After winning back to back titles, the Blue Jays had a disastrous 1994 campaign even before the strike that wiped out the season. What happened?
When I think back to my youth, it makes perfect sense that I’m a diehard baseball fan. I was eight years old when the Blue Jays won their first World Series championship in 1992, and with Joe Carter as my favourite player, the repeat title in 1993, complete with a walk-off home run, was enough to cement my obsession.
So imagine my disappointment as a 10-year-old, ready to see my team go for a three-peat, only to have the season end early because of a strike. I told my friends that meant that the Blue Jays were still the reigning champs (which was technically true I suppose), but I knew it was a matter of time before that would change. The reality was, the strike wasn’t what prevented the ’94 Blue Jays from a third straight championship. Unfortunately, it appeared that their time had passed.
It eventually happens to every championship team, and the Blue Jays were no exception. Despite the fact that they returned largely the same roster, they really struggled to perform at the same level that they had for the previous two seasons.
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What was different about the roster?
There were a few key roster changes in 1994, and they certainly had some effect on the performance on the field. Tony Fernandez was replaced at shortstop by Dick Schofield, who was adequate at best, finishing with a 0.0 bWAR rating over 95 games. It wasn’t an awful performance, but compared to the 3.1 bWAR that Fernandez earned over roughly the same timeframe with the Jays the year before, and there was a palpable difference.
The Blue Jays saw Rickey Henderson return to the Oakland A’s in 1994, and they started Carlos Delgado in left field to open the season as his replacement. The eventual Blue Jay legend really struggled in his first real opportunity, and was returned to the minor leagues, where he eventually settled in as a first baseman. When that didn’t work out, Mike Huff ended up starting the majority of the time in left field, and he was actually pretty good as he slashed .304/.392/.449 across 80 games.
As for the pitching staff, Jack Morris was released after the 1993 season, although you couldn’t blame them after he posted a 6.19 ERA in 1993. The biggest difference was the loss of Duane Ward, who missed the entire season with bicep tendinitis, and his arm troubles ended his career early after a brief comeback attempt in 1995. The bullpen able to withstand the loss of Tom Henke after the 1992 season, but without Ward they really struggled.
What else went wrong?
Unfortunately, quite a bit. The Blue Jays were 55-60 when the season was shut down, and while they were on a hot streak at the time, it’s doubtful they would have been able to catch the Yankees for first place in the AL East. The Yankees were on the verge of the start of their 90’s dynasty, and were in first place at 70-43 when the season was cancelled. The Blue Jays also trailed the Orioles at the time, who were 63-49. This was prior to the Wild Card playoff positions as well, so the chances of catching up were incredibly slim.
While there were a lot of reasons for the regression, I would argue that the pitching staff was the biggest culprit. Juan Guzman went from 14-3 with a 3.99 ERA in 1993, to 12-11 with a 5.68 ERA and a 1.636 WHIP. Dave Stewart was even worse, posting a 7-8 record with a 5.87 ERA across 22 starts. Al Leiter‘s transition to the rotation wasn’t very smooth either, as he posted a 5.08 ERA over 20 starts. And of course, without Ward at the back of the bullpen, the group really struggled to close out tight games.
The once-mighty offence also returned to earth in 1994, with a few exceptions. Roberto Alomar and Paul Molitor kept up their usual production, but John Olerud‘s .293 batting average looked pretty pedestrian compared to his league-leading .363 mark from the year before, and Devon White‘s on-base percentage fell to .313. None of the offensive stars completely “fell off a cliff” with their production, but the minor regressions across most of the board started to add up. When you added the loss of a guy like Fernandez, it made a difference.
To their credit, the Blue Jays had gone on a 22-14 run prior to the strike cancelling the season, so it’s possible they could have made up some ground and made things interesting. They were 6.5 games back of the Orioles at the time, but trailing the Yankees by 16 was likely insurmountable, especially with just 47 games to go. However, 1995 proved that our eyes weren’t deceiving us the year before, and that the Blue Jays’ run at the top was over. As they say, all good things must come to an end.