With a 2-8 record thus far, the Blue Jays find themselves in the Grapefruit League cellar. And that doesn't even include the loss to Team Canada Tuesday (or their tie, which is another game they didn't win). The good news is, of course, that these games don't count. But this slow start got me thinking about how exactly badly a start like this to the actual season would damage their playoff chances.
On one hand, 10 games is just over 6% of the season, so only so much damage can be done no matter how catastrophic the results. Every team will struggle for stretches of the season, there's nothing definitive about it happening at the beginning. On the other hand, it digs a hole while other contenders are likely getting ahead. To win 55% of their games (89 wins), a team starting 2-8 has to win over 57% of the remaining games, or an almost 93 win pace. That's the difference between a good #2 starting pitcher and
Jo-Jo Reyes a replacement level starter.
Let's look at the Jays situations specifically. Their playoff chances depend on not just them, but all the other teams too. To simplify things, we'll assume to win the AL East will require at least 93 wins, and winning a wild card spot will require at least 90 wins. In recent years, sometimes both of those have been higher and lower, but it's a decent proxy for a moving post.
The other unknown is how good the Jays will be. Here we can use some of the season projections, and apply the binomial distribution to estimate the likelihood of hitting the above win targets. PECOTA projects the Jays at 82 wins, FanGraphs depth charts projects them at 86. Given these I've used a range of true talent projections from 80 to 88 wins, in increments of two wins.
On the low end, a team with around .500 talent (80-82 wins) has about a 10% chance of pulling out enough wins to claim a wild card, with around of 5% chance of the division. On the higher end, a team that projects as a contender (86-88) has a 30-40% chance of not having their season end after Game 162, with 15-25% of that coming from winning the division. So depending on what you think of the 2017 Blue Jays, they fall somewhere on that spectrum.
If a team starts 2-8, effectively that means they have to win 88 or 91 of the remaining 152 to hit the 90 and 93 win targets. What the odds of that happening given the same levels of talent?
It's actually really damaging. On the low end, because the chances were quite low to begin with, the absolute loss in playoff chances is not that big. But relatively, it's huge as the divisional chances fall by about 75% and wild chances by about two-thirds. That stings, but realistically if one thinks the Jays are likely to be a .500 team, you're not expecting them to contend anyway...the soft bigotry of low expectations.
But for a team that has the talent to contend, that really bad start takes a huge bit out of the likelihood of making the playoffs, with the chances of taking the division falling to or under 10% from 20%+, and fallback of at least qualifying for the wild card falling significantly too.
And actually, this likely underestimates the decline in playoff odds, since it assumes the 2-8 team still has the same true talent. While 10 games is a small sample even at the team level, Bayesian updating would dictate at least some downgrade of future expectations (where that's an injury, underperformance, etc). That's what happened in 2013, when April struggles where not just a slow start, but rather an harbinger of uglier things to come.
The Blue Jays bad record this to start 2017 is certainly no big deal. But the same thing happening a month from now would cut their playoffs odds in at least half.