History suggests Blue Jays face long odds to overcome slow start
After remaking their roster via two of the winter's biggest blockbuster trades, some astute free agent signings and the rehiring of John Gibbons as manager, the Blue Jays appeared poised to challenge for a playoff spot in 2013. But after a four-game sweep by the Yankees this past week, those hopes are already on the ropes. Toronto is off to a 9-17 start with the second-lowest winning percentage (.346) and run differential (-35) in the American League. As tempting as it is to dismiss such a showing as a small-sample fluke, recent history suggests the Blue Jays' odds of making the playoffs are particularly long.
Since 1995, the first year that the postseason included wild card entrants, only six teams have gone 11-15 or worse through their first 26 games and still made the playoffs. That's six out of 146 (4.0 percent) who either won the division or a wild card spot. Here they are:
|Team||Year||W||L||WPCT||RD||Total W||Total L||Finish|
|A's||2001||8||18||.308||-27||102||60||AL Wild Card|
|Rockies||2007||10||16||.385||-24||90||73||NL Wild Card, Pennant|
|Astros||2005||11||15||.423||12||89||73||NL Wild Card, Pennant|
Only one of the six teams, the 2001 A's, had a worse record than the Blue Jays at this juncture, yet they still finished with more than 100 wins, offering a sliver of hope that Toronto might still be a juggernaut. The other five teams had better records than the Jays to this point, though they didn't streak home with quite as much success. Perhaps just as importantly, five of the six teams had better run differentials than the Blue Jays currently do, with the 2006 Twins the exception. Three of the six reached the postseason by securing wild card slots (something that's even easier now given the expanded format that added two playoff teams last year). Two of those teams, the 2005 Astros and 2007 Rockies, went on to win pennants, though they were both swept in the World Series.
Tossing out the 1995 results due to the strike-shortened season, the average wild-card era team off to exactly a 9-17 start through 26 games (a total of 20 teams) finished with a .417 winning percentage, a 68-win pace. The 78 wild-card era teams with 8-to-10 wins at this juncture finished with a .439 winning percentage, a 71-win pace. That's not far off from the dismal 73-89 mark put up by last year's Blue Jays.
Ol' Pythagoras, which based upon their runs scored and runs allowed projects Toronto to have the same record as it actually does, isn't much more optimistic. The cumulative final winning percentage of the 56 teams with projected winning percentages within 30 points of the Jays' current .348 mark is again just .439. The winning percentage of the 46 wild-card era teams with run differentials of −30 to −40 through 26 games was just .441. The only playoff-bound team in either of those sets was the 1996 Cardinals, who started 12-14 but were 31 runs in the red, yet still finished atop the NL Central at 88-74.
Any way you look at it, these particular birds already appear at least half-cooked because they've underachieved considerably on both sides of the ball. Toronto ranks 13th in the league in scoring (3.65 runs per game) and 14th in runs allowed (5.00 per game). The team is hitting a cumulative .229/.291/.399, ranking second in the league in homers (33) and fourth in isolated power (.169) but dead last in batting average on balls in play (.262), and in the bottom third of the league in both walk rate (7.5 percent) and strikeout rate (21.9 percent) — numbers that seem to suggest a team-wide all-or-nothing approach at the plate. Indeed, the four Blue Jays with more than two homers -- J.P Arencibia (8), Jose Bautista (7), Edwin Encarnacion (4) and Colby Rasmus (4) -- all have low batting averages and dismal on-base percentages thus far:
Those four hitters are the only Jays with an OPS above 722 save for Jose Reyes, whose blazing start (.395/.465/.526) was rendered moot by a severe ankle sprain just 10 games into the season; he's likely out until after the All-Star break. Only one Toronto player has a batting average above .250 (Rajai Davis, .267 in 62 PA), only one besides Reyes has an on-base percentage higher than .313 (Adam Lind, .404 in 57 PA), and aside from the players listed above, only Reyes and Davis (.400) have slugging percentages higher than .362.
Reyes isn't the only one who's missed significant time. Brett Lawrie missed the first 13 games of the season due to an oblique strain, and Bautista has missed a total of seven games due to ankle and back issues, all of which should serve to remind that the lofty preseason projections for the Blue Jays hinged on the availability of players with less than iron-man reputations. Bautista missed most of the second half of last season due to a wrist injury, Lawrie was limited to 125 games due to another oblique strain, and while Reyes played in 160 games for Miami, it marked the first time since 2008 he'd played more than 133; in the past four seasons he has averaged just 114 games per year.
Meanwhile, the Blue Jays' pitching has failed to live up to expectations. Despite the additions of R.A. Dickey, Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle, the rotation as a whole has compiled a 5.26 ERA while averaging just 5.5 innings per start. While the bullpen has been better (3.20 ERA, 8th in the league), it hasn't had all that many leads to protect; the Jays have led just seven games after five innings, and just 11 games after six innings.
Among the starters, Dickey has pitched to a 4.50 ERA while battling inflated walk and homer rates, while both Buehrle (6.86), Johnson (6.35) and Brandon Morrow (5.27) have had as much or more trouble keeping the ball in the park; all have home run rates of 1.3 per nine or higher. J.A. Happ is the only starter with an ERA under 4.00 or a FIP under 4.64, and only Morrow and Dickey have more than two quality starts to their name. Again with the injuries: Johnson just missed a turn due to triceps inflammation and has yet to begin throwing again, while Dickey has battled lingering back and neck issues that have altered his release point and his velocity while causing enough discomfort that he's scheduled for an MRI on Monday. So long as history offers the occasional examples of teams that overcame similarly sluggish starts, the Blue Jays can hold out hope that they're not doomed for their 20th consecutive season without a playoff berth. But even with the expanded wild-card format, they have just a 6.6 percent chance of reaching the postseason according to the Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds report, and a 3.9 percent chance of advancing beyond the one-game playoff. Despite their extensive remake, this could be another season for the birds.