The Good Ol' Jays
Last Friday night I had a chance to watch my first full Red Sox game and I have to say, what struck me most was the awesomeness of the retro Blue Jays uniforms the home team sported. What also struck me was just how good the Jays might be this year. Their starting five is pretty close to as good as it gets in the American League and their bullpen has been excellent. Their team ERA is currently 3.69. The lineup has been inconsistent but the pieces are there to mount a steady and consistent offensive attack.
After the game while chatting with a friend who grew up in Toronto, we couldn't help but reminisce about the original Blue Jays that donned the powder blue's. Being born in 1980, I was just coming into a little bit of baseball consciousness and so I was able to reel off a Rance Mulliniks here and an Ernie Whitt there but I didn't have much beyond the standouts and these two. When my pal asserted that Toronto's first playoff team, the 1985 AL East Champion Jays, were a "helluva club" I decided to take a look at trusty B-Ref to see what this team was all about. Sure enough, it was truly one "helluva club".
The lineup was merely above average. Jesse Barfield (.289/.369/.536) was quite good and when he was healthy and in the lineup, so was Mulliniks (.295/.383/.454). The rest ranged from poor to pretty good. The team OPS+ was 103 and they scored 759 runs, good for fourth in the American League.
What made the 1985 Toronto Blue Jays a dominant, 99-win team (and 99-win Pythag team at that) was the finest run prevention unit the American League has seen in the last 30 years. The Blue Jays gave up 588 runs, or just 3.65 per game. They had a team ERA of 3.31 and an an astounding ERA+ figure of 129. Doyle Alexander, Dave Stieb, Jimmy Key and Jim Clancy, as starters, combined for 867.3 innings of 3.09 ERA pitching. The bullpen had a 3.27 ERA.
The Blue Jays defense had every bit as much to do with their spectacular run prevention as the pitchers did. Perhaps more. The Blue Jays yielded the third fewest walks and struck out only the eighth most batters in the American League in 1985 and yet their team ERA and ERA+ were head and shoulders above even the second best team that season. That means a whole lot of batted balls were converted into outs. They easily led the league in team defensive efficiency and it isn't hard to see why. A quick glance at some advanced defensive metrics reveal shortstop Tony Fernandez and right fielder Jesse Barfield to have been first-class defenders that season, while center fielder Lloyd Moseby and second baseman Damaso Garcia appear to have been quite good as well.
To further evidence the effect Toronto's defenders had on their overall run prevention, consider the following numbers comparing Stieb and Key's peripherals in 1985 versus their career, and then looking at their ERA's the same year against their career.
'85 K/BB Career K/BB '85 ERA Career Era
Stieb 1.74 1.61 2.48 3.44
Key 1.70 2.30 3.00 3.51
Stieb (let me digress and say Stieb is absurdly under-rated) had a k/bb number in line with his career totals and yet an ERA almost a full run less than his career figure. Key's k/bb was a lot worse in 1985 than it was for his career and yet his ERA was over a half run better. This is yet another indicator that the defense behind them was outstanding.
The Blue Jays would lose in the ALCS to the eventual champion Kansas City Royals after taking a 3-1 series lead. It seems they have been largely forgotten since, but at the very least they should assume their place amongst the very best non-champion teams. The 1954 Indians, the 2001 Mariners, the 1985 Blue Jays...you catch my drift.
With the pitching staff they feature in 2008, don't be too surprised if these Jays begin to resemble the 1985 ones in more than looks alone.
*photo above by Adrian Wyld - AP