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2012 Preview: Toronto Blue Jays


Toronto Blue Jays

What They Did:      81-81, 4th Place AL East.

      Actual Runs:      Scored 743 runs, Allowed 761.

                                  Expected wins based on RS and RA:  79.2 (4.1 above actual)

             Restated:     Scored 703 runs, Allowed 753.

                                  Exp. wins based on restated RS and RA:  75.9 (5.1 below actual)


Two previews ago, I stated that the Boston Red Sox, due to a shortfall of actual wins compared to its performance-based, expected wins, were baseball’s unluckiest team in 2011.  Toronto represents, in the American League, their counterweight on the other end of the luck spectrum.  The Blue Jays had the most actual wins in excess of their expected wins, with the difference totaling 5.1 wins.  (See above.)

As detailed in the Boston piece, restated runs scored and allowed are based on a regression of three factors (On-Base %, Slugging %, and Isolated Power) that explain the vast majority of a team’s total runs scored (r2 =.84) Toronto clearly benefited, to the tune of 40 runs, from timely hitting.  In those “clutch” situations its hitters performed at a skill level in excess of the baseline they performed at during the rest of the year and as a result, 40 extra runs were the byproduct.  High leverage, small-sample size performance can distort final results.  Once that is factored in however, it’s fair to ask, how do runs scored and runs allowed, either actual or restated, convert into expected wins?  The answer is a Bill James creation he dubbed, thanks to the presence of squared factors, the Pythagorean Theorem.  Since James originally printed his finding in the 1980s, baseball analysts have modified the exponents so that the squared terms, it is now agreed, are most accurate when replaced by an exponent of 1.83. 

The formula looks like this:  Total Expected Wins = (RS^1.83 / (RS^1.83 + RA^1.83)) * 162 and plugging in Toronto’s restated runs scored and allowed of 703 and 753 respectively, it yields, .4685 * 162, or 75.90 expected wins.

The conclusion to take away is that if Toronto performed at exactly the same level on offense in 2012 as last year, and received the same pitching and defensive support as it did in 2011, the Blue Jays would most likely win 76 games.  That’s important to keep in mind because, thanks to an infusion of young talent, a lot of analysts and fans expect Toronto to be better in 2012 than 2011, my model included.  The problem is that the Blue Jays can play a lot better in 2012 and still struggle to post better results due to the deceiving number of games they won last year.

Not only should Toronto benefit from youth and the aging curve, as only one starter is on the wrong side of 30 (Jose Bautista, 31) but from stability in the lineup as well.  Toronto’s didn’t have a single player start 150 games last year and the revolving lineup got so bad at certain positions that Brett Lawrie started the most games at third base for Toronto in 2011 – with 43!  Eight different players started a game at the hot corner, which means that the only group with more men at third base during the summer of 2011 was the cast of MTV’s Jersey Shore.

Called up towards the end of last season, in the 43 games he did start, Lawrie provided Blue Jays’ fans with a glimpse of future greatness hitting .293/.373/.580 complete with speed (4 triples and 7 stolen bases, in one-fourth of a season) power (9 home runs) and defense which was so good, he’s already, at age 22, a leading contender to win a Gold Glove this year.  Thanks to a couple of late-season swaps with Arizona and St. Louis, Toronto got stronger up the middle adding 2B Kelly Johnson and CF Colby Rasmus respectively.  Toronto still has holes at first base and left field, though, in the form of Adam Lind and Eric Thames respectively.  Both project to perform at well-below league average levels and, at first base particularly, that’s a lot of runs to cede to your competition before the season even starts.  For the Blue Jays to have any shot at amassing 90 wins, they need a third straight MVP-level season from RF Jose Bautista, aka Joey Bats – currently baseball’s best nickname.

While an increase in runs scored may not occur without a continuation of Bautista’s outstanding production, Toronto’s pitching staff should definitely give up fewer runs this season.  In terms of results, Ricky Romero may have been the unquestioned ace of the staff with a 15-11 record and sterling 2.92 ERA but – you can hold me to this – Brandon Morrow is going to go too late in your fantasy draft by a number of rounds.  And this isn’t a call on potential either, as both are 27 years old.  Brandon Morrow, with the ERA of 4.72, a full 1.80 higher than Romero’s, actually pitched better last year.  Taking a look at the factors a pitcher can control, Romero struck out 19.4% of the batters he faced, Morrow 26.1% -- tops in the American League.  In striking out batters at a pace above Justin Verlander et al, Morrow didn’t suffer control issues walking a mildly-above-league-average 8.9% of batters he faced, just a hair above the 8.7% Romero walked.  Both had normal home-run-to-fly-ball ratios.  So why the huge differences in ERA?  Opposing batters hit just .242 against Romero when they hit the ball into play and a league average .299 against Morrow.  Pitchers exhibit little control over balls hit into play so Romero will, assuredly, see a spike in his ERA this year, probably very large.  That’s where Romero had good fortune unlikely to be repeated.  On the misfortune side of the ledger, Morrow had one of the lowest strand rates in the league meaning that a disproportionate number of runners who did reach base versus Morrow ended up scoring – an offshoot of bad “cluster luck.”  Look for that to reverse this year and with it, the two ERAs of Romero and Morrow.

With an exciting collection of twenty-something players all over its roster, Toronto is probably the one team in the league with lottery-ticket potential.  I believe the Blue Jays, like the Kansas City Royals, are a year away from being a legitimate post-season threat but of all the teams in the second tier of the American League, Toronto is probably the only one with a plausible shot at contending.  However, they are in the unenviable situation of probably performing better in 2012 than 2011 without a corresponding improvement in wins.  Note, however, I do have the Blue Jays finishing in 3rd place, which would break a string of 4th place finishes dating back to the 2008.

If the Blue Jays are going to contend this year, their fans will know it right away.  That’s because, although Toronto’s schedule is brutal (3rd toughest in all of baseball) the degree of difficulty is severely back-weighted.  Of the 36 games they Blue Jays play against the Red Sox and Yankees (22% of the schedule), only five of them are scheduled before June.   That means over the last 111 games of the season, the Blue Jays will play the Yankees and Red Sox 31 times (28% of the remaining schedule).  They don’t play the Tigers at all until after the All-Star break.  If Toronto gets knocked around by the Orioles, Twins, Athletics and Royals during the first two months of the season they have no chance whatsoever of contending.

Oddsmakers’ expectations:  One of the most consistent markets among all oddsmakers is the Blue Jays’ total wins over/under of 81.  In fact, the first sportsbook to post totals, the Atlantis in Reno, NV, had ½ games attached to every total except Toronto, because, according to their manager, “they’re a .500 team.  At 80 ½ I’d bet the over and at 81 ½, I’d bet the under.”  That’s a level of precision I don’t have that much confidence in, but I happen to agree with the assessment, seeing the Blue Jays finishing with 80 wins.  Even though oddsmakers online and domestic unanimously view the Blue Jays as the team destined to finish fourth, once again, in the American League East, their implied odds for winning the division are lower than the odds of either the White Sox of the Indians winning the Central.  If you’re looking for lottery tickets, I’d still be choosing between the White Sox and Indians and leaving Toronto alone for at least another year. 

2012 Outlook:

80-82 – Third in AL East

709 Runs Scored       717 Runs Allowed


Mop Up Duty:

Joe Peta is the author of Trading Bases, the Newsletter, a companion piece to Trading Bases, A Story about Wall Street, Gambling, and Baseball*  (*) Not necessarily in that order, a Dutton Books/Penguin (U.S.A.) February, 2013 release.

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