With two-thirds of April in the rearview mirror, and no signs of baseball in sight, trying to guess what a 2020 MLB season might look like is almost impossible.
All we can say with confidence is that the MLB is contemplating multiple solutions, there’s money to be made if they can figure it out and the American president is keen on the idea of getting sports back, if it’s at all possible.
The chance of a truncated season is tantalizing, but it comes with strange on-field consequences. For a team such as the Toronto Blue Jays, the added chaos increases their playoff odds from virtually-nonexistent to impossible to ignore in an 81-game season.
It’s not just team performance that could be thrown off-kilter by a small-sample season, we could also see some relatively inexplicable individual seasons. In a sense that would be a shame for a Blue Jays squad looking to learn what they have in their young players. Alternatively, it increases the chances of fans getting to see someone go on an absolute tear, like Bo Bichette did when he reached the majors last year.
With that in mind, I thought it might be fun to examine the best stretches in Blue Jays history to serve as a template for the best of what could happen in a shortened campaign. I chose 81 games as the length to examine because it’s easy to conceptualize as half a season, and it’s a reasonable idea of a length for the 2020 campaign.
I’ve ranked these stretches based on wRC+ because it accounts for park effects and era, but there are arguments to be made for shuffling this list slightly based on other criteria. For example, you may think defence should be a consideration, but since it’s awfully hard to quantify (especially in eras past) it isn’t included here. Make your mental adjustments as you will.
Without further ado here are the best 81-game performances in Blue Jays franchise history:
1. Carlos Delgado
Dates: May 28 to August 29
Blue Jays record during that time: 43-38
Final Season WAR: 7.4
HR: 24 | RBI: 81 | AVG: .391 | OBP: .520 | SLG: .779 | wRC+: 216
Although these numbers were accumulated during the most offence friendly season in recent memory, they are still nothing short of astounding. For the equivalent of half a season, the Blue Jays had prime Babe Ruth hitting cleanup (Ruth’s career wRC+, by far the best of all time, is actually just 197), surrounded by a solid group of hitters that include six other 20 home run bats.
Unfortunately for Delgado, the team wasn’t much for pitching or defence, and despite his heroics, they failed to put a consistent string of wins together. They were actually further from the division lead (5.5 GB) when the first baseman started his heater than when he began it (4.0 GB).
Right in the middle of this time, on July 19, the Blue Jays made a disastrous trade shipping Michael Young to the Texas Rangers for Esteban Loaiza in hopes that he could solve their rotation woes.
2. John Olerud
Dates: April 17 to July 16
Blue Jays record during that time: 41-40
Final Season WAR: 8.1
HR: 17 | RBI: 65 | AVG: .404 | OBP: .503 | SLG: .707 | wRC+: 211
The idea of a guy who slugged .465 and averaged less than 16 home runs per season during his Blue Jays tenure putting up these numbers boggles the mind. Olerud’s 1993 season was a singular masterpiece, though. He was indisputably the most productive hitter on a World Series team — an accolade that has eluded many baseball greats.
While the prestige of batting average has fallen significantly in recent decades, the fact that he hit .450 in April that year is incredible (the rest of his season was so good that less than half of that first month can be included here). When this campaign was all said and done, Olerud led the league in batting average, on-base percentage, OPS and intentional walks — a hell of a feat for a guy who ranked 32nd in the league in home runs.
Once again, the Blue Jays weren’t able to rally around this unbelievable individual performance, but they took care of business later.
3. Jose Bautista
Dates: April 3 to July 9
Blue Jays record during that time: 42-47 (he missed some time, as will some others further down the list)
Final Season WAR: 8.1
HR: 30 | RBI: 62 | AVG: .391 | OBP: .464 | SLG: .698 |wRC+: 207
Though Baustista’s breakout season of 2010 was arguably his most memorable campaign, and his bat-flip home run was his most memorable moment, in 2011 he was at his best. During that year, he was the most dangerous hitter in the league, and came out of the gates proving his previous season was no fluke.
General manager Alex Anthopoulos instantly looked brilliant for extending Bautista on a five-year contract worth $64 million plus a 2016 option worth another $14 million two months before the season started. According to FanGraphs’ estimates, the team ended up getting $212.9 million in value out of that deal — $61.8 coming in 2011 alone, a year where he came third in MVP voting.
Even so, the Blue Jays were unable to capitalize on his individual brilliance.
4. Jose Bautista (again)
Dates: July 1 to October 1
Blue Jays record during that time: 44-37
Final Season WAR: 6.5
HR: 34 | RBI: 74 | AVG: .295 | OBP: .403 | SLG: .712 | wRC+: 196
It’s easy to get caught up in the Bautista mythology and forget exactly how events played out, and the 2010 season is a perfect example. That year is often remembered as a triumphant breakout that carried on from a big September in 2009.
However, Bautista sputtered out of the gate, slashing an unimpressive .213/.314/.427 in April with just four home runs. Then in May, he soared with 12 round-trippers and a mind-bending .287/.422/.766 line — which isn’t even reflected here because June was even worse than April. Nobody knew what to think of the Blue Jays’ iconic slugger when he went on the tear shown above. While there were doubters remaining after the 2010 season, his ability to show off his mammoth power with consistency over the back nine of the campaign made him an enormous story around the league.
5. Fred McGriff
Dates: June 3 to September 2
Blue Jays record during that time: 44-40
Final Season WAR: 5.5
HR: 23 | RBI: 57 | AVG: .343 | OBP: .430 | SLG: .636 | wRC+: 193
There’s an argument to be made that McGriff is the most underappreciated player in Blue Jays history. The smooth first baseman is the franchise’s all-time leader in wRC+ and from 1988 to 1990 he was unbelievably consistent and among the most dangerous hitters in the game. In that timeframe, he was fourth among MLB position players in WAR behind just Rickey Henderson, Barry Bonds and Wade Boggs.
While he missed out on the team’s most iconic seasons (and his trade out of town was a part of paving the way for them), and his tenure was relatively short, his Blue Jays career is just a little team success away from being awfully similar to Josh Donaldson’s. There’s something just a little sad about McGriff toiling away for forgettable San Diego Padres clubs while the Blue Jays fielded their best teams ever.
This stretch doesn’t jump off the page as much as the others because of the era, but it’s a mighty impressive one, and similar runs he put together in 1988 and 1989 fall just short of the end of this list at 11th and 12th place.
6. Josh Donaldson
Dates: May 27 to September 2
Blue Jays record during that time: 53-33
Final Season WAR: 7.6
HR: 23 | RBI: 68 | AVG: .330 | OBP: .444 | SLG: .631 | wRC+: 188
As veterans such as Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion and Russell Martin all saw their offensive output fall from 2015, Donaldson was called upon more than ever. It’s safe to say he rose to the challenge. Coming off his MVP season, Donaldson’s offensive output actually improved slightly — largely due to a much higher walk rate.
The 2016 Blue Jays competed perhaps more than anything else on the strength of their rotation, but Donaldson was the throughline, propping up an offence that went from the deadliest in the league to a more mortal unit. His all-around contribution during this stretch was 5.5 WAR, which would have tied for 14th in the majors with Francisco Lindor if these were the only games he played. That output helped drive a strong stretch for the Blue Jays who floundered badly in both April and September.
7. Edwin Encarnacion
Dates: April 4 to July 2
Blue Jays record during that time: 45-37
Final Season WAR: 3.7
HR: 26 | RBI: 69 | AVG: .293 | OBP: .382 | SLG: .628 | wRC+: 182
This stretch is most notable because it contains the most prolific month of power in team history. In May 2014 Encarnacion went off, hitting 16 home runs, five of them coming in multi-homer games. That was the record for the most home runs in a month by a Blue Jay and tied Mickey Mantle for the most dingers in May by an American League hitter (which admittedly is a pretty convoluted record). In that magical month the Blue Jays hit 11 more home runs than any other team and went 21-9.
Unfortunately for Encarnacion, and the rest of the club, things didn’t go so well from there. The slugger missed time with a leg injury in July and August and only hit six more homers after this stretch ended. The Blue Jays finished 83-79, well out of a playoff spot.
8. Edwin Encarnacion (again)
Dates: June 19 to October 2
Blue Jays record during that time: 57-35
Final Season WAR: 4.5
HR: 25 | RBI: 71 | AVG: .308 | OBP: .412 | SLG: .634 | wRC+: 180
Once again, these numbers really reflect the craziness of one month. In August, as the Blue Jays surged, Encarnacion was utterly unstoppable. The designated hitter slashed an incredible .407/.460/.919 with 11 home runs and 11 doubles as the club went 21-6.
That team was firing on all cylinders, but Encarnacion was undoubtedly the catalyst for the most important stretch of its season. He also capped the month in style with his “hat trick” game, one of the fondest memories he provided Blue Jays fans.
9. Jesse Barfield
Dates: May 19 to August 17
Blue Jays record during that time: 46-36
Final Season WAR: 7.5
HR: 21 | RBI: 57 | AVG: .327 | OBP: .422 | SLG: .623 | wRC+: 178
This is an example of an 81-game chunk you can move a little higher on your list based on defensive merit, if you like. At 26, Barfield was still at the height of his powers as an outfielder in 1986 and FanGraphs had him providing the second-most defensive value among outfielders that year (+14.3 runs). That data is hard to trust on face value alone, but Barfield more than passed the eye test with an outstanding arm and no shortage of range.
While he was always famous for his all-around game Barfield’s bat peaked that season as he led the American League with 40 home runs and won his only Silver Slugger award. He was somehow underappreciated by manager Jimy Williams, though, as he hit out of the six-hole that year before being promoted to the fifth-hole a few weeks into this stretch.
10. Carlos Delgado (again)
Dates: April 5 to July 3
Blue Jays record during that time: 46-36
Final Season WAR: 5.3
HR: 27 | RBI: 90 | AVG: .315 | OBP: .435 | SLG: .668 | wRC+: 177
Feel free to bump this one up if you’re a fan of RBI as a measure of value because Delgado drove in a truly remarkable number of runners during this time, which was essentially the first half of the season.
The 2003 campaign was Delgado’s last great season with the Blue Jays, and after failing to recapture the magic of 2000 in either of the next two seasons he seemed to find it once again. His batting average was back above .300, his home run total was over 40 once more and he was an on-base God.
Although it was his start to the season that was truly exceptional, the most memorable moment of this season — and arguably his Blue Jays tenure — came on September 25th when he hit four home runs, including his 300th.