When the Kansas City Royals won the World Series last season, they inadvertently invited the rest of baseball to copy their formula.
It’s not unusual for the competition to try and replicate strategies employed by the team that wins it all. Emulating the success of others is no way to guarantee positive results, but it is a decent starting point.
In most cases, teams that win the World Series don’t do things radically different than everyone else. They’re just the right combination of good and lucky in October.
The Royals are an exception. By putting a strong emphasis on contact hitters, good defenders and a bullpen with multiple closer-calibre arms, they won by building their team differently.
Perhaps the most interesting thing the Royals did was reduce the role of their rotation. There’s a notion in baseball that top-notch starting pitching is what wins, especially in the post-season. However, Kansas City’s rotation pitched the fewest innings of any team in the American League last year.
That didn’t stop the Royals from being the best club in the Junior Circuit during both the regular season and playoffs.
Conventional wisdom says that you want your starters to give you as many innings as possible, but the Royals did not subscribe to this thinking. The Toronto Blue Jays would be wise to follow suit.
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While the Blue Jays do not have a Royals-quality bullpen, their group built around Roberto Osuna, Drew Storen and Brett Cecil is certainly above-average. The same cannot be said of the rotation which, outside of Marcus Stroman, is built around reliable, but unspectacular veterans.
Aaron Sanchez is a wild card, but regardless of how the Blue Jays choose to use their pitchers, right now it appears that the bullpen is a strength and the rotation is a weakness. The team should be looking to employ a strategy that shifts as much of the innings burden to the relief corps as possible.
From a statistical standpoint, that’s a good idea almost regardless of how the talent of a team’s pitching is distributed. Studies have shown that when starters face a lineup for the third time in a single game, hitters’ performance against them improves significantly.
Even if a starter is much more talented than the guys sitting in the bullpen, he’s usually less effective against a hitter who’s already seen him twice than a fresh reliever would be.
The most common counterpoint to this idea is that if a rotation doesn’t amass enough innings the relief core will get worn out, and their effectiveness, which is dependent on max-effort outings, will be diminished. There’s nothing wrong with this argument, but it applies less to the Blue Jays than the average team for two reasons.
Firstly, the team figures to have an unusual amount of length in the bullpen. Two of Sanchez, Gavin Floyd and Jesse Chavez will be down there, all of whom are stretched out to start. The Blue Jays have also hinted at the fact they are looking to get Osuna some multi-inning stints, possibly to build him up to a starting role next year.
The second issue is that the Blue Jays likely need to err on the side of caution with their starters. Stroman is coming off an injury-shortened year and, with the exception of R.A. Dickey, the only other starting candidate who’s topped 200 innings in a season is Floyd. That’s a feat he managed eight years and a couple of serious elbow injuries ago.
With an aging lineup that thrives on the long ball, the Blue Jays are never going to be able to mimic the Royals’ singles, speed and defence model for position players. Nor should they, seeing as they have the best lineup in baseball.
Where they can take a page out of the book of the champs is how they use their pitching staff. Like the Royals, they are not blessed with a New York Mets-like rotation, so the team is better off putting the onus on the bullpen to take them where they need to go.
The Blue Jays may not have a Wade Davis, but they do have the depth, and perhaps more importantly, the length to make that happen. Shunning the goal of pitching deep into games may seem unnatural, but it has worked before.