Even before obtaining reigning NL Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey from the Mets, the Blue Jays could boast of an impressive offseason shopping spree. Earlier in the winter, the team bolstered its pitching staff by acquiring Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson from the Marlins, and then propped up the offense by signing outfielder Melky Cabrera. The team’s corporate owner, Rogers Communications, has always had the money to spend like the other big boys of the A.L. East, and, apparently, in 2013 the company has decided to go all in.
Thanks to GM Alex Anthopoulos’ winter haul, anticipation for the baseball season in Toronto has already pushed the calendar toward spring. Not only do the many additions to the roster auger well for the upcoming season, but the team has many other reasons to be optimistic. Improved health for Jose Bautista, Brandon Morrow, and Sergio Santos, among others from the team’s extensive 2012 disabled list, could alone account for a significant improvement. Also, is Ricky Romero really that bad? Before last year, the lefty was considered one of the best young starters in the game, so, even if he doesn’t rebound to that level, chances are he won’t again rank statistically among the worst. Brett Lawrie is another reason to be bullish on Toronto. The young third baseman, who had a solid first full season in 2012, has all the makings of a star, and, if he follows that trajectory modestly, the Blue Jays will reap the benefits.
It’s easy to make a compelling argument for why the Blue Jays will be a much better team in 2013. For all the reasons cited above, Toronto is quickly becoming a fashionable pick to win the A.L. East. However, are those piling onto the Blue Jays’ bandwagon being just a little premature? After all, in order for the Blue Jays to gain the top perch in the division, they’ll need to register a monumental improvement. Based on the median of 97 wins that have been needed to finish first in the A.L. East during the divisional era (excluding the strike-shortened 1995 season), Toronto would have to add 24 to their 2012 total. Is that a reasonable expectation? Let’s see what history has to say.
Top-15 Winning Percentage Improvements, Since 1876 and 1961
If Toronto improved to 97-65 in 2013, it would represent a winning percentage increase of 0.148. In the history of major league baseball, dating back to 1876, only 75 teams, or 3%, have registered an improvement that high. Since the beginning of the expansion era in 1961, only 28 teams (2% of eligible seasons) have increased their win total by the same percentage or higher. In other words, if the Blue Jays do finish in first, they’ll not only be gaining a division title, but making history in the process. And, that would still be true if the bar was set lower. Since 1876 and 1961, only 142 and 64 teams, respectively, have improved their winning percentages by the .123 necessary to turn the 2012 Blue Jays into a 93-win team, for example.
If there’s one silver lining for the Blue Jays from a historical perspective it’s that nine of the top-75 winning percentage improvements have occurred since 2001, including the 2012 Orioles, who experienced the very same 0.148 bump the Blue Jays would need to win the division. However, that note of encouragement comes with a caveat. Despite the many developments that have taken place over the 136 year history of the game, the distribution of year-to-year winning percentage changes has remained relatively constant, and, since the start of the wild card era, dramatic shifts have become slightly less common.
Comparative Y/Y Winning Percentage Change Distribution, by Individual Team Seasons
Note: Excludes first season in franchice history.
The Toronto Blue Jays will certainly be better in 2013. And, if all goes right, they just might win the A.L. East, especially considering the likely regression from the other teams in the division. However, even with all of the potential improvements, the path to the top won’t be an easy one. That’s why excitement in Toronto is certainly warranted, but a celebration is premature.