Toronto Blue Jays fans just experienced the highs and lows of competitive late season baseball games. Despite a disappointing result, it reminded us all just how fun it is to be in the thick of a playoff chase. But after another 4th place finish in the tough AL East, its worth doing a postmortem of the 2021 season to evaluate what went right, and what prevented such a competitive team from playing deeper in to October’s postseason.
As we move on to the playoffs, World Series, free agency and winter meetings, there will be lots of time to warm the hot stove over the next few months. The Raptors and Leafs are also both back in town and always inspire hope. But back to our 91-71 (.562) Blue Jays for a moment; that’s a 24 win improvement over the 2019 team that lost 95 games, and a better winning percentage than the .533 posted in the COVID truncated 2020 season.
Postmortem of the 2021 Season: Hitting & starting pitching were legitimately both playoff calibre
Even after probable 2021 AL Cy Young winner in 30 year old Robbie Ray, who led the AL in ERA, games started, innings pitched, strikeouts, ERA+ and WHIP, the starters were also playoff worthy, especially after 23 year old rookie Alek Manoah (who’ll garner some RoY votes after a 2.8 bWAR and 3.22 ERA over 20 starts and 111.1 innings pitched with 127 strikeouts) was called up on May 27th, 31 year old Ross Stripling made a mechanical adjustment, and the excellent 27 year old Jose Berríos was added in a trade deadline deal.
From Stripling’s seven shutout innings on May 24th against Tampa in onwards, Jays starters led all of MLB with 50 wins (50-28, .641) and the third best ERA at 3.57 (which was tops in the AL). 30 year old free agent to be Steven Matz was also quietly outstanding, going 14-7 with a 3.82 ERA over 29 starts and 150.1 innings pitched.
Powered by the bats of 22 year old MVP candidate Vladimir Guerrero Jr., (bWAR 6.8) and likely Silver Sluggers Bo Bichette (23 years old, bWAR 6.0), soon to be 29 year old Teoscar Hernandez (bWAR 4.0) and 31 year old Marcus Semien (a free agent after the season, bWAR 7.1), the Blue Jays 2021 run differential of +183 was 61 more runs than the combined total run differential of the two teams ahead of them (New York + Boston = +122). The Jays scored 846 runs or 5.22/game, trailing only Tampa and Houston in all of MLB. That’s the sixth most runs in Blue Jays’ history, just behind the 847 runs scored by the 1993 World Series Champions. The batters’ fWAR of 30.5 trailed only Houston’s 33.9, and the team slash line of .266/.330/.466 is a vast improvement over the .236/.305/.428 in 2019 (726 runs or 4.48/game) and .255/.325/.441 in 2020 (5.03 runs/game).
The Jays allowed 663 runs (4.09/game) , 610 of which were earned. 53 unearned runs (0.33/game) on 90 errors was much better than 2020, when the defense committed 39 errors in only 60 games that led to 42 unearned runs (0.7/game). For reference, in 2019 the Blue Jays allowed 828 runs (5.11/game), 767 of which were earned (0.38 unearned runs/game).
The team defense still isn’t above average by any means, but ranked 22nd in MLB this year on outs above average (OAA) at -10, a huge improvement over the -18 in only 60 games in 2020 which ranked 29th in MLB.
In terms of defensive runs saved (DRS), the Blue Jays ranked 14th in MLB at +27, again a large improvement over their -37 in only 60 games in 2020 which ranked them 29th in MLB. Marcus Semien at a DRS of +12, Santiago Espinal at +8, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., at +8 (including from -4 in the OF last season to +7 this year), plus massive improvements by Vlad Guerrero Jr., (from -7 in 2020 to +2 this year) and Bo Bichette (from zero to +3) helped drive this positive trend.
The Achilles heel of this team was very clearly the bullpen, which lost 31 games and trailed only the 51-110 Orioles and their 34 bullpen losses, and Tampa who often employ an Opener instead of a traditional starter, which inflated their bullpen loss number to 32.
The MLB worst 14 bullpen losses on nine blown saves from May 10th to June 30th are what hurt their playoff chances the most in the end. Combined with a 12-15 record in one-run games and a 3-9 record in extra innings, the bullpen is what stood between the Jays offense and starting pitching, and their rightful place in the playoffs. Five more wins there, and we would all have been much happier.
For reference, the Seattle Mariners, a team with a negative run differential of -51, were able to play meaningful baseball right up until Sunday. Why? Because they went 33-19 (.635) in one-run games, tops among the MLB 30 teams. Their bullpen was outstanding.
The Jays went 42-34 (.553) against the AL East (Baltimore 14-5, NY 11-8, Boston 9-10, Rays 8-11), which is competitive; that’s also the first time since 1978 that four AL East teams won 90+ games, so it was clearly a tough division. The two losses against the Yankees at home in the last week were particularly painful.
Recall that after 128 games played on August 28th, they were 67-61 (.523), 6.5 games back in the Wild Card race.
They went a scorching 24-10 (.706) after that point, tops in the AL. Only the Dodgers and Cardinals had a better winning percentage in all of baseball over that stretch.
However, even after the sweep of the Orioles last weekend, it was still too little, too late by 1.0 game… which says a lot about the team prior to their return to Rogers Centre.
Maybe the 45 “home” games in Dunedin and Buffalo through late July were to blame? Or was it that leaky bullpen in May and June?
But, they were still historically bad…
As Yahoo! MLB writer Nick Ashbourne noted last month before the end of the regular season,
"Since the current playoff format was instituted in 2012, there have been 80 playoff teams (we’re going to skip the wonky 2020 expanded playoffs). On average, those clubs have managed a run differential of +119.9, [63 runs below where the 2021 Blue Jays finished]… Of the 80, just 18, or 22.5%, have topped the 2021 Blue Jays. In terms of World Series winners, the average run differential is +153.3 and only half of the group ranked above this Toronto team.When it comes to clubs that have missed the playoffs, teams that outscored their opponents like the Blue Jays are unheard of under the current format. Of the 160 non-playoff squads in the Wild-Card Game era, the highest run differential is the +120 posted by the 2012 Tampa Bay Rays. The team with the best RD to miss the postseason in each year has averaged a +84, less than half of what Toronto managed."
The average run differential of the ten teams to make to 2021 MLB playoffs was +145.5, or almost 40 runs less than Toronto. Only four of those ten teams had a better RD than the Jays, and three of them won their division. For reference, the last team to have a run differential as high as the Jays +183, and not make the playoffs prior to the current Wild Card format, was the 2002 Boston Red Sox at +194. And at +183, the Blue Jays should have had a 99-63 won-loss record based on their pythagorean winning percentage… they were clearly unlucky.
Looking to 2022
No doubt the future is bright with Vlad Jr., Bichette, Manoah, Alejandro Kirk, Nate Pearson, plus top 100 prospects Gabriel Moreno, Orelvis Martinez and Jordan Groshans, plus the key roster pieces still only in their late 20s and still under team control like Teoscar Hernandez, Jose Berríos, Gurriel Jr., Jordan Romano, Trevor Richards, Cavan Biggio and Espinal, plus established 30-something veterans like Hyun Jin Ryu, Adam Cimber, Tim Mayza, Stripling and CF George Springer.
Also depending on a new CBA, they’ll have a good $100~120 million+ in payroll room to extend Berríos, re-sign a few of Ray, Semien and Matz, and buyout the arbitration eligible years of the young core like Vlad Jr., Bichette and Teoscar this offseason.
Some more food for thought for 2022… in the just finished 2021 regular season, the two AL East peers just ahead of the Jays?
Yankees 92-70 (played 81 home games)
Red Sox 92-70 (played 81 home games)
Blue Jays 91-71 (played only 36 home games at Rogers Centre)*
* This edition of the Jays played “home” games in minor league ballparks in Dunedin and Buffalo until July 30th, where they had a combined .500 “home” record before the federal and provincial governments allowed them to return. After moving back to the Six, the Jays went 40-23 (.635) down the stretch.
Where this team came up short?
Now six full seasons in to their Blue Jays tenure, success for team president Mark Shapiro and General Manager Ross Atkins needs to be measured by playoff appearances.
They’ve added CF George Springer, LHP Hyun Jin Ryu, 2B/SS Marcus Semien and LHP Robbie Ray on free agent deals to complement Vlad Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, Teoscar Hernandez, Cavan Biggio and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. Ray and Semien arguably were two of the very best FA deals in all of MLB this season; and, Matz was a great trade.
Calling up rookie Alek Manoah on May 27th took serious guts; and, the Jose Berríos trade for top prospects Simeon Woods Richardson and Austin Martin wasn’t cheap, but worked out well (a Jay in the hand is better than two in the bush?). Giving Espinal a shot at being the everyday 3B also worked out really well.
This is professional sports; winning is all that matters, and success is measured in Championships. To get there you have to score more runs than your opponents, which this 2021 edition of the Jays clearly did with a +183 run differential. You also have to win close games and late games, which this team did not do well.
The difference there was the bullpen; that fail for the Jays is on Atkins and Shapiro. They knew by early May that the the bullpen would be without Kirby Yates, David Phelps, Julian Merryweather and Ryan Borucki, which effectively ruined their preseason bullpen plan.
However, unlike Rays GM Erik Neander, who pulled the key Willy Adames trade dealing from a position of strength for Drew Rasmussen and J.P. Feyereisen on May 21st, they waited until the Adam Cimber trade on June 29th to do something about it. Yes, they needed to overpay in May for relief pitching.
The only really effective in-season bullpen adds were Adam Cimber and Trevor Richards, which came too little, too late to help Closer Jordan Romano and effective set-up man Tim Mayza. Apart from a brief glimpse of David Phelps in April, and using Big Nate Pearson in relief at the very need of the season, the other bullpen solutions of Yates, Tyler Chatwood, Carl Edwards Jr., Travis Bergen, Jacob Barnes, Jeremy Beasley, and the July trade deadline deals for Brad Hand and Joakim Soria all ended up being ineffective moves.
By now, the front office should also know that Merryweather and Borucki can’t last a full season.
What to do?
Pitching wins baseball games. Especially in the the post season., That includes relief pitching. Atkins and Shapiro made some gutsy pitching calls this year, re-signing Robbie Ray on an $8 million “show me” contract, trading for Steven Matz, calling up Manoah, and swinging for the fences with Berríos.
So they should keep doing what they are doing, but invest more in the bullpen. Putting bald tires on this Ferrari of a team again by skimping on an effective bullpen cannot happen again. They’ve already got 5-7 potential bullpen arm solutions for 2022 now depending on what they do with Julian Merryweather, Nate Pearson and Thomas Hatch. Jordan Romano is now an established MLB closer.
Success should be measured by playoff appearances when you consider what Shapiro and Atkins have had to work with in their six off-seasons. In 20 seasons of front office leadership, Mark Shapiro-led teams have now finished in third place or worse in their division 15 times. They’ve only built four playoff teams in those 20 years (with the top ten players by WAR on the 2016 ALCS team acquired by Alex Anthopolous or Tony LaCava, plus there was an expanded eight team playoff format in 2020); and, they have zero World Series appearances.
Compare that to what David Stearns has done over the exact same time frame as GM/President in Milwaukee? He left Cleveland after the same 2015 season as Shapiro & Atkins did, and has now guided smaller market Milwaukee to four post-season appearances in his six seasons.
Or the Yankees re-tooling in 2016 when they traded Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman at the trade deadline. They’ve also now been to the playoffs five times since then.
It’s not like Shapiro and Atkins haven’t had MLB talent and assets to work with. They inherited a young core of Marcus Stroman, Roberto Osuna, Aaron Sanchez, Devon Travis, Liam Hendriks, Ryan Tepera and Kevin Pillar in Toronto. Josh Donaldson was the reigning AL MVP at the time at age 29 with three years left on his contract.
Alek Manoah, Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio are three good draft picks of the past six seasons playing in the bigs. Martin was used to acquire starter Jose Berríos. Jordan Groshans and Adam Kloffenstein could be good, but they’re still prospects. Gunnar Hoglund was a legit top-10 talent in the 2021 amateur draft if not for Tommy John surgery.
Alejandro Kirk was a good international signing, as potentially are top prospects Gabriel Moreno, Orelvis Martinez, Otto Lopez and Miguel Hiraldo.
Alberto Rodríguez, Kendall Williams, Griffin Conine, Josh Winckowski, SWR and Austin Martin are all currently top prospects in their respective organisations after being traded away in the past two seasons.
Note the Jays no longer have a top ten farm system after graduating Pearson, Kirk and Manoah, and trading away the players listed above. MLB pipeline ranked them 14th in their latest August 25th update.
But the major league pieces are definitely in place for this team to compete for Championships. Resigning Ray, Semien and Matz or finding replacements for their combined 15.8 in bWAR will say a lot about the outlook for the 2022 Jays. Continued improvement (both offensively and defensively) from Vlad Jr., Bichette, Gurriel Jr. Teoscar and Espinal will help, as will hopefully more games than the 78 that George Springer played in 2021. A full season of Alek Manoah and Jose Berríos can only be a good thing given their competitive nature and positive contributions in the clubhouse.
All in all, Jays fans were left wanting after the offensive juggernaut and outstanding starting pitching we witnessed in 2021. Here’s hoping the great relief pitching fail of 2021 turns in to better luck in 2022.