Nine years. Nine straight years. That's how long the Blue Jays have been sucked into the 93-game mediocrity magnet. What am I talking about? Take a look at the Blue Jays' record during the first 93 games of the last nine seasons in the table below (I've also included how many games they were out of first place in the AL East at that point as well):
Amazingly, the Blue Jays have managed to play the first 93 games of the last nine straight seasons within three games of .500. This means that every single year they enter the All-Star Break, and more importantly the beginning of the trade deadline period somewhere in the middle of the pack. Never asserting their dominance over the rest of the division, but also never looking like a roster that needs to be completely blown up.
In a sport that's developed an incredible amount of parity in recent seasons with teams moving up and down the standings from year to year like elevators in a busy high rise, Toronto managed to get stuck in the middle until finally busting through the glass ceiling late last summer. On one hand, last year was the Blue Jays' first playoff appearance in 22 years. That's the story that gets the most ink, as it should. At the same time though, the Blue Jays also only had six top ten draft picks in that 22-year stretch, and never picked higher than ninth in the last ten years.
This makes the Blue Jays' recent playoff drought different than some of the other famous dry spells we saw in Pittsburgh and Kansas City. Fans weren't turned off by a seemingly never ending putrid product, but instead almost lulled to sleep by a maddening parade of mediocrity that didn't come close to cutting it in baseball's toughest division.
That last point is why I included the number of games back in the table above. In some divisions, you get years like the 2006 and 2007 NL Central or the 2005 and 2008 NL West, or even the 2008 and 2012 AL Central to a lesser degree. In these scenarios, hanging around .500 can keep you in the division race all the way into September. However, in the AL East, hanging around .500 usually has you hanging on for dear life by the end of July. The last two seasons are the only instances during this nine year stretch in which the Blue Jays have been sucked into the 93-game mediocrity magnet that they stilled seemed to have a real shot at the division by mid July. Even then, the eventual division winner used an enormous second half surge to land at a win total we're accustomed to seeing at the top of the AL East by season's end.
How tough is the AL East? Last year was the first time since 2000 that the division winner won less than 95 games. It's baseball's most dangerous jungle. So it should come as no surprise that the Blue Jays, falling short of the 90 win mark every year from 1994 through 2014, failed to generate much August and September (never mind October) excitement before last year. (As a side note, the Blue Jays have also only lost 90 or more games once since 1980. So they've also demonstrated an amazing ability to not completely stink, even through the lean years.)
This is why the second half of last season is so important. Before I go into that though, take a look at all the trades the Blue Jays have made in the month of July over the last ten years so we can hammer home one last point:
July 22, 2006
July 31, 2009
July 14, 2010
July 29, 2010
July 27, 2011
July 20, 2012
Traded a player to be named later, Joseph Musgrove (minors), Francisco Cordero, Ben Francisco, Carlos Perez, David Rollins and Asher Wojciechowski to the Houston Astros. Received David Carpenter, J.A. Happ and Brandon Lyon. The Toronto Blue Jays sent Kevin Comer (minors) (August 16, 2012) to the Houston Astros to complete the trade.
July 30, 2012
July 28, 2014
July 28, 2015
July 30, 2015
July 31, 2015
* * * * *
The level of aggression at last year's deadline (for Anthopoulos reasons we're all aware of) felt groundbreaking, perhaps earth shattering if you were in Tulowitzki's cleats. The Blue Jays made July moves in other seasons (including that sweet steal of Encarnacion from Cincinnati in 2009), but they always resembled something closer to rearranging old furniture as opposed to going for broke or blowing up the whole project. That of course is a natural, understandable consequence of being under the spell of the mediocrity magnet. It's hard to commit to a clear direction until the off season. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Last summer changed all of that. It wasn't just that Toronto finally tasted the sweetness of playoff baseball for the first time in over two decades, it was the liberating feeling that came with it. The soft suffocation of the mediocrity magnet seemed to be lifted all at once. Fans consistently packed Rogers Centre for late season games at a level we haven't seen this century, and there was an expectation, not just a hope of victory. The change in the atmosphere was palpable.
It wasn't just the end of a playoff drought. Instead, it felt like the beginning of a new era. An era in which the Blue Jays hopefully break free from the chains of mediocrity for the foreseeable future.
Entering the 2016 season, it's hard to imagine Toronto getting tripped up by the mediocrity magnet again, although I've learned that anything is possible in baseball. One thing is certain though, the glorious roller coaster ride that after a three month crescendo peaked in a Bautista blast that will be talked about for generations shattered the expectation and excitement cap that had a choke hold over much of the fan base for far too many years (It may have slightly loosened its grip in early 2013 before the dreams of a busy off season went up in flames).
This year, mediocrity isn't on anyone's mind, which shows how incredible the transformation has been. Being within three games of .500 at any point this summer would be viewed as a major disappointment. If all goes according to plan, the 2016 Blue Jays have a golden opportunity to leave this bizarre piece of trivia and history firmly in the rear view mirror.