Following a 7-1 shellacking at the hands of the Tampa Bay Rays on Wednesday, the Toronto Blue Jays find themselves in a familiar position: out of a playoff spot.
That shouldn’t be particularly alarming considering they are just 0.5 games back of the New York Yankees and have three more games against the Bronx Bombers. There’s a reason FanGraphs is giving them a 52 percent chance to play postseason baseball.
What this moment in time highlights isn’t that the Blue Jays are doomed, but rather what an oddity they are. Right now, they’re in a hard-fought battle with the Yankees, Boston Red Sox, and Seattle Mariners for playoff position despite the fact they have a run differential (+171) that almost triples all of their rivals combined (+62). If we add in the Oakland Athletics — who are 3.5 games out — and their +61 mark, the Blue Jays are still pacing the collective field by almost 50 runs. As a result, Toronto’s “expected record” of 93-59 is nine games better than Boston’s, 11 clear of the A’s, 13 above the Yankees, and outpaces the Mariners by a whopping 23.
The reasons for this phenomenon largely relate to a leaky bullpen that’s led to the Blue Jays going 11-15 in one-run games and a devastating 3-9 in extra-innings contests. That doesn’t need to be re-litigated. Instead, it should be appreciated just how rare a group these Blue Jays are, and how unusual it would be for a squad of this calibre to miss the playoffs. Although run differential isn’t a perfect means for determining the quality of a team, it’s one of the best tools available, and helps highlight what’s going on with these Blue Jays.
Since the current playoff format was instituted in 2012, there have been 80 playoff teams (we’re going to skip the wonky 2020 expanded playoffs). On average, those clubs have managed a run differential of +119.9, approximately 50 runs below the current Blue Jays — who are likely to build on their +171 with seven of their final 10 games coming against the Minnesota Twins and Baltimore Orioles. Of the 80, just 18, or 22.5 percent, have topped the 2021 Blue Jays. In terms of World Series winners, the average run differential is +153.3 and only half of the group ranked above this Toronto team.
When it comes to clubs that have missed the playoffs, teams that outscored their opponents like the Blue Jays are unheard of under the current format. Of the 160 non-playoff squads in the Wild-Card Game era, the highest run differential is the +120 posted by the 2012 Tampa Bay Rays. The team with the best RD to miss the postseason in each year has averaged a +84, less than half of what Toronto managed.
None of this is a guarantee of a strong finishing run by the Blue Jays. None of it ensures they’ll thrive in their final 10 contests. It’s possible they’ll go 0-10.
What it does say is that this team is a playoff-calibre group, not dissimilar in quality to clubs that have made deep playoff runs. If they do fall short, they will become one of the largest statistical oddities in recent history. That’d be cold consolidation because as much as MLB front offices thrive on process-based thinking, the sport itself is a results-based business. Being the best team to miss the playoffs has never won anyone Executive of the Year.
It’s impossible to know with confidence whether the Blue Jays' final 10 games will earn them a trip to the postseason, but the 152 games we've seen have told us that they’re good enough to play — and thrive — into October. All they need to make that happen is more of the same.
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