The Toronto Blue Jays head into the 2019 season as long shots. It’s not hard to see why. The Jays went 73-89 last year. Tabulate their expected record based on them allowing 123 more runs than they scored, and a typical -123 club would’ve lost an ugly 94 games.
Following that disappointing showing, they stripped away the last remnants of an aging roster. But rather than replace those departed veterans with top prospects, the Jays will start the year with some of their brightest young talents in the minors. The pre-season consensus has them finishing fourth in the AL East, ahead of the dreadful Orioles but behind three strong clubs in Boston, New York, and Tampa Bay.
But this is baseball, where wild and woolly stuff can and does happen. It just sometimes requires a bit of imagination for dreams to come true.
That’s where simulations come in. With the right inputs and the click of a button, a simulator can spit out results almost instantaneously, showing how your favourite team will fare.
Out of the Park Baseball is one of the coolest simulation-based games around. So I asked Rich Grisham, Chief Marketing Officer for Out of the Park, to simulate the 2019 MLB season 1,000 times, in the hope that we could find a few Blue Jays-friendly results.
The Jays averaged 79 wins across those 1,000 simulations. In these scenarios, the Jays didn’t make any mid-season sell-off trades, which would drive their win total lower in real life. But based on talent available on the Opening Day roster, 79 sounds like a reasonable estimate.
Again though, we’re not looking for broad estimates. We want to know if the Jays could possibly win the AL East under a perfect set of circumstances. And while we’re here, we want to know what those circumstances would be.
Of the 1,000 simulations run by OOTP, just two produced division titles for the Jays this year. Still, that’s more than zero! So what happened in the 0.2 per cent of simulations leading to Blue Jays glory? Here’s what OOTP had to say:
The Blue Jays demolished the rest of the AL East, going 97-65 and winning the division by 11 games. The Rays finished second with 86 wins, followed by the Yankees and Red Sox (tied at 84-78), with the Orioles limping to a horrific 49-113 record. In this simulation, both the Yankees and Red Sox (despite a 9-WAR season by Mookie Betts) missed the playoffs, with the Rays and Angels getting in.
A combination of veterans and kids led the Jays to glory. Randal Grichuk broke out by blasting 39 homers and leading the club in Wins Above Replacement. Kid catcher Danny Jansen walloped 24 homers and played strong defence behind the plate, making him a four-win player in this simulation. Rookie phenom Vladimir Guerrero Jr., got into 132 games, collecting 46 extra-base hits. Kevin Pillar was a terror, pairing his usual strong defence with 20 homers and a preposterous 55 doubles. In our simulation Kendrys Morales chipped in 22 round-trippers for the Jays, instead of getting traded to Oakland on the eve of the season opener.
Toronto needed all that offence, given the predictably lighter contribution from the starting rotation, even in a dream season. Marcus Stroman and Clay Buchholz were the only two pitchers to rate as better than average per WAR. Stroman turned in a season from the Tom Seaver collection, amassing a massive (and massively unlikely) 236 innings, with a 3.20 ERA. Buchholz panned out as a free-agent steal, delivering 202 2/3 innings and a 3.86 ERA. Anchoring the bullpen, Ken Giles punched out 79 batters in 57 1/3 innings, going 46 for 48 in save opportunities.
All told, the Jays scored more than 800 runs, punching up a huge 30 Wins Above Replacement from their hitters. Nine players hit double-digit HR, forming a deep and balanced lineup. All that despite disappointing production from youngsters like Teoscar Hernandez and Lourdes Gurriel Jr.
Led by that cast of characters, the Jays made it to the ALDS, before falling to the Twins.
This time the Jays won 96 games, barely edging out the second-place Rays by a single game, with the Yankees (90 wins), Red Sox (83), and Orioles (51) rounding out the also-rans.
This time, the offence was again led by Pillar and Grichuk. The Jays centre-fielder rolled up another 55 doubles, hitting .309 on the year. Meanwhile Grichuk delivered MVP-calibre numbers, hammering 44 doubles and an unbelievable 51 home runs. Vlad Jr. produced another solid season, hitting .276/.344/.466 with 19 homers, 37 doubles, and 3.6 Wins Above Replacement. Freddy Galvis, Devon Travis, and Hernandez all produced near-three-win seasons, giving the Jays the depth they needed to stave off the Rays and claim the AL East crown. Mookie Betts regressed sharply from his 2018 pace, explaining much of Boston’s unexpected decline and opening the door for Toronto’s charge.
Jays pitchers played even less of a role in the team’s success in this simulation: The club’s best pitcher was again Stroman, who managed a so-so 4.42 ERA and a two-WAR season. Toronto’s whole pitching staff produced just seven Wins Above Replacement, better than Baltimore (4.5), but well behind the three other AL East clubs, who all squeezed 20-plus Wins Above Replacement out of their pitchers. The Jays’ 342 doubles, 207 homers, division-leading .265 batting average, and a little luck carried the team to victory.
This time, the Jays blasted their way through the post-season, beating Cleveland, then Tampa Bay to claim their first AL pennant in 26 years. Sadly, that’s where the winning ended, as the Braves won the World Series.
So if you’re looking for a miracle this season, don’t bother leaning on the pitching staff. Root for the kids to contribute right away, and root for the unlikely combination of Randal Grichuk and Kevin Pillar to come from nowhere and become superstars at the plate.
Hey, it’s baseball. You never know.