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The Blue Jays Are Getting Hot, But It May Already Be Too Late

Less than a month into the season, the Toronto Blue Jays seemed as good as dead. Toronto had 17 losses against only six victories (the worst record in baseball), was getting outscored by 1.1 runs per game and found itself threatening franchise records for April offensive futility. The Jays had enjoyed a handful of good seasons in recent years, but with such putrid stats — and the second-oldest roster in baseball — the party appeared to be coming to an ugly, abrupt conclusion.

Then, just like that, the Jays started winning ballgames again. It started with two straight victories to close out April, followed by a .500 record in the first week of May. (Baby steps!) Then they got legitimately hot: Seven wins in an eight-game span as the month neared its midway point. And, after another brief mid-month hiccup (losing five of six), eight wins over the final nine games of May. Toronto was hitting again, pitching pretty well and clawing its way back into an absurdly stacked division race.

Baseball can be a strange sport in that way, with hot and cold streaks coming and going without warning. So when a team has such a mercurial start to a season, how do we know which version is the genuine article? Toronto is hoping it’s the one from May, and history has good news — that’s more likely than it being the awful edition that showed up in April. But even so, one poor month may have buried the Jays in too deep a hole to escape.

It’s hard to be much colder than Toronto’s hitters were in April. Out of the 480 MLB team-seasons since 2002,1 the Blue Jays’ .645 April on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS) ranked 30th worst; it also represented the seventh-biggest April dip from a team’s previous full-season OPS, down 110 points as it was from Toronto’s .755 OPS showing at the plate in 2016. Although perennial-MVP-candidate third baseman Josh Donaldson was in and out of the lineup with a leg injury, his absence wasn’t the only explanation for Toronto’s struggles. Starting shortstop Troy Tulowitzki hit poorly when healthy,2 aging sluggers Jose Bautista and Kendrys Morales looked well past their primes and second baseman Devon Travis was the worst regular batter in baseball.

The Jays’ improvement at the plate in May was even more remarkable than their April slump. Since 2002, only two teams — the 2015 Texas Rangers and 2003 Detroit Tigers — improved their OPS as much from May to April as this year’s Jays did.3 And it was their worst hitters from April who caught fire most when the calendar flipped: Bautista’s OPS leapt from .554 to 1.055, Morales’s from .667 to .930 and, most remarkably, Travis’s from .388 to 1.019 (!). Only the surging Houston Astros had a better month at the plate than Toronto did in May.

ON-BASE PLUS SLUGGING AVERAGE
YEAR TEAM APRIL MAY DIFFERENCE
1 2015 Rangers .611 .797 +.186
2 2003 Tigers .512 .688 +.177
3 2017 Blue Jays .645 .809 +.164
4 2007 Tigers .727 .888 +.161
5 2010 Reds .713 .873 +.161
6 2004 Yankees .723 .877 +.153
7 2005 Pirates .650 .803 +.153
8 2002 Angels .684 .836 +.152
9 2004 Expos .552 .691 +.139
10 2012 Phillies .640 .776 +.136
The biggest April-to-May OPS increases since 2002

Source: FanGraphs

When a previously solid hitting team (such as the Blue Jays, whose 2016 OPS was 1 percent better than average) suffers a poor April and bounces back in May, they usually deserve the benefit of the doubt. In a regression predicting each team’s rest-of-season performance based on its OPS in the first two months and its OPS the previous year4, April is the least predictive. Performance in May and the previous year combined to carry about three times as much relative importance5. Also of particular note for an elderly roster such as the Toronto’s: Age was not significant in the prediction after controlling for a team’s various OPS splits.

This isn’t to say a poor April means nothing. The Jays’ projected rest-of-season OPS would be 14 points higher if they’d hit in April like they did in 2016 as a whole. (That’s the difference between having the fifth-best offense in MLB and merely the 10th best.) But in conjunction with the lineup’s May recovery, it was more a blip on the radar than a sign of impending collapse.

Now for the bad news, Toronto. A poor April record can sink a team’s playoff chances, even if it doesn’t represent their true talent level. Since MLB added the extra wild card in 2012, the worst April record by an eventual postseason team was 7-14 (.333), by the 2015 Texas Rangers. By comparison, Toronto’s April record was a full game worse, at 8-17 (.320). Of course, some of that is chalked up to the fact that teams with playoff-caliber talent don’t tend to suffer such rough starts, but it also speaks to the challenge posed by falling so far down the standings, so quickly. Even if every game were a coin-flip from May onward, the Jays’ April record dropped their playoff odds from 33 percent in preseason to 10 percent after one month.

They’ve since risen to 21 percent under “coin flip mode” — or higher, if you account for the talent on Toronto’s roster. But any way you cut it, a team that boasts one of baseball’s top 10 or so most talented rosters will probably find itself outside the playoffs at season’s end. And if that does happen, they can look back and blame it the extra month of spring training that Toronto decided to take in 2017.

Milwaukee’s dynamic duo

Earlier this week, we detailed the horror show in Queens, formerly known as the Mets’ pitching staff. The Mets entered the season with several pitchers who they thought were aces, only to see a historic decline in 2017. The Milwaukee Brewers are enjoying the opposite scenario: Several pitchers who looked like liabilities before the season have transformed into elite starters (for now).

Specifically, each of the two hurlers who’ve reduced their fielding independent pitching (FIP)6 most between 2016 and ’17 wear Milwaukee uniforms: Jimmy Nelson and Chase Anderson. (These numbers are through the games of June 5; Nelson and Anderson have both made — and won — starts since.)

FIELDING INDEPENDENT PITCHING MINUS
PITCHER TEAM NEW TEAM? 2016 2017 DIFF.
1 Jimmy Nelson Brewers 119 70 -49
2 Chase Anderson Brewers 118 78 -40
3 Taijuan Walker Diamondbacks 120 81 -39
4 Chris Sale Red Sox 79 43 -36
5 James Paxton Mariners 67 34 -33
6 Luis Perdomo Padres 118 91 -27
7 Chris Archer Rays 92 66 -26
8 Josh Tomlin Indians 114 88 -26
9 Zack Greinke Diamondbacks 99 74 -25
10 Jeff Samardzija Giants 98 73 -25
11 Dallas Keuchel Astros 92 71 -21
12 Sonny Gray Athletics 112 91 -21
13 Sean Manaea Athletics 98 77 -21
14 Michael Fulmer Tigers 88 69 -19
15 Ivan Nova Pirates 96 78 -18
The most improved pitchers of 2017

Includes pitchers with a minimum 100 innings per 162 team games in both seasons. Stats for 2017 through June 5.

Source: FanGraphs

Nelson was awful last season, but he’s striking out more than two extra batters per nine innings this year — and walking two fewer — in part by ditching his lousy sinker. For his part, Anderson was nearly as bad as Nelson last year; his 2017 tonic has been a drastic reduction in homers allowed, from 1.7 per 9 to 0.7.

Needless to say, neither is likely to be so lights-out going forward. But of the two, Nelson seems more likely to hold on to his gains (he has the better peripherals and is allowing softer contact). And for now, the Brewers have two of the best pitchers in baseball — completely out of the blue. It’s one of the biggest reasons why the Brew Crew are above .500 and a game up on the Cubs for the top slot in the NL Central, after being projected in preseason for a fourth-place finish. Just call them the anti-Mets.

Check out our latest MLB predictions.

Footnotes

  1. The earliest season of monthly splits in FanGraphs’ splits leaderboard tool.

  2. Only adding to his disappointing record since donning a Jays uniform two years ago.

  3. For all the good it did those Tigers; they still finished with 43 wins, the second-fewest of any team in the 162-game era.

  4. Again, using data since 2002.

  5. According to the “lmg” (Lindeman, Merenda and Gold) function in R’s “relaimpo” package.

  6. Relative to the league, so using FIP-.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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