The Jays need to improve their performance against weaker teams to succeed in 2018
This is the first in a series of articles about areas in which the Jays need to improve to contend in 2018. The focus is not on large targets – like staying healthy, or scoring more runs than the other guys – but rather on smaller areas where the Jays have underperformed in recent years and where improvement could translate into those critical few additional wins.
It is a truism in baseball that a win is a win. The better teams recognize this by winning more than their share of games against weaker teams. That way, even if they don’t dominate against the strongest teams (difficult!), they can still have an excellent record.
In this respect, the Jays have not been a “better team”.
Consider the 2015 year, and the following thought experiment. Suppose, for each team in the AL, you were to calculate their win percentage. For example, the Yankees were 87-75, for a .532 win percentage. Then suppose you applied that percentage to the number of games the Jays played against each team to get an expected win or loss, if the Jays themselves were an average team. The Jays played the Yankees 19 times in 2015, so if the Yanks won 53.2% of those games, the Jays would have gone 9-10. And then compare the Jays’ actual win-loss record against this expected figure. The Jays actually won 13 of the 19 games against the Yanks in 2015, so they were +4 games relative to the statistical “average opponent” expectation.
Toronto Blue Jays
This methodology is conservative, in that it assumes that the Jays were an average team. In 2015, they won 93 games and the AL East – just a wee bit better than average! But let me continue.
Now take the last step. Divide the other 14 AL teams into two groups: those with records over .500 (“strong”) and the rest (“weak”). In 2015, there were six strong teams and eight weak ones. What was the Jays overall aggregate record against each group?
Surprisingly (at least to me), the Jays did very well against stronger teams, finishing 10 games over expectation. But they were only one game over expectations against weaker teams.
In 2016, this trend was even more pronounced. The Jays were again 10 games over expectations against strong teams, but four games below expectation against weaker teams.
Even in 2017 (whimper) the trend was evident. Despite being a 78 win team, the Jays were roughly break-even against stronger teams but two games below expectations against weaker teams.
(Note that I am not including interleague games in this calculation, though I would suspect that the trend would be the same. In 2017, for example, the Jays went 1-3 against Atlanta but 2-2 against the Brewers).
So what does this all mean?
The Jays are projected to win 87 games in 2018. Eight of the fifteen AL teams are expected to finish with a record below .500. The Jays need to get their share of wins against these weaker teams. In 2016, with 89 wins, the Jays had the luxury of winning four games less than expectations against sub-.500 teams, and still making the Wild Card (though if they had won those games, they would have tied for the AL East crown). The Jays might not have that luxury in 2018.
What could be the cause?
It is possible that this is just statistical noise, and the trend will disappear on its own in 2018. But that is not the only possible explanation. Could it be that the Jays get so psyched up against teams like the “Evil Empire” and the BoSox that they find it difficult to find the same intensity against lesser teams? Could it be overconfidence, or perhaps (being Canada’s team, after all) they do not want to be bullies? Or could the Jays be setting their rotations and off-days to field better teams against better teams (this is not always the best strategy)? If any of these explanations are even partially true, it might behoove the Jays coaching staff and clubhouse leaders to address the issue.
The bottom line
Over the last three years, the Jays have averaged ~2 games below expectations against sub-.500 teams. If they can even bring that up to average (and remember, the methodology above is conservative) that could make a difference of two wins in 2018. Two wins could be exceptionally important in a year where the Jays are projected to win the second wild card by a single win.