Photo Credit: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
When the season ends and the ol’ news tap stops a-flowin’, most team-specific websites switch immediately into delivering some of the most predictable types of content imaginable. Season overviews! Player-by-player postmortems! Offseason game plans!
There are a whole lot of quiet months to fill, so I can be as guilty of that as the next guy, but for the love of god, let’s at least put a twist on it!
And so over the next couple of weeks I’m going to do just that, taking a look at the Blue Jays figures who take the most shit from the fan base and asking the question: do the haters have a point?
In our second instalment: Brett Cecil
Previously: Jose Bautista
Brett Cecil turned himself into a fantastic reliever for the Blue Jays in 2013.
That year he struck out 70 batters in 60 appearances, posting a 2.82 ERA, with a FIP and xFIP in line with that number. It was impressive stuff for a player in his first season in the role full time, let alone one coming off a 5.72 ERA season in 2012 that saw him make nine starts in Double-A after starting 48 times in the big leagues the two years previous.
The 2014 season was even better. Cecil established himself as one of the top lefty relievers in baseball, with a curveball so good he could get away with throwing it nearly 45% of the time. This time it was a 2.70 ERA, with even better peripherals, and 76 strikeouts in 53 innings.
Coming into 2015, Cecil was the next-longest tenured Blue Jays player, behind Jose Bautista, and a genuine weapon in a thin bullpen. He should have been a cherished member of the team, but I think we all know what happens next.
Looking back at the numbers, the way certain fans turned on Cecil seems even worse than I remembered.The last runs he’d allowed in 2014 were on August 2nd, having closed out the season with 19.2 scoreless innings, producing 33 strikeouts and just 12 hits and seven walks over that span. He only pitched four innings in Spring Training because of a sore shoulder, but they were fine — four strikeouts, three hits, one walk, no runs — and he began the season with four appearances in which he yielded no runs and one hit while striking out five and walking two.
Those numbers, though, were somewhat deceiving.
In his first game of the season — the year’s second contest, against the Yankees in the Bronx — Cecil was asked to clean up Aaron Loup’s mess. His fellow lefty had come in to start the bottom of the eighth inning with a 3-1 lead, but then promptly allowed a single, a double, and then hit a batter. Cecil entered and things only got worse. He threw a wild pitch that scored a run and opened up first base. Carlos Beltran struck out, but then Mark Teixeira was intentionally walked to load the bases, and Brian McCann was hit by a pitch to force in the tying run.
The last batter Cecil would face, Chase Headley, hit a ground ball up the middle. Brett made a play for it, but it clanged off his glove and bounced to exactly where Jose Reyes had been standing before he broke towards second to make a play on the ball himself. The Jays lost. The fan base stewed.
His next three appearances were mostly uneventful, but he still didn’t quite look right. The lack of a Spring Training and the shoulder issue were concerns, and his velocity was down, just edging over 90 instead of pushing 94 or even 95 like usual. Everything came to a head in the eighth inning of a game on April 18th against Atlanta. Cecil came in to start that inning with the score knotted up at five, then promptly gave up a home run to Jonny Gomes. After two groundouts, Nick Markakis singled, then Freddie Freeman blasted another home run, making the score 8-5 for the Braves. To make matters worse, the Jays scratched out two runs in the bottom half of the frame, but the damage had already been done — not just in terms of the score line, but perhaps also in terms of Cecil’s relationship with fans in the city.
It was during and following that blow-up against the Braves that Cecil’s wife received an onslaught of Twitter hate, and decided to log off the social network permanently. Brett was hardly impressed with anonymous sacks of human garbage coming after his wife, either.
“If somebody wants to come down to the bullpen and have a chat with me, I’d be more than happy to tell a security guard to go take a coffee break and, if they want to jump into the ‘pen for a quick chat, be my guest,” he told reporters like Scott MacArthur of TSN.ca.
Was this irreparable damage? Not necessarily. It certainly didn’t have to be. But clearly a lot of fans didn’t have Cecil’s back. His struggles continued all the way through the middle of June. After a four run blow-up on the 21st of that month — his third straight game allowing two or more runs, and the fifth time in six tries he’d allowed at least one — Cecil’s season ERA sat at 5.96. He’d allowed 22 hits and 9 walks in just 22.2 innings, and was averaging 1.6 home runs for every nine.
But then, suddenly, everything changed. Whatever had been the drag on his performance went away. His curveball clicked. He was unstoppable again, finishing the season with 31.2 straight innings not allowing an earned run. He struck out 44 over that span and walked just four. As the Blue Jays transformed into the juggernaut that curb-stomped the rest of the American League, Cecil was right there, central to it all, once again as a weapon out of the bullpen.
Of course, fans didn’t notice this right away. It took some time to build back their trust in him — but earn it back he did, as became plainly evident in the most unfortunate way during the playoffs. Cecil tore a calf muscle to end his season, and it was a gut punch. Maybe not a death blow, but fans understood the gravity of losing him, and in doing so grasped how vital he truly was to that great team.
At least they should have.
Our relationships with relievers are a funny sort of thing. The position is volatile. Guys move in and out a lot. Performances ebb and flow like few other spots on the diamond. And when things go bad, it’s visceral. It’s not like with a struggling position player, when you look up on May 1st and realize that he’s relatively quietly gone 0-for-April. When a reliever screws up, it’s loud — loud enough for even the most casual of fans to hear and plenty easy for them to gripe about.
But we can acknowledge that and still also acknowledge that, when he returned to the mound in 2016, Cecil was godawful. He became the first reliever ever to lose five games in April. And as late as July 20th, he had an ERA of 6.75 — pushed that high by a three-run Tuffy Gosewich home run given up in the ninth inning of a Jays blowout win over the Diamondbacks. Yes, John Gibbons had brought him in to “protect” a 10-1 lead, and Cecil ended up getting lifted for Joe Biagini after recording just one out.
But, as seems to be his pattern, after that it all turned around. Granted, John Gibbons seemed to lose confidence in him as much as the fans did, deploying him less frequently and in shorter bursts than he maybe would have in other seasons. With Biagini, Benoit, Grilli, Osuna covering the late innings for the club, Cecil had less of a place. But when he was called upon, he did as much as possible to make up for his earlier struggles, pitching to a 1.74 ERA over his final 30 appearances, walking just four in 20.2 innings while striking out 30.
Fuck no, the haters don’t have a point!
It’s not like Cecil, when he gets into his funks, isn’t trying. It’s not like he’s the one putting himself into the game. And it’s not like he hasn’t redeemed himself and proven himself more than enough times to be spared taking a whole lot of this shit.
“Jesus, for almost 10 years of my life I’ve put everything I’ve had into this organization,” he exclaimed to reporters back in May, as noted in a series of MacArthur tweets collected by Hardball Talk. And to Steve Buffery of Postmedia a surprised Cecil ranted further: “I’ll say one thing, if you’re going to boo me, don’t cheer me when I’m pitching good.”
“A lot of people don’t understand the preparation that goes into a lot of pro sports, yet they feel entitled to do stupid stuff like that,” he continued. “Those are the types of things that bothers me … they don’t know the hard work that we as a team and we as individuals put in and yet they still do stupid stuff.”
I often hear fans claim that when they boo the Blue Jays, they aren’t booing the players or the team so much as the situation. But here’s the thing, you ingrates: players clearly notice that stuff, and they probably aren’t persuaded by such mental gymnastics nearly as well as you are that it’s all benign. And here’s the other thing: is being a grown-ass man booing like a fucking baby because his team gave up a home wun and huwt his widdle feewings any better??? Grow up!
Cecil has been a good soldier for the Blue Jays, and a vital member of two playoff teams, whether the haters want to admit it or not. For that he deserves appreciation, and a whole lot more rope than fans have ever seemed willing to give. His career here hasn’t been entirely without shakiness, but that’s part and parcel of the role. Which isn’t to say that anyone has to feel comfortable with him coming into a tight game in those months when he hasn’t been at his best, but that’s a looooong way from being a justification for the hate.