The Blue Jays and Slugging Toward October

I think I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again: while most of us understand that the gambler’s fallacy is a fallacy, sometimes it’s easy to see why so many people believe in it. In the case of this post, take the Blue Jays. Through the season’s first two months, they had the third-worst record in the American League, and a contender-worthy run differential. It seemed, at that point, like better times were ahead. But instead of things playing evenly from there, the Jays have simply ripped off 11 straight wins, rocketing back into the playoff picture. Barely any time ago, the Jays and Red Sox were battling for possession of not-last place in the AL East. This quickly, the Jays are back on their feet, and the Red Sox are a disaster.

I don’t have a hot take. My hottest take might be this: the Jays aren’t a true-talent 162-0 team. Winning streaks are easy for analysts because we always get to know for a fact the given team is overachieving. But there’s no better time than now to review what the Jays have done, and to evaluate where they now stand. The situation has changed in a jiffy. Even their own front office is probably trying to catch up.

It’s kind of funny to look at the Jays’ schedule. Obviously, over their last 11 games, they’re 11-0, and they’ve allowed 40 runs. Over the 11 previous games, they were 5-6, and they allowed 42 runs. Offensively speaking, they went from scoring 53 times in an 11-game stretch to scoring 88 times in the next 11-game stretch, and that’s where the difference has been, but then there’s been almost no change in walks, or strikeouts, or power. It’s been all about singles and timing. That’s how a decent team can build an impressive hot streak: advantageous sequencing. The 5-6 Jays and the 11-0 Jays haven’t been real different. I can’t tell if that’s supposed to be positive or negative; it just is.

Despite the streak, the Jays still aren’t in first place. They’re not even in second place, now that I look at it. When this thing started, the Jays were five games back. After seven consecutive wins, they were still four games back. They’ve gained more ground since, but it’s easy to look at the standings and see that they’re still looking up. But the standings can mislead. A better alternative to glancing at the standings: glancing at the playoff odds. And here’s what’s happened, league-wide, since the start of June:

june-change-in-playoff-odds

Even that doesn’t fully capture things — the winning streak started in the second game of a doubleheader, and I can’t get the playoff odds from in between games one and two. But while Toronto remains in third place in the East, they’ve gained massive ground in the playoff hunt. The Pirates are in second place, here, and their gain has been less than half of the Jays’. Much of the East has been playing well lately, but no one’s played better than Toronto, and they’ve also benefited from teams in other divisions dropping off. I mean, it helps the rest of the East to have the Red Sox suck, but it also helps to have the Mariners sinking.

That plot is what Toronto has accomplished. It’s not that an extended winning streak is predictive, but it’s all about games in the bank, and Toronto has just about evened out. They are still two wins below their estimated BaseRuns record, but there’s a funny twist on that — their run differential is also substantially higher than their BaseRuns run differential. That plot:

run-differential-blue-jays

Pretty much all of this is because of the offense, where the Jays have outpaced their BaseRuns productivity by nearly a half-run a game. This is all just looking back, so to sum up, in some ways the Jays have been lucky, and in other ways the Jays have been unlucky. Things are a lot more balanced now than they were just a couple weeks ago.

Teams always need to be looking forward. Looking forward, what are the Jays? Are they the team with baseball’s best run differential? Conveniently, we sort of reviewed this a week ago. Early-season standings and performance matter, but they matter less than even the preseason projections do. And we have updated information. Based on that information, the Blue Jays look like a pretty decent team, but not a dominant team. They’re projected to win 52% of their remaining games, with baseball’s highest rate of runs scored per game, and baseball’s third-highest rate of runs allowed per game.

Which shouldn’t be shocking. The offense is obviously potent, even without Devon Travis and Michael Saunders, and even with Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista fighting little aches and pains. There’s been perhaps no better addition in baseball than Josh Donaldson, followed closely behind on the same list by Russell Martin. Meanwhile, people have been down on the pitching staff for months. Sadly, the pitcher the Jays could use most is already on Toronto payroll, rehabbing an ACL tear.

In a sense, the Jays and Red Sox aren’t too dissimilar. Neither team has an ace, rolling instead with adequate pitchers, hoping along the way for sufficient offensive support. Difference is, the Jays have gotten that offensive support, while the Sox have struggled in every area, and that’s why one team’s in the race and the other one has a mess to untangle. They came in with similar plans. The Jays are proving the model can work. The Sox are proving the model has flaws.

While Boston, though, can work out what it wants to do differently in 2016, Toronto now gets to focus on playing well enough up to the trade deadline. A few weeks ago, I was trying to find potential homes for a Johnny Cueto/Aroldis Chapman package, and I settled on the Jays. Problem was, at that point, they weren’t playing well. Now they’ve made a full recovery, making this the trade I most want to see. I know that isn’t analysis, and I know the Reds are reluctant to give up, but I can’t imagine better fits, and from Toronto’s perspective, this team with those arms is a championship contender. It’s already mathematically a championship contender, but now imagine them eliminating two gaping holes.

The fun of the winning streak will end one of these days. Maybe it’ll even be followed by a losing streak. Things happen. The consequences of the winning streak, though, might last into the playoffs. In 11 games, the Jays got back into the picture. They get to focus on the moment again, and on the moments that’ll follow. They get to think about getting better now, because this is a team worth improving, because this is a team that could do something big.





Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Dave
7 years ago

If only Stroman and Travis were healthy 🙁

If ifs and buts were candy and nuts
7 years ago
Reply to  Dave

Maybe we’d all be dead!