting the Call. But he signed out of high school. Cecil signed after three years at the University of Maryland. I won't suggest that Cecil's two seasons in the Atlantic Coast Conference are equivalent to Eckersley's two seasons in the California League and one season in the Texas League. I will suggest that if Eckersley was ready at 20, there's no particular reason that Cecil can't be ready at 22.

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