With a get-on-base mantra, red-hot Toronto is running up the score
Vernon Wells's natural impulse is to swing early and often, but
in Toronto, where on-base percentage is king, the 24-year-old
centerfielder is learning to be patient at the plate. "Every time
I walk," he recently told general manager J.P. Ricciardi, "I
think of you." At the urging of their statistically savvy G.M.,
the Blue Jays have made plate discipline their organizationwide
hitting priority, encouraging players to work deep into counts,
take walks and wait for pitches that can be driven for extra-base
The formula has worked for the Blue Jays (32-26), who moved to
within two games of the Yankees in the AL East after sweeping the
second-place Red Sox last weekend. Through Sunday, Toronto led
the majors in runs (6.2 per game) and on-base percentage (.358)
and was second in slugging percentage (.479). (The Blue Jays have
had to rely on their offense, because their pitching ranked 11th
in the AL with a 4.90 ERA.) "We're not reinventing the wheel,"
says Ricciardi, whose club had also drawn 199 walks, "and we're
not asking guys to go up and look for walks. We're asking guys to
be selective, which is what all the great hitters are."
In an effort to improve plate coverage, hitting coach Mike
Barnett instructs the Blue Jays to try to hit middle-to-opposite
field during batting practice. Barnett often asks players to
stand in the batter's box during a starter's off-day bullpen
session to improve the players' sense of the strike zone and
pitch recognition. As a result, Toronto's offense has proved to
be efficient at keeping innings alive by reaching base and at
chewing through starting pitchers by going deep into counts.
Opposing starters this season have recorded an average of 16.2
outs per game against the Blue Jays, the lowest in the majors.
First baseman Carlos Delgado embodies the patience-and-power
package. An anomaly in the club's low-budget lineup because of
his $17 million-a-year contract, Delgado has been producing at
the highest rate of his career. At week's end he was tied for
second in the AL in home runs (16), led in RBIs (57), walks (40)
and slugging percentage (.657).
Delgado credits his success in part to small adjustments to his
swing mechanics early this season. He stands taller in the
batter's box, and the timing of his hand movement is different.
Delgado moves his hands backward before he swings, and then,
instead of starting his swing as the pitcher's arm comes forward,
he begins once he sees the pitcher's throwing hand break from the
Two offensive categories in which you won't find the Blue Jays
among the leaders are stolen bases (11) and sacrifice bunts
(two)--the lowest numbers in the majors--because they have no
interest in conceding outs to manufacture one run at a time. They
prefer to wait for big innings. "You have to work the lineup a
little bit more in the National League," says manager Carlos
Tosca, "but in the American League this is the kind of offense
you have to have. Five-and six-run leads are nothing."
In many respects outfielder Frank Catalanotto, who signed as a
free agent for a paltry $2.2 million for one year in the
off-season, is a prototypical Blue Jay. He's defensively
versatile, playing both leftfield and right, and has a hefty .368
on-base percentage. Yet he's also responsible for Toronto's two
sacrifice bunts; he tried one on his own and was credited with
the other after advancing a runner while attempting to bunt for a
base hit. Catalanotto quickly grasped that he was off-program.
"We don't do a whole heck of a lot of bunting," he says,
grinning. "Those might be the only two we get all season."
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID DUROCHIK/SPORTPICS Led by the powerful Delgado and the patient Wells (inset), Toronto had won nine of 11 through Sunday.
COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE (INSET) [See caption above]
Toronto led the majors in runs scored at week's end, despite
ranking last in stolen bases and sacrifice bunts. Here are the
top-scoring teams and how often they tried to manufacture runs.
Team Runs Bases Bunts
Blue Jays 357 11 2
Red Sox 330 32 12
Braves 319 29 26
Yankees 318 40 5
Rockies 306 20 21
Mariners 306 34 12
The last time the Cubs and the Yankees met was in the 1938 World
Series--no one should have to tell you who won that--and this
weekend's interleague series between the two clubs has Wrigley
Field buzzing. Never mind that both teams were in first place at
week's end, the attention is on Saturday's scheduled duel between
the only two pitchers to strike out 20 batters in a nine-inning
game: 40-year-old New York righthander Roger Clemens and
25-year-old Chicago righthander Kerry Wood.
Clemens will be making his third attempt to win his 300th game
and needs nine strikeouts to join Nolan Ryan and Steve Carlton as
the only pitchers to fan 4,000. Wood, a Texan like Clemens and
Ryan, struck out 20 Astros in a game in 1998 at the age of 20.
Heading into the matchup, both pitchers could use a big-game
performance. Clemens (6-3) had given up 12 earned runs in his
last 11 2/3 innings, and Wood (4-4) had lost three straight
decisions. It's a hot ticket: On Monday two seats for Saturday's
game sold on eBay for $500.