Out of contention themselves, the Jays managed to deal some Read more →
What’s Wrong with the Blue Jays?
There’s a commonly referenced baseball idiom that states pitching is the key to winning. Starting pitching, in fact is often cited as the driving factor behind winning teams. Sometimes the rhetoric is widened slightly to include pitching and defence, as if every game was settled by a 1-0 or 2-1 score.
In truth, the key to winning isn’t much of a mystery. It’s simply a matter of outscoring one’s opponents on a regular basis. For this reason, run differential has become a fairly accurate predictor of team performance. Bill James, one of the pioneers of statistical analysis, developed what he coined Pythagorean win-loss expectancy, which uses runs for and runs against to estimate a team’s won-lost record.
Of course, outscoring one’s opponent isn’t quite so uni-dimensional as running out great starting pitching every day. Rather, there are two equally important components: scoring runs (via batting, base-running, and taking into account situational hitting) and preventing runs (the aforementioned pitching and defence).
Factoring into these basic tenets is the dreaded topic of injuries. A team will maximize its performance by fielding its best players on a regular basis. Injuries often result in bench players being forced into regular roles, or even worse, calling upon the infamous ‘replacement level’ player to step in.
And lastly, as sports fans know all-too-well, there is the element of luck. Sometimes teams that aren’t very good and don’t have strong run differentials manage to win a lot of games. The 2012 Baltimore Orioles are an example of this phenomenon. That team won 93 games, despite scoring only 7 more runs than it allowed over the course of 162 games. That’s a significant over-performance over the 82 wins one might have expected. In contrast, the 2012 Philadelphia Phillies sported a +4 RF/RA differential, and not surprisingly, won 81 games, exactly what Bill James’ formula would have predicted. When this dichotomy exists, we tend to look at a team’s record in either one-run or extra-inning games as examples of luck. Baltimore’s was historically good in 2012, with a 29-9 record in games decided by one run a 16-2 mark in extra inning affairs. On the other hand, the Phillies were 25-27 in one run games, and 7-10 in extra innings, records that are far more consistent with the team’s overall performance.
Turning our attention to the 2013 Toronto Blue Jays, we can look at each one of these factors to determine how significant of a role it has played in the team’s disappointing start. But before we do that, I urge each and every one to remember that the season is very young. We’re only 20 games into the long season. One only has to look back to last season, when the Oakland Athletics rebounded from a slow start to eventually reach the playoffs. The A’s were 26-35, 9 games out on June 10, but managed to win 94 games en route to the AL West title. In Toronto’s history, the 1989 Blue Jays were famously 12-24, a dreadful 12 games under .500 but managed to pull things together and win the AL East division, despite a poor start.
Through 20 games, the Jays have combined to produced a paltry .227 / .293 / .385 (.678 OPS) slash line. Put in other terms, the team gets on base as if it were a lineup full of J.P. Arencibia types and collectively hits with the power of Maicer Izturis. Neither of those are good benchmarks. The offence ranks 12th of 15 AL teams by OPS, very disappointing for a club that expected its powerful offence to be a strong point. The Blue Jays’ 21 HRs are good for 6th in the league, but with few runners on base, it hasn’t been enough. With runners in scoring position, the hitters have fared equally poorly, posting a .654 OPS.
Speed on the basepaths was expected to be another strength of the 2013 Blue Jays’ offence. The team has managed 15 stolen bases in its first 20 games, good for 3rd best in the AL. Overall, the Jays are 15-for-17 in stolen base attempts, good for an excellent 88% success rate. Rajai Davis and the injured Jose Reyes lead the team with 5 steals a piece. Surprisingly, Emilio Bonificacio, who’s value is largely tied to his legs, has yet to attempt a single stolen base. A .237 OBP is likely part of the cause – as the saying goes, “you can’t steal first base”.
The starting pitching was admittedly shaky through the first 10 or so games, but has since settled into much more acceptable territory. Overall, the Jays sport a 4.48 ERA, good for 12th best in the AL, but trending in the right direction of late. R.A. Dickey and J.A. Happ have looked the best of the bunch, and Mark Buehrle is coming off an excellent start. However, the struggles of Brandon Morrow and Josh Johnson, both power arms that were expected to be strengths of the rotation, are troubling. The starters have posted a 5.30 ERA through four turns of the rotation, a number that almost certainly has to improve. The bullpen has been a strong point thus far, posting a 3.24 ERA that has been bloated mostly by the rotating cast of 7th and 8th members of the ‘pen. The four worst ERAs belong to Edgar Gonzalez, Ramon Ortiz, Dave Bush and Jeremy Jeffress – which leads one to ask the question – is the team actually helping itself by carrying these replacement level pitchers?
Injuries (we’ll get to that in a moment) have kept some of the team’s finer defensive players out of the lineup and forced subpar fielders into regular action. The loss of Brett Lawrie through the first two weeks of the season was perhaps felt most. Neither Mark DeRosa nor Maicer Izturis proved suitable replacements, lacking Lawrie’s excellent range and strong arm. Rajai Davis often looks lost in right field, and Emilio Bonifacio has continued to struggle no matter where he plays, booting too many balls at second base and taking strange routes on fly balls to the outfield. Catcher J.P. Arencibia struggled in his only start catching R.A. Dickey, as one would expect, given his inexperience handling the knuckleball. The Jays have committed 15 errors, second-most in the AL, while turning a league-low
37 12 (edit: corrected figure) double plays. Hopefully with most of the team’s regulars back in action, the ship will begin to right itself.
Every team is forced to deal with injuries, but I’m sure the team and its fans weren’t anticipating losing star shortstop Jose Reyes for a half-season. Perhaps more than any player, the Jays were least equipped to deal with the loss of Reyes. The injuries the team has been forced to deal with have unfortunately affected some of the team’s most essential components. In addition to the ankle injury Reyes suffered, Jose Bautista has missed 7 games already with ankle and back issues and was limited to DH in two other matches. Reliever Sergio Santos, expected to pitch in high leverage situations is currently on the shelf with lingering tricep soreness, and it’s not clear when he’ll return. And as mentioned, Brett Lawrie’s oblique strain cost him two weeks of game action, and his timing at the plate is still not where it normally would be after missing most of spring training.
Grade: D (it’s tough to grade health, but the Reyes injury hurts a ton – excuse the pun)
The team’s run differential points to a 7-13 record, actually a game worse than the 8-12 mark the Blue Jays have played to thus far. A couple of early blowouts have largely contributed to this, and with only 20 games played, sample sizes are small. The team is 2-4 in one-run games, and 0-2 in extra innings, two trends that we hope will improve as the season wears on.
And there you have it. Outside of running the bases, the Blue Jays aren’t really doing anything well. A team can get by when one of its pitching or hitting gets hot, and when both are firing together, winning streaks are possible. Given the talent that’s on the roster, it’s far too early to write off the Blue Jays’ chances in 2013. That said, the sooner this team starts to figure out how to win, the better.