What recent MLB history says about Blue Jays' trade deadline approach

Oakland Athletics pitcher Mike Fiers works against the Cincinnati Reds during the first inning of a baseball game Tuesday, May 7, 2019, in Oakland, Calif. (Ben Margot / AP)

As the Toronto Blue Jays emerge from the All-Star break they find themselves in a position that’s become common since the MLB playoff rules changed in 2012.

The team is hovering around .500, well back in their division race, but still in with a chance to claim a wild-card spot. The expanded playoffs may have only added two playoff spots, but they’ve spawned a new tier of contenders who wouldn’t have seen “meaningful baseball” in September, or tried to make in-season upgrades under the old format.

While this tier can be large — there are currently seven teams sitting at .500 or better but outside a playoff spot — it contains different types of teams. The Blue Jays, for instance, have an excellent run differential (+72) that suggests they’re better than their record indicates — and they were missing an elite hitter in George Springer for the vast majority of the season. That makes them more inclined to make a splash at the deadline than the Seattle Mariners, who FanGraphs gives a 2.9 per cent chance of making the playoffs.

In order to better understand what the Blue Jays should or could do from here, history can be our guide. We’ve got 80 playoff teams to look at from the current format, and finding the ones that made it from situations most similar to the 2021 Blue Jays should provide some insight on what it takes to come from the club’s current position to play October baseball.

The closest matches for these Blue Jays are teams that had similar playoff odds at the All-Star break (Toronto currently sits at 34.5 per cent) and were out of a postseason spot at that time by multiple games (the Blue Jays are 4.5 back).

Based on those those criteria, here are the teams the Blue Jays can learn the most from:

2013 Cleveland

All-Star Break Playoff Odds: 32.1 per cent

Playoff Position: 3.0 games back of the second wild card

Significant addition: Marc Rzepczynski, RP

Did it help?: Rzepczynski caught fire for Cleveland, providing 20.1 innings of 0.89 ERA ball during the stretch run. Considering they avoided a one-game tiebreaker just to reach the wild-card game by a single win, it’s probably fair to say the outcome might have been different for them if they didn’t pick up the lefty.

What got them to the playoffs?: Cleveland’s second half was driven by two truly special individual performances. Ubaldo Jimenez posted the best WAR of any MLB pitcher after the All-Star Break (3.1) pitching 84 innings with a 1.82 ERA and 2.17 FIP. It was a level he couldn’t replicate in his first season with the team, or any point in his career afterwards.

On the position player side Yan Gomes posted 2.7 second-half WAR — a number he’s only topped in a full season twice. The combination of those two players and a resurgent Scott Kazmir helped the club pile up a 41-26 record.

Any lessons for the Blue Jays?: It seems unlikely that Toronto is going to get efforts as improbable as the ones that Cleveland got from Jimenez and Gomes — although it’s never out of the question.

Perhaps the real lesson here is that if there’s a player who you feel strongly about, go get them even if they’re struggling. When Cleveland nabbed Marc Rzepczynski he owned a 7.84 ERA in just 10.1 innings with the St. Louis Cardinals, and had spent the vast majority of the year at triple-A.

This front office has already shown a willingness to grab struggling players they are convinced can help a playoff push like Joaquin Benoit and Robbie Ray, which shouldn’t be a surprise because the same decision makers were also at the helm of this Cleveland team.

2014 Pittsburgh Pirates

All-Star Break Playoff Odds: 34.5 per cent

Playoff Position: 3.0 games back of the second wild card

Significant addition: John Axford, RP (as a waiver claim in August)

Did it help?: He gave them 11 solid innings with a 4.09 ERA and 2.86 FIP, which was handy but not truly impactful.

What got them to the playoffs?: A marginal pitching upgrade. In the first half of the season the Pirates’ pitching staff ranked 29th in WAR ahead of just the Colorado Rockies. They upgraded from tire fire to mediocre (18th) in the second half, which allowed their elite group of position players led by Andrew McCutchen, Russell Martin, Josh Harrison, and Starling Marte to carry them.

Francisco Liriano improved significantly, Gerrit Cole gave them eight great starts, and the combination of Vance Worley and Edison Volquez kept runs off the board with 157.2 innings of sub-2.50 ERA pitching despite peripherals that suggested they weren’t that dominant.

Any lessons for the Blue Jays?: The lesson here certainly shouldn’t be that if you stand pat all your pitchers will get better — and the Pirates’ lack of deadline additions is likely a function of their ownership’s disinclination to add to the payroll — but there are some parallels here.

The 2014 Pirates had a young position player core that had just reached the playoffs for the first time, and didn’t have the pitching to match. All they needed was for that staff to perform a little better to take off, which they did on the way to a 39-28 second-half record. A safer way to ensure that happened would’ve been to bring in some outside help, but the Pirates found the production they needed within.

2015 Toronto Blue Jays

All-Star Break Playoff Odds: 26.3 per cent

Playoff Position: 4.0 games back of the second wild card

Significant additions: David Price SP, Troy Tulowtizki SS, Ben Revere OF, LaTroy Hawkins RP, Mark Lowe RP

Did it help?: The team went 41-18 from July 31 on and broke a 22-year year playoff drought. So, yeah.

What got them to the playoffs?: Price was exceptional, Tulowitzki solidified the defence, Revere was a valuable spark plug, Marcus Stroman returned and excelled in September, and the lineup that had been mashing all year kept mashing.

Any lessons for the 2021 Blue Jays?: Although there are some meaningful similarities between the 2015 and 2021 Blue Jays, there are also some major differences. The 2015 edition of the team had a greater sense of urgency thanks to its aging corps and the long-term uncertainty its leadership group was facing. The American League was also strangely mediocre that year as the Blue Jays and Royals ended up being the only teams to top 90 wins.

The stars were aligned for this kind of gamble, and it paid off. Although Matt Boyd has gone on to be a starter the Blue Jays could’ve used at times in the intervening years, the prospects they gave up didn’t really come back to haunt them either.

Considering the Blue Jays’ youth, and new more forward-looking leadership, it’s extremely unlikely we see a redo of 2015. But if a team with as much offensive talent as the 2021 was given blockbuster pitching reinforcements the results could be similarly explosive — and with the possible departures of Marcus Semien and Robbie Ray after the season, 2021 is a more of an intriguing micro-window than it might’ve first seemed.

2018 Oakland Athletics

All-Star Break Playoff Odds: 29.4 per cent

Playoff Position: 3.0 games back of the second wild card

Significant additions: Jeurys Familia RP, Mike Fiers SP (August trade), Shawn Kelley (August trade)

Did it help?: Significantly. The trio combined for 101 innings of 3.39 ERA ball and Familia became a crucial cog in the bullpen.

What got them to the playoffs?: Oakland had the best offence in the league by wRC+ (123) in the second half of the season led by the brilliance of Matt Chapman and Khris Davis, as well as the relentless competence of the rest of the position player group. Of the 11 position players who drew more than 100 plate appearances for the A’s in the back half of 2018 only one had a wRC+ below 100. That was catcher Jonathan Lucroy, who made significant defensive contributions.

The pitching also improved slightly going from 18th in first-half WAR to 13th in the second part, a change that the new additions helped bring about.

Any lessons for the 2021 Blue Jays?: If we presume the Blue Jays aren’t going to do a 2015-like trading frenzy again, this Athletics team lays out the most compelling path for the 2021 Blue Jays. These A’s had an elite position player group — albeit with more depth and less individual talent — and made a number of pitching additions to make their staff good enough to get over the hump.

That included adding a bullpen ace (a title that would’ve applied to Familia at the time), a useful relief arm (Kelley) and a back-end starter to raise their rotation’s floor (Fiers). Those three represent the sort of haul the Blue Jays might have in mind approaching this year’s deadline. However, unlike the Athletics, they won’t have the luxury of waiting until August for more certainty about their odds before they pull the trigger.

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