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March 11, 2007

Hope and Faith

How the Toronto Blue Jays Can Win the World Series

by William Burke

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Having spent most of his first four years trimming the fat from the payroll, J.P. Ricciardi finally had himself positioned to make a big splash last winter, and splash he did, like an offensive lineman doing a cannonball into a swimming pool. It paid off, as the additions of A.J. Burnett, Troy Glaus, B.J. Ryan, and Lyle Overbay helped the team push past the slumping Red Sox to a second-place finish in the AL East, giving Ontarians plenty of Hope and Faith that a return to the playoffs could be in the offing for 2007.

Not since Joe Carter's Game Six home run to end the 1993 World Series have the Blue Jays even been within shouting distance of the playoffs. They have virtually owned third place during the time that followed, with eight of the next eleven seasons ending in a third-place finish. Can they build on last year's success? Well, fans can hope, can't they?

Hope: PECOTA and "regression to the mean" don't apply north of the border

                2006   2007
Player          VORP   VORP*
Reed Johnson    32.5    0.5
Alex Rios       29.0    6.1
Vernon Wells    59.8   26.0
Aaron Hill      18.7   14.2
Lyle Overbay    36.3   16.9
* As projected by PECOTA

The Jays scored 809 runs last year, good for 11th in MLB, but not good enough to make the playoffs. Several players had what may end up being career years: Reed Johnson, Aaron Hill, and Alex Rios led the way with considerable increases in VORP over their previously established performances. Certainly the hope is that Hill and Rios are merely entering their prime and establishing new levels of performance. Johnson, on the other hand, is past the theoretical peak of 27 years old, and generally better known for his defensive contributions. He will more than likely not repeat last year's performance. PECOTA just isn't drinking the Kool-aid on Vernon Wells and his MVP-ish 2006. He last had a season like that in 2003, and would need to hit his 90th percentile forecast in order to come close to repeating last year's performance. A return to his 2004-2005 levels would likely be more than enough to kill their chances to improve run production overall. Last on the list above we have Lyle Overbay. Despite the fact that he has put up VORP of 42.6, 23.5, and 36.3 over the last three seasons, PECOTA doesn't see anything near those figures for 2007.

In order to make a run at the playoffs and thus a championship, Toronto will need to see most of these players out-perform their projections as well as key contributions from the new additions such as Frank Thomas, Royce Clayton, and Gregg Zaun. That's right, you read that correctly, Royce Clayton's offensive contribution will have an significant impact on their ability to score enough runs this year to keep up with Boston and New York. Clayton represents a true replacement player, with a projected VORP of 0.0, but in comparison to what John McDonald and Russ Adams put up last year (-10.4 and -10.1 respectively), it would represent a significant improvement.

Faith: Our medical staff will kick your medical staff right in the stethoscope

The Blue Jays pitching staff is littered with red lights from Will Carroll in his preseason positional health reports. Each of the starters projected for the rotation has a red light except Roy Halladay, and he reportedly "just missed." On the offensive side of things every non-catcher received green lights, with the exception of Troy Glaus and (one would assume) the Big Hurt, Frank Thomas. To make matters even scarier on the offensive side, there is not a lot of depth behind the starters aside from Adam Lind, who provides some protection in the outfield corners and at DH. John McDonald, Jason Phillips, and rookie John Hattig look to round out the bench, none of which the Jays should want to see playing on an everyday basis.

This might worry fans of a franchise with a lesser medical staff, but the Jays have an ace up their sleeve. While it is true that the Blue Jays didn't win the coveted Dick Martin award for best medical staff in 2006, they were among the finalists. In their favor, they had only 327 "Days on the DL," fourth behind the White Sox, Indians, and Mariners; it's a category in which they also finished first in 2005 with a mere 194 days lost. They also came in second place with only 3.29 "Percent of Payroll Lost." Big contributors to these generally low numbers were Burnett and Gustavo Chacin and their sore elbows. However, manager John Gibbons and pitching coach Brad Arnsberg have shown an appreciation for PAP by keeping pitch counts low for the dual aces Burnett and Halladay (36th and 72nd respectively on the 2006 PAP leaderboard). Conservative workloads combined with continuing good work from the medical and training staffs should go a long way towards minimizing DL stints for the pitching staff in particular, as well as the team as a whole.

Faith: (Relief) pitching and defense wins championships

Not only does strong relief pitching and solid defense help keep the starting pitchers healthy and happy, but together they are also two of three ingredients of the Secret Sauce. The sauce comes to us via work done by Nate Silver and Dayn Perry in last year's Baseball Between the Numbers, and proves the old adage that pitching and defense do indeed win championships. More specifically, a strong ace reliever is extremely important due to the fact that usage patterns of the very best relievers on a given playoff team will tend to be such that they hoard innings in the postseason, while the mop-up guys ride the pine and collect bonuses.

Toronto's ace reliever, B.J. Ryan, was spectacular last year. He was the top reliever as rated by ARP (39.6), second in Fair Run Average for pitchers with at least 50 IP (0.56), and fifth in WXRL (5.97). Other key returning members of the bullpen include Scott Downs, Jason Frasor, Brandon League, and Brian Tallet. These four along with Ryan produced a combined ARP of 80.2 in 2006, which ranked third among bullpens when looking at just the top five relievers from each team, behind only the Twins and Mariners. Ironically, they didn't necessarily leverage this area of strength during the season, as they played in the fewest one-run games of any team last year. However, their record was 20-10 in those games.

Defensively, Toronto was very strong as well, finishing eighth in defensive efficiency with a .705, and sixth in FRAA as a team with 17. Aaron Hill was very strong defensively in 2006 at second base in replacing the departed Orlando Hudson, tallying 17 FRAA at the keystone. Vernon Wells saw his FRAA dip below zero, but his three Gold Gloves provide some disagreement with the numbers. The outstanding work done by the corner outfielders Alex Rios and Reed Johnson (either of whom could potentially play center regularly on another team) might also be contributing to fewer chances for Wells to make plays in the gaps.

Hope: I'll put my $75M against your $200M any day

Isn't it just time for the Yanks and Sox to step aside and let the other AL East teams try their hand at representing the division in the playoffs? Neither Baltimore nor Tampa Bay appears poised to take advantage of any slippage that may occur in 2007. In contrast, the Jays already knocked Boston out of the #2 spot in 2006, and New York may just have enough concerns about their pitching for the Jays to succeed in moving past them as well. Of course, technically, they only have to beat one of them to win the Wild Card (along with the rest of the American League field), and beyond that we've seen all sorts of teams win the championship lately.

Over the last two offseasons, the Jays have spent many millions in new contracts, but they maintain a moderate annual budget. J.P. Ricciardi has shown the willingness to fill in the missing pieces of the puzzle with relatively inexpensive players like Tomo Ohka, John Thomson, and NRIs Victor Zambrano and Matt Stairs. Ultimately you would hope for a strong start, and have faith that Ricciardi can or will make the one move that can push this team over the top at just the right moment. Certainly, the financial rewards to be gained from a deep playoff run will outweigh the costs related to a key midseason acquisition.

--

William Burke is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. You can reach William by clicking here.

Related Content:  Lyle Overbay,  J.P. Ricciardi,  Aaron Hill

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