Toronto and the Postseason Crapshoot

Let’s just be real here and leave the analysis aside for a moment: it’s difficult to picture the Blue Jays losing. They got smoked yesterday, but only after clinching their division, so their lineup was missing its starters. That can be forgiven. Their overall run differential is better than second place by nearly 100. They have baseball’s best record since the All-Star break. Since beginning the little flurry with the Troy Tulowitzki trade, the Jays have won three-quarters of the time, and not even the Cubs have been able to keep up. Aggressiveness at the deadline took care of seemingly all the team’s problems, and now Marcus Stroman is back and starting and looking terrific, and this has been present the whole year:

bluejays

The Jays are what’s been classically defined as “stupid-good,” one of the few teams in the American League playing like it ought to. It’s no mystery why they’ve succeeded, and now that a berth in the first round has been clinched, it’s at last time to look ahead. The Blue Jays feel like a super team. Especially given how they’ve played the last few months. So, what’s historically happened with teams like this?

Think about all those things people say you need in the playoffs. Never mind whether you actually need them — just think about them. With David Price, the Blue Jays have a proven ace starter. The team has a good overall defense. Excellent veteran catcher. The baserunning is surprisingly good, and the best hitters in the lineup are powerful without being strikeout-prone. The bullpen is much better than it used to look, and so if the team is lacking in anything, maybe it’s playoff experience. Now, it’s never been convincingly demonstrated that playoff experience is critical to winning, but let’s just keep it there. It’s a thing, and maybe the only thing.

It’s not that the Blue Jays are flawless, but that, relatively speaking, they’re probably the least flawed. I examined the 21 seasons going back to 1995, which was the start of the wild-card era. That gives us 624 team-seasons overall. This year’s Jays have an OPS differential of .090, meaning their batting OPS is 90 points higher than their opponents’ OPS. That ranks them 21st in the spreadsheet, which is pretty good. 21st, out of 21 seasons.

But, the Blue Jays don’t quite resemble their early-season selves. They got this good in the middle. They addressed their biggest issues in the middle. So it gets really interesting when you split at the All-Star break (for convenience). What happens when a team looks this good? Since the break, the Jays have posted the highest OPS in baseball. And, since the break, the Jays have allowed the lowest OPS in baseball. It doesn’t get better than ranking first. Since the break, Toronto’s OPS differential is an obviously league-leading .161.

And that, as you could guess, is fantastically good. Again covering the wild-card era, here are the 10 best team OPS differentials in the second half, leading up to the playoffs:

Top 10 Second-Half OPS Differentials, 1995 – 2015
Team Season OPS for OPS against Differential
A’s 2001 0.838 0.652 0.186
Rangers 2011 0.830 0.664 0.166
Mariners 2001 0.798 0.635 0.163
Blue Jays 2015 0.826 0.665 0.161
Rays 2012 0.735 0.581 0.154
Yankees 2009 0.852 0.703 0.149
Indians 2005 0.824 0.679 0.145
Braves 1998 0.776 0.637 0.139
Yankees 1998 0.832 0.699 0.133
White Sox 2003 0.844 0.712 0.132
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

I know you’re more used to seeing run differential instead of OPS differential, but I think this one is a little more useful. I mean, runs are the things that actually matter in the moment, but runs can come with noise; OPS differential strips some of that away. This is a good reflection of why the Blue Jays seem so unbeatable. They’ve had one of the most dominant second halves in the last two decades. They rank fourth in that table, and it drops off pretty quick. There are just five teams north of .150.

If you were wondering if the Blue Jays have really been dominant, that answers that. Really, it shouldn’t be a question. The bigger question now is, how relevant is that information with the playoffs in mind? The second half leads into the playoffs. How good have those second-half teams been in the playoffs?

There have been 166 playoff teams since 1995. They’ve played a combined 1,314 games, with an average second-half OPS differential of .059. Six teams have actually reached the playoffs with a second-half differential in the negatives. I had to split these up somehow, so I drew a couple lines. I put one at a differential of +.100, and another at a differential of +.050. I was left with three groups, each having performed differently well down the stretch.

Group 1 includes those teams with the best second-half performances. In the playoffs, they’ve won 55% of their games.

Group 2 includes those teams with more average second-half performances. In the playoffs, they’ve won 47% of their games.

And Group 3 includes those teams with the weakest second-half performances. In the playoffs, they’ve won 51% of their games.

The lines are arbitrary, so the numbers change if you move them around. If you split into even thirds, you get playoff win percentages of 52%, 50%, and 48%, in the same order. Those numbers make more intuitive sense — better teams win more games, in the season and in the postseason. Still, the line is almost flat. If you just look at the top 10 in second-half differential, you get a playoff win percentage of 61%, but if you look at the top five, it’s 57%.

Incidentally, the No. 1 and the No. 3 teams in second-half OPS differential were both eliminated by the 2001 Yankees, who ranked 111th in second-half differential among the playoff teams. The No. 2 team came a hair away from winning the World Series. The No. 4 team — excluding this year’s Blue Jays, who haven’t played in the playoffs yet — won the World Series. The World Series was also won by the 2006 Cardinals, who allowed a higher second-half OPS than they put up themselves.

Depending on how you look at this, this is either encouraging or it’s not. History suggests the Blue Jays are positioned to win more than half of their playoff games. Maybe even 60%. They’re a good team, possibly the best team, and good teams win more in the playoffs than the lesser teams. But — and this probably doesn’t need any explaining — there is no key to running through the playoffs without getting beat up. There is no “solution,” and even good teams lose, because in the playoffs, all the teams are good teams. In the regular season, a .600 team will beat a .500 team 60% of the time. In the playoffs, a .600 team will beat a .550 team 55% of the time. So the .600 team appears weaker, and this is so elementary I shouldn’t spend another word on it.

It is difficult to picture the Blue Jays losing. They’re positioned better than the average playoff team. They have just about everything you could possibly want, and they’re at something approximating full strength. The Blue Jays should be considered the American League favorites. In October 2012, Justin Verlander got beat by Barry Zito. No matter how a team is built, the playoffs will never be comfortable.





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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Toronto Fan
6 years ago

Im just so excited to experience it

Cubs Fan
6 years ago
Reply to  Toronto Fan

Amen to that.

See ya in a few weeks.

Mets Fan
6 years ago
Reply to  Cubs Fan

As a Mets fan I can only concur. See you soon !