The Overachieving Underachieving Blue Jays Juggernaut

As a counter to the idea that baseball is complicated and unpredictable: sometimes, baseball can seem ever so easy to understand. Not long ago, the Blue Jays traded for Troy Tulowitzki, perhaps or probably the very best shortstop. Shortly thereafter, the Jays also traded for David Price, easily one of the very best starting pitchers. Since Tulowitzki joined the lineup, the Jays have gone 11-1, and the one loss was a Tulowitzki day off. Over the weekend, the Jays pulled closer to the Yankees by sweeping them in their own stadium. Why wouldn’t that happen? Two superstars were added to what was already a pretty good club. Pretty good + superstars = even better! We’ve figured this game out.

The Jays have eaten up ground faster than anyone could’ve reasonably imagined. Sometimes there are concerns that adding pieces at the deadline can disrupt a clubhouse atmosphere, but all the lights are green in Toronto, and the probabilities that encouraged Alex Anthopoulos to act aggressively have only gotten significantly more positive, validating the moves that were made. The Jays are built to bludgeon, but they’ve also meaningfully improved the pitching staff, with everything clicking about perfectly at the moment. The question now needs to be asked: how good is this team? When a team’s on a winning streak, it’s almost impossible to imagine it losing. The Jays will lose, and they’ll do it several times. But is any other team positioned to lose less?

If you’re not in the mood to read very much, I can save you some time. The rest of the way, the Blue Jays are projected as the best team in the American League. Those projections can be interpreted as a pretty good measure of current ability level, so, the working hypothesis here is that there’s no one better in the AL. The Royals have the better record, and they made their own blockbuster additions, but the Blue Jays still seem stronger. You can believe that, or you can disagree with it, but you know where we’re almost obligated to stand. The Jays have played well; they should continue to play well. You can leave now, if you like.

But maybe you stuck around! In which case, let’s get to that headline. I’ve described the Blue Jays as both overachievers and underachievers. It doesn’t seem like they should both be able to apply at once, but I can explain. And then we can get into the juggernaut thing. It’s not just recency bias.

As far as the overachieving is concerned, countless people have pointed out the Blue Jays’ league-leading run differential. That’s not just something that’s happened lately — even before the big deadline moves, Toronto was running the best run differential in the AL, despite a roughly .500 record. This has been used as evidence that the Jays are, or were, far better than their record. They’ve scored 68 more runs than any other team.

This gets a bit numbers-y, but to put it simply, the Jays probably haven’t been as good as their total number of runs scored. Run differential takes one step toward stripping away randomness that influences team record. There are still more steps you can take. As a team, the Jays have a 113 wRC+, which is excellent. The Dodgers are at 112. The Giants, 111. The Yankees, 109. It makes sense that the Jays would have a league-leading offense, but not quite by this margin.

A way to examine this: Toronto has a team 135 wRC+ with men on base. With the bases empty, it’s 97, meaning they have a 38-point gap. The league-average difference this year is seven points. In second place, the Twins and Padres are tied, at 23. The Jays have put hits together at the right times, and though one should always be hesitant to just chalk things up to luck, this split didn’t exist for Toronto a season ago. It’s probably mostly just noise. Which means Toronto “should have” scored fewer runs, in sum.

I’ll skip over further math, but based on good estimates, the Jays have overachieved by something like 0.3 runs per game. If you adjust their run differential appropriately — and then if you do the same for their pitchers — then they get worse by 21 runs. This is all looking back, not forward, but it does matter if you’re going to cite their run differential as a reason why they’re terrific. The run differential appears slightly misleading.

But, hey, funny thing — the Jays’ “corrected” run differential is +108. That’s according to BaseRuns. It’s still the best mark in baseball, by 10. At this writing, the Jays have baseball’s top BaseRuns record, and this is where the underachieving comes in. They’re about seven wins short of where they could be expected to be, given their overall performance. Deviation from BaseRuns record is almost always random. The raw run differential misleads, but only a little bit.

Think about this. Based on team performance so far, it could easily be argued that Toronto has been the AL’s top team. Based on the rest-of-season projections, it could easily be argued that Toronto is the AL’s top team. I know the Royals have the win total, but the Jays have the stronger statistics, and the roster that’s been built is relatively short on weaknesses.

You know the general overview. Ace starter fronting an otherwise mediocre group. Offense designed to make the rotation issues almost irrelevant. Down the stretch, there are 72 regulars projected for a wOBA of at least .330. The Blue Jays have five of them, more than any other AL team. There are 16 regulars projected for a wOBA of at least .360. The Blue Jays have three of them, more than any other baseball team. Jose Bautista, obviously, is tremendous. Ditto Edwin Encarnacion. Ditto Troy Tulowitzki, and Russell Martin, and Josh Donaldson. There’s nothing secretive about this lineup. They aren’t just quietly good, like San Francisco.

And it’s worth noting that, when healthy, Devon Travis seems quite a bit better than his projection. Justin Smoak and Chris Colabello make for a decent platoon. Ben Revere isn’t much of a hitter, but he makes an additional offensive contribution on the bases; Kevin Pillar isn’t much of a hitter, but he can field his position, so they’ll take the outs with the outs.

The lineup is simultaneously top-heavy and deep. You knew that. The rotation is top-heavy and thin. You knew that, too. There’s one more piece of the puzzle, and it’s probably getting a bit underrated. The Jays have successfully restructured their bullpen, and though no one thinks of it yet as a strength, there’s excellent reason to. Quietly, Toronto has worked to solidify the later innings, and this is a big reason why they should be thought of as a serious World Series contender.

They’ve added Mark Lowe. They’ve added LaTroy Hawkins. Aaron Sanchez is back in the bullpen. Toronto’s active roster features eight relievers, and here’s what they’ve combined to do as relievers in 2015, over 276 innings:

  • ERA-: 68
  • FIP-: 72
  • xFIP-: 75

Now, it’s not fair to compare the performance of a selected group to other overall performances, but just for the sake of reference, only two bullpens currently have a lower ERA-. No bullpen has a lower FIP-, and no bullpen has a lower xFIP-. As far as the latter two are concerned, no bullpen is close. Again, the direct comparison is unfair, but the point is that the group of relievers the Jays have at their disposal has collectively been terrific. Sanchez is back where he’s supposed to be. Lowe and Hawkins were important additions, lost in the cloud of everything else. The Jays have a lot of arms who can handle the later innings, and when you combine that with the offense and with the addition of Price, there’s a lot less pressure on the rest of the starters. They basically just have to avoid being terrible. Most pitchers in the majors can do that.

The lineup is at least as strong as anyone else’s. The rotation just added the biggest piece possible, and the bullpen has transitioned from unreliable to better than most. The Blue Jays haven’t lost in a while, which means it’s hard to picture them losing again. They’ll lose again, and they’ll maybe do it tonight. But every baseball team loses. There aren’t many baseball teams who look like they’re going to lose less often than this one. If it’s possible to have a second-place juggernaut, that’s what Alex Anthopoulos has put together. Which is why they might not be in second place for long.

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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7 years ago

Please stop this erection has been going on for 2 weeks send help pls

Paul Kasińskimember
7 years ago
Reply to  Josh

Classic American reaction to something in Canada actually getting U.S. media coverage.

Some Guy
7 years ago
Reply to  Paul Kasiński

Read more like excitement than complaining to me.

7 years ago
Reply to  Paul Kasiński

You clearly misinterpreted his positive comment.