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October 7, 2008

You Could Look It Up

The Best-Worst Blue Jays versus the Best-Worst Pirates

by Steven Goldman

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In Joe Sheehan's Monday chat, he made an off-hand comment about this year's Blue Jays:

mharrop (toronto): joe, in his Hit List season wrap yesterday, Jaffe called the Jays "perhaps the strongest fourth-place team in wild card-era history." your thoughts?

Joe Sheehan: The "perhaps" is unnecessary. The Jays had an amazing pitching-and-defense team this season. I might go so far as to say they were the strongest fourth-place team in the divisional era.

For the record, here is what Jay Jaffe had to say in his season wrap-up:

Perhaps the strongest fourth-place team in wild card-era history, the Jays nonetheless finish far enough out of the money that their early-season mistakes regarding ditching Frank Thomas, burying Adam Lind, and playing Shannon Stewart should haunt them over the winter. J.P. Ricciardi deserves credit for assembling a rotation that's tops in the league in SNLVAR, but the losses to injury of Dustin McGowan and Shaun Marcum (who will miss 2009 with Tommy John surgery) detract from that accomplishment and will send Ricciardi to the drawing board. On that note, the Jays end months of speculation by announcing he will return in 2009, as will Cito Gaston.

Fair enough, Jay and Joe, but here on the dead-guys beat we look for comps, and what I'm wondering is if "the best fourth-place team in the divisional era" was better than a Pirates team that finished sixth in the competitive National League East of 1984.

As with the Blue Jays of 2008, who led the American League in runs allowed per game with 3.77 versus a league average of 4.78, the Pirates of 1984 led their league, allowing just 3.50 runs per game against a league average of 4.06. The Pirates had an adjusted ERA of 117; the Blue Jays were only fractionally better at 124. On offense, the translations are more favorable to the Jays. The Jays, who ranked eleventh in the AL with an average of 4.41 runs per game, had a team EqA of .261 and translated rates of .269/.343/.436. The Pirates averaged 3.80 runs scored per game, 10th best in the NL, and had translated rates of .258/.317/.398. Both clubs were solid at converting balls in play into outs.

These numbers would seem to suggest an obvious advantage for the Blue Jays, with roughly comparable pitching staffs negated by Toronto's offensive advantage, meaning that Joe and Jay were correct, at least insofar as this particular comparison is concerned. To confirm, let's go through the charmingly subjective and inexact but always amusing position-by-position comparison. In the following list, the Pirates player will always be listed first, with each player's Equivalent Average listed in parentheses. In the case of a team having utilized multiple starters, the combined EqA for the position is listed.

Catcher

A five-time All-Star at the peak of his powers, Pena and his one-legged squat were celebrated for giving his pitchers an extra-low target to aim for (later, as he aged, the squat would be criticized for making him completely immobile). Pena never walked much, but his 1982-1984 production, .294/.332/.432, was fairly robust for a catcher of this time. He also threw out 40 percent of attempted basestealers in 1984, not an uncommonly high figure for him. The Blue Jays' Barajas also did a good job of throwing out runners (34 percent), but he and Gregg Zaun combined to hit just .245/.311/.386 in a lumpy platoon that didn't do enough to minimize Barajas's almost pathological inability to reach base-his .294 OBP of 2008 was actually slightly above his career average.
Score after one position: Pirates 1, Blue Jays 0

First Base

A three-time All-Star, Thompson was a sabermetric slugger who peaked at 27... and then just stopped. When Thompson finished his age-27 season in 1982, his career rates stood at .266/.364/.462, gangbusters for the era, and from 1980 to 1982 he had been even better, hitting .277.395/.496. By 1984 that was all over, as he hit just .254/.357/.389, though with 17 home runs and 87 walks. Overbay had a similar season, but rates the edge on vastly superior defense.
Score after two positions: Pirates 1, Blue Jays 1

Second Base

All-Star Ray was a switch-hitting doubles machine-he led the NL in 1983 and 1984-but he didn't walk or strike out, just putting ball after ball into play. In his good/lucky years he hit .300 and was valuable; in other seasons, he hit more like .280 and struggled to reach average levels of production. It happens that 1984 was the best season of his career, hitting .312/.354/.434. Reports on his glove varied, with the consensus being that he had very good hands but not much better than average range. In contrast, the Jays had a lost year at the keystone. Aaron Hill started hot, hitting .312/.372/.468 in his first 20 games, but slumped thereafter, and hit just .234/.295/.297 in the 35 contests remaining to him before a concussion ended his season on May 29. As for Inglett and Scutaro, they were better than anyone would have expected them to be (Inglett hit .305/.362/.418 as a second baseman), keeping the position a mild positive for the Jays.
Score after three positions: Pirates 2, Blue Jays 1

Third Base

An easy win for the Jays here. Madlock was a three-time All-Star and four-time batting title winner, and was coming off of leading the 1983 NL by hiting .323. Sadly for the Pirates, 1984 would mark the beginning of the end for the original Mad Dog, because Madlock was overweight, which affected both his fielding and his ability to stay in the lineup. His .253/.297/.323 season was a stunning disappointment given that Madlock was a career .317/.378/.459 hitter to that point. Aside from a nice 34-game, .360/.422/.447 flurry after being traded to the Dodgers in 1985, he was done hitting .300, and would hit only .268/.330/.392 in the 466 games remaining in his career. The well-traveled guy from the Doors hit very well as a replacement, but was a defensive disaster. Scott Rolen isn't what he was, but he fielded well and hit around a shoulder injury that ruined his July and August numbers (.171/.290/.267 in 31 games). Scutaro hit only .237/.333/.333 as his replacement.
Score after four positions: Pirates 2, Blue Jays 2

Shortstop

Dale Berra's 1984 VORP was 0.7, nor was he a particularly good fielder. As with second base, the Jays didn't get great work here, but it was better than they probably had any right to expect.
Score after five positions: Blue Jays 3, Pirates 2

Left Field

Mazz was finished as a regular at 29, no surprise given that he hadn't played well since 1980. Amos Otis was also finished, and Brian Harper's time (as a catcher, not as an outfielder) had not yet arrived. That leaves the 36-year-old Lee Lacy, who hit .306/.335/.450 at the position, but he spent more time in right field. As Mr. Jaffe wrote, the Jays made the mistake of burying Adam Lind early; Shannon Stewart represented a particularly weak attempt to tread water. The jury is still out on Lind; his minor league numbers are impeccable, but he needs to find a happy medium between his .379/.396/.644 July and his .265/.304/.375 August-September. The former is a star, the latter not good enough to play. Travis Snider, who picked up a few games here towards the end of the season, may similarly be undermined by strike-zone problems, though that may be an overreaction to a small sample.

You could call this position a draw, but we'll throw the edge to the Blue Jays for finishing the season looking towards the future instead of being mired in the past, as the Pirates were.
Score after six positions: Blue Jays 4, Pirates 2

Center Field

This one's pretty easy. Wynne, who led off in 145 games, was one of the most pointless players in recent history. He was fast but couldn't steal, a leadoff hitter who didn't walk, a center fielder without a glove, a consumer of outs but not a producer of power. These were concepts beyond the apprehension of Bucco's manager Chuck Tanner. Wells missed time with a broken wrist but hit well while he was around; Rios actually dragged the position down, batting .256/.297/.376 while saving all of his production for right field.
Score after seven positions: Blue Jays 5, Pirates 2

Right field

Lacy was a late bloomer who played his best baseball as a platoon player from the age of 27 and up, batting .294/.351/.454 against southpaws in over 2,000 career plate appearances. He played full time in 1984 and had what was probably the best season of his career, hitting .321/.362/.464; .330/.375/.479 as a right fielder. Unfortunately for the Pirates, he split time between the two corners, giving far too much playing time to 25-year-old Doug Frobel. Frobel had some left-handed home-run power, but very little control of the strike zone and a long swing. Pitchers ate him alive in a major league career that lasted just 542 at-bats, with Frobel hitting 20 home runs but logging .201/.276/.365 rates. Neither Lacy, nor Frobel (a first sacker in the minors) was a defensive wizard, with the latter making nine errors in just 112 games; he did throw out 13 runners, presumably a small percentage of runners scampering from first to third. Rios batted .312/.361/.499 as a right fielder, but Wilkerson and assorted other right fielders dragged the overall rates down to .284/.337/.446.
Score after eight positions: Blue Jays 6, Pirates 2

Pirates bench/Blue Jays DHs, etc.

Other than the aforementioned Morrison, the Pirates' bench had veterans whose time had passed, like Mazzilli, Otis, Milt May, and Mitchell Page, as well as a few youngsters who had the odd moment in the sun in future seasons, such as Harper, Joe Orsulak, and Rafael Belliard. None of them did anything for the Pirates in 1984. The Jays got sub-optimal production from their designated hitters, and the reserve outfielders were all from hunger, but the versatile infield replacements (Inglett, Scutaro) helped keep the team above water.
Score after nine positions: Blue Jays 7, Pirates 2

Rotation

That's very close, at least by this one statistical measure. My inclination would be to call this one for the Pirates based on a few factors. First, they enjoyed the benefit of greater durability from their rotation in 1984: the Pirates had three starters make 30 or more starts and needed just nine spot starts versus two 30-game starters for the Jays and 11 spot starts, but that's counting Dustin McGowan and Dave Purcey as one starter. No Pirate starter was as good as Roy Halladay (top Bucco Rick Rhoden trailed Halladay's 7.6 SNLVAR to 6.9), and that alone accounts for most of the difference in the ranking; the rest of the 'Rates rotation is competitive. The Pirates were also a more veteran staff, with Rhoden backed by two 30-year-old lefties of proven quality, Tudor and Candelaria. Third lefty McWilliams (and how many teams have three solid lefty starters?) had the best season of his career with a 124 ERA+ over 227 1/3 innings. The remaining right-hander, Jose DeLeon, was in the second season of a long career in which he would often pitch well but had a heck of a time getting enough run support to win any games. The only Blue Jay of comparable career solidity was Burnett, who had a strange season in which he shut down the Yankees and the Red Sox but was mediocre against everyone else. Taking each rotation position separately, call this one 4-1 for the Pirates.
Score after 14 positions: Blue Jays 8, Pirates 6

Bullpen

You would think with the greater emphasis on bullpens in the present, Jays relievers would have thrown many more innings than their Pirates ancestors. Thanks to the Jays being willing to go deep with their starters, that's not completely true: Pirates starters threw 1,093 1/3 innings, and their relievers 376 2/3, whereas Jays starters threw 1,021 1/3 innings, and the relievers threw 425 innings. The Pirates' pen had some good pitchers having good seasons, and Tanner did use them in high-leverage situations. Unfortunately, they had relatively few opportunities to keep games close, and blew a few too many of them. The Pirates' Pythagorean projection was 87-75. They missed that by 12 wins.
Score after 15 positions: Blue Jays 9, Pirates 6

Looks like Joe and Jay were right about the superior abilities of these Blue Jays, at least as far as this subjective analysis goes. It is entirely possible that there is a better challenger out there for "best fourth-place team of the divisional era"-perhaps the 1969 Cardinals, with Joe Torre and Lou Brock on offense and Bob Gibson and Steve Carlton in the starting rotation, or the 1971 Mets, with a comparable offense to the Jays' and a starting rotation of Tom Seaver, Geary Gentry, Jerry Koosman, and Nolan Ryan, or the 1982 Tigers, with an average offense and a pitching staff that led the league in ERA for reasons that are very difficult to put your finger on, beyond the fact that somebody had to. All of these teams had the same configuration as that of the Jays and the Pirates, with mediocre hitting attacks and league-leading pitching staffs. Point to the Jays-for now. The search for the best-worst team of the divisional era goes on.

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

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