Breaking down how the Blue Jays can make a playoff run

Barry Riz,
3/7/2011 1:50:56 PM
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You could call it an argument, a discussion - whatever. We have the same conversation with friends and colleagues every year come spring training.

They say that the Blue Jays are ready to break out, and pursue the minimum 90 wins that are usually required to challenge for a wild card berth.

Now the Jays did, after all, get to 85 wins last season, 86 two seasons ago, and even 87 in 2006.

But where, exactly, are those 90 wins are going to come from? That's when the real debate begins.

So presents it to you - that even though the Jays have been relatively close, the team still has some difficult ground to make up to achieve the magic 90-win plateau.

And that plateau is significant.  The winner of the AL wild card over the last five seasons has required a minimum average of 89.6 wins to make the post-season. It should be noted, though, that each of those wild-card winning clubs actually averaged 94.8 wins at season's end. In other words, they beat the minimum requirement by about five victories and most were in a tight playoff chase for their own division title.

Using records from the past five seasons, we'll start in the infamous American League East, where people usually point first to show how difficult life for the Jays can be.

But you might be surprised to find that it's not the East that kills the Blue Jays most years.

The Jays are not overmatched by the 72 games of tough competition that the Yankees, Red Sox, Rays, and Orioles present each year. Toronto went 39-33 against the East last season, paced in large part by a 15-3 performance against Baltimore. Toronto, more often than not, breaks relatively even against New York and Boston, although they have had trouble head-to-head with the Rays in the last three years.

Yet even before Tampa Bay became a perennial playoff contender, Toronto could not take advantage of a weaker Rays squad and rarely won more than 10 of the 18 games per year against them.

Overall though, the Blue Jays are bang on average - 181-181 - against their own division over the past five years.

Move to the statistically weaker Central Division and the Jays could not have done much better. At 106-81 over the past five years against the Central, Toronto is playing .567 ball. You can't ask for much more.

Against the West, things level off. Toronto is 88-83 (.515) against the division. So there's room for improvement against a division that had only one of its four teams finish over .500 last season.

So if the Jays are playing .500 or better against the entire league, something doesn't add up. Well, you've forgotten about interleague play - something that Toronto has had nothing but trouble with since the concept was introduced in 1997.

Toronto is 115-132 (.466) all-time against the NL, a pace they have played slightly below in the last five years (41-49, .456). In interleague history, nine of the 14 American League squads have winning records (most by a wide margin), and the AL has won the season series over the NL every year since 2004.

That means that Toronto is losing ground to most of the league every year during interleague play.

The Blue Jays are well aware of their record, and of their predicament. Toronto management, going back to former general manager J.P. Ricciardi, has been critical of the interleague concept. Ricciardi wondered aloud in 2007 why the Jays were playing a home-and-home series with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Losing the designated hitter in National League parks seems to hit the Blue Jays harder than other AL teams. Toronto was swept in Colorado last year, in Atlanta the year before, and in Milwaukee in 2008. Throw in a home sweep against Florida in 2009 and the Jays tend to lose interleague games in bunches.

When you're finishing at 85 wins during a race to 90 and you're giving up three to the Marlins or Rockies, it matters. It's tough to make those up.

An ironic note here. Toronto fans were upset when last June's series against Roy Halladay and the Phillies was moved to Philadelphia, and demanded that the Phillies be brought back to Toronto in 2011. Indeed, that wish was granted. Now Toronto gets to face the best starting rotation and arguably the best team in the National League for the second year in a row. It could have been the Nationals. But we digress.

Let's do the big-picture math for 2011. Using those same averages for the past five years, Toronto can expect 36 wins against the East, 19 against the Central, 20 against the West, and eight against the National League. Eighty-three in all, or seven short of the magic mark.

Now those seven extra wins will likely have to come against the AL West and the National League. Four here, three there, and Toronto just might find itself in playoff position after all.

And wouldn't you know it?  Toronto's first 12 games of the season are against Central and West division opponents.  A fast start might just go a long way toward jumpstarting those long-dormant Blue Jays playoff dreams.


Hill and Bautista celebrate (Photo: The Canadian Press)


(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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