Sorry, Blue Jays: Pitching woes will extend playoff drought

The Blue Jays are the hottest team in baseball, with 11 straight wins to get over the .500 mark and close their deficit in the American League East to one game behind the Rays and Yankees.With a run differential of plus-71 for the season, the Pythagorean record for Toronto is 38-26, four games better than the Blue Jays’ actual mark of 34-30. This would suggest that big things remain ahead for a team looking to go to the playoffs for the first time since winning the World Series in 1993. ON THE OTHER HAND: Ryan Fagan thinks the Blue Jays are AL East's best teamNot so fast, though. Run differential is a useful tool because teams’ records usually do bear a very close resemblance to their Pythagorean marks. The Blue Jays, though, fit the model for an exception to the rule, one seen starkly last year. The A’s outscored their opponents in 2014 by a 729-572 margin, a plus-157 differential that translated to a 99-63 Pythagorean record. Oakland wound up 88-74, squeaking into the second wild card spot.One of the big reasons that the A’s stumbled to a 29-38 record after the All-Star break last year, even while still outscoring their opponents by 12 runs, was a 7-16 record in one-run games in the second half. Struggles in one-run games also have bedeviled Oakland this year, as the A’s have gone 4-18 in such contests — games in which a bounce here or there can make all the difference — to submarine a 273-258 overall differential that has led to a 34-31 Pythagorean record, eight games better than Oakland’s actual 26-39 start.Toronto has a similar issue, with a 6-12 record in one-run games, but that’s not the real reason to be wary of the Blue Jays living up to their lofty Pythagorean heights.There are other reasons that the A’s fell apart last year, such as injuries, but a major reason for Oakland’s outrageous run differential was games that got out of control. Oakland went 30-13 in games decided by five or more runs, with a 305-162 scoring margin, an incredible plus-143. So, in the 119 other games, the A’s were plus-14.The Blue Jays are 15-4 in blowouts, with a 147-74 scoring margin — plus-73. Toronto is minus-2, then, in all other games. That includes the minus-6 in one-run games, but combining that with the plus-4 in games decided by two-to-four runs, where teams play most of their games, tells a lot of the story of why the team with the highest scoring margin in baseball is so close to the .500 mark.The other obvious reason is Toronto’s pitching. Blue Jays starters this year have a 4.68 ERA, matching the laughingstock Phillies. The only teams with worse rotations are last-place outfits in Colorado, Milwaukee and Boston. This is not a result of bad luck, outside of Marcus Stroman’s torn ACL. The lowest FIP among Blue Jays starters belongs to Drew Hutchison, at 4.19. The four Toronto starters with at least 60 innings pitched rank 70th, 96th, 106th and 108th in FIP out of 110 major leaguers. They are 44th, 72nd, 99th and 106th in ERA. The fifth starter, Marco Estrada, has a 5.01 ERA since joining the rotation from the bullpen at the beginning of May.Even while playing their best baseball of the year, the Blue Jays have allowed 3.64 runs per game during their 11-game winning streak. So, even at their peak, the Blue Jays have allowed more runs per game than the Cardinals, Pirates, Dodgers, Rays and Royals have for the season.Toronto’s winning streak has happened because the lineup — which is the best in baseball by a good margin — has clicked to the tune of eight runs per game. The lineup is the reason that even though the Blue Jays have given up three or more runs in a game a major league-worst 48 times, they have gone 20-28 in those contests, a far sight better than the Phillies’ 9-38 record in their National League-worst 47 games allowing three or more runs.The strength of the lineup means that the Blue Jays are never out of any game, no matter how poorly their starting pitchers perform. It does not mean, however, that this team is a juggernaut bound for greatness. For the month of June, Toronto has a team OPS of .850, the equivalent of having a lineup with nine Jose Abreus in it, and slightly better than a lineup of nine Andrew McCutchens. You would expect to win a lot of games with those lineups, too, no matter who was pitching.Toronto has an outstanding collection of hitters, but there also is a reason that the Blue Jays had losing records with positive run differentials in April (11-12, plus-7) and May (12-17, plus-18). Toronto was 10-4 in blowouts in the first two months.When the lineup really clicks, the scoring margin goes up in a hurry, as it has in the plus-48 of the winning streak, in a month when Chris Colabello and Ryan Goins are the only players with 20 plate appearances and an OPS below .800. That’s what it takes to

overcome pitching this bad, and while if any team in the majors in 2015 can do that, it’s the Blue Jays, it’s still going to take significant pitching help to end the playoff drought.

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