Nobody is going to tell you that the Jays are playing well, or that the mounting losses of a poor April aren’t troubling, or that they haven’t made an already-difficult task all the more difficult. A dispiriting sweep at the hands of the Yankees, coming off a series in Baltimore in which they avoided a sweep by the skin of their teeth is not good. The club, I’d argue, started playing better against the Yankees this weekend, and still it wasn’t good enough to beat the Overbay- and Wells-powered juggernauts– indicative of just how poor their play had been for the bulk of the month– and pointing out that it’s still early, even though it undeniably is, has begun to ring hollow in the minds of fans keen enough to have conceded that point weeks ago, when .500 wasn’t quite so far off in the distance.
Concern is very legitimate– not concern that this team might be awful, mind you, or shit-dumb insane concern that they may have hired a manager who simply doesn’t know how to sufficiently inspire, but concern that the Jays are in the process of digging themselves a hole that may wind up too deep to climb out of; that in mid-September we’ll be wishing they could have a few of these insufferably pissed-away games back.
That seems entirely reasonable. But now that we’re actually, healthily concerned, we have an additional problem: keeping that concern in line with reality, and not letting it warp our perceptions. So far it has proven a difficult task.
Leading the perception-warping charge this weekend was a piece from Ben Nicholson-Smith over at Sportsnet.
Now, I think Ben does terrific work– I’ve linked him tonnes on this site, we’ve had him on podcasts and Google Hangouts, and I thought it was great to see him make the move from MLB Trade Rumors to the Rogers empire– but given the number of people on Twitter insufferably citing his piece to me every time I try to suggest that panicky lunacy remains a not great idea, I think it needs to be addressed.
In the piece he makes two major claims about the relationship, over the last ten years, between a team’s record in April and it’s likelihood of making the playoffs.
- While some teams did make the postseason after sub-.500 Aprils, they account for just 22 per cent of all playoff teams.
- No team in the last decade made the postseason after losing more than 15 games in April.
Those statements would seem to portend doom– or something close to it– for the 2013 Blue Jays, if there weren’t a number of things about them that are majorly problematic.
For starters, we have the arbitrary end points. Ten years is a nice, round number, as is the use of one month as the period being examined, but that doesn’t mean that they give us a sufficiently representative sample of data. If the “Sportsnet study” had gone back to eleven years, to 2002, there would have been three more playoff teams who had finished April with sub-.500 records, plus two more each in 2001 and 2000, which pushes the percentage up to 24.5.
That number is misleading, though, too, because the number of playoff berths changed in the final year of the ten year sample. Ten teams now make the playoffs, and if you look back through the standings over the period used in the study, and find the April records of clubs that would have made the playoffs under the current format, you find ten more that were under .500 in the season’s first month, pushing the percentage of such clubs making the playoffs to up over 28.
You notice something else interesting when you take a look at how those would-be Wild Card teams did:
2003: Houston (11-15)
2004: San Francisco (10-14), Oakland (11-12)
2005: Philadelphia (10-14), Cleveland (9-14)
2006: Philadelphia (10-14)
2009: Texas (10-11)
2010: Boston (11-12)
2011: Atlanta (13-15), Boston (11-15)
The Jays will finish April on Tuesday, playing in their 27th game of the month. Of the teams listed above, only the 2011 Braves played as many games in April as the Jays did. This year’s MLB schedule began in earnest (i.e. excluding the single game played the night before most teams’ opener) on April 1st. In the preceding ten seasons play began on: April 5th, March 31st, April 5th, April 6th, March 31st, April 2nd, April 3rd, April 4th, April 5th, and March 31st.
Most years, then, based on the schedule alone, even a team playing as poorly as the Jays would have had difficulty reaching the supposedly-dooming 15 loss threshold. That’s without factoring in rain outs, which the Jays have been “lucky” to avoid on the road so far this year, and will never run into at home. In fact, a quick Play Index search at Baseball-Reference shows that just under 60% of teams over the ten years studied played 24 games or fewer.
None of this is to suggest that everything is peachy, of course, but to point out that endpoint being used here doesn’t mean the same thing from one season to the next. So, using it in a way to convey certain doom– which Ben isn’t doing, but some of the folks who’ve read the piece seem to be– is misleading.
And doubly, perhaps triply, so when combined with the lack of accounting for the changed playoff format or the arbitrary endpoint in that round ol’ number ten. In fact, had Sportsnet’s piece gone back to 2001, they’d have encountered that year’s Oakland A’s, who ended April at 8-17, lost the next day– to the Jays, no less– to drop to 8-18, and then went on to win 102 games!
Pulling off a trick like that obviously won’t be easy for these Jays, and sure as fuck won’t happen if they don’t get their shit together soon, but the situation isn’t nearly as dire, in terms of historical precedent, as the piece– and especially the people rushing to hold it up– suggests. Nor is April believable as some kind of ultra-significant bellweather month.
In May of last year, playoff-bound teams in Oakland (11-16), Detroit (13-16), St. Louis (13-16), and Atlanta (14-15) had losing months. Granted, none were as far below .500 for the month as the Jays are now, but we can still see from them how silly the idea that being below .500 in one particular month has any more predictive value than being as bad in another. I mean, if a team lost every single game in April, then won every single game in May, are we really to believe that they’re somehow less likely to make the playoffs than if they had done the reverse?
Looked at another way, Oakland, for example, was 11-13 in April, in addition to being 11-16 in May. The Jays would, therefore, have to go just two games over .500 in May to get to the point where the A’s were at the end of the season’s second month last year, as they began their charge to 94 wins. The Tigers were 11-11 in April, meaning that the Jays would have to play five games over .500 in May to get to where the playoff-bound Tigers were last season.
You see how this works?
After a loss to the Cubs on July 4th, the Braves– on their way to 94 wins– sat at 41-38. To get to that point themselves, the Jays would have to go 32-21, or just a shade over .600– i.e. two months of picking up three wins for every two losses.
No, it’s still not goddamn peachy. No, that doesn’t ensure that any of teams around them won’t push themselves too far ahead for whatever the Jays do to matter– though, it should be noted, when the A’s were six games under .500 at the end of last May, the Rangers were eleven games over. And no, they don’t have a lot of margin for error left. But contrary to the belief of many, there really isn’t reason to think that things aren’t bound to change.
Dave Cameron looked into the club’s offensive woes in a piece at ESPN.com (Insider only) back on Friday, pointing mostly in the direction, for lack of a better term, of shit luck. Surely some insufferable fuckface is right now scoffing at the “excuse,” but there really is something to it. High strikeouts alone, for example, aren’t the indicator of offensive ineptitude that people want to believe they are, as Cameron demonstrates. The Jays have struck out fewer times than the Braves, and through their first 25 games had walked only seven times fewer as well, while putting up an ISO 13 just points below Atlanta’s league-leading rate– good for fifth in the Majors. The Jays, as a team, however, have a wRC+ of just 90 while the Braves’ are at 109.
There does appear to be a correlation between walks and wRC+, as only one of the eleven Major League teams above 100 wRC+ has a walk rate among the bottom 16 in BB%, but the Jays really aren’t as bad in that regard as fans might think– they sit tied with Seattle for the 19th-best walk rate in the league, with Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion still each 2.5-3.5% below their rates of last year.
Cameron bypasses walks, in fact, and looks more closely at situational hitting, as he points us to a piece he wrote at FanGraphs last week, which found the Jays to be among the league’s worst clubs– along with the similarly disappointing Angels and Dodgers– at turning baserunners into runs. Indeed, the Jays’ already-weak .696 team OPS drops nearly 80 points, to .619, with runners in scoring position. That, obviously, will change.
Still, Cameron figures that the team’s struggles to get runners in is a thing that “many could attribute to its ‘hacktastic’ ways. However, the larger picture doesn’t support the notion that it’s the strikeouts causing the team to strand all of those runners. Again, using the top 10 teams in strikeout percentage, we find that the high-strikeout offenses are producing almost exactly as many runs as expected based on their raw batting lines. While the Blue Jays have dramatically underachieved.”
He turns then to BABIP.
“The simple answer — and I know it won’t be a very popular one for those looking to point the finger at someone or something — is that balls just aren’t falling their way. The Blue Jays’ team batting average on balls in play of .253 ranks last in the majors, 41 points below the league average for position players.”
He notes that certain Jays players, Jose Bautista in particular, generally produce low BABIPs, due to extreme fly ball rates, making the league average a poor baseline for them. But he also cites a few players– Emilio Bonifacio, Maicer Izturis, and Brett Lawrie– who still are well below expected rates. He could have gone farther: Melky Cabrera’s current .287 rate is well below the .332 and .379 BABIPs of his previous two years; Edwin Encarnacion is at .203 compared to a career rate of .278; even Bautista himself is at just .133, compared to .267 for his career.
Does that suggest that all of the struggles have been a matter of luck? Hardly. But Cameron offers a much better explanation than the fans who insist that there’s something fundamentally wrong with the Jays hitters’ approach at the plate, their effort level, or the manager’s ability to pull the correct levers. Yes, the defence has been sloppy, the pitching has been sub-par– two things that are magnified immensely, however, given the dearth of key hits– and it’s certainly possible that some of the club’s hitters simply aren’t as good now as their track records suggest. But they almost certainly will, with continued health, get better at the plate, and that’s going to make a huge difference.
And there’s still plenty of time left, difficult as it will be, to possibly, theoretically, dig themselves out of the hole that they’ve created.
No, it’s not a good situation. And all of how the season turns out will likely come down to whether they can begin to make their expected progression to the mean in terms of BABIP when it’s needed the very most– a notion that can’t possibly sit well with Jays fans who’ve seen the club consistently come up short in the clutch. But that doesn’t mean they’re incapable. Better still, it means that all the components are already in place for this team to start playing much, much better than it has. It may not feel right now like that’s the truth, but it is. And so there is no need to entertain the idea of some shake up for the sake of it, or insanity from the clueless about trading all the players or firing the manager.
The season may not turn into the thing that so many feel was promised back in November and December, but it’s still much to early to reach that conclusion, no matter how much the hopelessly negative want to cling to misleadingly constructed precedents or insist on doling out blame for the dice rolls of the universe. Shit happens, and it sure is happening right now, eh?