The Toronto Blue Jays have been one of the best teams in the AL for a while now, which may surprise you.
The Blue Jays have had such a weird season. They started the season with an infamously bad record (3-12). Then, they surged up the standings through the end of May (23-15). June (8-9) hasn’t had quite the same highs and lows as the first two months—it’s just been…blah. The team has been alternating between wins and losses, never stringing more than two of either together.
The sideways June made it extra surprising when Jon Morosi tweeted that the Blue Jays had the 2nd best record in AL since April 27th (though that was no longer the case after Tuesday night’s loss). That tweet (and the ensuing discussions of it in the Jays blogosphere) reminded me of a post I wrote about a month ago.
The premise of that post was that the Jays’ extra-innings win over the Angels back on April 21st was a turning point, in as much as turning points exist. Did the Jays suddenly become good that night? No. Did the Jays fortunes start turning noticeably after that game? Yes. The Blue Jays have the 2nd best record in the AL since that game.
Underlying that strong record have been very strong performances on both sides of the plate, in terms of xwOBA. It’s always worth stating that xwOBA is a more accurate predictor of future performance than wOBA. This is intuitive—results (wOBA) probably contain a lot more noise than contact quality (xwOBA). At the end of the day, results will get the team into the playoffs or not. But if we want to think about what the results will look like going forward, xwOBA is the single best place to look. In the last two months, the Blue Jays have produced the third-highest batting xwOBA and the second-lowest pitching xwOBA in the AL. Also, the Astros are great at baseball.
For the visually inclined, here are a couple of graphs. The first compares the Jays’ 30-day moving average for batting xwOBA against the AL average (.323, since April 21st) and the cumulative 30-day moving average of the AL’s “Big Four”, Houston, New York, Boston and Cleveland. These four teams each have at least a 70% chance of making the playoffs, according to Fangraphs. They are the teams standing between the Blue Jays and a trip to the World Series.
After a rough first month of the season, Jays hitters began to make increasingly better contact. By mid-May, the Jays’ 30-day average was equal to both the Big Four and AL averages. Since then, the Jays have consistently out xwOBA’d the group of main AL contenders.
Jays pitchers have been pretty solid all season, though it doesn’t always seem that way because they appear to be the unluckiest pitching staff in the AL, in terms of xwOBA – wOBA. As a group, they’ve been better-than-average all season, tracking very closely to the 30-day moving average of the Big Four.
Now, let’s try bringing the underlying performances on both sides of the plate together. To do so, we’ll use z-scores, a way of comparing apples to apples when dealing with two different statistics (even though we’re using xwOBA for both batters and pitchers, a “good” xwOBA is higher for batters, but lower for pitchers). When we combine the Jays’ third-best batting xwOBA and second-best pitching xwOBA, we find that that Jays have the second-highest z-Total. In plain language, since April 21, the Blue Jays have had the second best batting and pitching combined in the AL (in terms of xwOBA).
The same old caveats remain, both positive and negative. On the one hand, the team’s baserunning has been near the bottom of the majors all season long. As a result, the offence will likely underperform their xwOBA level to some degree. Similarly, the team’s defence has been near the bottom of the majors all season long, which could result in the pitching staff underperforming their xwOBA.
On the other hand, the Jays have performed exceptionally in spite of very poor fortune on the injury front. The team is sixth in the majors in terms of days spent on the DL and fifth in the majors in terms of dollars spent on the DL. In each case, they rank higher than Houston, Boston, New York and Cleveland.
Overall, there is a lot to be optimistic about. Crappy start aside, Jays batters and pitchers have been producing top-quality performances for two solid months. And, as frustrating as things have been lately (surely they will reach .500 one of these days), the 30-day moving averages above show that even just over the last month, the Jays have been out xwOBA’ing their main competitors on both sides of the plate. In spite of issues with baserunning, defence and injuries, this team fundamentally looks like a wild-card team (at the least) and (if luck is even just neutral for a while) a contender for the AL East title.
*Featured Image Credit: C Stem- JFtC
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I’m an economics professor in the GTA whose lifelong love for the Jays was reignited by that magical August of 2015 and the amazing moments since.