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The Toronto Blue Jays are cruising, but winning has covered up a huge flaw

Through Sunday, the Blue Jays had baseball's best run differential, but they also might have its worst rotation.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The Blue Jays won their 11th straight contest on Sunday (related: all stats through Sunday). After the win, they sat one game behind the division leading Rays and Yankees. In a division without great teams tucked in a league without any either, that’s not a bad place to be.

Baseball Prospectus’s adjusted standings tell a similar story. The Blue Jays’ first order winning percentage—their Pythagorean record, based on run differential—is the best in the American League East. Their second and third order winning percentages, which account for underlying factors and disregard run sequencing, place them a touch behind the Yankees. Significantly, these records also closely resemble their actual record. The adjusted standings surmise that the state of the Blue Jays shouldn’t be too colored by their most recent winning streak. It's not a fluke.

The Blue Jays are in a pretty good position—but they’ve got there with a starting rotation that is quite possibly the worst in all of baseball. This article is about the bad rotation.

Let’s take a look at where the Blue Jays starting pitchers measure up by going down a line of different measures. First, there’s ERA. Blue Jays starters have a 4.68 collective ERA, which ranks as 25th best in baseball. They are ahead of teams that are emphatically not in the position the Blue Jays are in: the Diamondbacks, the Phillies, the Red Sox, the Brewers, and the Rockies. The only one of those teams not in last place is the Diamondbacks, and that’s partly because they’re in the same division as the Rockies.

But you’re reading Beyond the Box Score, which means you’re either here because you know what the site is about or you just googled "surmise pythagorean blue jay." If the former, you know that there’s more to this story than ERA; if the latter, what are you really looking for?

But let’s focus on the Blue Jays (not the blue jays) beyond ERA. Blue Jays starters have the worst FIP in baseball. The Blue Jays' 4.76 FIP is worse than their ERA—that’s a bad sign. Without accounting for the vagaries of defense, the Blue Jays rotation looks even worse than the bottom five ERA.

Lucky for me in terms of continuing this article, but unlucky for me in terms of the comments it might generate, there are new pitching statistics that offer more ways of showing how bad the Blue Jays rotation has been.

Let’s look at those.

The measures to which I’m referring are Baseball Prospectus’s Deserved Run Average (DRA) and Jonathan Judge’s Contextual FIP (cFIP, introduced at The Hardball Times). What makes both of these metrics different from anything else is that they account for context. That means that they consider matchup, batter handedness, park, home field advantage, umpire, and catcher (framing and all). DRA is easy to read because it’s scaled to look like ERA. cFIP is easy to read because it’s on a weighted scale where 100 is average and lower is better—like ERA-. For the ins and outs of these metrics, click the links above (and here) for explanations. Here, we’re only concerned with them as analytical tools.

The most important thing to remember about DRA is that it’s descriptive only, but the description is such that it adjusts for myriad contextual factors and conveys performance closer to "true talent" than other statistics. So how does it like the Blue Jays rotation? It doesn’t. It doesn’t like it at all. Blue Jays starters carry a DRA of 5.06, which is worst in baseball by a fair margin. The Padres are second-worst at 4.82.

This is how the Blue Jays rotation breaks down in terms of personnel. The Jays have had five pitchers throw at least 50 innings: RA Dickey, Mark Buehrle, Marco Estrada, Aaron Sanchez, and Drew Hutchison. There are 120 starting pitchers who have thrown at least 50 innings. In terms of DRA, Blue Jays starters rank 72 (Estrada, 4.49), 92 (Sanchez, 5.00), 93 (Dickey, 5.02), 94 (Buehrle, 5.14), and 100 (Hutchison, 5.34). That is to say, they have been bad.

The critical difference between DRA and cFIP is that the latter metric is both descriptive and predictive. It elides past performance, accesses underlying performance with a heavy reliance on context, and attempts to capture present ability, where "present" means the immediate future.

The picture cFIP paints is at least optimistic where one wants it to be: 24 year-old Drew Hutchison’s cFIP is 97—better than average. For the Blue Jays starter with the worst DRA, this is an indication that there should be substantial improvement in one area. The other bright spot is Marco Estrada, whose 103 is below average, but not by much. But for him, improvement doesn't look to be dramatic.

The Sanchez/Buehrle/Dickey triumvirate, however, spots that same picture with unwanted mold. Their cFIPs of 125, 120, and 118 are sixth, fourteenth, and sixteenth worst among 120 qualified starters. Seen one way, they can't be much worse. But seen another way, the way that considers that we're talking about a metric is that is both descriptive and predictive, there isn't a whole lot worse than the current status-quo.

The Blue Jays are a very good team. But they are a very good team that is winning despite its starting rotation—they are a long way from winning because of it. It’s the offense that has given the Blue Jays the best run differential in baseball and put the Blue Jays in a position to make a run at the postseason. As Christina Kahrl recently observed, a full effort might require trading for rotation help.

It needs it.


Eric Garcia McKinley is a contributor to Beyond the Box Score. He writes about the Rockies for Purple Row, where he is also an editor. You can find him on Twitter @garcia_mckinley.