Just last Friday, after the Blue Jays blew a late inning lead for the third time in five days, their playoff hopes were tenuous at best as they clung to the last wildcard spot with two teams behind them within a single game. A team that held a small division lead starting the month was on the brink of falling of falling all the way through the playoff picture, and the Red Sox had the opportunity to drive a stake through the hopes of their division rival.
Happily, on the last weekend of the season, the Jays pulled out of their tailspin - or at least pulled out of it enough - to eke out a couple of one run victories and secure a berth in the wild card game. And then won it, to advance to the Division Series on equal footing with the other seven teams whose seasons are still alive. They may have backed into the playoffs by a very narrow margin, but they're in.
In large measure, the playoffs are a crapshoot with their short series. The best team by far in 2016, the Cubs, only have a 26% chance of winning the World Series according to 538.com, and about 19% according to CBS Sports as implied by betting lines. Frankly, I'd probably take the under in either of those. So regardless of how they got in, by virtue of their season being alive, the Jays had a solid shot of winning it all vis-a-vis other teams.
But I'm going to further that that. At the risk of tempting fate and watching the Jays fall flat on their faces against Texas, I think the Jays are one of the bigger threats in the playoffs. There are a lot of pieces that make them a very dangerous opponent, even if it didn't feel like it for large stretches of the season.
The famous maxim is that pitching and defence win in the playoffs. I'm inherently skeptical of such wisdom, but the fact is this has been the strength of the 2016 Blue Jays. The starters had the second best adjusted ERA in the major leagues, behind only the juggernaut Cubs. And to the extent it matters, they were the best in September. They slip a little further behind by FIP, but still rank a very strong 5th. One knock perhaps is the lack of a bona fide, established ace. But then again, that didn't exactly work out with David Price last year, and the Jays have a very strong quartet to run out.
A significant part of that ERA-FIP outperformance is due to excellent defenders, especially at critical positions at the up middle. Troy Tulowitzki, Josh Donaldson and Kevin Pillar are standouts; Russell Martin is a rock behind the plate; and Devon Travis showed the ability to be above average. The weakness was the outfield corners, but playing Ezequiel Carrera mitigates that.
The other weakness on the run prevention side was the bullpen, the Achilles Hell for much of the season. But even there is some reason for optimism if Roberto Osuna is indeed fine. With more off-days, they can lean harder on the better pitchers for more innings. But most importantly, the resurgence of Francisco Liriano and the lack of a spot for him in the rotation is a potential gamechanger. Liriano could potentially come in after a starter goes 5-6 innings, and go 3-4 innings to close out the game. This would make it even easier to lean on Osuna, Biagini and Grilli in the other games.
Finally, that brings us to the much maligned offence. Yes, they've been disappointing relative to expectations, and yes they struggled down the stretch, and yes they went silent against way too many poor pitchers and at important times. But let's not forget this was still a pretty strong unit overall. They finished 9th in MLB with a 103 wRC+ among non-pitchers. They scored the 5th most runs in the American League. They weren't a disaster, or even actually bad.
But most importantly, they've simply got a lot of very good hitters up and down the lineup, and have the ability go on a run and materially outperform what they did in the regular season, moreso than any other playoff team I'd submit. Jose Bautista had a great September, and if Edwin Encarnacion goes on one of his crazy runs, watch out. It's too much to hope for them to fire on all cylinders in October, but I'll still happily take my chances with this lineup backed by the other elements.
Going into the last series, my view was it was very much in Boston's interest to do as much as they could to knock the Jays out because of how dangerous they could be. As it turns out, the two teams behind the Jays lost their last two games, so with perfect hindsight the Red Sox could not have directly knocked the Jays out anyway (although with another win, the Orioles would have hosted and Britton likely pitches, etc). And it's not like they really punted those games. But a couple weeks from now, they and the other six teams might wish those first two days in October had gone otherwise.