By Rob Ficiur
When the 1994 Major League Baseball season began, who would have predicted that the two time World Series Champion Toronto Blue Jays would play an equal number of playoff games as their Canadian cousins the Montreal Expos? Zero playoff games for both teams, and the Expos moved to Washington ten years ago.
Every skeptic / expert has predicted that 2014 will be another non- playoff year for the Blue Jays. Toronto failed to acquire the two starting pitchers they needed to improve on their 2013 failure of a season. When the all-star short stop Jose Reyes began the new season with a hamstring injury on the team’s first at bat, fans looked in the sky for the dark cloud of injury that followed the team all of last year.
However, we can adopt a positive attitude (sometimes called naïve) and show how the Blue Jays could (hopefully) improve enough to make the post season. The 2013 Blue Jays finished with 74 wins; only 18 wins behind the playoff making Tampa Bay Rays. Where can we find 18 more wins for the Blue Jays?
1. Starting Pitchers 10 more wins? In 2013 the Blue Jays top five starting pitchers won 38 games. The World Series champion Boston Red Sox got 48 wins out of their top five pitchers. Can the current Blue Jays starting pitching staff win ten more games? If R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle (the only two pitchers who played all of 2013) can maintain their numbers from last year, that gives the team 27 wins. Can the other three starters earn 21 wins between them? The career best seasons for Morrow, Hutchinson and McGowan would add up to 28 more wins. Injuries kept Morrow and Hutchinson out of baseball in 2013. However, before Hutchinson was injured two years ago, he had a 5-3 record as a rookie. Brandon Morrow has won ten games three times in his career. If four of the five starters win to their career average the Jays would have fifty wins. Potential is there to win.
2. Better Hitting equals 5 more wins? It is impossible to measure the correlation between hitting and wins, but we will try it here. Melky Cabrera went from a .346 batting average in 2012 to a .279 average in 2013. If he could hit closer to .300, and not be injured all year he would make a difference. Cabrera lead the all major league batters in the 2014 pre-season with 20 hits; but will that carry over into the regular season? Through six games Milky has nine hits and is on a six game hit streak. Consistent hitting by Milky will make it harder for pitchers to deal with the Jays’ home run hitters in the middle of the batting order. A solid, consistent (healthy) Melky Cabrera could add five more wins to our missing total.
3. Weak Link Fixed (sort of) – While Blue Jays fans are annoyed there were big name acquisitions in the off season, one big holes may have been filled by letting released their starting catcher. When catcher JP Arencibia hit two home runs in his first major league game fans imagined him as future all-star. By the end of the 2013 season with his .194 batting average and 148 strike outs, fans imagined him playing somewhere else. His 148 strikes outs were 15th worst in baseball; but the real numbers are worse than that. Thirteen of the fourteen players with more strike outs than Arencibia had an on base percentage over. 290 (meaning they drew a number of walks). Arencibia lead all major league catchers in strike outs and his on base percentage was the lowest of all starting catchers. His fielding percentage was 95th out of 113 catchers. To sum it all up in 2013 the Blue Jays number one catcher was among the worse at hitting and fielding. Whatever they have now, will be an improvement – could that add five more wins we were looking for?
3. Quick Start Means more than numbers can count – As of this minute the Blue Jays are 3-3. A 3-3 starts does not mean Jays fans should be planning a World Series parade yet, but it is important for two reasons:
a) The Blue Jays modest 3-3 record has been against 2013 playoff contending teams. The Yankees were 12 games over .500 and the Tampa Bay Rays were 21 games over .500. 2014 Jays’ fans could understand if they got off to a slow start against two better teams. Better news they are often to a solid start against two good teams.
b) Slow start crippled the 2013 Blue Jays. A year ago the Jays did not get their third win until game eight (3-5). By the end of April the team had a 10-17 record. Recovering from poor starts is more difficult than fans imagine. In June 2013 the Jays became the hottest team in baseball. By June 23, their winning streak took them to a winning record of 38-36. The problem with a winning streak like that is things slow down. A month later the Jays were 45-55; ten games under .500. Had the Jays been an even record when they hit their winning streak, they could have survived a losing streak that inevitably comes in a 162 game season. Bottom line, a good start creates positive momentum; and a poor start creates a negative mindset that can spiral down to the type of result the Blue Jays had in 2013.
What are the Blue Jays chances of making the 2014 playoffs? The simple math is that five out of fifteen teams will make the playoffs; so the Blue Jays have a 33% chance to be in the post season. According to sportsclubstats.com the Jays current 3-3 record gives them a 27% chance of making the playoffs. (Neat website where they make all kinds of predictions) What are the chances of all the potentials and hopefuls (and no injuries) happening that I described in this article? Probably less than 27%; but in 2013 the Jays were the World Series favorites and surprised us in a bad way; could they surprise us in a good way in 2014? We will know for sure in 158 more games.