Jonah Keri’s Blue Jays Mail Bag: Are playoffs already out of reach?

Blue Jays voice Dan Shulman joins Sportsnet's Starting Lineup to discuss the relief after beating the Red Sox, and what to do with a struggling Jose Bautista in order to get him going.

Welcome to the first installment of Sportsnet’s Blue Jays Mailbag!

Once a month throughout the season, we’ll ask you for burning questions about the home nine. We’ll then pick a few of our favourite submissions for answers. Got a question for a future ‘Bag?

Submit your questions to @Sportsnet on Twitter and Facebook using hashtag #JaysMailbag and we’ll answer as many of your queries as possible!

Now on to this week’s questions..

ANSWER: So… yeah, not the best start this season for the Blue Jays. At 3-11, they own the worst record in all of baseball. At a time when the city’s going nuts for the Leafs and Raptors, the Jays are delivering the kind of sports angst that looked dead and gone given the rise of the big three franchises in the past couple years.

Could the season possibly be over after two and a half weeks? Let’s apply some logic and math (two of our favourites in the ‘Bag) to this question.

First, logic. We shouldn’t lean too hard on historical precedents, given the way the game’s playoff structure has changed. MLB expanded the playoff field to 10 teams just five years ago. So if we’re trying to figure out how likely it is that a 3-11 team can charge back and make the post-season, pre-2012 results aren’t all that relevant, since we’ve got a bigger field now. And given how small a sample size five seasons is, that’s not much to go on either. Basically, if ” target=”_blank”>some sports shouter starts going nuts about 1882 or 1937 or whatever, you can safely ignore them.

Second, math — as in, what the Jays need to do from this point forward to dance again in October. Last season, the Jays and Orioles both went 89-73, nabbing AL wild-card berths in the process. We’ve seen a wide range of outcomes in the brief two wild-card era, from the Pirates winning 98 games and the Cubs winning 97 in 2015, to the 2015 Astros squeaking into the playoffs with 86 victories.

That makes 89 wins netting a playoff berth slightly optimistic, though not excessively so. If we then assume that 89 gets Toronto back to the playoffs, then the Jays would need an 86-62 record from this point forward to make that happen. An 86-62 record works out to a .581 winning percentage. In 2016, only two American League teams (the Rangers and the Indians) topped a .581 pace for the year.

Injuries heighten the challenge. Perennial MVP candidate Josh Donaldson is out two-to-four weeks with a calf injury. Staff ace Aaron Sanchez is also on the DL with blister issues and had to undergo a procedure to remove part of one of his fingernails. There’s no guarantee he’ll go back to his dominant 2016 self when he hops back on the mound, even if that does occur before month’s end.

Jays fans did breathe a sigh of relief when it was revealed that J.A. Happ’s elbow injury probably wasn’t going to keep him out too long, but if the big cause for celebration is losing one of your best pitchers for a minimum of 10 days, that’s…

With so many normally productive Jays hitting like pitchers (most notably Devon Travis, Russell Martin, Steve Pearce and Jose Bautista), some positive regression is surely coming soon. But the combination of early losses and multiple significant injuries has the Jays facing very long odds for a playoff run. To paraphrase the great Yogi Berra, it’s getting late awfully early around here.

QUESTION:

ANSWER: When Mike refers to the Jays’ “Pythagorean record,” he means their expected win-loss record based on the number of runs the team has scored and allowed. For instance, if a team scores exactly as many runs as it allows, in a world of exactly average run distribution, that team should expect to finish at exactly .500.

Many factors can create a gap between a team’s actual record and its Pythagorean record. The biggest one is luck, or if you prefer, random variance. If a club wins (or loses) a ton of one-run games, that can forge a gap. So too can a disproportionately high number of wins (or losses) in blowouts.

The earlier you are in a season, the tougher it is for that luck/random variance to even out. Now, not all results in one-run games are purely the result of luck. A great bullpen can sometimes lead to disproportionately strong results in close games. Bullpens themselves are subject to high levels of variance, because relief pitchers are almost always starting pitchers who weren’t good enough to hack it in the rotation and thus get relegated to the pen. Taken as a whole, they’re not as good as their starting pitching counterparts.

The Orioles are a rare team that in recent years has won a bunch more games than their run differential would suggest, thanks in part to a bullpen that’s pulled off the rare feat of being somewhere between good and unhittable over the past half-decade.

This brings us to the subject of managers. If you’ve ever watched a playoff game, odds are you’ve seen a manager make a dumb tactical decision that’s blown up in his face. I’ll just pick a random one here.

Mike is correct in saying that the Jays have underperformed their Pythagorean record in recent years. Since the start of the 2013 season, the Jays have won fewer games than you’d expect from their run differential every year — the only team in Major League Baseball to pull off that ignominious feat.

Since Opening Day 2013, Toronto’s won 18 fewer games than you’d expect based on run differential alone (including this year, with the Jays two games worse than Pythag). Opening Day 2013 also happens to be the start of John Gibbons’ second tenure as manager of the Blue Jays. So we know that managers can flip the result of close games by making bad in-game decisions. And we know that the Jays have fared considerably worse over the past four-plus seasons than you’d project based on runs scored and runs allowed alone.

Doesn’t it then stand to reason then that Gibbons is a bad manager?

The answer is… not necessarily. We mentioned before how bad bullpens can skew results in close games. By far the worst year for the Jays in the Gibbons 2.0 era in terms of actual vs. Pythag results was 2015. That year, Toronto stormed to its first AL East title in 22 years, but still won nine fewer games than expected based on the club’s run differential. If you watched the 2015 Jays, you’ll remember two notable happenings from that season (particularly the first four months of that season). One, that team fielded a hellaciously explosive offence, clubbing teams into submission and thus skewing its run differential numbers. Two, the Jays bullpen in the first half of 2015 was a nuclear disaster, blowing lead after lead and losing a series of nailbiters. That lots-of-power/iffy-bullpen combination has been a Jays hallmark for most of the past four-plus season.

It’s possible that a feast-or-famine offence, shaky bullpen, and bad luck has combined with some bad decisions by Gibbons to create an underachieving ballclub. But that explanation ignores the fact that every manager messes up decisions, and that confirmation bias prompts us to remember big blunders and forget all the competent and successful moves a manager makes. It also ignores what’s probably the more important role of a manager: to keep his players focused and motivated over the course of an interminable 162-game season. And measuring that skill is even tougher to do, given how difficult it is to quantify the intangible.

So while it’s possible that Gibbons has contributed to the Jays at times underachieving (or at other times, overachieving!), the reality remains that managing was and still is tough to quantify. And when it comes to 2017, the Jays have been terrible because the players have been terrible. The simplest explanation is usually the correct one.

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Prime Time Sports
Prime Time Sports - April 20 - 6pm
Originally aired April 20 2017

QUESTION:

ANSWER: We got about a half-dozen variations of this question, which boils down to this: If a rebuild’s coming soon, what might it look like?

The answer will largely depend on how aggressive team president Mark Shapiro and general manager Ross Atkins decide to be. The Jays’ success in 2015 and 2016 has sparked a baseball renaissance in Toronto, with attendance and TV ratings shooting through the roof. The conservative move would be to try to keep that fan interest going as long as possible, hang onto recognizable veterans as long as possible, and hang onto most players not in the walk years of their contract. That means everyone except maybe Jose Bautista and Marco Estrada stay put.

On the other hand, management could expedite a rebuild by cutting deeper into the bone. Over-30 veterans signed to long-term deals might not look all that attractive to other clubs… but pick up tens of millions of dollars on the contracts of Russell Martin and Troy Tulowitzki, and rival teams could become interested in two excellent defensive players who have more left to offer offensively than a few dozen lousy at-bats might suggest.

Happ is a skilled and affordable left-handed starter who’s controllable through 2018, and would thus fetch plenty of value in a trade if he came up for bid, say, this June. And of course the most impactful move would be to get Donaldson back and healthy, then start an immediate bidding war for one of the 10 best players on the planet. Going that route, rather than waiting until the end of this season (or later) to shop a player who can test the open market at the end of 2018 and might not get a big offer from an organization run by a management team intent on getting much younger would certainly be the bolder move.

After the fact, a total stripdown that leads to a young and very good team capable of competing for years to come seems like a no-brainer. But when you’re in the thick of it, 100-loss seasons and ghost-town TV audiences are no fun for fans, players, management, ownership, or anyone else. So if the Jays do keep losing and sell mode becomes more likely, the smart money will be on the Jays splitting the difference: Donaldson and other core players stick around a little longer, more fungible players get shopped, and the team hopes for a quick snapback in 2018.