The Blue Jays' hot streak is no fluke — they're a legit contender
Toronto is finally getting the results it deserves
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The Blue Jays might be even better than we think
Toronto is the hottest team in baseball. Yesterday's 6-3 victory over Tampa Bay was the Blue Jays' 16th win in their last 19 games — a run that has transformed them from also-rans to American League wild card holders and the proverbial Team No One Wants To Face In The Playoffs. After spending much of the year stuck in neutral, the Jays are suddenly commanding the attention of baseball fans and media on both sides of the border as the regular season heads into its final couple of weeks. They're the hottest story in the sport right now too.
And yet, you could argue that the Jays are still underrated — that they may in fact be the best team in the American League and have a great chance to reach the World Series for the first time since winning back-to-back championships in 1992 and '93. Here's why:
The nerdy stuff
Toronto heads into its next game, vs. Minnesota on Friday night, with a record of 82-64. That puts them eight games behind Tampa Bay (90-56), which has all but clinched the American League East, and tied with the division-rival Yankees (82-64) and Boston (83-65) in the race for the two AL wild cards. The Jays also trail Houston (85-60) and the Chicago White Sox (83-62), who are running away with the AL West and Central, respectively. However, certain key metrics suggest Toronto is better than most, if not all, of those teams if we take enough luck out of the equation.
Let's nerd out a little here. Pythagorean expectation is a way of measuring what a team's record ought to be based on its run differential, which is considered a more accurate predictor of how a team will do in the future than its current win-loss record. By this calculation, the Jays, with their outstanding +175 run differential (fourth-best in baseball) deserve to be 91-55 — a whopping nine games better than they are in the official standings. They have a bigger negative margin between their Pythagorean record and their actual record than any other team in baseball.
Another metric that can help strip out luck from a team's record is Base Runs. The concept here is that run differential doesn't do enough to eliminate the noise because of the impact that clustering hits can have on run-scoring. Think about it this way: Team A and Team B each finish a game with nine hits — all singles, with no walks and no errors by their opponents. You'd expect them to score about the same number of runs, right? But say Team A's hits are distributed exactly one per inning. They'll get shut out. And say Team B bunches them all into one inning. They'll score six runs. That's been referred to as "cluster luck." Strip it out with Base Runs and the Jays should be 88-58 — six games better than their actual record, making them the fourth-unluckiest team in baseball by this measure. Luck tends to even out over the course of a season, and we're starting to see that with the Jays. Their record is finally catching up with their actual quality.
The less-nerdy stuff
You don't have to have read Moneyball multiple times to appreciate what the Jays are doing. Traditional stats, or even just the good ol' eye test, will do.
Let's start with the offence, which has scored the second-most runs in baseball. Everybody's talking about Vladimir Guerrero Jr. right now, and deservedly so. The 22-year-old slugger is making a real run at the ultra-rare Triple Crown: he leads the major leagues with 45 homers, tops the AL with a .317 batting average and is tied for third in the league in RBIs. If you'll allow one more nerdy detour, Guerrero leads all big-league hitters in Fangraphs' Wins Above Replacement stat. No. 2 is Jays second baseman Marcus Semien, a brilliant free-agent addition who's smacked 39 homers and 37 doubles and stolen 15 bases. Outfielder Teoscar Hernandez (27 homers, 103 RBIs, 11 steals) is also having a monster year, while shortstop Bo Bichette and outfielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr. are hitting quite well too. And there's still meat on the bone. George Springer, signed to the richest free-agent contract in team history over the winter, has been hampered by injuries for much of the year. Imagine this lineup if he were to get healthy.
Meanwhile, the starting rotation has been surprisingly deep and effective. Ace Hyun Jin Ryu isn't the Cy Young candidate he was last year, but Robbie Ray surprisingly is. The veteran lefty has come out of nowhere to lead the majors in strikeouts and top the AL in ERA. Rookie Alek Manoah has looked great since coming up at the end of May. And Jose Berrios is proving to be a solid trade-deadline pickup. The bullpen is anchored by Jordan Romano, who's emerged as a reliable closer.
The Jays are also peaking at the right time. Since the start of September, they're 13-2 and have outscored their opponents 120-61. That's an average score of 8-4. In one absurd 24-hour span last weekend, Toronto bludgeoned Baltimore for 44 runs in just three games (including a pair of seven-inning double-headers). The Jays aren't going to run this pure forever. But their explosion is very well-timed. The American League looks pretty wide open, so being the hottest team come playoff time might be enough to take the pennant.
A word of caution
Not to end on a sour note, but even though all the pieces seem to be in place for a deep post-season run, the Jays still have a lot of work to do to even qualify. They're not catching Tampa Bay for the AL East title, and they're currently locked in a virtual three-way tie with the Yankees and Red Sox in the wild card chase. One of the three teams will be left out of the playoffs. The other two will face off in a one-game wild-card showdown, giving them essentially a coin-flip chance of making it to the main bracket. So, even though the Jays' luck seems to be turning in the right direction, they're going to need a lot more of it in the next few weeks.
WATCH | Blue Jays aiming to capitalize on hot September:
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Coming up on CBC Sports
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