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You Got a List of Rules that Makes Things Disappear: Were the Blue Jays Relief Pitchers All That Bad?

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This post breaks down the Jays struggles this season into pieces based on the rotation, the relief pitching staff, and the position players.

Tom Szczerbowski

In a recent interview with Jeff Blair, Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos seemed to repeatedly pin the Jays woes for the 2014 season on an underperforming bullpen. At one point, he claimed that "an average pen" would have netted the Blue Jays five or six more wins. While the pen certainly did underperform, particularly relative to the 2013 season where relief pitching was one of the only bright spots for the team, this was a gross overstatement of that overperformance.

How much of an overstatement was it? First, we can say that, pretty much no matter how you slice it, he was right about the Jays relievers being below average for the AL. For AL bullpens (which were much better than NL bullpens on the whole, presumably because it is much easier to leverage bullpen value when the pitchers don't bat), the Jays were around 2.0 fWAR and 2.5 rWAR below the mean. However, bullpen WAR doesn't tell the whole story. By actual bullpen Win Probability Added (WPA), the Jays pen was only 1.5 wins below the mean. And the mean might not be the best measure to find an "average" bullpen because it can be greatly affected by exceptional 'pens, like the one the Royals have ridden to their first pennant in almost 30 years. If we consider the median bullpen (the Athletics), the Jays are only a win behind. Add in the Jays below average fielding (only very slightly below by Ultimate Zone Rating but quite a bit worse by +/- or Defensive Runs Saved) and we're probably under a win's worth of difference in actual WPA.

But if their bullpen wasn't so bad and their starters and position players were so good, why were the Jays such a longshot as early as the first week in September? Certainly, the way they limped through August was no help. And the bullpen looked particularly bad then, didn't it? Yep. 12th in the AL in fWAR and 11th in rWAR (though actually 9th in WPA).

But do you know who else looked bad in August? The starters (10th in fWAR, 13th in rWAR, and 14th in WPA) and the offense (13th in batting runs, 14th in WPA). In fact, although the offense graded out as one of the best in the league for the season by batting runs (3rd in the AL, though as close to being 8th as to being 2nd), they graded out much worse by actual WPA (+0.86, 6th, AL average was -0.63). If we dock their WPA by a win or two for the poor defense mentioned earlier, we're looking at a position player corps that ended up performing as if they were an average team.

How could a group of position players ranked 4th in fWAR in the AL be so average? Well, on aggregate, the Jays position players underplayed their batting expectation by around 3 wins. By the difference between actual WPA and expected batting wins, the clutchiest Jays this year were Jose Reyes (+1.9), Dioner Navarro (+0.9), and Ryan Goins (+0.8). The unclutchiest? Edwin Encarnacion (-1.7), Juan Francisco (-1.4), Jose Bautista (-1.1), Adam Lind (-1.0), and Josh Thole (-0.8 in just 150 plate appearances!).

But even after accounting for the difference between Batting Wins and WPA, the Jays should still be a win or two above average, right? Well, not if you believe in pitch framing, where they ranked near the worst in baseball. Between Navarro, Thole, George Kottaras, and Erik Kratz, the Jays were around -20 runs below average. And so, on the whole, our position players were very average.

But that's okay, the Jays had one of the best rotations in baseball, right? Well, by fWAR, they ranked an impressive 5th in the AL. But there's a lot of clumping in the middle. They were only 0.2 fWAR above the AL mean and just one 0.7 fWAR separated them and the very unimpressive Astros, who were 10th in the AL. Now, this isn't to say the rotation wasn't good, possibly even good enough to be a playoff contender. By starter WPA, which accounts for neither pitch framing nor the rest of the Jays below average defense, the Jays were about a win better than AL average (though they ranked just 9th in the league because of clumping). Credit them win another couple wins based on that defense and, at 2.5 wins above average, they're in the American League's top-5.

So where does this leave us? Well, the position player aggregate was probably slightly below average and the starting rotation was around 2.5 or 3 wins above average. So why exactly are we pinning an 83-win season on the relievers?

Thanks to Kathleen Hanna (d/b/a Julie Ruin) for today's post title.