The Jays season did not turn out the way we hoped. I don't think it was a horrible season but it was a frustrating one. I know all teams hype themselves in the pre-season (few teams go into a season saying to their fans "we are going to play poorly this year"), but, the Jays hype certainly set high expectations. Exactly what those expectations were remained a bit unclear but at a minimum they involved reversing the previous season's narrow miss of the playoffs and, potentially, making a deep run. On paper (and, I know the problems with "on paper"), the Jays looked like a contender. They certainly talked like one.
For me, what was frustrating about the season was that the Jays never really seemed to get on track, never really realized their potential. Why was that? I think several factors played a role. Much discussion has been devoted to Schneider's decision to pull Gausman in the second playoff game against Seattle and that may have been the wrong decision but I also think it would be wrong to believe that seasonal disappointment hinged on one decision a manager made in one game (however important that game was). Instead of focusing on individual decisions, let's look at some more systemic issues.
First, injuries: everyone suffers from injuries and depth is a big buzz word but some injuries are more predictable than others. Key injuries to Ryu (who was pitching poorly before this injury and at the end of last year anyway), Springer, Hernandez, and Gurriel were not 100% going to happen but they were more predictable because of age or injury history. Springer is a good player, but any time you enter a season with a 32 year old outfielder with an injury history, you have to imagine that this is a potential problem. Hernandez and Gurriel are not as old as Springer, but they have their own injury histories. I liked the key replacement outfielder -- Tapia -- because I think he was asked to do more than was expected of him. That said, according to Baseball Reference (where I get all my data) he has a sub .700 OPS and a 91 OPS+. What this means is that the Jays sent a 9% offensively worse than average outfielder up to bat 433 times.
Second: their defence was shaky. You would not notice this listening to Jays commentators, but Bichette had a negative defensive WAR ( or dWAR, a measure of defensive). This means he cost the Jays runs playing short stop verse an average replacement shortstop. Vladdy -- despite winning a Gold Glove (the sad a bitter truth is that there are no defensively strong first basemen in the AL, almost all starting first basemen were defensive liabilities) -- had a negative dWAR, as did Gurriel, Tapia, and Hernandez, and Chapman's dWAR was nowhere near as good as people might think (and dramatically lower than his best seasons before joining the Jays). The Jays do have good fielders (Kirk at catcher), but as a team they don't play good D. I watched players give up on balls or throw to the wrong base.
This is frustrating because it is something other than the booted ball mistake that every player makes over the span of a season. These are fixable problems. During the season I listened to announcers rave about the Jays taking fielding practice (some version of "they are out every day ..."). But, they are professional ball players. They are supposed to be practicing. That is their job. I teach for a living. Raving about a professional baseball player taking fielding practice is like saying "Andrew should be rewarded for doing class prep." If you have a teacher who does not do class prep that is a different and more serious problem but you don't get a reward for doing it. It is simply a requirement of the job. Likewise, suggesting that a professional baseball player should be acclaimed for taking fielding practice seems more like a smokescreen than a serious comment and it begs a further question. If the Jays are practicing, why are they not getting better?
Third, the Jays base running was not good. It was not horrible, but it shouldn't earn any celebrations. They were tied for the second lowest stolen base percent in the majors (that is, they were getting caught attempting to steal more frequently than all but one team), and their other base running metrics are middle of the pack. They were middle of the pack on getting picked off and slightly better than middle of the pack (top third, say) on Outs On Base (that is when a player made a base running mistake that lead to an out). Only Tapia and Springer had good stolen base ratios. Bichette led the team with 13 steals but was caught 8 times. This means that his base running likely cost the team runs. It is a marked difference from the year before when Bichette, Semien, and Hernandez had really good stolen base ratios.
Finally, a more subjective point. There were times where it seemed something was wrong with the team. I don't think the "boys will be boys" bench atmosphere served the Jays well. It is better -- much better -- than the toxic atmosphere that pervaded the Jays a few years ago. If I had to choose, I'd pick this iteration of the Jays over what we saw a few years back. But why do we have to choose? The on-going party atmosphere seems good but it also seems to distract from the kind of discipline that winning teams seem to have. In my view, the Jays were not well served by celebrating homers in games they ultimately lost or in games that they won by wide margins. One instance I found telling relates to Vladdy. I recall a game where, between innings, he sat with the bullpen, as opposed to sitting on the bench. He was obviously upset at the Jays poor play but that is not the kind of leadership the Jays need.
I recognize that this concern is not something that relates only to the Jays. Every team seems to have their version of a home run jacket (a chain, a hat, a cart, etc.), and stat inflation is nothing new. I remember Bill James, years ago, trying to figure out a way to delineate meaningful RBIs from tack ons in games where the end result had already been decided (the baseball equivalent of garbage time points in basketball). I believe he gave up.
What is my point? My point is that the Jays have problems but those problems are fixable. Defence and base running are skills players can learn. There is no inherent reason why Bichette, for instance, should not be an outstanding base runner. There is no inherent reason why Gurriel needs to throw to the wrong base. I will be interested to see what the Jays do in the off season. I suspect they will be involved in some sort of trade, perhaps involving the surplus of catching that they have and maybe one of the extra middle infielders they have kicking around. I also think they have a good crack at the division next year. I can't see the Yankees getting any better. They were not a good team in the second half. Nor Boston. The Oriels may take another step forward but their team is young and has pronounced weaknesses. TB is always there but sooner or later the smoke and mirrors that sustains that team (by which I mean incredibly good field level management) will not be able to cover over the talent deficit. The Jays should begin next season as the favourite to win their division. I think they can but addressing these problems would help.