Jays from the Couch Takes a Look at What the Rest of the 2016 Season May Look Like for the Blue Jays and Red Sox
John Lott recently authored a column focused, at least partially, upon some of the bad luck that has afflicted the Blue Jays lineup so far in 2016, and BABIP has certainly been an issue. I wrote a few weeks ago about how various aspects of Blue Jays’ team performance were ripe for positive mean reversion – particularly offensive production and the bullpen. Things have stabilized to a degree over the past month (they played at a .600 winning percentage for the month), and as the Jays’ season has reached 1/3rd completion, I thought I’d revisit what continued mean reversion may mean for the Jays. In addition, I’ll take a look at what a similar analysis suggests about the Red Sox, as they are the team most likely to make a repeat AL East crown a big challenge.
I started my analysis by reviewing how mean regression relative to their pre-season projections could impact the Blue Jays and the Red Sox over the remainder of the 2016, and what it could suggest about a potential pennant race between the two teams. Many Jays fans and pundits were chagrined by the various projection systems forecasting the Red Sox as the likely AL East winner prior to the season. The argument typically went something like, “there is no way Hanley and/or Pablo will regress back to above replacement level players.” That was at least half correct, as Sandoval has been absent due to performance and then injury, and his spot filled by an example of the real story of the 2016 Red Sox – the emergence of young talent. Such emergence is exactly what projection systems typically do offer positive credit for, as players in their early to mid 20’s are most ripe for “figuring things out.”
So far, Jackie Bradley, Jr., Mookie Betts, and Xander Boegarts have been absolutely scintillating. Throw in Travis Shaw performing extremely well as Sandoval’s replacement, and the Red Sox have had a true 4 headed youth monster. David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia have both found a fountain of youth, so the cumulative result has been a Red Sox offense that has so far made the 2015 Blue Jays look like pikers – a truly frightening proposition. In contrast, the Blue Jays, with the possible exceptions of Saunders, Smoak, and Travis, are dominated by players who should be at/near peak performance or on the wrong side of their aging curves.
Over the first 3rd of the 2016, the Blue Jays’ team OPS has been about 10% below the level the team produced over the 2015 season. As I am sure most readers recall, the 2015 vintage Blue Jays offered offensive production which was historic. The team averaged 5.5 runs per game and had a .797 OPS and a .297 BABIP. Over the first 3rd of the 2016 season, that performance has dropped significantly, with 4.17 runs per game, a .725 OPS and a .281 BABIP.
Ironically, it is the 2016 vintage Red Sox that are performing at the level many expected from this year’s Jays team. The Red Sox are averaging about 5.92 runs per game, with a .848 OPS and a .341 BABIP through their first 52 games. Just as I believe it probable that the Jays’ offense will mean revert in a positive fashion over the last 108 games of the season, the Red Sox’s offense have significant potential for negative reversion. Their pre-season projections already accounted for incremental improvement amongst their young core, though it is certainly possible that they have simultaneously evolved into this generations, Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio and Derek Jeter.
I took the OPS for each position player of the Jays over the first third of the season and compared it to the average of their preseason ZIPS and Steamers projections (also known as Depth Chart Projections), which are available on Fangraphs. I then looked at what each player would need to accomplish over the remainder of the season in order to reach their projections, both good (like Devon Travis replacing the terrible performance of Ryan Goins over 44 games) and the bad (assuming Michael Saunders will regress to his forecasted level). I also weighted this regression in performance for each player based upon the place they are currently occupying in the batting order.
The projected 2016 OPS for the current lineup was about .786, which is about .060 higher than how the team has performed season-to-date. Of course, in order to reach that projected season-long level of performance, the team would now have to significantly improve over the remaining 108 games of the season. By my calculations, the Blue Jays would have to OPS just over .810 over the remainder of the 2016 to realize the aggregate projected level for the lineup. That performance level would certainly be excellent over a 108 period, but I also think it is not beyond reason given the fact none of the Jays’ major sluggers have caught fire for any length of time so far in 2016.
With the Jays averaging 4.17 runs per game during the first third of the season, an obvious question would be what would an OPS of .810+ over the remaining 2/3rd translate into runs per game? This is a bit more complicated, as OBP has a more powerful impact on run production than SLG (OPS=OBP+SLG), so the composition between those two factors would drive the degree of increased run scoring. However, I think it is reasonable to expect the Jays to score at least 1, and possibly as much as 1.5, additional run per game over the remainder of the 2016 season should they produce an .810+ OPS.
With the Jays giving up about 4.02 runs per game so far during the 2016 season, even if one expects the starters to be a little worse and the bullpen a little better, I think around that level is reasonable for the remainder of the season. Assuming even 4.25 runs per game would still leave the Jays averaging more than a run per game more in runs scored versus runs surrendered. The combination would place the Jays right around the pace they produced in 2015, which is about a .600 winning percentage team. A .600 winning percentage over the remaining 108 games, combined with the 28 wins over the first 54 games, would result in about a 92-93 win team for the full season.
That will almost certainly be enough to be in the race for a wild card position, but what do things look like for the Red Sox? They are currently giving up about 4.38 runs per game, but are obviously scoring runs at an epic rate. Should this disparity continue, the Red Sox would likely be around a 100 win team for the entire season. Of course, I don’t think their offensive production is sustainable, but it has a lot of room to regress before their run differential would become problematic.
If Red Sox’s team OPS were to revert back to their forecasted 2016 level, they would suffer a decline in runs scored per game of at least 1 and possibly 1.5 runs per game over the remainder of the season. Even if the Red Sox’s pitching improves some (and David Price very likely will), the spread between runs scored and runs allowed would close to less than a run per game. If I assume a .7 run differential over the remainder of the season, a .580 winning percentage over their remaining 110 games would result in about a 95 win season.
As Yogi Berra famously once said, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” With that being said, I believe it is reasonable to expect that the Red Sox will not keep up their current level of offensive production. To put things into perspective, they would have to average about 5.3 runs per game over the remainder of the season to match the 5.5 runs the historically great 2015 Blue Jays offense produced. When I take my Blue Jays fan boy hat off and look at things realistically, it is going to be difficult for the Jays to catch the Red Sox. Even if the Jays’ pitching staff continues to give up around 4 runs per game and the offense returns to the 5.5 runs per game production level of 2015, the projected year end win total would be about 96 games.
While I believe it is probably too pessimistic at this point, a pretty severe regression for the Red Sox to their forecasted 2016 performance levels over the remainder of the season would still “only” result in the Red Sox and Blue Jays being neck and neck in late September. As luck would have it, the season ends with a 3 game series between the Jays and Red Sox in Fenway Park, so this fan boy will be hoping that the Jays at least have a puncher’s chance heading into that series.
*Featured Image Credit: C Stem- JFtC