Toronto Blue Jays 2013: Do They Have a World Series Roster?
Are the 2013 Toronto Blue Jays a World Series-caliber team?
That's a question many Jays fans, and even respected baseball analysts, asked themselves after the offseason flurry that surrounded the team.
General manager Alex Anthopoulos added to his fame in the city of Toronto with big trades and signings that put the city in a frenzy.
Despite the Jays' struggles in the first week of the season, there is still plenty of baseball to be played and plenty of time for members of the bandwagon to jump off, only to jump back on again.
The judgment on this team will have to wait.
For now, the realm of speculation is where the 2013 Blue Jays live.
After reading Zachary D. Rymer's piece from a few weeks ago, entitled "Blueprint for Building a World Series Winner," I decided to take his examination of what it takes to win a championship and apply it to the 2013 Blue Jays.
Rymer wrote a spectacular, insightful article that makes several valid and sound points. As he points out, according to recent history, a Major League Baseball team needs eight elements in order to win the World Series:
1. Three starters who log over 180 innings
2. Two starters with K-rates over 7.0
3. A lefty specialist who holds left-handed hitters to a sub-.700 OPS
4. A righty setup man with a sub-2.0 BB/K rate, an OPS under .740 against lefties and an OPS under .740 against righties
5. A closer with a WPA over 2.0
6. 200 runs and a .340 OBP from the first two hitters in the lineup
7. Corner players who combine for 100 home runs and a .470 slugging percentage
8. A catcher, a shortstop, a second baseman and a center fielder who have a combined WAR of around 12
So, the (not so) simple question is this: Do the 2013 Jays match this criteria?
1. Three Starters Who Log over 180 Innings
Of the five Toronto starters—R.A. Dickey, Josh Johnson, Brandon Morrow, Mark Buehrle and J.A. Happ—at least three seem likely to throw at least 180 innings this year.
We'll start with Buehrle.
It's been brought up several times since his acquisition by the Blue Jays that Buehrle is a virtual lock to throw 200 innings. Over his 12 full seasons as a major league starter, Buehrle has averaged 33 starts and 219 innings.
He has never been injured for a significant amount of time. His walk rate has never been higher than 2.4. He's won four straight Gold Glove awards. He owns a pit bull. The man is an absolute machine.
It seems logical to assume that Buehrle will throw 180 innings.
R.A. Dickey has had a less predictable career, having only been a starter for three full seasons. In those three seasons, however, he's thrown 174, 208 and 233 innings, respectively, proving that if he can avoid injury, he'll eclipse the 180 mark. The same goes for Josh Johnson, although his health is a bigger question mark than Dickey's.
Brandon Morrow, meanwhile, has been on pace to pass 180 innings since the Jays converted him to a full-time starter in 2010, but he's been hampered by injuries and pitch counts. Now that he has been given full rein, like Dickey and Johnson, if Morrow starts 30 games, he will pitch at least 180 innings.
J.A. Happ may not last the entire season in the Jays' rotation, but he's had a very nice start to his 2013 campaign.
Here's a look at the likelihood that each starter will pitch 180 innings:
Based on those odds, it seems the Jays have the starting pitching depth that mirror recent World Series rosters.
2. Two Starters with K-Rates over 7.0
According to Rymer, a "strikeout pitcher" is someone who throws over the approximate league average of seven strikeouts per nine innings.
Seven of the last 10 World Series champions have had at least two strikeout pitchers in their rotation.
While the stat is a nice baseline, the real takeaway from Rymer's evidence is that strikeout-to-walk ratio is the more important number. After all, the 2005 White Sox did not have one pitcher with a K-rate over seven, but they posted the second-best K/BB ratio in baseball.
However, for consistency's sake, we'll take the 7.0 K-rate on its own.
R.A. Dickey has had only one season with a strikeout rate over 7.0: his 2012 Cy Young season. While it's clear that he can rack up punchouts, based on his career history, he is by no means a strikeout pitcher. Yes, career history is not a word that should be used to predict Dickey's performance, but you would expect his K-rate to remain around or below 7.0.
Brandon Morrow is a strikeout pitcher. In all his major league seasons, Morrow has eclipsed the 7.0 mark, although he experienced a slight drop in 2012. This was likely attributable to a drop in walks and a focus on pitching to contact. Based on his numbers and an improved changeup in 2013, Morrow seems like almost a sure thing.
Josh Johnson is very similar to Morrow. He's never had a strikeout rate below 7.0 and does not seem likely to break that trend anytime soon.
Conversely, Mark Buehrle has never had a K-rate over 7.0. Don't expect him to break that trend either.
J.A. Happ, if he indeed lasts the year and ends up in the top five in terms of games started for the Jays in 2013, has had a fluctuating strikeout rate throughout his career. 2012 was by far his best season for the punch out, posting a 9.0 rate with Houston and Toronto. Still, he's a big question mark.
The Jays are very likely to satisfy the second of Rymer's qualifications for a World Series winner.
3. A Lefty Specialist Who Holds Lefty Hitters to a Sub-.700 OPS
This is where the requirements for building a World Series winner get a little more complicated. All we've had to deal with up to this point was having strikeout pitchers who eat up a lot of innings.
Now, we have to find a lefty reliever who consistently racks up outs against lefty batters.
The first question for Jays fans to ask is "Who is our 'lefty specialist?'"
"Specialist" is something of a misnomer. The past 10 World Series winners, other than the 2003 Marlins, have had a left-handed reliever with a sub-.700 opponent's OPS. Occasionally, these relievers could have been described as a "specialist" or a "setup man," but really they were simply a consistent bullpen performer.
The Jays need at least one strong left-handed reliever who isn't their closer, leaving Darren Oliver, Aaron Loup and Brett Cecil in the mix.
Of the three, Oliver has easily the largest sample size at over 722 games, and he has an OPS against left-handed hitters of .769. Not exactly an inspiring number, but Oliver has been below .700 in his last three full seasons.
Loup is difficult to handicap given he's only pitched in 39 games in the major leagues. But those 39 games have been nothing short of spectacular.
Consider that Loup has thrown exactly three walks in 38.1 innings since being called up in 2012. Consider also that he has yet to allow a home run in those innings. To remind you, OPS is calculated by adding on-base percentage and slugging percentage. Based on those numbers, albeit from a small sample size, Loup will be well under the .700 mark.
Cecil seems to have reinvented himself for 2013. After training with flamethrower Steve Delabar in the offseason, he has added velocity to his fastball and has been very effective in the early stages of the season. If you believe that he will maintain his great start, he's a good candidate to match the magic number.
4. Righty Reliever: K/BB over 2.0, Lefties Sub-.740 OPS, Righties Sub-.720 OPS
Are you confused yet?
This requirement seems slightly convoluted, but the statistics speak for themselves. The last 10 World Series winners have all had a well-rounded, consistent right-handed relief pitcher.
Leaving the numbers out of it, in order to remain competitive with the best teams in baseball, the Jays need one of Steve Delabar, Sergio Santos or Esmil Rogers to throw strikes and avoid any inconsistencies against left-handed and right-handed batters.
Each player's career numbers are positive.
Santos has held opponents to a .658 OPS over his career, actually faring slightly better against lefties (.675 vs. RHB, .636 vs. LHB), while posting a 2.63 K/BB ratio.
Delabar defies traditional pitcher-batter matchup conventions even more so than Santos. Right-handed batters have a .799 OPS against him throughout his career, while left handed batters just a .549 mark. So, while Delabar's career .691 opponents OPS and a .295 K/BB rate is phenomenal, he has been too much of a specialist over his career. Putting it simply, he has to be better against right-handed opponents.
Rogers is a low-end reliever who throws hard but has struggled to be consistent, and his career .829 opponent OPS reflects that. He has the ability to improve, but we are still waiting to see it happen.
5. A Closer with a WPA over 2.0
For some reference, WPA stands for "win probability added." Win probability tracks how much an outcome of a play (an at-bat, a wild pitch, etc.) affects the likelihood of a team winning or losing a game.
FanGraphs.com does an excellent job of explaining the stat, and WPA is useful in determining the effectiveness of a closing pitcher. It accounts for leverage, which factors in the importance of certain situations, and, obviously, closers rack up the most high-leverage situations.
As a result, a great closer can either have a very high WPA, while an awful closer can have a very high negative WPA.
According to Rymer, a 2.0 WPA is the benchmark for a championship closer. What this means is that over the course of a season, the closer's performances have contributed 200 total percent to the team's likelihood of winning games.
In 2012, Casey Janssen had a WPA of 2.67 with an average leverage index of 1.23 (meaning he was in medium-importance situations, generally). This bodes well for the newly anointed full-time closer, as, in 2011, Janssen posted a 2.06 WPA despite a lower-than-average 0.96 leverage index.
You could argue that Janssen is unproven in high-stress situations, but early indicators in 2013 say otherwise. He's already sporting a 0.79 WPA in the first month of the season, hasn't allowed a walk and has a skill interactive ERA (SIERA) of 0.60.
Janssen seems to have the right stuff to succeed, but he will still have to show that he can handle the pressure of being a quality closer.
6. 200 Runs and a .340 OBP from First 2 Hitters
With Jose Reyes injured for the next three months, it makes it difficult to determine which players will lead off for the Jays.
That being said, runs scored is more of a reflection of a team's total offense rather than individual players. Still, it's a valid question as to who the Jays' go-to leadoff hitter will be while Reyes is on the shelf.
Since the Reyes injury, both Rajai Davis and Emilio Bonifacio have lead off four times, while Munenori Kawasaki has hit first once.
If John Gibbons has any baseball sense, Davis will not spend any time at the top of the lineup. He has always struggled with his plate approach, averaging around three pitches per at-bat, a career OBP of just .316 and his career-high in walks is 29. Despite his speed, Davis is not the answer.
Bonifacio is the more likely, albeit not hugely more attractive, option. He has outstanding speed and is a slightly more disciplined hitter than Davis.
The wild card in this scenario is Kawasaki. He did a great job against the Yankees on April 21, grabbing a hit, a run and an RBI despite striking out twice. He's been a very nice player for the Jays since his arrival, and his 5.08 pitches per at-bat so far in 2013 makes Kawasaki a potential fit at the top of the Jays lineup while Reyes is hurt.
Either way, the Jays will have some problems satisfying this so-called World Series requirement with their star shortstop out indefinitely.
There is the possibility that Melky Cabrera gets hot and offsets the potential lack of production from the leadoff spot.
7. Corner Players Who Combine for 100 HR and a .470 SLG
Traditionally, the power in a team's roster lives on the corners.
That is, at first base, third base and left and right field. That would make the Jays' corner players Edwin Encarnacion, Brett Lawrie, Melky Cabrera and Jose Bautista.
Taking those four players, you could make the argument that the Jays might satisfy the home run requirement with just Bautista and Encarnacion, although that would be incredible.
Bautista, without a doubt, has been one of the most productive power hitters in the world over the last three seasons. While his batting average could be better, he has started well in the power department in 2013, belting out four home runs in just 48 plate appearances. That works out to about 54 home runs over the course of a full season. It's safe to say that Bautista is good for at least 35 homers and that's a low estimate.
Encarnacion has the ability to hit 40, as shown by his breakout 2012, although he's struggled in April. Even if EE regresses slightly back to his pre-2012 numbers, his career .468 slugging percentage should leave Jays fans at ease.
Other stats suggest Encarnacion's early problems are luck-based. His .235 batting average on balls in play is 44 points below his career number, and he has a line-drive percentage of 26.4 in the early going. Those two stats say that the Jays first baseman is hitting the ball hard but to the wrong places.
It would be realistic to say that Encarnacion will be above the .470 SLG mark and will rack up around 30 home runs.
That leaves 35 home runs between Lawrie (.436 career SLG) and Cabrera (.412 career SLG).
8. C, SS, 2B and CF
For some perspective, here's a look at the Jays middle players' WARs from a year ago:
Jose Reyes —4.2
Maicer Izturis—0.8/Emilio Bonifacio—0.4
Even including both Izturis and Bonifacio, that adds up to a grand total of 7.8. The Jays will have some problems reaching 12 total WAR with this group, especially without Reyes.
They will need Izturis, Bonifacio and Rasmus to raise their game and hope that Arencibia continues his power streak and belts out 40 or so home runs. Either way, this requirement seems like a serious problem for the Jays, and some surprises up the middle are necessary to get there.
Of all of Rymer's requirements to field a theoretically World Series-caliber team, the Jays seem likely to satisfy at least four of eight. Two seem very unlikely, and the other two are toss-ups.
Of course, the "odds" presented are based entirely on previous statistics and expectations. As shown by the Jays' problems so far in 2013, things can change drastically in practice.
It's also important to remember that Rymer examined the past 10 World Series champions. Their impressive statistics are not exactly surprising given the fact that they were the best in baseball in their respective winning seasons.
What is interesting are the trends that Rymer uncovered and how the 2013 Jays seem to match up to those trends.
You can be sure that if the Jays can improve their play as of late and live up to expectations, it will be because of improvements in these eight areas.