Mean reversion tells us that the Toronto Blue Jays will not continue to struggle the way they have to start the 2016 season.
Baseball managers and fans are human beings. I know that statement may be so obvious that it is silly, but human beings often times fall victim to emotional decision making that is not grounded in sound analytical practices. With the Jays’ season now about a month old, the sample size for any player, statistic and team is statistically insignificant.
Mean reversion is a concept which is prevalent throughout the natural world, whether it is the pressure within tectonic plates being re-set to equilibrium via earthquakes or over-priced financial assets (hello Vancouver Real Estate!) falling dramatically in price. Most people are just bad at keeping this concept in mind, as the natural inclination is to project recent experiences and history into the future in a linear fashion. Sports fans can be particularly poor at keeping the concept of mean reversion in mind, as the same herding mentality that fuels manias and panics can dominate.
Many important Blue Jays players have performed horribly with the bat so far this season – I don’t even need to name names, as we all know who they are. I believe that reasonable analysis and forecasting for the remainder of the season should place those horrific performances within the context of mean reversion. Even if one assumes typical performance declines for many of the Jays’ stars due to aging, the reality is that the horrific performances of the first month should correct themselves with large snapbacks over large chunks of the rest of the season.
To provide a hypothetical example, a player who has batted at a .200 level through the first 1/6th of the season (about 100 AB’s) would have to bat .290 over the remainder of the season to “mean revert” to a .275 season batting average. Obviously, these are all just arbitrary figures, but with several Jays players hitting sub .200 so far and looking like offensive train wrecks, even reversion back to .250 or .260 would result in dramatic improvement for the remainder of the season. In addition, none of the Jays’ stars who have actually produced have been particularly “hot,” with the sole potential exception of Michael Saunders. I think this means that they are not likely to suffer negative mean reversion to partially offset the players with positive reversions. Josh Donaldson’s hard contact and fly ball rates are a bit elevated, as is his BABIP, but that appears largely due to an even more extreme tendency to pull the ball so far this year. Regardless, his deviations are relatively modest and not likely to mean revert dramatically.
The bullpen has been a disaster, which is also a likely source for positive mean reversion. Even if several of the bullpen components continue to perform poorly over time, the degree of how bad they’ve stunk is unsustainable – over half of inherited runs scoring simply is not sustainable. The starters have been excellent ex-Dickey so far, and as a group they could mean revert a bit to the negative. However, much of the perceived improvement in the starters is just a continuation of the potential “new normal” for Estrada and Happ, for example. They quite possibly may be the pitchers they’d become following arsenal and mechanical adjustments made last year. However, I do believe it is reasonable to expect at least a modest negative reversion for the starters over the remainder of the season.
So with the offense and bullpen having been pretty terrible compared to expectations, I think there is significant reason for people to stay calm and keep in mind that baseball is a marathon and not a sprint. For the Jays to be a couple of games under .500 given how bad major components of the team have been, is not too bad. In fact, I would argue that the biggest news out of the Jays so far has been the potential for sustained performance at the “new normal” levels for Happ/Estrada, combined with the potential for Dickey to enjoy his typical back half upswing in performance.
Finally, I’ve looked ahead at the Jays’ schedule and believe that there will not be a reasonable assessment to be made of their full season prospects until around August 1st. July will conclude a 32 day stretch in which the Jays will play just 25 games with 20 at the Rogers Center. The sole road trip includes 3 games in Oakland following the All Star break, then a 2 game set in Arizona, which is sandwiched by 2 off days. The Jays only play 3 games over that stretch versus an AL East opponent (the Orioles at home). The Jays will be almost exactly 1/2 way through their 162 game schedule on June 30th when they begin this vital stretch at the Rogers Center versus the Indians. If they can reach that date with around a .500 record, I think there is a very significant probability the Jays will be poised to make a big playoff run. Given the potential for so many positive mean reverting developments, I think such a forecast is a pretty good bet.
*Featured Image Credit: freaktography UNDER CC BY-SA 2.0
THANK YOU FOR VISITING JAYS FROM THE COUCH! CHECK US OUT ON TWITTER @JAYSFROMCOUCH AND INSTAGRAM. LIKE US FACEBOOK. BE SURE TO CATCH THE JAYS NEST PODCAST!