The World Series match-up is set between the Houston Astros and the Washington Nationals. How do the young Blue Jays compare to the teams on the brink of a championship?
As we enter the ‘hot stove’ season, what are the key differences between the 67 win Jays and the 2019 World Series teams; the Astros, with 107 regular season wins and two World Series trips in the past three seasons, and the Nationals with 93 wins and five trips to the playoffs since 2012?
As Blue Jays President and CEO Mark Shapiro said in a recent “At the Letters” podcast with Arden Zwelling and Ben Nicholson-Smith, there are some clear takeaways about the Astros and Nationals:
"“Just get in [to the playoffs]… anything can happen. There is not a randomness to the teams that get in. If you get in over 162… you deserve to be there… If you’ve got two really good starters, which [the Nationals] have, which clearly the Astros have, too… once you get in, anything can happen.”"
He also said there needs to be a balance in the type of player on your roster, “You cant do it all young, all prime, all old. You need to have a balance.”
With the start of free agency, the GM meetings in November, the non-tender deadline, Winter Meetings, and Rule 5 Draft in December, how do the Jays become competitive enough to “just get in”? Where should Jays management invest its time, focus and resources in terms of greatest identifiable needs to become competitive enough again to make up the 23+ more wins needed for October baseball?
Discussions through these pages have rightly been focused mainly on team pitching (team ERA, FIP, xFIP, SIERA); this 2019 World Series includes six of the top twenty pitchers in terms of ERA. I also wanted to look at team OBP, and situational hitting stats like batting average and RBIs with RISP. You obviously can’t win games without scoring more runs than the other team.
Let’s get payroll out-of-the-way first. According to Spotrac (all figures rounded), the Astros competitive balance payroll is $198 million. Starters Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, Zack Greinke and Wade Miley, plus relievers Joe Smith, Hector Rondon and Roberto Osuna combined make $99.5 million or 50% of that amount. Star fielders Jose Altuve, George Springer, Michael Brantley, Josh Reddick, Yuli Gurriel, Robinson Chirinos and Carlos Correa make a combined $72 million or 36% of the total.
The Nationals competitive balance payroll is $200.5 million. Starters Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin and Anibal Sanchez, plus relievers Sean Doolittle, Fernando Rodney and Daniel Hudson combined make $112 million or 56% of the total. Star fielders Anthony Rendon, Ryan Zimmerman, Brian Dozier, Adam Eaton, and Yan Gomes make a combined $61 million, or 31% of the total.
So how do the Jays stack up here? By comparison, Toronto’s 2019 competitive balance payroll was $126 million, which included $46 million in retained salaries to three former Jays Tulo, Martin and Morales. Excluding them, the Jays spent around $80 million. Of that, starters Matt Shoemaker, Clay Buchholz, Ryan Borucki, Trent Thornton, Jacob Waguespack, T.J. Zeuch and Anthony Kay, plus relievers Ken Giles, Ryan Tepera, Tim Mayza, Sam Gaviglio, Elvis Luciano, Derek Law, and Thomas Pannone were paid a combined $20 million, or 25% of the active payroll. Adding back in Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, Clayton Richard, Joe Biagini and Daniel Hudson takes the amount on pitchers to $32 million, or 40% of that $80 million active player payroll. Fielders Justin Smoak, Randal Grichuk, Freddy Galvis, Devon Travis, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., and Brandon Drury cost $24 million or 30% of the total active player payroll. Pretty much everyone else was on a league minimum contract.
The conclusion here is that the Blue Jays front office will eventually have to invest more in elite pitching, taking the amount of payroll dedicated to 2-3 premium starters, set-up men and closers to 50% or more of the competitive balance payroll. Whether they acquire them via trade like Verlander, Cole, Greinke and Osuna on the Astros, or via free agency and the draft like Scherzer, Strasburg, Corbin and Sanchez on the Nationals, this will have to be a key focus.
After using 39 different pitchers in 2019, this clearly has to be an area of intense focus for management before the Jays are ready to be competitive again. But where are the most glaring differences with Jays pitching and the current World Series staffs?
Looking at 2019 regular season major league baseball averages, ERA was 4.51, FIP was 4.51, WHIP was 1.334 and SIERA was 4.41. The Jays pitching staff was below average on all metrics.
Not surprisingly, the Astros starters dominated in the regular season (all pitching stats from FanGraphs) with Gerrit Cole leading the league in both xFIP and SIERA at 2.75, with Justin Verlander ranked #2 for SIERA, and Zach Greinke #15:
Astros starters ERA 3.61, FIP 3.81, xFIP 3.64, SIERA 3.73 and fWAR for the full pitching staff 23.7
Washington starters were solid as well, with Max Scherzer (#3), Patrick Corbin (#6) and Stephen Strasburg (#7) also in MLB’s top ten lowest SIERA ranking:
Nats starters ERA 3.53, FIP 3.72, xFIP 3.94, SIERA 4.11 and fWAR for the full staff 22.3
The Jays starters meanwhile gave up too many runs:
Jays starters ERA 5.21, FIP 5.12, xFIP 5.01, SIERA 5.08, and fWAR for the full staff 9.1
This means the Jays starters are giving up anywhere from 1.7 to 1.8 more earned runs per nine innings than their 2019 World Series peers, of which 1.0 ~ 1.35 runs are on the pitchers independent of their team defence using skill-interactive ERA, or SIERA, which also eliminates factors beyond the pitcher’s control, but adjusts for the type of ball in play and values strikeouts, grounders and pop ups (while limiting walks) more than line drives.
Jays pitchers overall also added 13-15 less wins above replacement pitchers than the comparable pitching staffs in Houston and Washington. That explains about half of the difference between 67 wins and the 90+ wins on average (and 96-97 wins in the American League in 2019) needed to qualify for the wildcard game since the play-in game was introduced in the 2012 postseason.
Looking at the Astros and Nationals also shows where the Jays clearly need to improve offensively, with team BA, OBP, total bases, and situational hitting stats like runs and RBI with runners in scoring position all metrics showing large gaps. You obviously can’t win games without scoring more runs than the other team. Stats sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference and MLB.com.
Astros Nationals Blue Jays League Average
BA .274 .265 .236 .252
OBP .352 .342 .305 .323
SLG .495 .454 .428 .435
OPS .848 .796 .733 .758
OPS+ 119 100 94 97
TB 2,781 2,505 2,352 2,416
Runs 920 873 726 782
RBI 891 824 697 749
R w/RISP 113 110 80
RBI w/RISP 111 114 77
fWAR 40.8 26.0 11.5
While fundamental to win, Jays hitters clearly need to get on base 4-5 times more per every 100 at-bats, score 150-200 more runs, and drive in 34-37 more runs with runners in scoring position to entertain dreams of October baseball. Jays hitters overall added 15-30 less wins above replacement players than the comparable hitters in Houston and Washington. That explains the other half of the difference between 67 wins and the 96-97 wins needed to make the 2019 wildcard and “just get in” to the playoffs.
Roadmap for the Off-season
I’m concerned that perhaps the front office is looking more at analytics like barrel rate, launch angle, and exit velocity, not to mention xFIP for pitchers, and they’re missing the forest for the trees?
My hope is that a comparison of some of the most glaring differences in team statistics might create a conversation around a road map towards building a more competitive team that doesn’t just rely on promoting rookies, making minor trades at the margin, and signing reclamation projects. As Mark Shapiro points out in the linked ATL interview, “you need to have a balance” including young, prime and older players.
With one of the largest markets in MLB, Toronto fans should be demanding a consistently competitive, winning team on the field. Jays fans only have two World Series Championships, and none since 1993. That’s 26 years of futility. So I believe it’s fair to demand more from ownership and the front office, to demand a winner like they do in comparable large market cities like NY, Boston, LA and Chicago. It would also be great to see more of our players behave like Aaron Judge of the Yankees, calling anything but a World Series Championship “a failure.”
But first, let’s hope the front office can do enough in the next few seasons to “find a way to get in”, where “anything can happen.”