Grange on Blue Jays: Arencibia playing with fire

The Blue Jays and J.P. Arencibia will part ways after a tumultuous 2013.(Kathy Willens/AP).

If you listen to J.P. Arencibia, he loves pressure. He loves to be noticed. He’s wired for the heat.

In his mind, this is one of the things that separates him as an athlete. Some guys wilt, those with fortitude and character rise to the occasion. He’s a run producer – a guy who can’t wait to have the bat in his hands with his team trailing by two runs with two on, facing a two-strike count.

But there’s a catch: if you put yourself out there and happen to go down swinging more than almost any other player in baseball, well, people are going to talk and it’s not all going to be good.

“J.P. enjoys the limelight, but it’s a two-way street,” teammate Adam Lind says. “No one cares about high school, college, double-A or triple-A. But now it’s the big leagues and it’s people’s job to critique and analyze – basically talk about it you.

“It’s part of the big leagues. You have to take the good with the bad.”

Arencibia loves pressure, believes he performs better under pressure – and who knows, maybe this is his way of putting pressure on himself and ramping up his performance – but he’s jumped the shark by calling out Sportsnet analysts Gregg Zaun and Dirk Hayhurst in a radio interview Thursday morning.

Answer your critics? How about lob a few fastballs high and tight:

On Zaun: “Not a lot of us, including myself respect a person that used performance enhancing drugs and, you know, were unable to stick around as a below-average player in the major leagues.”

On Hayhurst: ” He was another guy that had below-average baseball tools … it’s tough to hear people like that criticize.”

For the record: Zaun, a 16-year veteran catcher, was named in the Mitchell Report, MLB’s investigation into PED use, though he has never acknowledged using them, while Hayhurst’s major league pitching career amounted to 25 games over parts of two big league seasons.

What’s not up for dispute is that Arencibia is having a miserable go of things in the fourth year of his big league career, one in which he predicted big things for himself. My colleague Chris Black compiled some statistical doozies:

He strikes out at a ridiculous rate: he currently ranks 153 out of 159 batters qualified for the batting title and does this while almost never taking a base-on-balls; his walk rate is 155th out of 159.

He has been a poor contact hitter throughout his career: his .220 average is 253rd out of 258 hitters with at least 1000 plate appearances since 2010.

It follows then that his OBP of .267 during the same period is near rock bottom in MLB; in fact, it’s 257th out of 258 eligible hitters.

By reputation, and by some measures, Arencibia is a poor defensive catcher, though recently some of his teammates and manager John Gibbons have made a point of praising his development in that area.

“He’s done a solid job for us," Gibbons said before the game. “People have been raving about the bullpen the last two weeks – who’s catching the bullpen? Let’s be fair.”

But add it all up and Arencibia is really good at hitting home runs – his 15 round-trippers leads all MLB catchers – and really good at talking, be it on radio, in person or via Twitter. But otherwise there is room for improvement.

Some guys get caught up in the odd firestorm – Arencibia brought his own matches.

“I take pride in going out there [in public],” he said before the game, addressing the self-made controversy. “Who’s been on every winter tour? Who does the charity work? Who goes to Sick Kids? I do all that stuff. And giving fans an opportunity to interact with me on Twitter? That’s my own decision. I know I’ll be out there in the media more, but it’s not something I get away from. I’m fine with it.”

But it’s reached the point where Arencibia probably needs to stuff it rather than take pre-meditated runs at critics on radio or anywhere else. And taking premeditated aim at them – he teased his interview by promising to go after Zaun and Hayhurst in advance on Twitter – only makes it worse.

Not that critics shouldn’t be criticized where warranted. But every time Arencibia makes the story about him while he’s hitting poorly and balls are bouncing off his glove, he’s not going to help his cause.

It’s not that he doesn’t have those that sympathize with his views or his frustrations.

“It’s fair game man,” Gibbons said. “Let’s be honest. It ought to go both ways. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. He’s kind of been the whipping boy and it’s human nature. Sometimes you have to fight back. I can’t fault anyone for that.”

Said Lind:

“I know Gregg has a World Series ring, but he was a back-up and Dirk has a month in the big leagues and it’s hard for some people to accept the criticism when it comes from someone like Dirk.”

“We all get criticized one day or another, but for J.P. it’s been two months.”

The problem Arencibia faces is that his critics are treading on solid ground. He’s the starting catcher on a team with World Series aspirations – perhaps misplaced at this point – who actively seeks the spotlight and believes he’s a big-time player.

He’s a lightning rod, but by definition that means he’s playing with fire.

And as long as he’s taking big swings and misses; treats walks like rotted fruit and doesn’t always catch balls thrown his way, he’s at a greater risk of being burned.

Play good and everyone shuts up. At that point, Arencibia will have the floor to himself.

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