Tao of Stieb: Dangerous for Blue Jays to rely on another late surge

Blue Jays starter J.A. Happ. (Ann Heisenfelt/AP)

For those who preached patience in recent years, the 2015 Toronto Blue Jays offered sweet validation to the implorations that every season is a long season, and that there’s no need to lose hope in the early going.

By now, we can all rhyme off the numbers: that the team that became so beloved throughout the country and by all manner of casual fans was seven games under .500 on June 2 and 50-51 in late July. A lesson could certainly be drawn from that experience that would make bandwagon jumpers less likely to proudly hurl themselves over the sides at the earliest signs of struggle.

But somehow, it feels late awfully early this season.

In part, that may be attributable to a more nuanced understanding of what truly happened last year. At a glance, it looks like a team rallied to mount a strong march to the postseason, but in truth, the 2015 Blue Jays were really good, even when the results were pretty bad.

It’s true that at the 48 game mark, last year’s squad was 22-26, and in last place in the AL East. This tracks very close to the 23-25 record of this year’s team, which sits in the same lowly position in their division.

But last year’s team had a +27 run differential at this point in the season. A simple Pythagorean win-loss percentage estimation suggested that the Jays should have been winning at a .552 clip. In some sense, that might have made it seem as though there had been some bad luck in the first half the season, but it also meant that through the remaining three quarters of the schedule there was time for luck to rebalance itself, and success to flow thereafter.

But even after last night’s win over the Yankees, the 2016 Jays are now completely even at zero in run differential. Even though the Pythagorean predictor would suggest that they could be playing marginally better than their .479 winning pace, it still shows them as a nothing more than a .500 team.

Last year’s results suggested that a team can play well to middling results, and still manage to come out on top. But there’s a dichotomy to the lesson learned from 2015, in that it’s hard to overlook what a heroic effort was required in order to make the run to the division title.

From game 49 onward, the 2015 team went 71-43, a .623 winning percentage. This was second-best only to Pittsburgh through the rest of the schedule. Moreover, the Jays’ run differential during that last stretch was +194, which suggested a team that should win at a .660 pace — by far the best in baseball.

If you look at the success of last year’s team after the aforementioned 50-51 record, they needed to play .705 baseball (43-18) through to the end of the season to make up the eight game deficit and eventually stave off the Yankees.

Looking at this year’s team, is there much that immediately suggests they have an extended run of playing .620 baseball in them?

This isn’t to create the rationale for giving up on the team just yet. They are certainly within the realm of discussion for a Wild Card spot, and it took 87 wins in the American League to win the privilege of hosting that coin-flip contest in 2015. To get to that rather modest number, the Jays would need to play .561 baseball (64-50) through their remaining 114 games.

But that supposes that 87 games will be enough, and it also supposes there aren’t a half-dozen other teams who are as well-positioned to make a similar run for the most precarious of postseason berths.

As the front office scans the terrain not so distant in the horizon, they will need to determine whether this year’s team has the potential to realistically turn around not only the quantitative results, but also the qualitative manner in which they’ve played.

There are just nine weeks remaining until the trade deadline, which is plenty of time to turn things around. But a sustained positive change will need to begin soon, if not now.