Welcome to The Opener, where every weekday morning you’ll get a fresh, topical column to start your day from one of SI.com’s MLB writers.
At its core, baseball is a simple game with a simple goal: score more runs than your opponents. Find yourself a collection of players that can do this consistently, and you’ve most likely got a strong team. The Blue Jays have accomplished this task. Instead, it is the arbitrary construction of nine-inning games that has been the team’s undoing.
By one measure, Toronto is among the best teams in baseball, with more than enough talent to contend for a championship. By the measure that matters—the win-loss record—it’s on the outside of the playoff picture and fading further behind by the passing day.
At +118, the Blue Jays have the fourth-best run differential in the American League, yet they own the league’s eighth-best record. A week ago, their playoff odds sat at 48.0%, according to FanGraphs. After losing five of their last six, their chances are now 16.9%.
While a bloated run differential can serve as proof of concept for the front office that their process of building a complete roster is effective, no trophies are awarded for outscoring your opponents in the aggregate. Toronto has a higher run differential than the Red Sox and Yankees combined, but it is closer to the perpetually .500 Angels in the wild-card standings than it is to the final playoff spot.
If the Blue Jays maintain their current pace in outscoring opponents, yet fall short of making the playoffs, they’d make a bit of history in the process. Since 2012, when MLB expanded the postseason field to two wild-card teams per league, the team with the highest run differential that missed out on the playoffs was the ’12 Rays (+120). Only one other team in that span has failed to make the playoffs with a run differential over 100: Cleveland in 2019 (+112).
Expanding our scope a little further, Toronto’s current pace would give it a run differential of +161 by season’s end, with 86 wins. Since the institution of the wild card in 1995, only one team has had a higher run differential and missed the playoffs: the 2002 Red Sox, who somehow outscored their opponents by a whopping +194 runs and won 93 games, yet finished six games behind the Angels for the wild-card spot and 10 1/2 games behind the Yankees in the AL East.
So how do we come to terms with Toronto’s plight? The Blue Jays have played relatively few one-run games, but they’re 8–14 in such contests, which represents the fourth-worst winning percentage in the majors. Their bullpen ranks among the league’s worst by fWAR—their relievers have pitched a combined 425 1/3 innings and posted a measly 0.5 fWAR. Their relievers also rank 19th in win probability added.
Offensively, the tune is more of the same. Their hitters rank 29th in FanGraphs’ clutch metric, which measures how much better or worse a player performs in high-leverage situations compared to context neutral ones. Measured by WAR—which is context-neutral—they collectively rank sixth by comparison. This is a team with plenty of talent throughout its lineup—and productive talent at that. It just hasn’t quite delivered in situations that matter most.
The fact that Toronto’s hitters haven’t come through in key moments doesn’t mean they’re incapable of doing so, or that they lack a certain quality required to be considered “clutch.” It just means they haven’t done so to this point, this year. Last season—which of course was abbreviated, and featured a different collection of players—the Blue Jays ranked ninth in the same category.
If you believe that being able to perform in clutch moments is a skill, then it follows that the Blue Jays hitters who were on last year’s team are clutch, or at least have the ability to be clutch for the remaining six weeks of the season. If you believe that “clutch” has more to do with the randomness in sequences of events, then Toronto’s fortunes have nowhere to go but up. Either way, there’s reason to believe that the offense’s performance in the biggest moments can improve down the stretch (if only because it couldn’t get any worse).
Even if the Blue Jays experience a drastic shift in how they perform collectively in high-leverage situations, they’ll still need some help to get to the postseason. There are three teams ahead of them for the second wild-card spot: Oakland, Boston and Seattle. The Mariners are Toronto’s spiritual counterpoint. Their run differential (–43) is 161 runs worse than Toronto’s, and yet they are a game ahead of the Blue Jays in the wild-card standings. Maybe this means they’ll outplay Seattle down the stretch—both abnormalities can’t last, right?
Toronto’s current slide threatens to take it completely out of the race sooner rather than later, but its chances aren’t completely squandered yet. The Red Sox are in a major funk of their own, losing 16 of their last 25 games. The Blue Jays don’t play Boston again this season, so they can’t gain on them directly. However, nine of their next 13 games are against the Tigers and Orioles, giving them a chance to make up some ground before their critical seven-game stretch against the A’s and Yankees in early September.
Succeeding when the stakes are low has been slight work for the Blue Jays this year. But based on where they are in the standings and the number of games left to play, every moment could be considered high leverage—no matter the in-game situation or opponent. The statistical parameters that determine how clutch they are won’t matter if they start winning and ascending in the playoff race. If anything, such a turnaround would confirm what we’ve thought all along—as well as what the underlying metrics suggest: This is a very good team, but due to the game’s randomness more than some innate, intangible quality, its record through the middle of August didn’t reflect that.
As time runs out on the 2021 season, the Blue Jays will almost certainly continue to outscore their opponents in the aggregate. But that won’t be enough if they can’t start doing so consistently in the nine-inning bursts needed to win games.