Many Blue Jays writers support the “boom and bust” system of building teams. That system has merit, but it may not be the best approach
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The conventional model for building a baseball team (other than a salary-cap-be-damned team like the current Dodgers or past Yankees) is sometimes called “boom and bust”. The team builds over several losing or marginal seasons, drafting and developing young players. Then, when they feel that they are close to competing, they go “all in”, spending cash and prospect capital in a mad dash to the finish line. A Blue Jays example would be the 2009-2104 years, where the team averaged a winning percentage below .500. Then, in 2015, Ninja Alex decided to “go for it”, trading for David Price and Troy Tulowitzki (and moving the Toronto farm system from being ranked #10 to #24).
Sadly, the flags did not fly for the Jays in 2015. And – after losing David Price, and with Tulo’s continued decline – the Jays were forced to rebuild from 2017-19, averaging 72 wins. But 2021 was a very good year, and 2022 is looking even better. The “time to go all-in!” cries are being heard again.
For the benefit of any non-poker players, when a player goes “all-in” he pushes all of his/her chips in to the pot (hence the term). If they win, great. But if they lose, they are out of the game. It is all or nothing, and experienced players – recognizing that – tend to use that strategy sparingly. The problem is that, in a single poker hand or a single baseball playoff, the other player can get lucky – even if the odds are in your favour.
Let me pose a not-entirely-trivial trivia question. Since 2000 (22 years), how many times has the playoff team with the best regular season record won the World Series? Like the Dodgers did in 2020, when their 43 wins was the highest? And how many times has the playoff team with the WORST regular season record won the Series – like the Braves (with 88 regular season wins) did in 2021?
The answer might surprise you. The best team won 5 times – exactly the same as the worst team, who also won 5 times. But here is an easier question: how many times did a team that did NOT make the playoffs win the Series? Of course, the answer is zero.
There is an old adage that the playoffs are a whole new season. The above stats support that. Can it then be argued that the way for a team to maximize its World Series pennants is not to try to be the best team in baseball one year out of three, and to miss the playoffs the other two years, but rather to make their objective to maximize the number of years that they make the playoffs at all? Like the famous “Cardinal Way”. In the 22 year period I mentioned above, the St. Louis Cardinals made it to the World Series four times, winning twice. How did they do it? Well, it helps to have been in the playoffs in 14 of those 22 years (for this purpose, I consider the loser in the wild card game to not be “in the playoffs”). And interestingly, in both of the two times the Cardinals won the World Series they had the worst regular season record of any playoff team.
But what is the difference between “all in” and the Cardinal “Blue Jay Way”? In brief, it means not sacrificing the future for the near present. Or, to put it another way, it means making decisions designed to maximize the number of playoff appearances over time.
To give a numerical example: suppose a particular trade would increase a team’s chances of making the playoffs by 10% in year 1, but decrease the chances by 5% in years 2-5. Going all-in means that a team would do that trade. Under the BJW, the team would not.
So what kinds of decisions would be affected?
- trading top prospects for one-year rentals would be frowned upon. Yes, sometimes the prospects do not pan out (think Daniel Norris for David Price). But sometimes they do (Torres for Chapman). Of course, trading top prospects for players with multiple years of team control is a different story (Lawrie and Barreto for Josh Donaldson)
- Signing an aging free agent to a multi-year deal, knowing that the last few years will be ugly, just to get the first year or two would be avoided wherever possible, to not hamstring future budgets
- A BJW team would invest heavily in scouting and player development, knowing that a full prospect pipeline is critical to continued success. Such a team would be a leader in the way they handle young talent.
These rules would not be absolute – you can always think of a scenario where a counterintuitive move would be justified. But they would be a strong guideline.
The bottom line
The Blue Jays will have some hard decisions to make this upcoming offseason. Overpay Robbie Ray on a 5 or 6-year deal, just to get him in the 2022 rotation? Trade significant prospect capital for a one-year rental? The front office will be under pressure to do so – fans love their shiny new toys. But that might not be the best path to long-term success.
*Featured Image Courtesy Of DaveMe Images. Prints Available For Purchase.
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A Jays fan since pre-Series, Jim’s biggest baseball regret is that he did not play hooky with his buddies on 7 Apr 77. But hearing “Fanfare For The Common Man” played from a rooftop on 24 Oct 92 helped him atone.