By Tammy Rainey
A little over a year ago I wrote a post justifying (rationalizing?) my ability to be optimistic about the possibility that the 2018 Blue Jays would bounce back from their off year in 2017. That 2017 team had won 76 games and the task I had set for myself, before any major player moves, was to identify if I could identify reasons to think that they could add 13-15 wins to that outcome.
Now as it happened, of course, the A's inexplicably won 97 games in 2018, so the notion of 90 to be in play for the second wildcard turned out to be asking too much from the jump, but based on the final '17 standings it seemed reasonable.
The context for the original post was that the local media was particularly gloomy about the state of the team. For a sports optimist like myself, 2017 constituted an outlier where a two-time ALCS team had been hit with a bizarre degree of bad luck and would bounce back, but the general consensus was that they team was on borrowed time and no one should be overly hopeful for the season.
In order to make my point, I looked at the WARP totals of several key players as opposed to their history and ability, as well as one position which deserved special mention. Mind you, these were never predictions or even projections via some statistical model - just me reviewing what was reasonably POSSIBLE for a team trying to rebound from a seemingly snakebit season.
I intend, here, to review those discussions, substituting fWAR for the figures but otherwise unrevised, and see how each played out, with some thoughts afterwards.
A note about methodology: The way WAR is calculated, as I understand it, is that one can assume a replacement level team will win about 52 games. Generally, at least in my experience, when you total the WAR accumulated by all the players and you add 52 you should land pretty close to the number of games a team actually won. This played out in 2017 as the Blue Jays WAR total was 20.5 and they won 73 games.
In the matter of Josh Donaldson:
In 2015 JD had won the MVP and in 2016 he contended for the honor again. His fWAR those two seasons was 8.7 and 7.6, playing at least 55 games in each season. In 2017 he missed time due to injury for the first time as a otherwise durable MLB player. Moreover his four year average WAR coming into 2017 was 7.3 annually. His 2017 WAR was 5.1 in what was roughly 3/4 of his usual games played, so I modestly suggested that a pro-rated figure of 6.8 was easy and in a fully healthy season might easily reach 7.1 so I added +2 WAR in my calculations. That was in fact a bit optimistic since it had no built in drop for another year of aging but optimism was the whole point.
As it turns out, he lost most of the 2018 season to different injuries and amassed only a 0.8.
In the matter of Devon Travis:
In 2015 and 2016 Travis played in 163 games combined, getting 670 PA, for all intents one full season of play. He totaled 4.6 WAR in those games. In 2017 he was plagued by injury (again) got only 50 games, and had only 0.7 WAR which would pro-rate to 2.1 in 150 games. But within that 50 games was a very slow start and a very hot finish so I kinda took that as a floor and suggested Devo was capable of exceeding that pro-rated figure, given his previous results, creating the potential for another +2 WAR.
He did, as it turns out, end up staying health all year though he was coddled early on, then demoted when he couldn't get his bat going with irregular playing time. his defense also slipped and in 103 games registered a hideous -0.5
In the matter of Troy Tulowitzki:
Even injury riddled he was at 2.4 in 2015 (128 games played.), and 3.0 in 2016 (131 GP). In 2017, it crashed to 0.1 in only 66 games. It seemed reasonable to put him in the ballpark of the two previous years both in WAR and GP - so I postulated the possibility of an additional +2.5 WAR.
He missed the entire season instead.
In the matter of backup catchers:
I noted that in 2017 that Blue Jays catchers not named Russell Martin combined for a -1 WAR and if we could just get that back to zero we could add another +1 and as it turned out, Luke Maile actually contributed 1.2 so, sweet right? That's a 2.2. swing from 2017. Of course, Martin dropped 1.3 so the overall total at catcher was just up 0.9 from the previous year but at least I got something right. Ah, but the pitchers...
In the matter of Aaron Sanchez:
This one seemed easy. As a SP with a league leading ERA, 2016 Sanchez accounted for 3.8 WAR. As a blister plagued ghost in 2017, nothing at all. All one had to do was postulate the possibility that Sanchez would be blister free in 2018. I penciled him in for a potential +4 WAR. He was blister free. But he had an ongoing parade of other stuff. In 20 starts his total WAR was 0.7 which even pro-rated doesn't get me half-way home.
So I suggested the possibility of adding 11.5 WAR just on those guys and that would take the team into the 87-88 win range (I mean, I know WAR doesn't really work that way but it's an okay back-of-napkin device) Throw in the (theoretical) upgrade of Diaz and Solarte over Goins and Barney, bringing in Randel Grichuk...why was everyone so gloomy? I could see hope.
But those same players only gave me 2.6 WAR and other things went sideways as well.
Marcus Stroman, who caught the blister bug, dropped 2 WAR off his previous yearly norms. Roberto Osuna was at 2.9 in 2017, he and the man he was eventually traded for after his suspension combined for 0.6 and so these two situation wiped out the modest gains on those offensive predictions and cost me almost another(almost) 2 WAR besides. And the Jays won actually three fewer games in 2018.
So, what does this say about my passion for optimism? Well, I'm certainly not as equipped to make those rosy suggestions regarding 2019 and I wouldn't sincerely believe them if I did. But the meta-question here is what does all this say about stubborn optimism?
I cannot say that every year of my sports fandom has been one met with unrelenting optimism. I do, in general, tend to see more potential than others do but some teams are just bad or, at least, don't have an objective basis for high expectations. Sometimes a team just mildly under-achieves, sometimes a team that should have been good just blows up (looking at you, 2013 Blue Jays) and crushes your expectations. But I would argue that part of the innate reward of being in a sports "tribe" is holding onto that hope for a happy ending. I honestly can't even relate to fans (and while I assume all teams have many, my emotional reading is that the Blue Jays are particularly afflicted in this regard) who see their fandom through the lens of something to vent frustration about. I have enough real world choices if I'm looking for something than can rightly be bitched about without taking my escapism down that path as well.
It's not just sports either. You've noticed by now that I'm a life-long Star Trek fan and anyone in that "tribe" will tell you that there is nothing so common as the Trek "fan" who's only reason for being is to repeatedly describe in intricate detail why THIS particular Trek is a steaming pile of garbage.
If my fandom, sports or otherwise, consisted of nothing but a year-round observation of Festivus, I wouldn't be a sports fan. Even in a year like the approaching one, in which the Blue Jays are making no pretense of attempting to contend, I'm not going to sit here and assume that Stroman and Sanchez are going to combine for a mere 2.2 WAR again. They might. But per their already demonstrated ability they are capable of over three times as much. For what it's worth, Fangraph's DC projections have the two combining for 3.8, and the team overall for 30.6 which would play out to an 83 win team. If it came out that way it would be a pretty successful year for a rebuilding team. I can get optimistic about that.
So no, for me, at least when it comes to sports and frankly beyond, optimism is the art of the possible. Realism is the acceptance of the inescapable.
Realism tells me Donald Trump will never stop lying,
Optimism reassures me he's going to get crushed at the polls in 2020 even if he survives that long.
Realism tells me that the Blue Jays are not trying to contend in 2019.
Optimism tells me that they are not so bad that a surprise outcome like the Rays had last year is out of the question.
Long live optimism.