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Big underperformance keeps hurting the Jays

Did the Blue Jays do something over the last generation to anger Pythagoras?

Pythagoras (6th century BC) Ancient Greek Philosopher and mathematician, with the Egyptian priests. Engraving fromVies des Savants Illustres by Louis Figuier (Paris 1866). ... Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images

A historic degree of underperformance between runs and wins cost the Toronto Blue Jays dearly in 2021, keeping them out of the playoffs at 91 wins. It’s bad enough that it’s happened once, but it’s not even the first time in recent memory. Not even close.

In 2015, it was arguably even worse. Going into the All=Star break, the Jays had the best run differential in the American League at +82 — and the second best in MLB behind just the St. Louis Cardinals — and yet sat under .500 at 45-46. That left them not only in fourth place in the AL East, but they were actually as close to the bottom of the AL as the second wild card. In the end though, the improbable post-deadline run obviated the consequences of underperforming by nine games (though it allowed Kansas City home field advantage in the ALCS).

Go back about the same amount of time, and massive underperformance was again decisively consequential. In 2008, the Jays posted a +104 run differential, one of three teams in the AL and just five across MLB. Instead of 93 wins, it was good for 86 and the familiar fourth place finish in the AL East. That teams is the only one to ever post a +100 run differential and finish 7th (or worse).

For good measure, there’s actually further examples of this level of underperformance that wasn’t as immediately salient since it wasn’t ultimately consequential. In 2009, the Jays scored 27 more runs than they allowed, but finished well under .500 at 75-87. And in 2005, the Jays won 80 games a run differential of +70 and expectation of 88.

So this keeps happening, over and over and over again. When it became clear that underperformance had put the Blue Jays in a significant hole early on, and with those further examples in mind, I dug deeper at the end of May 2015. It turns out that since the beginning of the century, the Jays constantly had worse records in close games (one- and two-run games, and to a lesser extent three runs).

That really wasn’t the case in 2021 but nonetheless we got another very costly instance. There’s not an obvious cause for this. It’s happened across three different managerial regimes, with almost entirely different personnel. I pulled some high level data to look for anything that might be linked:

Blue Jays underperformer high level summaries

For 2021, some have pointed to an all-or-nothing offensive construction. But the 2015 lineup, while also powerful, was much better rounded and it happened then. And the 2009 team was pretty average whereas the 2005 and 2008 teams were lower scoring lineups that had to manufacture runs. It happened to a wide various of lineup constructions.

Many have pointed to not having a bullpen and not having acquired enough bullpen depth in the winter. But overall, the bullpen was actually okay, and more significantly, some of those previous teams had really good bullpens (though the 2021 is probably a little dodgy given openers and bulk relievers confounding things).

Likewise, it’s happened to teams on a continuum from very strong to mediocre starting pitching. It also seems noteworthy most of the time, the pitching results were well ahead of peripherals, suggesting that pitchers were having more batted balls converted into outs, so it wouldn’t appear to be generally lousy defensive play (and some of those teams, by reputation and metrics, were very good). Again, there just doesn’t seem to be a common factor.

But let’s be clear: this is very abnormal. The Blue Jays franchise has now played 45 seasons. This is what the relationship between run differential and winning look like for the first 25 of those, through 2001:

1977-2001 Blue Jays win differential distribution

There’s good years and bad years in there, with the former largely concentrated in the glory years of the early 1990s and the latter in the birthing years of the early-1970s as well as the late-1980s. Overall it’s slightly skewed to the negative since cumulatively they lagged by 9 wins (less than half a win a year on average), but essentially a normal distribution and most critically, reasonably symmetric.

But here’s what distribution looks like in the last 20 years:

2002-2021 Blue Jays win differential distribution

Five seasons of huge underperformance, with nothing close on the other side. Unbelievably, even removing those five terrible years, the other 15 years still wind up a slight net negative.

This stuff is supposed to even out over time. Outliers happen, and sometimes you’re the 2021 (or 2015 or 2009 or 2008 or 2005) Jays. But sometimes you’re the 2021 Seattle Mariners or at least the 2019 Milwaukee Brewers (+8) with a tailwind instead. And for the most part it does. Since 2004, when the aforementioned stretch of sustained close game underperformance started under John Gibbons, here’s the relationship by franchise:

MLB teams total win differential

The black line is the breakeven line where expected wins are equal to actual wins. Being above the line is overperforming, being below is underperforming, and the further from the line the greater the degree. Overall, the relationship is clearly very tight (R^2 > 0.95), with a standard deviation of 20 total wins. Every team falls within two standard deviations.

Except one for that is. The red dot is the Blue Jays, at 46 wins short of expectation. The only other team even close to them is the Colorado Rockies at -35, as the third place Washington Nationals at -27 are barely more than half as bad.

But it’s actually even worse than that in terms of real consequences. The two best positive years for the Jays are +4 wins in both 2017 and 2018. Coming in rebuilding years, not only did it not help, in a sense it was actually counterproductive in terms of hurting draft position (in 2018, the Jays would have picked 9th rather than 12th).

Over- or under-performing really only matters if a team is at least close to contention to begin with. So I repeated the above, but this time only including seasons when the team wins at least 85 games (the scale changed to winning percentage differentials because some teams have a lot more 85 win seasons than others):

MLB teams good season WP% differential

Look how far the red triangle for the Blue Jays is from every other team! And it actually was worse before I tweaked the screen to pick up 2020 when the Jays were +3 wins over 60 games. Note that since we’re selecting teams that had good seasons, on average we see outperformance rather it summing to (roughly) zero overall as with the first chart.

From 2004-21, the average franchise outperformed by 8.5 total wins in their 85-win seasons, with a standard deviation of about 13. Only five teams were negative, with the Jays at -21 (-2.25 standard deviations) and the next closest just -9. It’s just crazy.

In addition to challenge of winning in a division with two big spending perennial powerhouses plus by far the most efficient team in baseball over the last generation, the Jays have been snakebitten like none other when they have put contenders on the field.