Blue Jays need projection-busting performances to contend in shortened season

Faizal Khamisa is joined by Shi Davidi and Ben Nicholson-Smith to discuss MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred's comments on the likelihood of a 2020 season.

As the deeply disheartening dispute between MLB and the MLBPA rages on, the 2020 season is shortening in front of our very eyes. Every day lost pushes back the possible beginning of play, and increases the likelihood of commissioner Robert Manfred unilaterally implementing a season of approximately 50 games.

There’s no positive way to spin the situation for fans of baseball and the health of the sport itself. What’s going on right now is nothing short of a debacle.

With that understood, the looming spectre of a severely shortened season has shifted the league’s competitive framework a touch. In recent years, a small group of loaded teams have dominated the playoff picture and MLB has been beset by a large cohort of rebuilders and also-rans with almost no chance to shake the boat. That latter group has included the Toronto Blue Jays, and looked like it would again in 2020, despite the team’s improvements.

However, a truncated schedule allows for more randomness and it is easier to envision the possibility that a team like the Blue Jays sneaks into the playoffs. It’s now fair to think of the Blue Jays as a fringe contender in a way it wasn’t prior to the compression of the schedule.

If we are looking at the Blue Jays in a different light, it’s worth thinking about what stands in the way of a surprise playoff bid. The common perception is that the Blue Jays have some star players — like their Big Three of Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, and Cavan Biggio, as well as new ace Hyun Jin Ryu — but lack the complementary pieces to win consistently day out.

While it might be true that the team’s long-term stars are on the 2020 team, especially if you count Nate Pearson, that’s not how they project just yet. No one is doubting Guerrero Jr. and Bichette’s talent, but they still have a lot to prove at the highest level. Pearson’s workload issues might be made moot by a short season, but he also remains a wild card. Even the tried-and-tested Ryu comes with serious injury concerns. The Blue Jays secondary players — like their catching duo of Danny Jansen and Reese McGuire, a veteran rotation with competent contingency plans, plus a bullpen led by elite closer Ken Giles — are safer bets to be solid than their stars are to be great.

As a result, the team’s highest-forecasted WAR, according to the ZiPS projection system, comes from Bichette, who ranks 44th among position players in MLB. Similarly, their best-projected pitcher (Ryu) ranks 47th. To be fair, both of those players could be projection busters. Bichette is at an age where improvements can be both rapid and radical. The same could be sad for Vladdy. Ryu also has the ability to overshoot projections simply by staying on the field — an easier task in a shortened season.

Even considering those caveats, projection systems provide the best pre-season information available, and it’s noteworthy the top of the Blue Jays’ roster looks lacklustre for 2020 — in probable production, if not talent. Perhaps it goes without saying that since the current playoff system began in 2012, no team has played October baseball without a top-40 position player or pitcher by WAR.

So, the question becomes how good do your top position player and pitcher usually have to be to reach the playoffs? I looked at the 80 playoff teams we’ve seen in the current format and determined where their average top position player and pitcher landed on the WAR leaderboards. This is what those numbers look like on a year-by-year basis.

Season Teams’ AVG Top Pitcher Rank Teams’ AVG Top Hitter Rank
2012 14.3 16.5
2013 16.8 13.1
2014 24 13.5
2015 17.7 21.6
2016 12.8 12.1
2017 12.5 9.1
2018 17.1 8.9
2019 17.1 16.3
Average 16.5 13.9

Generally speaking, teams had to at least have a top-20 position player or top-20 pitcher to make the dance. In fact, there were only six teams that didn’t have one of either, and only one team that didn’t have a top-30 pitcher or position player — the Blue Jays’ old friends, the 2015 Texas Rangers. These teams are instructive because they provide the blueprint for reaching the post-season without all-star level performances from your top guys.

There are really three ways to do it:

No. 1: Be Deep

Examples: 2013 Red Sox and 2013 Braves

Explanation: This is the most intuitive way to thrive without a dominant star on the mound or in the field. If Mike Trout’s semi-tragic career has taught us anything, it’s that baseball isn’t a one-man game. In 2013, both the Red Sox and Braves rolled out extremely deep lineups without obvious holes. The World Series-winning Red Sox had a stunning seven position players post a WAR of 3.0 or more.

For reference, a WAR of 2.0 is considered an average season for an everyday player. That means 77 per cent of this team was at least one-and-a-half times as valuable as your average MLB regular. For further reference, in the last four seasons combined the Blue Jays have only had six three-plus WAR seasons from their position players.

Similar to the Red Sox, the Braves had six three-plus WAR position players. When both teams were able to combine that quality up and down the lineup with competent pitching they were hard to stop.

Every GM would like to build teams like these, but it’s exceedingly difficult to do, especially if you have any budget constraints whatsoever.

No. 2: Be Clutch

Examples: 2014 Orioles and 2015 Yankees

Explanation: Over the course of a season when you get your hits and your runs tend to even out to some degree. However, there are a few teams that are able to ride timely pitching and timely hitting all the way through to the playoffs. Both the ‘14 Orioles and ‘15 Yankees were exceedingly good at getting a knock when they needed to, and putting their opponents down in big spots.

Team High-Leverage OPS MLB Rank High-Leverage OPS against MLB Rank
’14 Orioles 0.798 1st 0.608 3rd
’15 Yankees 0.771 3rd 0.603 2nd

There’s plenty of debate over to what degree clutch is a skill, and even if you believe it is 100 per cent, it’s awfully hard to fill a clubhouse with 25 guys who’ve all got it. That makes this template essentially impossible to follow.

No. 3: Get Lucky

Examples: 2012 Orioles, 2015 Rangers

Explanation: Sometimes the baseball gods just smile on a team. Or, less poetically, sometimes a team severely overperforms its Pythagorean winning percentage and racks up far more Ws than its run differential suggests it should. The 2012 Orioles went 93-67 despite outscoring their opponents by just seven runs. The Rangers managed an 88-74 mark despite putting up a meagre plus-18 run differential. Often these performances are credited to good bullpens, but it’s far more reasonable to attribute them to excellent sequencing luck.

If the Blue Jays are going to mount a surprise run at contention in 2020, the methods above are both tricky to replicate, and only worked for 7.5 per cent of playoff squads. A far easier path to the post-season would involve one of their players exceeding their projections with a breakout performance. Given the young talent in the organization, and the possibility of Ryu repeating his 2019 season, that doesn’t seem like the worst bet.

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