If you’ve been following the Blue Jays closely, you probably know that they are playing below .500 ball despite scoring more runs than they’ve allowed. After Friday night’s game, the Jays have now scored 289 runs and allowed 250; this is the second-best run differential in the American League. Using the Pythagorean won-lost percentage calculator, a team with this run differential normally has a record of 32-24, not 26-30.
What has gone wrong is that the Jays have a tremendously bad record in one-run games – they are 3-12 in these games. If you leave out one-run games, the Jays are 23-18. The two most common hypotheses as to why this has happened are bad luck and bullpen failure. So I decided to use the excellent Baseball Reference web site to look up all the one-run losses and try to find a pattern if it exists. Brace yourself, Jays fans – pain and suffering await.
April 8: The Jays have a 3-1 lead going into the bottom of the eighth at Yankee Stadium. Aaron Loup comes in and faces three batters without retiring anybody (double, single, HBP). Brett Cecil replaces him; after a wild pitch, a strikeout, and an intentional walk, another HBP and a single score the tying and winning runs. This is clearly a bullpen failure, but the Jays also didn’t score many runs, and didn’t squander any obvious opportunities.
April 13: The Rays score two in the fourth and the Jays score one in the fifth, and that’s all. No obvious signs of bad luck.
April 14: The Jays and Rays are tied 2-2 after seven. In the top of the eighth, the Rays’ Steven Souza reaches on a bunt single, steals second, and reaches third on a throwing error. He scores on a sacrifice fly. The Jays could have scored more runs with better luck, but didn’t have too many chances: they left two on in the second when Kevin Pillar’s deep fly ball was caught, and left two more on in the sixth.
April 17: The Jays and Braves are tied 5-5 after 7. Brett Cecil comes in and has a bad inning: a home run, two ground outs, a single, and another home run. The Jays rally in the bottom of the inning: a home run by Martin, two singles, and a Goins sacrifice put the tying runners in scoring position with one out. One run scores on a fielder’s choice, but Donaldson is retired to end the threat. This probably qualifies as a bullpen failure, but luck is a factor too: they left two on in the seventh when Navarro lined out to centre.
April 27: The Jays have a 5-4 lead at Fenway, but give up a run in the eighth to tie it when Roberto Osuna loads the bases with none out (hard-hit single, bloop single, wild pitch, intentional walk). In the ninth, Miguel Castro gives up a ground ball single, a line-drive single to short centre, a wild pitch, and a ground ball single to end it. Bullpen failure, but Castro wasn’t hit hard, so luck is also a factor.
May 16: The Jays fall behind 6-3 after six, and then rally for two runs in the ninth on an Encarnacion home run.
May 19: The Jays have a 2-1 lead after six, but starter Aaron Sanchez allows the tying run in the seventh. He leaves in the eighth with two on and one out; Osuna gets a ground ball, but Josh Donaldson tries for the runner at third and doesn’t get him, loading the bases. The winning run scores on a sacrifice fly.
May 20: The Jays are ahead 3-2 after six. Drew Hutchison leaves the game with two on and two out, and Steve Delabar gives up a wild pitch and a double. Possible bullpen failure, but the seventh is a bit early.
May 22: The Jays are down 4-1 going into the ninth, and score two runs on a Colabello home run.
May 23: The score is 3-2 Mariners after the fourth, and it stayed that way. This is the Jays’ fourth one-run loss in five games. Pessimism now reigns.
May 30: The Twins score in the seventh to take a 3-2 lead, which becomes the final score.
May 31: The Jays are up 4-1 after five, but Hutchison melts down in the sixth to allow the Twins to tie it. Josh Donaldson hits a long home run in the seventh to give the Jays the lead again. In the bottom of the seventh, Hicks reaches on a Reyes error, and the winning run scores on a double and an error by Colabello in the outfield.
What to conclude from this? First off, the bullpen hasn’t directly cost the Jays that many one-run losses. I only really count three of them in this list. The main offender appears to be the offense: in eight of the twelve losses, the Jays scored three runs or less, and it’s hard to win with that little run support. Sometimes, the other guy just has a good day.
The Jays would definitely do better if they had more reliable late-inning relievers, however. The Jays are 21-5 with a lead going into the seventh; the Yankees, with two outstanding late-inning relievers, are 24-2, which is a significant difference. The gap narrows a bit later on, though: with a lead going into the eighth the Jays are 23-3, and the Yankees are 25-1.
Looking at other AL East teams: the Rays are 23-4 with a lead at the start of the seventh and 24-1 in the eighth, the Orioles are 21-4 in the seventh and 21-0 in the eighth, and the Red Sox are 19-2 in the seventh and 19-1 in the eighth. For the most part, if you have a lead after six innings, you’re going to win the game.
Just for fun, I looked up the records for the 1983 Toronto Blue Jays, a team with a legendarily bad bullpen. (I wonder what Joey McLaughlin is doing these days, 32 years after he was probably the most unpopular athlete in Toronto?) They were 65-15 with a lead at the top of the seventh, which isn’t great. They were 65-11 in the eighth, and they blew eight leads in the ninth inning, which is horrible. (The 2015 Jays haven’t blown a ninth-inning lead yet.) In 1984, it wasn’t much better: they were 60-19 in the seventh and 61-15 in the eighth, and blew five ninth-inning leads.
The 1985 Jays, interestingly enough, made it to the post-season despite blowing eight ninth-inning leads; it was the 1992 Jays, featuring Ward and Henke, that were unstoppable in the late innings. The Jays’ first world champions were 78-4 with a lead going into the seventh, 80-3 with a lead going into the eighth, and 83-1 with a lead going into the ninth. The problem that contemporary Jays bullpens face is that everybody compares them with this one.