Can Blue Jays win with what they’ve got?
Late on Monday night, the team with the best offense in baseball and a questionable pitching staff made a blockbuster trade, but not for the frontline starting pitcher that everyone expected. Instead, Toronto Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos used one of his best trade chips — 2014 first round pick Jeff Hoffman — to acquire Troy Tulowitzki from the Rockies, adding another legitimate offensive weapon to a team that has had no problems scoring runs thus far.
In my write-up of the trade, I primarily focused on drawing attention to the non-linear nature of run scoring, noting that adding a good hitter to an already high scoring offense produces a larger benefit than importing that same hitter into a weak offense. Good hitting begets good hitting, and with another good hitter in the mix, there will be more at-bats with men on base — when nearly every hitter performs better than he does with the bases empty — and the addition of Tulowitzki to the Blue Jays offense should have a positive effect on the other hitters in Toronto’s line-up as well.
But there is one aspect of the decision to go after Tulowitzki, instead of a guy like Johnny Cueto, that I didn’t address; the postseason effect. After all, the Blue Jays are giving up significant parts of their farm system not just for the hope of getting to the playoffs, but of advancing deep into October, and constructing a roster for the long haul of a 162-game regular season isn’t the same thing as constructing a roster for the postseason. Due to the drastic differences in off-days during the playoffs, teams can allocate a much larger percentage of their innings pitched to their best arms, making the impact of a premium hurler larger in October than any pitcher can have from April through September. For a recent example, simply recall what Madison Bumgarner did for the Giants last fall.
Bumgarner’s dominance, and other performances like it, have given rise to the idea that pitching is what wins in the playoffs; if you’ve watched baseball for any length of time, you’ve undoubtedly heard the "good pitching beats good hitting" truism. The Blue Jays are clearly not buying into that cliche, and are betting on a great offense to make up for a mediocre pitching staff. But does that kind of team actually win in October? Let’s look at some data.
To measure the success of offense-oriented playoff teams, I gathered data on every team that has made the postseason since the 2002 season, and to evaluate a team’s strengths, I sorted them by their BaseRuns expected runs scored per game; this way, we’re just looking at teams that crushed opposing pitchers, not teams that just bunched their hits together in a timely fashion. And as I looked through the list, it quickly became clear that a team could certainly slug their way to a World Series title.
The 2004 Red Sox, for instance, had the third-best offense of the 110 teams in the sample, as BaseRuns estimated their offense at a 5.9 runs per game level, easily best in the league that year. Their run prevention unit wasn’t bad, at 4.6 expected runs allowed per game, but that ranked just 12th best in baseball. This was a team that mostly just beat their opponents by pounding them at the plate, and lived with the consequences of putting Manny Ramirez in the outfield to do so. Rather famously, the 2004 Red Sox won the World Series.
The story is the same with the 2009 Yankees, who also put up a BaseRuns estimate of 5.9 R/G against 4.6 RA/G. No. 1 in run scoring, No. 13 in run prevention and a World Series title to show for it. Two of the four highest powered offenses to make the playoffs, both with run prevention units that weren’t anything special, got to throw a championship parade. The idea that good pitching always beats good hitting is easily disproven.
But while the Blue Jays current offense is quite good, it’s not the 2004 Red Sox or 2009 Yankees, and they’re worse at run prevention than both of those squads were as well. While it’s pretty obviously true that you can win in October with an historically great offense and a good enough pitching staff, can the Blue Jays expect to win when the difference between their run scoring and run prevention isn’t so large? In other words, have offense-first teams that haven’t been quite as dominant found postseason success?
To test that, I cut down the sample, only looking at teams that had a run differential of +0.4 to +0.8 runs per game, giving us a group of 66 playoff teams that, on the whole, look pretty similar to the 2015 Blue Jays, who are running a +0.6 runs per game differential at the moment. This gives us a more representative sample, and here, the results start to look a bit different.
25 of the 66 teams who fit into this run-differential group got there by putting up a BaseRuns estimate of 4.8 runs per game or more on offense; for the most part, these are teams that hit their way into the postseason, carrying mediocre pitching staffs along the way. As a group, these teams had a BaseRuns expected winning percentage of .558, right in line with the .563 mark that the Blue Jays are currently posting. These were good teams, not great teams, whose strength lied in putting runs on the board.
Of those 25 teams, you know how many won the World Series? Not a single one. You know how many even made it to the World Series? Just four: the 2006 Tigers, 2007 Rockies, 2008 Rays, and 2009 Phillies. Those four teams combined to go 4-16 in the World Series, by the way. The recent postseason history of offense-over-defense teams — at the Blue Jays current level — isn’t particularly encouraging.
This doesn’t mean the Blue Jays’ strategy is definitely doomed for failure. You can make up for a mediocre pitching staff by putting a dominant offense together and just bashing your opponents into submission, even in October. But to get up to the level of offense-first championship clubs, the Jays would likely have to keep adding bats to fill a few more holes; if their goal is to replicate the 2004 Red Sox, they can’t be starting Ezequiel Carrera on a regular basis.
As good as Tulowitzki is, he’s not going to transform their lineup into one of the best offenses in baseball history, especially given the fact that he’s a right-handed hitter in a lineup that was already stacked with them. Given how easy it will be for opposing managers to matchup against the middle of the Blue Jays lineup in the postseason, the Jays simply shouldn’t plan on being able to put up five runs per game in October.
So if Toronto wants to make a deep run in October, more upgrades are necessary. They should probably get a starting pitcher, even if they don’t like the prices on the rentals, and while the offense is already quite good, a left-handed hitting left fielder should be on the list as well. Tulo was a good pickup for the team, especially because they’ll retain his rights beyond this season, but this isn’t a great team yet; the front office still has some work to do if they want to put together a team that has a better chance of not just making the playoffs, but winning some games when they get there.