The Blue Jays Are In Trouble

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
2012 Cubs 0.348 0.381 61
2012 Angels 0.375 0.580 89
2011 Twins 0.333 0.400 63
2011 White Sox 0.345 0.519 79
2010 Orioles 0.250 0.435 66
2010 Astros 0.348 0.489 76
2009 Nationals 0.227 0.386 59
2009 Astros 0.391 0.468 74
2008 Padres 0.379 0.391 73
2008 Rockies 0.393 0.511 74
2007 Royals 0.296 0.452 69
2007 Nationals 0.333 0.474 73
2006 Royals 0.217 0.410 62
2006 Pirates 0.259 0.444 67
2006 Marlins 0.261 0.518 78
2006 Twins 0.360 0.635 96
2005 Rockies 0.273 0.436 67
2005 Royals 0.280 0.358 56
2005 Rays 0.320 0.431 67
2005 Pirates 0.348 0.424 67
2004 Expos 0.200 0.453 67
2004 Rays 0.318 0.453 70
2004 Royals 0.318 0.364 58
2004 Jays 0.333 0.431 67
2004 Mariners 0.333 0.399 63
2003 Tigers 0.115 0.294 43
2003 Indians 0.259 0.452 68
2003 Brewers 0.321 0.440 68
2003 Rays 0.357 0.396 63
2003 Padres 0.357 0.403 64
2003 Jays 0.379 0.564 86
2003 Mets 0.393 0.414 66

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.

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Well-Beered Englishman
9 years ago

On May 1, 2003, the Detroit Tigers were 3-21.


9 years ago

This was a team that had Mike Maroth as an ace, Dmitri Young playing outfield and Brandon Inge without power as a catcher, among other chracters.

Well-Beered Englishman
9 years ago

They began the 2003 season with a 9-game losing streak in which they scored 14 runs and allowed 54. Four of the ninth loss’s starters ended that day with a batting average below .100, and four more were below .190. The ninth loss was a two-hitter started by Esteban Loaiza.

The loser of that ninth game, Adam Bernero, went on to pitch 100 innings for the 2003 Tigers, during which he racked up a 4.83 K/9, 5.20 FIP, and 11% HR/FB. As a general rule, your K/9 should be higher than your FIP. Over those 100 innings, Romero’s WPA was -1.991.

But why pile on one guy? Shortstop Shane Halter finished the year with a .269 OBP and 5 doubles in 360 at-bats.

I am fascinated. Far too fascinated. I may spend the rest of the day looking up the 2003 Tigers. Somebody stop me.

9 years ago

They had four hitters who qualified for the hitting title. Two of those hitters had negative WAR and the four of them together combined for .7 WAR.

Matt Roney was allowed to pitch 100 innings himself; 100.2 in fact, the exact same as Bernero. Roney, not wanting to be outdone by Bernero for historical terribleness, had a BB/9 (4.29) and FIP (5.99) higher than his K/9 (4.20).

9 years ago

I’d stop you but I too am transfixed by their numbers.

Their innings pitched leader had a 2.13 K/9
Two players tied for the team lead in saves with 5.
Four pitchers total reached 50 strikeouts for the year, all of whom had an ERA of over 5.50.

There needs to be a 30 for 30 feature on this team.

Well-Beered Englishman
9 years ago
Reply to  Glorpo

The Matt Roney line above I thought was untoppable, but the saves thing…

The 2003 Tigers finished the season with 27 saves and 19 blown saves.

In games started by Matt Roney and Adam Bernero, the Tigers were 2-26.

Fernando Rodney allowed 10 stolen bases in 29.2 innings.

Nate Cornejo issued a four-pitch walk every ten innings.

Team starting hitters’ median slash line: .240/.314/.371.

Catcher Matt Walbeck played 59 games and posted -1.2 WAR and an OPS+ of 18. Walbeck thus ended his ENTIRE CAREER with a line of -3.3 career WAR.

I can’t stop.

9 years ago
Reply to  Glorpo

Last factoid for me:

They had more 4+ run losses than total wins.

9 years ago
Reply to  Glorpo

Steve Avery (yes, that one) threw 16 innings for them after 4 years out of baseball.

There was, at most, one good pitcher on that team (and he wasn’t good that year). Other than Avery (who was beyond done at that point), no pitcher has more than 6.8 career WAR except Jeremy Bonderman (16.8), who had almost all his value in 2004-2008.

Matt Roney’s -0.6 WAR that year came despite holding batters to a .260 BABIP.

In 84 innings, Will Ledezma had a 29.1% ground ball rate.

Nate Cornejo allowed 58 walks and 46 strikeouts (!) in 194 innings that year.

The team LOB% was 66.5%.

AC of DC
9 years ago

They won their last two games to close out the season, beating the perhaps-mailing-it-in Twins, who had already wrapped up the division. Arguably the more exciting of the pair was the penultimate game, wherein Detroit rallied from an 8-0 deficit to win 9-8, scoring the winner off of none other than Jesse Orosco in the last appearance of his career.

That one I looked up. I remember the last game because I saw it. It was televised, at least in part — no idea why it would have been a national game, so they must have just cut to the last inning(s) for the occasion. When the final out was recorded, saving the Tigers from matching the ’62 Mets’ loss total (they had already secured a higher wpct), confetti fell, celebratory music blasted, and the scoreboards flashed words of cheer. It was all . . . strange? Nice? Who knows? Ten years on, it remains.

Kevin B
9 years ago

And that terrible season allowed them to draft Justin Verlander. Worth it?

Well-Beered Englishman
9 years ago
Reply to  Kevin B

Let’s put it this way.

Justin Verlander Career (JVC): 126 wins
2003 Detroit Tigers (03T): 43 wins

JVC: 1,487 Ks
03T: 764 Ks

JVC: 460 UBBs (unintended walks)
03T: 522 UBBs

JVC: 138 HR allowed
03T: 195 HR allowed

JVC: 37.5 WAR
03T: 5.4 WAR

JVC: 1,586 IP
03T: 1438.2 IP

9 years ago
Reply to  Kevin B

Bonus points if you discount those stats to present value.

9 years ago

That is almost as bad as the 88 Orioles

Jon L.
9 years ago

And the Tigers stormed back to earn a playoff spot just 41 months later! Hope is not dead in Toronto!

9 years ago

As a lifelong Tiger fan I have tried very hard to never think about the 03 team. Thanks for ruining it for me.