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The Optimist’s Guide to the 2018 Blue Jays

Let’s face it, the commentary on the near-future of the Toronto Blue Jays among the media types is depressingly bleak. I mean, few come right out and say that winter is coming, but they expend quite a few words explaining too us how the Jays are not really a very good team and have a huge challenge to become one ‘in Donaldson’s last year’.

In my experience talking and writing about this team over the last decade or so, I’ve certainly come to understand that there’s a not insignificant streak of nihilism in the Jays fan base, which, while repressed by the glory of 2015 and the playoff appearance the following year, still exists. It’s waiting, almost anxious to say “This team sucks! Fire Gibbons (into the sun)!” and so forth.  This was, admittedly, not entirely unjustified in previous seasons. I’ll admit the epic disappointment of 2013 almost killed my interest in the entire sport. I am, by design, an eternal optimist as a sports fan. I could never have been a lifelong fan of a team that’s thought of as ‘lovable losers’. I need to believe in my team; believe that yes by golly these boys ARE good enough to make the playoffs. Some years I might be jonseing for more luck to get there than others, but I need optimism in my fandom. I can’t relate to the mentality that says, “I’m a diehard Jays fans, but they always find a way to screw it up.”

But that sort of waiting for the certain oncoming doom attitude IS out there in the fan base, virtually every year. Almost every year I find myself making the case that there is, in fact, cause for optimism. It’s, ya know, my thing. So I find that there is, again, a call for my services as this off-season begins. In this post I will argue (convincingly?) that the Blue Jays are  in a considerably better position from which to build than last year’s performance or record might lead one to believe.

With that disclaimer, here’s the methodology. All the three major  WAR/WARP projection systems postulate that a replacement level team would win about 52 games.  Each of them — while having different results for different players — support the idea that the 76 win Blue Jays were pretty much what you’d expect if you simply added up their wins above replacement. Now, knowing this, we know that those results are (a) 10 wins away from sole possession of the second wild card last season; (b) 13 wins away from matching their 2016 total; and (c) 18 wins away from winning the division outright in 2017. The narrative is that that chasm to overcome ranges from very big to crazy talk. But is it? Using WARP as my calculator, for obvious reasons, I intend to demonstrate that with the absence of horrid luck, it’s not.

Aaron Sanchez

This is maybe the most glaring and easy to analyze potential swing. As a  reliever (11 starts, 30 relief appearances) in 2015 he accumulated 1.1 WARP. Pretty standard stuff for bullpen work (for comparison, Osuna had 1.6 that year). In 2016 as a full time ace-level starter, it jumped to 3.7 WARP. Last season, -0.6. That’s a swing of 4.3 WARP in all. There are people who think Sanchez might be even better than he was in 2016, but if we assume he simply does what he has already done before again, and those cursed blisters remain at bay, we can already pencil in 4 more wins in our theoretical not-cursed 2018 season.

Josh Donaldson

2017 saw the first major span of games lost to injury in JD’s major league career. He missed almost 1/3 of a season in total, and if one simply pro-rated last years WARP of 3.8 (which is a very sloppy way to do things) you’d get him right in the neighborhood of 2016’s 5.4. His offensive production has been very consistent. Given all this, if we simply assume Josh stays healthy for 150-odd games, and hits and fields pretty much the same as he has since he came to town, you can pencil in another roughly 2 WARP increase for the 2018 squad.

Devon Travis

Now the waters get more murky. In 2015, exceptt for a two week slump before his first injury, he was playing superstar level ball, but he only got to play in 62 games. In 2016 he played in 101 games and so the two combined make a nice snapshot of what a whole season, should he ever have one, might look like. While other systems like the results even better, those 163 games accumulated a combined 3.6 WARP. In 2015, in a mere 50 games it was only 0.2 (which, obviously, doesn’t pro-rate to anything close to 3.6). There is, however, a caveat to be noticed here. In his first 13 games of 2017 he went 5/55 to hit .098  with not a single XBH. Once he shook that off he caught fire for the next 37 games posting a .908 OPS. That result is much more in line (though elevated) with how he hit prior to this last season. Now, admittedly, it requires 200 proof optimism to assume that Travis would play, say, 150 games. It COULD happen, but let me temper it a bit. Let’s say he only manages around 2/3 of a whole season, similar to what Donaldson got last year. If he plays like he did in the aggregate of the first two seasons, then we can safely pencil him in for about 2 WARP more than he provided in 2017. And if he does stay healthy, there’s another 1+ to be had.

Troy Tulowitzki

Mr. Cautionary Tale. Unlike Travis, the nature of his absences have been widely varied, but they consistently appear. Over his career he’s generally played about 2/3 of the games in any given season. In three of his last four, before the fluke ankle injury ended his season last year just before the trade deadline, he’d made it to 126 games or more. That’s a bit over 3/4 of a season. Let’s assume, on the front end then, that all we can expect from him is a maximum of 3/4 of his full season value. In 2015, that worked out to 2.8 WARP and in 2016 it was an even 2.0. A caveat here is that like Travis, he had an inexplicable slow start – only it lasted longer. On May 9, his OPS was .569 but from their until the end of the season he posted an OPS of .820 over 99 games and stayed of the DL for 3.5 months. Laying aside the vagaries of defense, as a hitter extrapolating those results to the same number of games he played in 2015 (many of which were played in Coors) produces counting stats which are actually better than that split season. If that Tulo still exists, and plays about 125 games, that’s a 2.5 WARP player.

Before he was hurt the first time, however, he was a middling player below his usual standards but not shameful. When he came back his first 16 games were a disaster: he hit .203, but his BABiP was a depressing .227 as well. He then got heated up over what would end up being only 28 games before wrecking his ankle (a .763 OPS).  Speaking of BABiP, looking back at the 2016 revival, it was a shocking .189 during the early season struggle, but a perfectly ordinary .293 during his strong run from mid-May until the end of the year. So, again? Does THAT Tulo still exist? I think it’s possible and if he shows up that contributes another +2 WARP to our estimate.

Backup Catcher

This sounds like a crazy idea for this discussion, right? I mean how many teams expect positive value from their reserve catcher? But what I call your attention to here is not positive value, but recovering from negative value. Behold the WARP totals of the Toronto Blue Jays catchers not named Russ Martin in 2017:

Jared Saltalamacchia: -0.6
Miguel Montero: -0.5
Luke Malie: -0.5
Mike Ohlman: 0.0
Raffy Lopez: 0.6

See the problem? If Ohlman had gotten all the AB that went to the three men above him that would have made up 1.6 WARP. Lopez accumulated his total in a mere 24 GP and 63 PA, roughly half of what Josh Thole got as the full time reserve in 2016. If you doubled his WARP output (which is sloppy, yes) then the swing between the three losers and his added value is a full 2.2 WARP. Can we add another 2 WARP here then, just by retaining Lopez (nevermind an upgrade from outside the organization or the advent of Danny Jansen)? Maybe.

Now, there’s no extraordinary luck being asked for here — no assumption that Travis and Tulo are going to play 160 games —, just rational optimism. And with this we boost 76 wins to 88. Yes, this assumes that the bullpen doesn’t collapse, that Happ doesn’t miss 15 starts, that Smoak doesn’t completely regress and so forth. But again, I’m arguing the positives here.
Here are some other ways in which the team could see an improvement that is within reason which if they happened might serve as a Plan B for any of the above which might fail.

Kendrys Morales went from 1.2 WARP in 2016 to -0.6 in 2017 and even he’s bounced back from negative results before, but age kept me from counting on him. If he gets the ball off the ground enough to just make up for the deficit and get back to zero or a bit above, it’s a up to a +1 difference for the team.

Steve Pearce went from 2.4 WARP in 2016 to 0.0 in 2017. He hit for an .834 OPS from May 1 onward, the full season projection (not Pearce’s calling card of course) would certainly be pushing close to 3 WARP.

Kevin Pillar had a drop off in defensive metrics took him from 3.8 to 1.1. to 0.0 over the last three seasons. Is there any sort of rebound here?

Teoscar Hernandez, as mentioned above, has potential for a higher figure over a full season.

The spike Marco Estrada’s strikeouts balanced off some of the drop in WARP, he lost only 0.5 from ’16 to ’17.

What if the averaged +1 from each of these guys? Certainly not predicting it, or asking you to expect a +1 or better from fully 10 different guys, but just for laughs that makes 93 wins.

All this is before you import a single player. Let’s say that you add, for example, Andrew McCutchen (3.8) and Alex Cobb (3.0) to our 88 win club. Just…suppose. All I’m saying is, it’s easier to leverage an 88 win team into something special than a 76 win. With just ordinary luck, this team is closer to the former than the latter. Let not your hearts be troubled, the winter of our non-contention is not quite yet on the horizon.

Lead Photo: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

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3 comments on “The Optimist’s Guide to the 2018 Blue Jays”

Jim Scott

Agree with Tammy that, while there is risk, there is also cause for optimism. Another way to illustrate the same point is to take each key player and, for each one, say whether you would bet under or over his 2017 WAR in 2018. Personally, I would pick Martin to do better than his 1.8 fWAR, backup catcher to do better than 0.0, second base (hopefully Travis) to do better than the aggregate 0.0 in 2017, Troy to beat -0.4, Josh to beat 4.9, and so forth. The only position at which I would expect some regression is 1B. So if the Jays should be better at almost every position, even without new blood, are things all that gloomy?

TigerTao

You’re Warped. LOL … You sure are playing fast & loose with your projections. The Jays are a .500 club under the luckiest star. Wanna bet?

Arjonn

When the stats-driven projections come out, The Jays will probably be seen as somewhere around .500, so under the luckiest star, they’ll project about 10 games better than that.

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