September 11, 2015
Not Just the Exchange Rate
The Blue Jays have had the best offense in baseball all season. That's not a secret. Even during their rough start to the season, when they went 23-29 in April and May, they were a run-scoring machine, plating 5.15 runs per game, despite a bad start for Edwin Encarnacion. As the weather warmed, the Jays became one of the most dominant offenses in recent memory. Entering Thursday, teams had scored 4.24 runs per game this year, up from 4.07 last season. Take out the Jays, though, and the other 29 clubs have averaged 4.19 runs per contest.
Given their penchant for utterly thrashing opponents and the identity of their best-known sluggers, the Jays cut the general figure of a 1950s- or late-1990s-style troglodyte troupe. They hit homers, they draw walks, Encarncacion and Jose Bautista are over 30 years old, and on and on.
Of course, the Jays also have Josh Donaldson, who's neither terribly old nor one-dimensional. They have Russell Martin, who's a fine defender at the most important defensive position there is, and Troy Tulowitzki, who's almost as good at a position almost as important. Kevin Pillar and Ryan Goins might not have been the first options at their respective positions, but now that injuries have given them an opportunity and the team's offensive improvements have given them cover at the plate, they're returning significant value by rating among the best defenders at their respective up-the-middle positions.
Then there's Ben Revere, whose defense in left field has hardly been inspiring, but who has more than made up for it by hitting well and running the bases exceptionally (as he always does).
No, despite having scored all those runs by hitting all those homers, and despite having the fourth-oldest average age for hitters in MLB this year, and despite having not only Encarnacion and Bautista but Chris Colabello and Justin Smoak playing big roles for them, the Blue Jays' position players are more than a great offense. They're one of the most dominant clusters of positional talent in baseball history.
Right now, the Blue Jays lead the majors in True Average (TAv), which is our holistic stat for measuring offense, at .278. This is hardly an historic number, but it is the highest in baseball. (The Dodgers are at .275, far enough back given the plate appearance totals we're talking about that it's unlikely they'll catch the Jays with less than four weeks left.) Some team has to lead the league in offensive output every season, and as I said, the Jays' TAv isn't all-time elite, or anything. However, they're also leading the league in Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency (PADE), which we use to peg the aggregate ability of a team to turn balls in play into outs. As we know by now, that's not a purely defensive measurement. Pitchers do exert some control over the likelihood of hard contact, and therefore, of hits. Still, it's a pretty good estimator of team defense. The Jays' PADE is 2.65, which is the percentage more balls in play they're estimated to turn into outs than average. It isn't far ahead of the Mets' 2.62, but for now, Toronto does have the lead. (For context, a PADE at that level might be worth about 30 runs over the course of the season.)
Here are the teams who have led MLB in both TAv and PADE in a season, since 1969 (before which baseball was different in too many ways to make meaningful comparisons with today's game):
Already, then, the Jays are in elite company. Here's another twist, though: the Jays lead baseball in baserunning runs (BRR), too. Obviously, BRR measures runs gained on the bases, not only via steals, but via taking extra bases on hits or outs or wild pitches, without making too many outs. The Blue Jays have added 17.8 runs to their ledger with their legs, giving them a pretty comfortable cushion on the field.
Here are the teams since 1969 who have led MLB in both PADE and BRR:
It's not yet a lock, but the Blue Jays have a very good chance of being the first team since the 1974 Dodgers to lead the league in all three of these categories. Those Dodgers, with their famous infield of Cey, Russell, Lopes, and Garvey, plus the last great season of Jimmy Wynn, plus strong showings from 25-year-old versions of Bill Buckner and Steve Yeager, won 102 games, and had a 106-win Pythagorean expectation. They had 10 players worth at least 3.0 bWAR that season. They got the single most impressive and valuable relief season in baseball history, from Mike Marshall. They steamrolled the Pirates in the NLCS, though the A's beat them in five games in the World Series, three of Oakland's four wins coming by a score of 3-2.
These Jays won't win that many regular-season games. Before they found their stride, before injuries forced their best defenders into the lineup and trades beefed up both the defense and the baserunning, they lost too many games thanks to their weak pitching staff (which, of course, they've also reinforced). Once the Jays reach October, though, they'll get a chance to show off, arguably, the most balanced set of excellent position players since the inception of free agency. Don't underestimate their dominance, because not even their league-leading run differential really expresses how good they are.