The Blue Jays Soar Into Playoff Position

Mere weeks ago, the Toronto Blue Jays were 66-61, the last of five teams in contention for two Wild Card spots. They looked the part — their +112 run differential led those five, and adding José Berríos at the deadline helped stabilize their rotation. That’s all well and good, but they were 6.5 games out of the second Wild Card, and their bullpen was undoing a lot of the rotation’s good work, especially new acquisition Brad Hand’s 8.22 ERA and 8.12 FIP.

Despite their evident talent, our playoff odds game them only a 4.7% chance of reaching the playoffs at their nadir on August 27. A one-in-20 shot isn’t impossible — less than 5% of plate appearances end in a home run, and yet we see tons of those every day — but things didn’t look good for Toronto. But here we are, three weeks later, and the Jays are in the first Wild Card spot (in a tie for it, but still). How did those rampaging Jays do it? Let’s take a look. Here’s a graph of what we’ll be talking about:

First things first: if you want to overcome a big deficit quickly, stop losing. The Jays have gone 14-2 in their past 16 games, scoring a comical 7.5 runs per game while allowing just over four themselves. That’s good for a Pythagorean record of .774 (using the Pythagenpat formulation of it), or in regular English, “Stop using a record estimator when a team is scoring twice as many runs as they allow, of course they’re doing well.”

Partially, they’ve done it by dunking on the Orioles. Over the weekend, they scored 44 runs in a three-game stretch against Baltimore, surging into playoff position in the process. Seven of their past 16 games have come against the Orioles, in fact, and an easy schedule is one way back into contention.

But don’t go blaming this all on the O’s. The Blue Jays have gone 5-2 in those seven games, which means that teams with bird mascots have won each of the Blue Jays’ last 16 games. They also played a seven-game stretch against the Yankees and A’s, two teams they were chasing for a playoff spot, in this stretch — and went 7-0. Maybe we shouldn’t be too hard on the Orioles.

How do you score 125 runs in 16 games? You need everyone to contribute, and that’s certainly happened here. Over that stretch, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is hitting .373/.425/.731 with eight home runs — and he doesn’t even have the best batting line among starters. That would be Lourdes Gurriel Jr., whose .392/.500/.824 contribution works out to a 243 wRC+. The team as a whole is hitting .304/.390/.582. That works out to a .409 team wOBA, a batting line that would be the fifth-best individual player in baseball over the course of the season. Put another way, since August 27 the Jays are collectively hitting like Fernando Tatis Jr.’s season-long line. That’s pretty good!

Even with that barrage of run scoring, it’s hard to go 14-2. You’re going to need to win close games virtually 100% of the time to put up such a good record. In this 16-game stretch, the Blue Jays have done just that. They’re 5-0 in one run games, though in fairness their last game before this stretch was a one-run loss to the lowly Tigers. But we’re looking from their lowest point, and since hitting rock bottom in that 2-1 loss to Detroit, they’ve simply been unbeatable in close games.

That’s perhaps too harsh on their pitching, though. Sure, they’re scoring a lot of runs and winning close games. But they’re also doing a great job preventing runs, and the starters especially have been up to the task. The starting rotation the Jays envisioned when trading for Berríos — him at the top, followed by Robbie Ray, Hyun Jin Ryu, Steven Matz, and Alek Manoah — has made 15 of the 16 starts, with Thomas Hatch chipping in a spot start when they had a double-header.

Health is never a given when it comes to pitching — avoiding bullpen games and frequent minor league spot starts is a good way to get ahead. But the Jays’ rotation has been more than that. They’ve looked excellent in addition to being durable — a 27.9% strikeout rate (second in baseball), 7% walk rate (11th-best), 3.65 FIP (sixth-best), and 3.64 SIERA (third-best) all underscore that their 3.99 ERA, fifth-best in the majors over that span, has been earned.

This seems like as good of a spot as any to talk about their dramatic comeback in our playoff odds. A 5% long-shot turning into an odds-on favorite to make the playoffs in less than three weeks is an indictment of the odds… right?

It won’t surprise you to learn that I don’t think so. Rather than just appeal to authority, however — These are our odds! We like them! Trust us! — I thought it would be useful to roughly explain what’s going on here. We’re going to start from what I consider a reasonable position: that today’s 66.3% odds accurately reflect reality. Given where they are — tied with the Red Sox for the first Wild Card spot, a mere one game ahead of the Yankees and three games ahead of some AL West interlopers — a two-thirds shot at the postseason seems about right. That’s a far sight removed from 5% odds, but the Jays’ recent performance has been far from average. If each game were a coin flip, their odds of winning 14 of 16 games would be roughly 0.2%. If we’re looking into how the Jays have gone from long-shots to juggernauts, we have to acknowledge that on August 27, we didn’t know that they’d go on a dominant winning streak.

Our playoff odds work by simulating the remainder of the season 20,000 times and working out how often each team makes the playoffs in those simulations. We use our estimate of each team’s strength, the actual schedule, and an adjustment for home-field advantage to create odds for each game, then simulate each game to work out final standings.

Our projections do better than my naive 50% estimation, so let’s account for that. The Jays have played an easy schedule on the whole, and we also think they’re quite good. Our game odds, which account for each team’s starting pitchers and lineups, gave them an average 60% chance of winning each of the games in this recent stretch.

That’s a huge tailwind. I plugged in the actual game odds and simulated this 16-game stretch a million times — no need to constrain myself to 20,000 for such a small snippet of the schedule. The Jays went 14-2 or better 1.5% of the time, nearly seven times as frequently as you’d expect if every game was a pure tossup.

In 20,000 simulations, you’d expect something with a 1.5% chance of happening to occur roughly 300 times. Our odds certainly knew that the Jays going on a run was a possibility — they simply didn’t consider it a strong one. And here’s the wild part: that’s not nearly enough. The second key part of the Jays’ resurgence has been almost completely outside of their control. Aside from a four-game series in New York, Toronto hasn’t had much to say about the Yankees going 3-12 since August 27, falling from 9.5 games ahead of Toronto to a game back.

That stretch of futility is even less likely than the Jays’ run of victories. We think that both teams are excellent — in fact, against a neutral schedule, we project them for matching .581 winning percentages the rest of the year. The Yankees have intermittently dealt with injuries, but even so, our odds gave them an average 57% chance of winning each of these past 15 games. Given that, the odds of winning three or fewer games (again, using a million simulations of our exact odds) are roughly 0.4%.

If these two events were independent, you’d expect them to happen together once every 16,500 simulations, or 0.006% of the time. That would have roughly no weight in our playoff odds — one-ish simulation out of 20,000 simply doesn’t matter very much. The odds are higher than that, though; the teams played each other in four games, and Toronto swept the series.

That means we’re actually asking for the Yankees’ odds of going 3-8 in non-Jays games, which comes out to just over 3%. The combined probability of a Jays winning streak and Yankees losing streak thus climbs to .05%, or one every 2,000 simulations. That’s still vanishingly unlikely — 10 simulations out of 20,000 still don’t matter all that much in the grand scheme of things.

This understates things slightly, of course, because we’d still be having this discussion if the Jays had gone 13-3 and the Yankees 4-11. If we set that as the cutoff — records that would put Toronto one game back in the Wild Card chase — that’s closer to a 0.06%-likely event, or once every 175 simulations. It’s still quite unlikely — one out of 170 is much closer to zero than you think. A batter is roughly twice as likely to get hit by a pitch in a given plate appearance, and that hardly happens all the time. Watch a random plate appearance today — only one. Did that batter get hit by a pitch?

The main point in all of this is that the Jays have gone on a tremendous run since August 27. The odds of them catching fire while the rest of the Wild Card field treaded water or collapsed simply weren’t that high. It’s not just that Toronto has ripped off their run; they’ve also gained more ground than you’d expect by doing so:

AL Wild Card Contenders (since 8/27)
Team Wins Losses Games Gained
Toronto Blue Jays 14 2
Seattle Mariners 8 6 5
Oakland A’s 7 7 6
Boston Red Sox 7 8 6.5
New York Yankees 3 12 10.5

Think of it this way: to get into pole position for a Wild Card spot, the Jays needed an opening. The rest of the AL provided it by scuffling through an uninspiring stretch. Still, it was a minute opening. If Toronto went 10-6 — that’s a 100-win pace for the year — they’d be three games back of the playoffs with only 19 games to play, a precarious position. If the Yankees had gone a desultory 7-8 — hardly an unachievable pace — the result would be the same. The reason this feels so sudden and exciting is because it issudden and exciting. The Jays got here by playing really well, and that’s a necessary ingredient, but so is having the right conditions for success — namely the teams around them faltering just enough to let Toronto roar past.

To underscore this point, I had FanGraphs overlord and overall playoff odds mastermind David Appelman re-run the odds with the Yankees’ record improved by four games (I took them away from the Orioles so that no other playoff teams would be impacted). Just that little bump — New York playing basically as expected rather than collapsing — would lower Toronto’s postseason odds to 46.4%. The Yankees would be at 90.9% to make the playoffs, the Red Sox at 62% — it would be a Jays/Sox duel for the last playoff spot, rather than a three-way brawl for two spots.

For me, “those odds were probably wrong” is a weird way to look at it. Things that are 5% likely to happen do sometimes happen. We gave the Giants a 5% chance of making the playoffs before the year, and that turned out pretty well for them. Odds often look silly in retrospect, because we know what happened after, not what could have happened.

I prefer to frame this as a credit to the Blue Jays. A mere handful of weeks ago, they were in a tough position. They were 6.5 games back of the playoffs with only 35 games to play. Not only that, but three teams stood between them and a playoff berth — four if you count the Yankees, who were in the first Wild Card spot and 9.5 games up on Toronto. It’s hard enough to catch one team with a 6.5 game head start — but you can at least get lucky and have that team collapse. Catching them while also passing intervening teams requires you to get really hot and also dodge hot streaks by multiple teams.

The rest of the teams gave the Jays a chance — not a big one, but a chance. Toronto responded with gusto, smashing the league to bits and pitching well to boot. Even knowing their competitors faltered, Toronto’s path was far from easy: they had to win at an .875 clip to get to where they are now, precariously perched atop the Wild Card table.

The wildest part of all of this is that even after that torrid stretch, their work isn’t done. If the Jays lose today and the Yankees win, they’ll be tied again. Given that Toronto is playing the perpetually-hot Rays while the Yankees are playing the down-and-out Twins, that hardly feels impossible. It’s hard work to climb back from a big standings deficit, not least because you can still miss the playoffs after you catch up.

So let’s call this what it is: an absolutely dazzling display of baseball by the Jays. They played their way into a hole by scuffling through a 13-13 August (through the 27th), after a 12-11 July, after a 14-12 June, after a 15-13 May, after a 12-12 April. Then, when it was crunch time, they caught fire, beating everyone in front of them when they absolutely had to. Forget playoff odds, and forget what happens the rest of the way: the Jays just put forward an absolutely epic effort, and flipped the AL postseason chase by doing so.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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2 years ago

“which means that teams with bird mascots have gone 16-0 in the Blue Jays’ last 16 games”

Well, teams with bird mascots have gone 16-7 in the Blue Jays’ last 16 games.

“Watch a random plate appearance today — only one. Did that batter get hit by a pitch?”

Missed opportunity for a Austin Adams comment here.

2 years ago
Reply to  JohnThacker

I just cannot get over that sentence about the bird mascots either. I’m kind of hoping for some other bird mascots too, just to cause even more confusion. Have they played the Cards in that stretch too? How about a crossover playing the Eagles? All the pictures of Angels they have wings, are they birds?