Toronto Blue Jays Battle for the Ages – 1993 vs 2016

Jays From the Couch brings you a comparison of the 2016 Toronto Blue Jays and the 1993 team that won the World Series.

 

I’ve had an eerie case of déjà vu since early February, and up until now I have been hesitant to share my thoughts with anyone. I know there has been quite a bit of chatter and hope that the 2016 vintage of the Blue Jays will be similar to the 2015 Royals as far as using a prior season’s playoff disappointment as inspiration to drive achievement in the subsequent season. However, I think there is a far more apt parallel far closer to the hearts and minds of middle-aged and older Blue Jays fans, and that is the glory years of 1992 and 1993.

The Blue Jays were obviously a very good baseball team in 1992, as they surprised most people by beating the pitching-dominant Atlanta Braves in six games to win the World Series. I fondly remember my date to the homecoming dance getting mad at me for ducking out so much to check in on game one of the Series, and sadly my behavior deservedly resulted in my scoring even less than the Jays’ single run in that 3-1 loss – something I was oddly ok with as a 16-year-old guy.

Entering 1993 was just very different than 1992 – there was a swagger and confidence that the team was going to be REALLY good. Part of that was obviously due to being defending champions, but it was also a product of some key acquisitions like Paul Molitor and Dave Stewart. Remember “Stand Pat Gillick”? Well that nickname went poof at the 1992 deadline when he traded future potential Hall of Fame 2B Jeff Kent for David Cone – the David Price of the 1992 Jays. The 30-year-old Cone left the Jays as a free agent for the Royals after making only 8 starts and pitching in the playoffs.

As the 1993 season approached, a lineup of Devon White, Roberto Alomar, Paul Molitor, Joe Carter and John Olerud was enough to make a Jays fan giddy with anticipation, and I certainly was – just as I am now on the doorstep of the 2016 season. But part of the fun of this retrospective for me has been looking at the weaknesses of that great 1993 team and compare them to what we may expect from the coming season’s version of the Jays. Obviously, they both had great offenses, but many of the similarities are pretty striking. – both good and bad:

  1. Both teams started the year with leadoff hitters with less-than-stellar OBP profiles, good speed, and premium defense batting in front of an incredible group of 4 subsequent batters. Devon White’s 1992 OBP was .303 – yes, you read that correctly, but he posted a .341 OBP in 1993. Devo put up a 5.9 WAR in 1992 and followed that up with a 5.4 WAR in 1993, while Kevin Pillar delivered a 4.3 WAR last season. If you read my story about why Pillar is the best leadoff option for the 2016 Jays, I argued that outside of his first 400+ MLB at bats, he’s been a reliable .340+ OBP hitter, including the last 4 months of the 2015 season.
  2. Both teams’ outfields included a premium defender in CF, a star anchor in RF and then some question marks in LF. Remember Turner Ward, Darrin Jackson, Willie Canate, and Darnell Coles? I am both proud and embarrassed to admit that I had forgotten Mr. Canate (it has been a couple of years since I’ve whipped out my 1993 Blue Jays year in review VHS tape), but they combined to appear in 220 games in 1993, with Rickey Henderson taking over for 44 games in LF following another deal by “Stand Pat.” Throw in 17 appearances by rookies Rob Butler and 3 by Shawn Green, and the combined WAR from the non-Devo/Joe Carter OF’s in 1993 was -1.0. Despite the anxieties some have about how Michael Saunders will perform or whether he can stay healthy, I think it is reasonable to expect better performance from a combination of Saunders, Dalton Pompey, Ezequiel Carrera, and Darrell Ceciliani.
  3. Both teams feature(d) premium middle infielders with huge offensive production to match their tremendous defensive skills. Alomar produced a 5.7 WAR in 1993 following a 6.1 WAR in 1992. Troy Tulowitzki, with the exception of last year and one injury-abbreviated season, has been a consistent 5+ WAR producer at SS. Also, both of those players were/are flanked by excellent defensive partners. Tony Fernandez was acquired via trade from the New York Mets in June 1993 and went on to produce a 2.8 WAR in 94 games. I think that seems like a reasonable estimate of some combination of Ryan Goins and Devon Travis this year.
  4. Do you remember just how mediocre the 1993 starting rotation was? Juan Guzman and Pat Hentgen were pretty good (not great), but otherwise the performances did not live up to some of the names in the rotation. Jack Morris made 27 starts and ended with a 6.19 ERA. Dave Stewart made 26 starts with a 4.44 ERA, and Todd Stottlemyre made 28 starts with a 4.84 ERA. Do you remember Scott Brow? Yeah I didn’t either, and he made 3 starts. Doug Linton made 1 start, and a young Al Leiter arrived on the scene and made 12 starts. So overall, the rotation was pretty healthy but VERY mediocre.
  5. Each of the teams feature(d) corner infielders that could perform at a superstar level. John Olerud had been a solid 3.1 WAR player in 1992, but then launched into a season for the ages in 1993 with a 8.1 WAR – largely on the back of an inordinately high BABIP. His offensive production was like a video game in 1993, with an OPS of 1.072! Josh Donaldson’s WAR last season? 8.7 and that was with a BABIP of .314 vs Olerud’s massive .375 in 1993. Imagine the kind of production possible from Donaldson if he has a “lucky” season.

When I consider areas in which the teams were/are different, and what I consider to be a reasonable expected level of performance for the 2016 Jays, I believe the balance of the evidence tilts towards the present team. While projection systems universally predict a decline in the Jays offensive output for 2016, I think the lineup is as good or better than the 2015 vintage. I keep reading about how there is a low likelihood of so many Jays repeating “career years,” yet when I go through the returning 2015 players, I think only Chris Colabello is someone who I would label as having had a “career year” in 2015.

Sure, Donaldson’s production was way up from his years in Oakland, but as I covered in my optimistic forecast of Michael Saunders, much of Donaldson’s bump in numbers could likely be explained, and actually expected, based upon park factors resulting from his move to Toronto and the hitter-friendly AL East. To me, a “career year” is like the one Olerud put up in 1993, or Jose Bautista put up in 2010 or 2011, when things like BABIP or HR/FB rates spike up. Given the number of good hitters in the Jays lineup, I would argue there is a pretty decent chance of at least one prominent player exploding with a career-type year. Imagine if Bautista’s BABIP goes back to league average, or Tulo’s HR/FB rate spikes, or Edwin Encarnacion somehow doesn’t develop his typical nagging injuries? Are all of these likely? Surely not! However, I am betting that at least some good/lucky events will take place.

On a team-wide basis (Fangraphs is a great place to obtain historical team stats), the 1993 Jays averaged 5.23 runs per game, an OPS of .786, position player WAR of 28.6, and a team ERA of 4.22. In comparison, the 2015 Jays averaged 5.5 runs per game, an OPS of .797, position player WAR of 34.7, and a team ERA of 3.81. I believe it is reasonable to expect the 2016 Jays to come close to matching, if not exceeding, those levels of offensive/defensive and pitching production. I am particularly positive of the ability for the 2016 Jays to pitch better than the 1993 Jays, as the hurdle is pretty low for the starters, and while bullpens are infamously hard to forecast, the Jays appear to at least be solid entering the season.

If I had to summarize my comparison of the 1993 vs 2016 Jays, I believe that Carter/Devo vs Bautista/Pillar is a push. LF is likely to be at least modestly better for the 2016 Jays, and possibly much better. The catching comparison is pretty laughable in the current vintage’s favor. The infield, in total, is likely a push or possibly a modest tilt towards the 1993 Jays depending upon Devon Travis’ return and what kind of offensive production he and Goins can generate. Pitching wise? I’ll take the 2016 Jays both in the starting rotation and the bullpen. In the dugout, I loved Cito Gaston but I believe time and sabermetrics has not been kind to his overall legacy, so give me John Gibbons.

The one area I am not terribly confident in for the 2016 Jays is how the front office will perform come the trade deadline versus the aggressiveness shown my Pat Gillick in 1993 with the Fernandez and Henderson deals. When I sum all of this up, I believe the 2016 Jays are likely to be a better team than the 1993 Jays, but then I would argue that the 2015 Jays were also better. As we saw with the Royals last year, the best team over 162 games doesn’t always win the World Series. The obviously inferior 1993 Phillies could have, and really should have, won that World Series if not for some really bad bullpen performances and utilization by Jim Fregosi. Regardless, I think there is good reason for Jays fans to be as excited now as they were entering that great 1993 season. Also, like the 1993 Jays, I expect this year’s team to win over 90 games and do so in an extremely entertaining fashion.

 

 

 

*Featured Image Credit: S Doyle- JFtC

 

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