- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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I used to think the trading deadline was overrated. Then the 2015 Toronto Blue Jays came along.
Whatever we thought of the Blue Jays before July 29, the day Troy Tulowitzki cleared customs, it's apparently as irrelevant now as whatever we used to think of Duke before Coach K pulled into beautiful downtown Durham.
Just contemplate for a moment what's transpired in Toronto since the moment the Blue Jays first wrote Tulowitzki's name on their lineup card, back on July 29:
• In the 32 games since Tulo's debut, they've gone 26-6. Yep, 26 and 6. And how many times before that, in the history of their franchise, had they ever gone 26-6 over any 32-game stretch of any season? That would be never. Of course.
• They've scored a ridiculous 200 runs in those 32 games. That's the most in baseball. They allowed just 97 runs. That's the fewest in baseball. OK, that'll work.
• So if you're subtracting along at home, you know that translates to a plus-103 run differential. Plus-103. In basically a little over a month. By a team that has only had a plus-103 run differential for a whole season once since Joe Carter's fabled 1993 home run fell to earth. (That was in 2008, when the Jays went plus-104.) Crazy.
"It just seemed like once Tulo showed up," says GM Alex Anthopoulos, "a switch got flipped. And it energized everybody."
But of course, Tulo was just the beginning of Anthopoulos' entertaining pre-deadline wheel-and-deal-athon. David Price, Mark Lowe and Ben Revere were coming right up. LaTroy Hawkins was part of the Tulowitzki package. And whatever it was they each brought to the dance floor, the beat hasn't been the same since.
"You look at our team before, we had some marquee guys," says the manager, John Gibbons. "I'm talking about [Josh] Donaldson, [Jose] Bautista, [Edwin] Encarnacion. We had some of the better players in baseball, but we just kind of sputtered along. But then you add two guys like Price and Tulo, and guys say, `Wow. Boom.' We weren't an easy team to face to begin with. But now you add Tulo to the everyday lineup, and you put Price on the mound, and son of a bitch. That's a lot of All-Star players."
And as you may have detected, having a lot of All-Star players hanging around is always helpful. I'm pretty sure Miller Huggins first caught onto that. But are we certain that's all that the Blue Jays' trade-deadline bonanza taught us? I'm not.
This team seems to be living proof that what goes on at the deadline can sometimes turn out to be more powerful than the names added to the lineup card or the holes that get filled.
There's also a certain psychology involved. There's emotion involved. There are energizing forces involved -- that can sweep up players, fans and an entire franchise. And this feels like one of those cases where the combination of all of those elements has elevated the play of a team that already had the names, the stars, the talent level and the run differential to make a run at greatness.
But you don't even have to take our word for it. Listen to how one of this team's most important players (and personalities), Jose Bautista, describes the transformation of the Blue Jays since the deadline and see what you think.
The deals his front office made didn't just raise the Jays' level of talent and confidence, Bautista says. They also raised the level of "expectation."
"You see the determination when we walk through those doors and we get on the bus," he says. "You can tell there's sort of an aura, a heightened sense of responsibility. Does that make sense?"
I've spoken to hundreds of baseball players about their team over the years. I can honestly say I'd never heard one of them refer to his group's "aura" or its "sense of responsibility." Let alone in the same sentence.
"Aura" is Bautista's way of saying the Blue Jays now play like a team that thinks it's going to bash its opponents noggins in every night. Uh, we've noticed that.
But "sense of responsibility"? That's his way of saying that, in the wake of these incredibly impactful deals, this is a club that feels it now has to live up to what's expected of it. And again, that's not a concept you hear baseball players talk about. Ever.
Asked how he would explain where those feelings come from, Bautista laughs.
"I don't know," he says. "I've never experienced it. I've never been part of a group that has experienced changes of that significant improvement in the middle of a season, and everybody's attitude changed because of it. I've never been a part of that. I've seen changes go the other way, where we would be unloading players and then the opposite happens in the clubhouse. ... But this situation? First time ever."
And so, if midseason deals do in fact have the potential to raise or lower a team's attitude, expectations and (what the heck) aura, by virtue of what is done or isn't done, then does that mean there really is an extra dimension to the deadline that we rarely think about? The psychology of it? The emotion of it?
"I'm not saying that you guys [in the media] overdo it on the deadline and not focus on this," Bautista says. "I just think this is one of the underlying aspects of it that people don't bring to the forefront. Just how it affects the psyche of a team. And making a difference."
All right, now this is where we step in and acknowledge that there are many, many great sabermetric minds out there who are cackling uncontrollably right now. Who think this sort of theory is as absurd as it is hilarious.
Talent wins. Period. That's their argument. Anything else -- aura, psyche, expectation or any other sort of intangible-based mumbo jumbo -- is just dumb sportswriter talk. Or amateur baseball-player psychology. Or dopey theorizing by folks like us, looking for a good story. That's what they'd tell you.
But is it? Is that all it is? Or are we onto something? Is Jose Bautista onto something?
Tricky question. So tricky that even the GM who made these deals still wrestles with it.
Three or four years ago, in his early years as a general manager, "I was mostly focused on production," Anthopoulos admits. But then he began to notice something. Not all of the players he acquired seemed to fit. His most talented teams didn't always play the way they were built to play.
"So I'm probably a little more balanced now, between production and fit," he says. "But I still feel like, if a guy is not productive, it doesn't matter about fit."
Now clearly, it's impossible to argue with that. A great dude who hits .112 is a bad player, no matter how many guys want to go to dinner with him. Nevertheless, if you haven't sensed a definite theme to the type of player Anthopoulos has targeted lately, you haven't been paying attention.
Leaders ... workers ... winners.
Think that's a coincidence, that those men just happen to be Blue Jays now? If you do, can I convince you that it's a coincidence you see the same bright orange ball rise in the eastern sky every morning?
"When I look at that team," says one longtime scout, "there's more of a work ethnic now. And a purpose."
And when Anthopoulos looks at Tulowitzki and Price, and what they've added to a team that had a tantalizing plus-84 run differential before they arrived, he would never look past the fact that "those guys are great players, and we can't forget that." But he also was struck by the words of the most experienced team-builder in his town -- new Maple Leafs general manager Lou Lamoriello.
At Lamoriello's introductory press conference this summer, he uttered these words: "A team is like an orchestra." His point was that every instrument has to blend with every other. And after listening and thinking about it, Anthopolous has decided: "There's something to that."
"How much does it matter? I don't think anyone knows the answer," Anthopolous says. "Is it one percent? Twenty percent? Thirty percent? I don't know. But you can't ignore it."
And there's something to the effect that Tulowitzki has had on the Blue Jays that the GM also can't ignore, despite his new shortstop's surprisingly sluggish .242/.336/.387 slash line.
"The bat is the last thing I'm concerned about," Anthopoulos says. "We're talking about one of the best offensive shortstops in a long time. And his defense has been unbelievable. And the way he prepares, the way he goes about it. ... He doesn't take any plays off. Everything is important to him. His attention to detail. His work ethic. I don't say this often, but he's as great an example of professionalism as you'll see. Deter Jeter is his idol. Maybe that's part of it."
After eight seasons as the face of the franchise in Colorado, Tulowitzki is still struggling with the shock of being traded and all that comes with it. And it takes zero prodding to get him to admit: "I haven't played the way I'm capable of."
"But I'm not concentrating on [my own numbers]," he says. "We've been a winning team since I've been here. And I know the player that I am and that I can be. So I'm not worrying about that. I'm concentrating on winning games. And that's what matters."
If we try to analyze his impact by just honing in on a few numbers on his stat sheet, though, we're missing something. Defense, for starters. His predecessor, Jose Reyes, cost the Blue Jays nine runs in 69 games at shortstop this season, according to Fangraphs. Tulo has already saved them six runs in his first 29 games at short. So there's that.
Then there's his obvious ripple effect on the rest of the lineup. The first four hitters in this batting order have hit .308, with 38 home runs and 118 RBIs, in 493 at-bats since Tulo's arrival. There are 17 entire teams that haven't hit 38 home runs in that time.
Some of that came with Tulowitzki hitting first, some with him hitting fifth. But he still has enough thump (10 extra-base hits), plate discipline (14 walks) and presence that his team's offensive eruption, since he joined the band, feels like more than just happenstance.
"He's a stabilizer," Gibbons says. "And once he gets heated up, watch out."
Encarnacion has hit .389/.451/.863 in the Tulo era and "seems re-energized," Anthopoulos says. Bautista has 10 homers and a .932 OPS, and "has that extra hop in his step," the GM says. Donaldson has taken charge of the AL MVP race, putting on a .360/.435/.760 12-homer, 43-RBI show since Tulowitzki's arrival. And on the other side of the ball, Price, Hawkins and Lowe have changed the face of this pitching staff, which has a 2.67 ERA since Price's first start.
"You know, these guys were good before we got here," says Hawkins, who has rolled up a 0.79 ERA in his first 12 appearances as a Blue Jay. "Let's not lose sight of that. They had an 11-game winning streak [in June] without us. But we feel like we're the missing pieces."
Well, for what it's worth, the troops they've just joined totally agree.
"I've compared it to being in the middle of a war," Bautista says. "You're in the trenches. You're running pretty low on ammo. And next thing you know, here comes a crate and a parachute, and it's full of bullets. Or it's like getting a little B-complex in the middle of a marathon, that jolt of energy, and allowing you to finish up strong. So I would argue with anybody who says our management hasn't given us what we need. We have everything it takes now to win."
They've been given the pieces. They've been given the leaders. They've been given the stuff of which auras are made. They've even been given a suddenly electrified fan base, that turbo charges their ballpark night after night. So for the men who wear this uniform, the mission statement couldn't be more clear, thanks to one of the great trade-deadline hauls of all time.
"Now," says Jose Bautista, "it's on us."
2hPhil Steele and Will Harris