Is the Blue Jays' offensive juggernaut ready to win regularly?
Thanks to Chris Colabello's game-winning two-run single to run his hitting streak to 17 games, the Toronto Blue Jays came back to beat the Houston Astroson Sunday 7-6, extending their win streak to six games and becoming the first team to 300 runs scored on the season. Toronto ran up its American League-best run differential to plus-45.
Using expected wins derived from runs scored and allowed in aggregate, the Jays should be 34-24, with the best record in the AL and first place in the AL East. In reality, they’re just 28-30, a complete disconnect between expectations and actual results. Generally, teams with massive positive run differentials wind up with winning records. A big differential conveys a massive difference between the ability to score and prevent runs, and that’s supposed to yield wins.
Is the Blue Jays’ weird result where they have a great runs differential a suggestion that they’re significantly better than their record suggests?
There are two ways of thinking about it. The more orthodox sabermetric way to look at it is that run differential is supposed to even out, that they’ve been unlucky, and that teams who lead the league in scoring are going to eventually catch up to this kind of underperformance.
The less orthodox way to think about it is that the Jays’ problem isn’t with “luck,” but the fact that while they’ve shown they have the offense to annihilate weaker pitching and run up the score in individual games, they’re pretty vincible at other times.
One interesting factoid is that the Jays have reached double digits in runs scored in nine games already, winning all of them. The Jays’ combined score in those nine games was 99-54 -- their plus-45 run differential, by happenstance, going 9-0 even as they were allowing five runs per game.
Pitching is the big part of the problem for the Jays and why they’re not delivering on all of those runs scored. The only team that has allowed more runs than Toronto is the Colorado Rockies, playing at Coors Field and at extreme altitude as an automatic handicap. The Jays are a league-worst 1-22 when scoring three or fewer runs. For the sake of a non-random comparison, theBoston Red Sox are 6-20 in those games despite their mediocre rotation and a massive negative run differential (minus-43, and just one game behind the Blue Jays).
The Jays have some but not all of the tools to fix their pitching problem. In the rotation, they’re close to the bottom of the league in quality starts, which reflects the lack of a real ace. Optimistically, Aaron Sanchez might grow into that guy, and Drew Hutchison might get fully on track. However, right now the Jays don’t have that No. 1 starter, let alone a solid No. 2. Pitchers like R.A. Dickey andMark Buehrle can round out a strong rotation, but they don’t lead it.
The bullpen is also a major problem. On Sunday, the relief crew blew an AL-leading 10th save opportunity on Sunday, forcing the need to rally to win. Toronto’s pen performance reflects less the lack of a true closer as much as the lack of a reliably structured pen in general. They’ve also allowed the worst percentage of inherited runners to score (37 percent through Saturday). In terms of talent, a team can and should be able to win with guys such as Steve Delabar,Liam Hendriks, Brett Cecil and Aaron Loup. Since pulling Cecil from the closer’s role a month ago, manager John Gibbons hasn’t had the luxury of predictable pattern for who to use and when.
Put those things together, and it shouldn’t be that much of a surprise that Sunday’s win got the Blue Jays’ record in one-run decisions up to 4-12. If you have a weak pen and a mediocre rotation, you’re going to struggle to eke out wins in tight games. Their just-completed good week on the mound involved beating up on an injury-depleted Nationals lineup, then cooling off the all-or-nothing Astros.
The good news is that the Jays have the potential to get even stronger on offense. They owe much to the big first two months delivered by Josh Donaldson (15 homers, .939 OPS), Jose Bautista (11, .936) and Russell Martin (.836 OPS). Even should any of them cool off, they’ve yet to see Edwin Encarnacion go nuts at the plate the way that he can, and he nevertheless already has a dozen homers to his credit. Plus they’ve been at less than full strength. They already have Jose Reyesback at shortstop, and Michael Saunders and Devon Travis should also both be back from the DL and play major roles in the lineup at left field and second base down the stretch.
So your takeaway should be this: Run differential isn’t an immutable law that will make the Blue Jays better as a matter of faith in mathematical inevitability, especially as long as their pitching struggles to beat people with any consistency.
What the Jays have is the talent to bludgeon opponents into submission. What they need is enough pitching to make sure they can win the close games as well. If they’re the team that adds an ace in trade while finding a way to get better results from the pen, they’ll be better set to earn actual wins, and not just the ones you expect.
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