Not so fast, Toronto

“Felger and Mazz” is by far the best show on either of Boston’s two 24-hour sports radio networks. Michael Felger offers a personality unique to Boston: rational, reasonable, and not fueled by blinding fandom. And Tony Massarotti, caricatured perfectly by the “Squeaky Mazz,” represents flawlessly the sentiments of fans. He understands which way the popular opinion leans, because he is a true fan. He is the closest of any current Boston sports media members to stand a chance of breaking into my Pantheon of Boston Sports Media, currently occupied by Bob Ryan, Jerry Remy, Peter Gammons, Bill Simmons and Jack Edwards.

On a recent show, the opening segment was dedicated to predictions about how the AL East will look at the end of the season, and the forecasts were astounding. While Felger picked the Blue Jays to win the division outright, Mazz said “Toronto has the best team on paper.” And they aren’t alone.

Sports Illustrated predicts Toronto to play in the ALCS, and ZiPS WAR projects the Blue Jays to be a 90-to-95 win team. Vegas has them at 8-1 odds to win the American League pennant, which is longer odds than only Los Angeles and Detroit, and by far the best odds of any American League East team. It looks like Toronto finally will have a contender again.

But here’s the problem. Let’s rewind six months. The date is Oct. 3, 2012, and the Blue Jays have just beaten the Minnesota Twins in the last game of the season. Today’s win was number 73. The Yankees have a league-best 95 wins, and the Wild Card-winning Baltimore Orioles have finished right on their heels with 93 wins, the biggest surprise of the season. Both teams are poised to make a serious run for the pennant.

Impressively, the Rays’ win total has reached 90, rounding out by far the strongest top three in any division, and marking the second year in a row that the third-place team in the AL East won 90 games. It is clear that competing for even a Wild Card spot in this division is a tall task.

And even the 69-93 record of the Red Sox is deceiving. Despite injuries to three starting pitchers, their closer, left fielder, center fielder, second baseman, a backup outfielder, and two setup men, they were above .500 at the trading deadline. Only after they traded away their cleanup hitter, yet another starting pitcher, and a serviceable utility infielder did the losses begin to pile up.

The team that started the season was not the same team that won 69 games. The September roster was a veritable Triple-A team. (Trust me, I watched every miserable game, even though I hated myself for it.) Had the Sox not self-combusted in August, the Blue Jays would have been looking at a last-place finish.

Now back to present day. Have the Blue Jays added enough talent to overcome the dire state that was last season?

This is what the Jays’ 2012 depth chart looked like.

Catcher: J.P. Arencibia
First base: Edwin Encarnacion
Second base: Kelly Johnson
Third base: Brett Lawrie
Shortstop: Yunel Escobar
Right field: Jose Bautista
Center field: Colby Rasmus
Left field: Rajai Davis
Designated hitter: Adam Lind

Starting rotation (In order of games started)
Ricky Romero
Henderson Alvarez
Brandon Morrow
Carlos Villanueva
Aaron Laffey

Bullpen (In order of innings pitched)
Casey Janssen
Darren Oliver
Aaron Loup
Steve Delabar
Brandon Lyon
Luis Perez
Jason Frasor

And here is the projected 2013 depth chart.

Catcher: J.C. Arencibia
First base: Edwin Encarnacion
Second base: Emilio Bonifacio
Third base: Brett Lawrie
Shortstop: Jose Reyes
Right field: Jose Bautista
Center field: Colby Rasmus
Left field: Melky Cabrera
Designated hitter: Adam Lind

Starting rotation
R.A. Dickey
Brandon Morrow
Mark Buehrle
Josh Johnson
J.A. Happ

Casey Janssen
Sergio Santos
Darren Oliver
Steve Delabar
Esmil Rogers
Aaron Loup
Brett Cecil

In 2012, Bill James’ Pythagorean formula said that the Blue Jays should have won 73 games, based on their 716 runs scored and 784 runs allowed. They won exactly 73 games. So, let’s look at how the team’s number of runs scored and runs allowed will change based on their its additions and predict the Blue Jays’ 2013 win total using James’ formula and each player’s runs above replacement (RAR).

The changes in the lineup are at second base, shortstop and left field. Bonifacio, who was a 4.1 RAR player in his 64 games in 2012, replaced Kelly Johnson, 4.8 RAR in 2012. Multiplied by 2.5 to simulate a full season, Bonifacio’s RAR is 10.3. That’s an improvement of 5.5 runs. Next, Reyes replaced Escobar at shortstop. Escobar’s RAR in 2012 was 14.9, and Reyes’ RAR was 39.7. That’s an improvement of 24.8 runs.

Lastly, Cabrera replaced Davis in left field. Davis’ RAR in 2012 was 3.7. Cabrera’s RAR is a little more difficult to predict. Although it has been very high for the past two years, this potentially could be explained by his testing positive for performance enhancing drugs in 2012. Additionally, his stellar season last year was bolstered by an incredibly high .379 batting average on balls in play (BABIP), which is so much higher than it has ever been in his career that it is simply not sustainable.

Cabrera is the poster boy for a regression season in 2013. Let’s say, generously, that he will post a RAR of 22.7, for an increase of 19 runs. This results in an overall increase of 49.3 runs. Added to the team’s 2012 total, the sum comes to 765.3 runs scored.

The pitching rotation is where the Blue Jays added the most talent during the offseason. Romero, Alvarez, Villanueva and Laffey all have been replaced, which is good news for Jays fans. It’s impossible to exaggerate their terrible performance last year. The total Runs Above Replacement of all four is an abysmal 6.7 runs, due partly to Laffey’s -3.2 mark.

The most significant addition to the pitching staff is reigning NL Cy Young winner Dickey. He has been, on average, a 13.5 RAR player since becoming a primarily knuckleball pitcher. He posted an incredible 41 RAR in 2012, but considering his move from the NL East to the more competitive AL East, and the fact that he has never before accomplished a mark like that, he is a classic regression candidate. Thus, a generous RAR prediction is 25.

The other three additions to the pitching staff, Buehrle, Josh Johnson, and Happ, posted 2012 RARs of 17.8, 31.6 and 15.7, respectively, combining for a total increase in pitching RAR of 83.4. Considering that there are no major changes in the bullpen, a reasonable predicted number of runs allowed in 2013 is 701.6.

Using James’ Pythagorean expectation formula, a team that scores 765 runs and allows 702 runs should win 87 games. In a division in which three teams are coming off of 90-plus win seasons, and in which the last-place team (the Red Sox) has made considerable improvements over the offseason, are 87 games enough to even make it to the playoffs? The answer is probably not.

So while the Blue Jays certainly have improved their roster dramatically over last season, don’t expect too much right away. The team is still about five wins away from being a serious contender.

But it’s not all bad news. The Toronto front office, led by GM Alex Anthopoulos, has shown a willingness to spend money in an effort to put a competitive team on the field. And, for the first time in a long time, there will be meaningful games played in Toronto.

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  1. Nick said...

    Umm, you kind of forgot to factor all the jays injuries last year (while mentioning red sox and yankees) In one week they lost 3 Sps to significant injuries (2 tommy john, 1 oblique), they lost bautista, arencibia, lawrie to month long injuries. And, at the time, their 2 best RP sergio santos and luis perez were both lost for the year

  2. Carl said...

    Couple of counterpoints:

    1) Health.  Last year the Jays lost Bautista for a significant period of time, which cost him (and the Jays) about 4 wins.  BR has him falling from 8.1 WAR in 2011 to 3.4 WAR last year.
    2) In contention, the GM is far more likely to be a buyer at the trade deadline, adding another win or 2 for the season.
    3) If the Jays are to win another 18 – 20 games than last year, that means other teams must lose anotheer 18-20 games, including the Yankees and Orioles. 

    My conclusion: 91 wins will likely get them at least the second wild card.

  3. Robert Haymond said...

    In addition to the previous comments, I would expect that last year’s regulars not to improve, especially Brett Lawrie.  As to “only” 87 wins, at even odds I’d gamble on more.

  4. Bill said...

    The most important thing…5 teams that can legitimately win the AL East, been a long time since that happened. Going to be very, very exciting.

  5. Andy said...

    Terrific use of sabermetric analysis, Alex.  RAR and Bill’s Pythag formula have proven to be reliable in the past, so good choices.  Can’t wait to read your next piece!

  6. Ian R. said...

    Good analysis of the Blue Jays, but you can’t determine whether they’re contenders in the AL East without looking at the state of the other teams as well.

    Last year’s 95-win Yankees lost a couple of key players (namely Nick Swisher and Russell Martin) to free agency and have several significant injuries already. Given how old their roster is, it’s reasonable to expect them to drop off quite substantially. As for the Orioles, they were crazy overachievers last year, winning 93 games despite only outscoring their opponents by 7 runs. You pointed out that guys like Dickey and Cabrera are due for some regression. I’d point out that the entire Baltimore roster, pretty much, is due for regression.

    The other issue is that there’s always variance associated with projections. You’ve projected the Blue Jays to win 87 games this year, which seems entirely reasonable. That means they could very easily win 90 or even 95 with a little good luck. In a division with no clear front-runner, that’s likely enough to win the title.

    It’s fair to point out that the Jays aren’t the postseason lock some prognosticators think they are, but I would classify them as serious contenders.

  7. Bitter Jays Fan said...

    Morrow and Johnson will both be on the DL by June. Dating back to the WBC, the nearly 40-year old Dickey looks like he might have been a one-year-wonder after all. Lawrie’s durability, not to mention his power, are still big question marks. Hardly a lock to make the playoffs.

  8. yeeeee said...

    What about the fact that the majority of the teams games against NY are early this year and will happen while most of the yankees are injured.
    That should make a difference.  I would choose to face the yankees as they are today than how they will be in two months any day of the season!

  9. Dylan B said...

    I can see not including the upgrade Izturis is over Vizquel and Hechevaria as well as not expecting Arencibia to increase his games played missing a month(he did play 102 last year, but I’d expect to him to be around 120 this season baring injuries); but to not include Bautista’s injury seems like a pretty big miss. Just expecting him to play in 140 games and the same RAR rate as last year, would see an increase of 17.7 runs. Factoring in those abats would be replacing Seirra and Thames(who were a combined -14 last season), you can see an even larger inprovment. Adding everything I just stated would lead to an increase of 33.8 runs over last year, and in turn give the Jays 91.4 expected wins; pretty simmilar to what everyone predicted this year.

  10. Karl said...

    Nice write-up, but no consideration at all for injuries. The Jays lost 3 starters in a week, not to mention injuries across the board to key players including Bautista.

    The initial opening rotation was:
    1. Romero
    2. Morrow
    3. Alvarez
    4. Drabek
    5. Hutchinson

    Long – Villaneuva
    AAA – Laffey

    If you factor in the losses from Drabek -> Villanueva and Hutchinson -> Laffey, you’ll find those 5 missing wins you’re looking for.

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