Blue Jays can learn something from the Nationals

HOUSTON, TEXAS - OCTOBER 22: Dave Martinez #4 of the Washington Nationals reacts against the Houston Astros during the seventh inning in Game One of the 2019 World Series at Minute Maid Park on October 22, 2019 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
HOUSTON, TEXAS - OCTOBER 22: Dave Martinez #4 of the Washington Nationals reacts against the Houston Astros during the seventh inning in Game One of the 2019 World Series at Minute Maid Park on October 22, 2019 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images) /
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The Toronto Blue Jays and Washington Nationals records both stood at 20-31 on May 24th. Their seasons diverged from there, but what can we learn from the 2019 World Series Champions?

Congratulations to the Nationals on their World Series Championship. After only qualifying for the wildcard with 93 regular season wins, they trailed in all five elimination games they faced in these playoffs and came back to win it all, winning the wildcard play-in against the Brewers, beating the 106 win Dodgers in the series deciding fifth game of the NLDS, sweeping the Cardinals in the NLCS, and then coming back against the 107 win Astros in a decisive game seven of the World Series, winning all four of their games in Houston. All with Los Viejos (“The Old Ones”), and the oldest average age roster in MLB at 31 years young.

Happily, there are some strong parallels for Jays fans to draw from this improbable Championship, suggesting our team might not actually be that far away from meaningful October baseball. We have a young core of twenty-something studs to build around in Vlad Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette and Lourdes Gurriel Jr., which could turn in to our version of Juan Soto, Víctor Robles, and Trea Turner. Both teams have Spanish-speaking managers with Puerto Rican connections in Dave Martinez and Charlie Montoyo. And both teams woke up this past May 25th with identical 20-31 records.

So besides the ongoing “rebuild” in Toronto, what explains the difference between how the Nationals went 73-38 from that point onwards, only the fifth time a team under .500 in their first fifty games has gone on to win the World Series, and how the Jays only won 47 more games from that point on?  Maybe that gap of 26 fewer wins could be closed surprisingly quickly if Jays ownership and management are willing to learn from the success of these Nationals?

Spend on Premium Pitching

The most obvious gap is payroll. The Nationals spent $200 million this year on their competitive balance payroll according to Spotrac; the Jays, by comparison, spent $126 million, but that included $45 million in retained salaries for Troy Tulowitzki, Russell Martin, and Kendrys Morales. There’s no getting around the fact that Blue Jays ownership and management has to spend more and be in the top half of Opening Day payrolls by at least 2021 when General Manager Ross Atkins has promised fans a “competitive” team. World Series teams spend. And in an earlier article I’d written comparing the gaps with both the Nats and Astros, more than 50% of that payroll needs to go to your starting rotation, set-up men and closer. It’s dominant pitching, premium pitching, and ace pitching.

Veteran Talent

The next gap is veteran talent. The average Jays player on the current 40-man roster was 26 years old at the start of the 2019 season. The average age of the Nationals on their World Series roster was 31, a five-year average age difference. That experience can be explained in part by Nats starters Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer and Patrick Corbin – aged 35, 31 and 30, respectively. These three combined to pitch 34 1/3 innings of the 63 innings in the World Series and win all four games. World Series MVP Strasburg went 5-0 in the playoffs with the third-lowest World Series ERA ever.

But it is also explained by the veteran talent who Nationals GM Mike Rizzo surrounded his young core of Soto, Robles, and Turner with Anthony Rendon, age 29; Adam Eaton, age 30; Asdrúbal Cabrera, age 33; Ryan Zimmerman, age 35; and, Howie Kendrick, age 36. These viejos combined for 22 of Washington’s 32 RBIs in the World Series. Could that experience help explain the five comebacks in elimination games this postseason?  As per Sam Fortier of the Washington Post, the answer is yes.

Then there was Howie Kendrick: a 10th-inning grand slam to beat the Dodgers, the NLCS MVP honours against the Cardinals, and his two run shot off the right field foul pole in the seventh inning that clinched game seven of the World Series, or as per The Baseball Gauge’s “Championship Win Probability Added”, one of the top ten most impactful hits of any World Series ever in terms of turning potential defeat in to victory.

These veterans provided calm leadership, and protection in the order for the Nats’ young studs; and, as all old-timer Jays fans know, having an all-world Dominican talent like the just turned 21-year-old Juan Soto and a great young defensive CF like Víctor Robles doesn’t hurt either. Let’s hope Vlad Jr. can become our Juan Soto.

Pitching Strategy

It seems like the current Jays pitchers have resorted to pounding the strike zone low with sinking and off-speed pitches. Given the hitters’ park that is the Rogers Centre, this is perhaps understandable with a young staff. But as the playoffs showed us, velocity and pitch mix matter. I hope Pete Walker, Charlie Montoyo, and the analytics guys upstairs will take the following from this post season: MLB’s Baseball Savant data on pitch arsenals shows that, of the 33 pitchers who threw a minimum of 3,000 pitches in the 2019 regular season, the average 4-seam fastball was clocked at 93.4mph.

The average sinking fastball was clocked at 93mph. There was a 7-8 mph difference with the average slider at 85.5mph and change-up at 86.1mph. But the starters with the greatest post season success in Strasburg (94/88), Scherzer (95/86), Gerrit Cole (97/89), Justin Verlander (95/87), Jack Flaherty (94/86), Walker Buehler (97/87) and Charlie Morton (95/86) all throw harder – both with their fastballs and off-speed stuff – than these averages. Perhaps Jays pitchers need to follow more of the Nats and Astros’ way highlighted in the tweet below, i.e. Gerrit Cole, and set up hitters with high heat, then wipe them out with the bender? Hopefully, Nate Pearson can do this, too.

The fact all of the pitchers named above also had amongst the fifteen lowest SIERAs amongst starters with a minimum of 150 regular season innings (as per FanGraphs) also wouldn’t hurt in a hitter-friendly park like the Rogers Centre.

Conclusions

The goal here is a World Series Championship. To win that, you just have to make the playoffs to have a shot. As the Astros, Dodgers, and Yankees proved, winning over 100 games isn’t the key to postseason success.

We all know the difference between the Jays losing 95 games and becoming a playoff calibre team again is dominant pitching, pitching, and more pitching. A much better CF who can play defense like George Springer or Víctor Robles, and a 1B like Ryan Zimmerman with good hands and reach to vacuum up throws from the young infielders wouldn’t hurt either.

With an active player payroll likely somewhere around $80 million, Jays ownership and the front office should have the budget to invest in pitching and get our payroll into the top half of Opening Day payrolls by the start of the 2021 season, when we’ve been promised a competitive team. Of that, more than 50% needs to be spent on pitching. But the message from the October 2019 teams is clear: we need top of the rotation aces like Scherzer, Strasburg, Cole, and Verlander.

None of the playoff teams this year were composed simply of rookies who’d been promoted from the minors, players acquired in minor trades and international signings, and a few reclamation projects for the pitching staff. We really only had one elite pitcher by year-end in closer Ken Giles, who in my opinion should be extended unless the return in a trade is overwhelming in terms of pitching upside.

Extending him and keeping him might also help to attract premium starters who know there is a lock down, premium closer in the bullpen. Further, we have potential openings for elite veteran leaders at 1B and in CF, as well as on the bench. It’s time to bring in some of our own viejos.

Again, whether this is via trades or free agency will have to be up to CEO Mark Shapiro and GM Ross Atkins. The Astros acquired Verlander, Cole and Zack Greinke via trades. The Nationals have been willing to spend big money in free agency, with Scherzer costing $210 million and Corbin $140 million. They gave Strasburg a seven-year, $175 million extension in May 2016 with opt-out clauses after both 2019 and 2020. According to the Washington Post, 3B Anthony Rendon rejected a new seven-year contract offer for between $210-2015 million at the end of the regular season.

Based on pitch arsenals and SIERA rankings, FA aces like Gerrit Cole, Stephen Strasburg (opt-out), Hyun-Jin Ryu and Zack Wheeler this year, and James Paxton and Trevor Bauer next year don’t become available often. And if Yankees Managing General Partner Hal Steinbrenner is to be believed, they may not be involved in the Cole FA sweepstakes which might give the Jays a better chance?

Would 26-year-old Reds stud Luis Castillo (15-8, 3.40 ERA, 3.95 SIERA in 190 2/3 innings, average fastball over 96mph with an 86mph slider and 87mph change-up) or 27-year-old Mets starter (and 2022 UFA) Noah Syndergaard (10-8, 4.28 ERA, 4.02 SIERA in 197 2/3 innings, average fastball over 97mph with and 89mph slider and 91mph change) be available in a trade for a package of prospects?

Could we take on some bad contracts from a team who are looking to reduce payroll, like J.A. Happ and Jacoby Ellsbury from the Yankees so long as they pay a portion of the contracts and throw in young starters like Jonathan Loáisiga and Deivi Garcia?

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As for the field, free agents 1B José Abreu, 1B Anthony Rizzo (if the Cubs don’t exercise their $16.5 million club option), 3B Anthony Rendon and CF Starling Marté ($11.5 million club option) are the type of veteran leaders this team could use. Could 2018 AL MVP and CF Mookie Betts, who will be a UFA after 2020, be available in a sign-and-trade with new Red Sox chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom and his GM Brian O’Halloran as they look to reduce payroll? They could also look to sign soon to be 28-year-old Japanese left-handed hitter Yoshitomo Tsutsugo for 1B/OF depth.

Would the Jays front office negotiate with Boras’ clients Cole, Strasburg and Ryu this offseason, or Paxton next year?  Regardless, these are the types of players the front office needs to aggressively look to sign.

Discussion in these pages has centered on Jake Odorizzi, Zack Wheeler, and Dallas Keuchel as the type of FA starters he Jays should target. Starters like Kyle Gibson, Tanner Roark, Wade Miley, Chris Archer ($9 million club option), and Brett Anderson have also been mentioned. And then there are the reclamation projects, including those who have had injury issues like Alex Wood, Michael Wacha, Homer Bailey, Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore, Iván Nova, and Félix Hernández.

Based on the pitch arsenal data from Baseball Savant and the advanced metrics like SIERA from FanGraphs which would point to a pitcher who can have success in a hitter-friendly park like Rogers, the Jays should be all in with their payroll flexibility this offseason on starters Gerrit Cole, Stephen Strasburg (if he opts out), Hyun-Jin Ryu and Zack Wheeler.

The next level down would include Jake Odorizzi, Kyle Gibson, Dallas Keuchel and Madison Bumgarner. They could target 26-year-old Dominican ace Luis Castillo from the Reds and 27-year-old Mets fireballer Noah Syndergaard in trades.

Next. Blue Jays begin roster tinkering. dark

Next year they should be in on James Paxton and Trevor Bauer in free agency. And they need to hope that two or three of Nate Pearson, Alek Manoah, Eric Pardinho, Simeon Woods Richardson, Adam Kloffenstein, Kendall Williams, Patrick Murphy, and Joey Murray can take that next step to become dominant major league starters.

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