Before the season season started, members of our staff took a shot at prognosticating the season, despite the fact that we all know You Can’t Predict Baseball. Of the 31 authors who participated, 15 of them — myself included — selected the Blue Jays as the favorites to win the AL East, and nine of the 16 who didn’t pick Toronto to win their division had them as a wild card club. The Blue Jays off-season makeover convinced most of us that they were a good team with a good shot at playing in October.
It might only be April 29th, but there’s a pretty good chance that 24 of us are going to end up being wrong, because while we’re still in the first month of the season, the Blue Jays season is in jeopardy.
After getting swept over the weekend, the Jays stand at 9-17, and they are now 9 1/2 games out of first place. No team in baseball is further behind the current division leaders than the Blue Jays. The Marlins, as sad as they are, are also 9 1/2 games behind the Braves in the NL East. The Astros are a half game closer to the Rangers than the Jays are to the Red Sox. The Blue Jays struggles have coincided with a very strong start from Boston, and that has created a significant gap that is going to be challenging to overcome, even with five months worth of baseball still ahead.
With the Yankees also playing well out of the gate, Toronto is also seven games behind New York for second place in the AL East. Besides Miami and Houston, no other team in baseball is even seven games out of first place; the Blue Jays are seven games out of second place. Running down one good team isn’t easy, but running down two is a formidable challenge. And we haven’t even mentioned the Orioles (6 1/2 game lead) or Rays (3 game lead) yet.
There’s a difference between overreacting to April performance — believing that a team is going to continue to play the same all year as they have the first month of the season — and acknowledging that a team can dig itself a hole so large to start the season that it is unlikely that they will be able to climb out of it before their clock runs out. I don’t believe the Blue Jays are a bad team, and I do think they will play significantly better the rest of the year. In looking at their position, though, the question is whether it will be too little, too late.
Let’s look at some historical context, for instance. Last year, the Angels laid an egg in April, going 9-15 in their first 24 games, and they found themselves eight games behind the Rangers on May 1st. It wasn’t predictive of their rest-of-season performance, as they added Mike Trout and Albert Pujols started hitting, and they were the third best team in the AL from May 1st through the end of the season, going 80-58 in their final five months.
It wasn’t enough, though. .580 baseball for five months couldn’t cancel out .375 baseball for one month, and they finished five games behind Texas in the division race and four games behind Baltimore for the second wild card. The only team to finish below .500 in April of 2013 and make the playoffs were the A’s, and they were just barely under .500 at 12-13. And because the season started later in 2012, we’re actually a game or two further into the season for most clubs right now than we were on May 1st of last year.
Using data prior to 2012 is a bit of an apples-and-orange comparison because of the structural changes to the postseason implemented last year. The extra wild card should theoretically make it easier for teams to come back from early deficits, but that doesn’t account for how the changes instruct the human behavior of the teams in the race. The second wild card could also mean fewer teams sell off players at the trade deadline, and because of the increased incentive to win the division, teams with leads in July may be more willing to be aggressive buyers in order to improve their odds of holding on to the top spot, rather than keeping their best prospects and accepting a wild card spot because of the minimal difference of getting passed under the old format.
But, those caveats aside, we can still look at years prior to 2012 and see how many other teams rebounded from deficits this large to make the playoffs. For now, we’ll focus on teams that were seven games back at the beginning of May, ignoring the division gap for a minute and simply focusing on the wild card spot. We’re also going to restrict the sample to teams that won fewer than 40% of their games in April so that we’re looking at teams that were down because they were playing badly, rather than a team playing well that was well behind simply because of a hot start from a division rival.
With those parameters in place, here’s the full list of teams from the last decade (2003-2012) that had a winning percentage below .400 on May 1st and were at least seven games behind their division leader at that point.
|Year||Team||May 1 Win%||After May 1 Win%||Final Win Total|
There are 32 teams in that sample. One of them — the 2006 Twins — made the playoffs. In fact, that’s the only team that rallied to win even 90 games. Only three of the 32 teams finished with winning records, including last year’s Angels, who were the second most successful team after an April flop, and still missed the playoffs by a pretty good margin.
Even if we restrict the list to winning percentages between .300 and .400, eliminating all the clubs who were just unbelievably awful in April, we end up with 21 teams that have a similar-ish record to Toronto right now. As a group, those 21 teams had a .352 winning percentage, just a few points ahead of Toronto’s current .346 mark. Those teams won 45.6% of their remaining games, so they weren’t terrible teams all year long, and yes, all three of the clubs that went on to have winning records are in this group. So now we’re at 14.3% of teams that have started somewhat like the Jays going on to have winning records, and 4.7% of teams with similar records making the playoffs.
But the 2006 Twins had to play .635 baseball the rest of the way to win the AL Central, and they won that division by a single game after the Tigers lost five straight to end the year and hand over the title. That team is proof that the Jays season isn’t dead in the water, but it’s also evidence of just how hard it is to overcome this kind of slow start. The 2006 Twins had to play at a 103 win pace for five months to win their division by one game. And they were a half game closer to the Tigers on May 1st of that year than the Blue Jays are to the Red Sox right now.
If the Blue Jays were the best team in baseball, or played in a weak division, it would be too soon to wonder if the team should start considering that they may be sellers, not buyers, when the summer trade season rolls along. However, the Blue Jays are not the best team in baseball, especially not with Jose Reyes on the shelf for another few months. Even with Reyes projected to play most of the season, the pre-season forecasts mostly had the Jays as a high-80s win team, a club that you could expect to win 55% of their games or so. Their slow start and the loss of Reyes probably pushes them down closer to a .525 club now, or about an 85 win pace.
If the Blue Jays play .525 baseball the rest of the way, they’ll finish 80-82. To win 90 games and give themselves a real shot at either of the wild card spots, they’d have to play .596 baseball over the remaining 136 games, which is a 96 win pace over a full season. That’s not impossible. Every year, three to five teams play around .600 baseball from May 1st to the end of the season.
Those teams just generally don’t come from the pool of clubs that were lousy in April. The mid-season trade deadline gives teams with slow starts less time to fully realize their natural regression, since they have to make a buy-or-sell decision when April represents 25-30% of their season, not 16% as it will at season’s end. For Alex Anthopolous and his staff, this slow start and the big gap between them and BOS/NYY means that they’ll very likely be staring at a real deficit in both the division and wild card races come July, and they’ll have to make a decision on Josh Johnson and others while in a position where missing the playoffs is more likely than making it.
The new postseason system incentivizes keeping your roster together and making a push, so perhaps an analysis of teams in similar situations in the future will look brighter than it does for teams in the past, but history is not on Toronto’s side right now.
I still see the pieces of a good team in Toronto. Without Jose Reyes, though, it’s harder to see them playing like a great team for five months, and their April performance means that they have to play like a great team for five months or their season will end without a playoff spot. It’s too early for the Jays to give up and punt the season, but it’s not too early for us to note that Toronto’s season is now very likely going to end on September 29th.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.