AL East Preview: The Talented Blue Jays Have Unfinished Business

MLB

AL East Preview: The Talented Blue Jays Have Unfinished Business

By Neil Paine

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PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY FIVETHIRTYEIGHT / GETTY IMAGES / AP PHOTO

In honor of the 2022 Major League Baseball season, which starts April 7 — and is actually a thing! — FiveThirtyEight will be focusing our attention on the most intriguing team in each division. Today, we take a look at the American League East, a top-heavy group of talented teams that could be due for a new champion this year.

Amid the flurry of moves that followed the end of MLB’s lockout, the Toronto Blue Jays’ acquisition of third baseman Matt Chapman last week served to remind the rest of baseball just how serious the team’s championship aspirations are. Toronto seems both scary and entertaining in equal measure: Its projected infield now contains three players who produced at least 3.5 wins above replacement1 in 2021 — Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (6.8), Bo Bichette (5.4) and Chapman (3.5) — plus a fourth, Cavan Biggio,2 who played to a 4.4-WAR pace in the short 2020 season. Guerrero is already back to hitting balls out of stadiums in spring training. Along with outfielder George Springer and a solid pitching staff, that stacked infield corps has the Blue Jays looking just about as dangerous as they have in a long time.

In fact, they might be favorites to win the American League — on paper. According to the blend of projections we use to set preseason Elo ratings,3 Toronto’s composite win total of 92.1 ranks third in MLB (behind the sport’s last two champs, the Los Angeles Dodgers and Atlanta Braves) and first in the AL by a slim margin over the division-rival New York Yankees.

The Blue Jays look like one of the best …

Top MLB teams by preseason projected 2022 MLB win totals, according to a composite of FiveThirtyEight’s Elo ratings and three statistical projection systems

Projected Wins
Team Division Davenport Prospectus FanGraphs Elo Composite
1 Dodgers NL West 99.0 101.0 94.6 100.7 99.0
2 Braves NL East 92.0 91.8 92.2 93.4 92.5
3 Blue Jays AL East 97.0 91.1 92.7 88.9 92.1
4 Yankees AL East 90.0 98.7 90.9 89.4 91.9
5 Astros AL West 86.0 90.6 89.1 92.6 89.9
6 Brewers NL Central 90.0 93.2 88.1 87.0 89.3
7 White Sox AL Central 93.0 91.5 86.8 86.7 89.2
8 Rays AL East 84.0 85.4 86.7 93.4 88.0
9 Padres NL West 85.0 91.3 88.0 83.2 86.5
10 Red Sox AL East 88.0 85.8 87.0 85.5 86.5

Projections as of March 21, 2022.

Elo wins are based on a regressed version of 2021′s final Elo ratings.

Sources: ClayDavenport.com, Baseball Prospectus, FanGraphs

The AL East figures to be a challenging division again this season — when is that ever not the case? — with the Tampa Bay Rays and Boston Red Sox joining Toronto and New York to claim four of the top 10 spots in the list above. But talent-wise, the Blue Jays can stand toe-to-toe with any of them. The only issue might be that this was true last year as well. According to measures of underlying team ability such as the Pythagorean expectation (which is based on a team’s runs scored and allowed) and team WAR (which incorporates more detailed statistics), Toronto was a top-five outfit in MLB last season and was — at worst — the third-best club in the AL.

… but that was true last season, too

Top MLB teams of the 2021 season, according to Pythagorean winning percentage (based on run differential) and total wins above replacement

By Pythagorean Win % By Roster WAR
RK Team Pythag% RK Team Tot. WAR
1 Los Angeles Dodgers* .672 1 Los Angeles Dodgers* 57.2
2 San Francisco Giants* .635 2 San Francisco Giants* 54.3
3 Tampa Bay Rays* .623 3 Houston Astros* 53.2
4 Houston Astros* .622 4 Toronto Blue Jays 50.8
5 Toronto Blue Jays .610 5 Tampa Bay Rays* 50.6
6 Chicago White Sox* .601 6 Chicago White Sox* 50.6
7 Atlanta Braves* .584 7 Milwaukee Brewers* 45.6
8 Milwaukee Brewers* .577 8 Boston Red Sox* 42.0
9 Boston Red Sox* .546 9 Atlanta Braves* 41.2
10 Oakland Athletics .536 10 St. Louis Cardinals* 40.4

*Playoff team in 2021.

Source: Baseball-Reference.com, FanGraphs

And yet, the Blue Jays not only failed to win the pennant, but they didn’t make the playoffs at all, finishing a game out of the AL’s final wild-card slot. (You can see how much of an outlier they were by the fact that practically all of the other teams on those lists were in the postseason.) In the process, Toronto became one of the best teams in history ever to miss the playoffs — a list that no team would be eager to add themselves to.

Historically, one of the fundamental rules behind a baseball franchise’s ebbs and flows is that teams with better stats than their records indicate tend to improve the following season, often in proportion to how much they undershot expectations the previous year. Since the dawn of the divisional era in 1969, teams whose actual wins per 162 games lagged behind their Pythagorean wins per 162 by at least six wins tended to improve on their actual wins per 162 by 7.1 wins on average. Toronto’s gap last season was -7.8 wins, so — all else being equal — the Blue Jays were always going to have a strong chance to improve on their 91-win tally from last season and muscle their way into the playoffs.

But one of the things that makes Toronto even more interesting than the typical bounce-back candidate is that some significant roster changes are complicating its rebound formula. Over the offseason, the Blue Jays lost the third-most 2021 WAR of any team, headlined by the departures of Marcus Semien (6.9 WAR) and pitchers Robbie Ray (5.8) and Steven Matz (2.6). They also gained the sixth-most 2021 WAR of any team, led by pitcher Kevin Gausman (5.4), Chapman (3.5) and pitcher Yusei Kikuchi (1.5). In terms of total 2021 WAR either outgoing or incoming since the end of the season, only the free-spending New York Mets and the tanking Oakland A’s saw more of a shakeup in value since last October.

Toronto still received high marks for its offseason despite the upheaval, and its most important core players remain largely in place (including starter José Berríos, who inked a long-term contract extension in November). After its nomadic existence of the past two years — because of Canadian border restrictions, the Blue Jays played “home” games in Buffalo and Dunedin, Florida, through most of the COVID-19 pandemic before finally returning to Toronto last July — the team is hoping for a more normal-seeming full season in 2022. In fact, after hurting the Jays over the past two seasons, pandemic restrictions could actually help them this year by barring unvaccinated opponents from traveling to road games in Canada. (Sorry, Aaron Judge.)

Mainly, though, 2022 is about whether Toronto can finally capitalize on the seemingly endless potential of its young homegrown stars like Guerrero — who is in much better shape now than he was going into last year’s 48-homer campaign — as well as its new additions like Chapman. The talent is there for the franchise’s first World Series run since winning back-to-back titles in 1992 and 1993 — but that was also true last season, at least if you believed the numbers. Now the Blue Jays will get a chance to complete that unfinished business from a year ago and turn their potential into reality.

AL East Preview: The Talented Blue Jays Have Unfinished Business