Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Retired Numbers Series: Toronto Blue Jays

Just over two years ago, I started the Retired Numbers Series with the intent of taking a thorough examination at every team’s history and how their outlook for future ceremonies appeared. This is the culmination of those 26 months of effort; finally, we move north of the border to cover our last team, the only still-existent non-American team, the Toronto Blue Jays. One of the newer teams in the league, the Blue Jays have taken a somewhat unique approach to honoring former players, but have as of recently started to move in a more traditional direction. What does their future hold?

Notes on the Numbers
Some quick notes on the stats: the two most prominent stats I used are similarly named. Both are called WAR, or Wins Above Replacement. They both try to account for every part of a player’s game, including, but not limited to: offense, defense, position, and playing time. So, it is a counting stat, like hits or home runs (with the small difference that bad seasons can actually decrease your WAR, if you are worse than a replacement player). WAR credits a player with how many wins they have provided to their team. They aren’t perfect, but for my purposes (a single number showing roughly how good a player has been), they work perfectly.

There are two major sites that provide WAR, Baseball-Reference (henceforth called bWAR) and Fangraphs (fWAR). The two are mostly the same, with the biggest difference coming from the different fielding stats the two use. Fangraphs has a fairly good summary of what makes up WAR and how it is calculated (for those wanting a more general summary, the introduction works just fine). Pitching is slightly different: Fangraphs’ WAR for pitchers, until recently (as in, after I started this series), only went back to 1974, so for my purposes, I stuck to just bWAR for them.

The Already Retired Numbers
The Blue Jays are a little more challenging to cover than every other team that I’ve covered so far. When I first started the Retired Numbers Series over two years ago, Toronto still hadn’t retired a number. Instead, they appeared to be using what they called the “Level of Excellence”, where players would have their name and number added, but their jersey could be used in the future. It looked like they would stick to this for the foreseeable future.

However, shortly after I gathered all my data and began writing, the team decided to retire number 12 for then-recently inducted Hall of Famer Roberto Alomar. Alomar manned second base for the Jays from 1991 to 1995, a span which included both of the team’s World Series victories. In those five seasons, Alomar was worth 22.2 bWAR and 20.4 fWAR, en route to career totals of 66.8 bWAR and 63.9 fWAR.

Compared to the League

There are a number of ways that I can compare the standards of the different teams in the league. The three easiest distinctions to look at are fWAR versus bWAR, career value versus value with the team, and the median value versus the average value. The Blue Jays provide an extra layer to look at; when I first ran the comparisons, I had used their Level of Excellence as the numbers. However, now that they have a retired number, we can look at Roberto Alomar’s numbers too.

Using just Alomar, the Blue Jays hover right around the middle in career value categories. In Average and Median Career bWAR, they place just above it, while in the corresponding fWAR categories, they place just below it. In value with the team, though, they slide into the fourth quartile in all four divisions.

Using the Level of Excellence players, they slide unanimously into the fourth quartile. In some cases, they could arguably be moved into the third quartile (for example, Dave Stieb isn’t in the fWAR calculations because of when I did it, which that would bring them up). Also, they rate better in value with team than in career value in the Level Excellence versions-those are the ones where they’re pushing at the end of the third quartile mostly, an exact flip of Alomar’s numbers.

As far as sheer amount of honored numbers, counting just Alomar ties them with the Diamondbacks and Rays for second to last. Counting their Level of Excellence gives them seven (one of whom is still Alomar), equal with the Tigers, Phillies, Red Sox, and Twins. I’ll cover those players in the next section.

So Who’s Next?

As mentioned, the Blue Jays already had a retired number-like system in place, so those players are probably the place to start in looking for their next fully-retired numbers. The leader among those candidates is almost certainly Dave Stieb. Stieb, a borderline Hall of Fame candidate, spent almost his entire sixteen season career with the Blue Jays (with the exception of 22.1 innings in 1993 with the White Sox). In his fifteen seasons with the team (1979 to 1992, with a comeback in 1998), he became the franchise leader in both bWAR (57.4) and fWAR (46.0), even among non-pitchers (although he’s since been passed in fWAR). If the Blue Jays decide to only retire numbers for Hall of Famers, Stieb may be in for a wait (although the Veterans Committee may eventually put him in). But if they’re just trying to recognize significant players in team history, Stieb makes for an obvious choice.

The top two position players are also already honored on the Level of Excellence. Tony Fernandez leads all Blue Jays position players in both forms of WAR, with 37.4 bWAR and 35.1 fWAR, thanks to having and above-average glove and decent bat at an up the middle position. It’s worth noting that he’s also the franchise leader in games played, with 1450 across twelve seasons and four different stints (1983 to 1990, 1993, 1998 to 1999, 2001).

That narrow lead in games gives him a similarly small edge in WAR over Carlos Delgado. The franchise home run leader (336), Delgado also finished only 27 games behind Fernandez in games played. He also finished in a virtual tie with Fernandez in bWAR (36.7) and fWAR (34.4) with the Blue Jays (even extending the frame to their entire careers doesn’t separate them much). They’re both a little below Stieb, but I’d say they’re the next ones in line for a retired number. I’d wager Delgado gets more attention than Fernandez for his power numbers, but Fernandez wouldn’t be too far behind.

Those three are a step above the other players on the Level. George Bell, for example, had his name added to the Level as well. He did have a place as one of the team’s earlier stars (including the first Toronto MVP award in 1987), but even with that MVP year, he wasn’t quite as valuable as the other players mentioned. Low on-base percentages and poor fielding kept his value down (and in truth, he almost certainly wasn’t the best player in the league in his MVP year). From 1981 to 1990 (nine seasons, as 1982 was spent in the minors), Bell was only worth 21.3 bWAR and 20.2 fWAR, with the remaining three seasons of his career being not worth much. While he had early importance with the franchise, he’s since been passed by numerous players and stands at the edge of the top ten position players in team history. I feel his case has deteriorated too much over time, although he may be a dark horse based on sentimentality.

Joe Carter, like Bell, was a little overrated at his peak (he had more power than Bell, but fielded even worse and got on base even less). In sixteen seasons, he was worth only 19.4 bWAR and 17.1 fWAR. His time with the Blue Jays was more of the same, with only 8.4 bWAR and 7.4 fWAR from 1991 to 1997. However, he does have a big advantage over Bell in one arena: one of only two World Series-ending home runs in history. I don’t think that gets him up to the same likeliness as Fernandez or Delgado, but it is something at least.

The final member of the Level isn’t a player, so different criteria are going to be a little different. Cito Gaston managed the team for twelve seasons, twice as many as any other manager in history, to the tune of a .516 winning percentage (894-837). That may not be the best winning percentage for any Jays manager, but he did manage the team’s two World Series titles, as well as three other playoff appearances. He only has his Blue Jays career to fall back on, so the Hall of Fame probably isn’t in the works. But for most teams, two World Series wins is usually enough at least.

Now that we’ve covered the Level of Excellence players, the next best place would probably be the Wins Above Replacement leader boards. On the position player side of things, Jesse Barfield is the next player listed after Fernandez and Delgado. Although he has about two-thirds the plate appearances those two have, he still managed 29.5 bWAR and 29.6 fWAR. He was sort of the opposite of Bell and Carter, managing severe underratedness thanks to taking a decent amount of walks and a really really good glove in right field. That factor probably knocks him down in likeliness, even though career-wise, he wasn’t much worse than Fernandez or Delgado. The time spent with other teams and unusual method of compiling wins probably leaves him unlikely to get a retired number, especially since he has been retired for two decades without even being added to the Level of Excellence.

Next on the list is, somewhat surprisingly (to me, at least) Vernon Wells. Despite what’s happened with his albatross of a contract, he was once a good player. Over twelve seasons with Toronto (the first three were more like short call-ups), Wells was worth 28.9 bWAR and 24.7 fWAR. That’s not bad, but it’s also not an overwhelming amount, his time since leaving hasn’t really helped his career standing, and he probably is going to wind up being remembered for his atrocious contract more than anything (regardless of how fair that is). With those negatives, I don’t think a retired number is very likely.

The next player on the list seems rather similar, minus the huge contract. Lloyd Moseby played a decade with the team (1980 to 1989) as center fielder and was playing in Japan within three years of that. He, like Barfield, had a low average but made up for it with a discerning batting eye. That, with an okay glove up the middle, contributed to his 26.1 bWAR and 24.6 fWAR. Again, though, he has all the downsides of Wells (rather short career, not bad but not great) and Barfield (undervalued, hasn’t played in a while or been recognized in some other way). Even with his place on the WAR lists, I’d mark him as unlikely.

The two Wins lists continue to agree, placing Jose Bautista sixth. It’s impressive considering he has half the plate appearances most of these players have. Since joining the team in 2008, he’s been worth 25.5 bWAR and 23.3 fWAR. While he’s 32, he’s still productive when healthy and under contract for three more years. He could easily wind up on level with Tony Fernandez and Carlos Delgado by the time he’s done, which might get him on the Level of Excellence if nothing else. That’s a not-bad case for a retired number too.

John Olerud is the final agreed-upon position player on WAR rankings. With 22.5 bWAR and 23.1 fWAR, his numbers with the team don’t stand out terribly. However, he does have an ace in the hole: his numbers aren’t that far off from Roberto Alomar. Now, Alomar is in the Hall and Olerud probably won’t be; Olerud is much closer than you might realize, though, standing at 58.0 bWAR and 57.7fWAR. That also included some good seasons for the 1992 and 1993 champion Blue Jays. Like so many other mentioned players, Olerud was underrated, which hurts his candidacy. However, he at least has the stats to justify a retired number if they decided to do so. He’d probably just be further down on the list, unless something happens like he gets picked by the Veterans Committee down the line or something.

After that, there’s a collection of similar players (value-wise), with Devon White (22.2 bWAR, 20.9 fWAR), Fred McGriff (19.5 bWAR, 19.7 fWAR), Ernie Whitt (19.5 bWAR, 21.8 fWAR), and Alex Rios (20.4 bWAR, 17.8 fWAR). There’s has to be some sort of hook for one of those players, and McGriff is probably the only one who fits that, as he’s 1) about as good as Olerud (52.6 bWAR, 57.2 fWAR), and 2) actually getting some Hall support. He wasn’t on the eventual championship teams like Olerud and he played for Toronto for less time, but he was less underrated (whereas Olerud hit doubles and played defense, McGriff hit flashy home runs). That probably puts him above Olerud in likeliness, and depending on how the Blue Jays view Hall-of-Fame-ness, maybe Gaston as well.

With that, I’d argue that it’s time to move on to the pitchers. One pitcher clearly stands at the top with Dave Stieb: Roy Halladay. The long-time Jay ace (and repeat Cy Young winner) spent the first twelve seasons of his career with the Blue Jays before being traded to Philadelphia for the 2010 season. In that time, he earned 48.5 of his 65.4 bWAR (behind only Stieb for Blue Jays bWAR) and 51.9 of his 67.7 fWAR (ahead of even Stieb), both of which are strong indicators that he’ll one day make it to Cooperstown. At this point, it’s almost harder to think of a reason he won’t someday get a retired number in the Rogers Centre.

There are a few other starting pitchers that stand out like the hitters that we covered. Jimmy Key is a little like the Jesse Barfield equivalent on the pitching side. His nine years in Toronto generated two All-Star picks and a Cy Young runner-up; his final six seasons matched those numbers. However, he was consistently good, resulting in 30.0 bWAR and 28.8 fWAR from 1984 to 1992. For his decade-and-a-half career, he was worth 49.4 bWAR and 45.3 fWAR, solid numbers all around. However, with Stieb, his contemporary, still waiting for his number to be retired, there’s almost no reason for Key to get his number first. Really, this is the problem with most of the other pitchers on the list.

Whereas most of the hitters had some special case that might bump them ahead (Delgado and Fernandez top most counting stats, Joe Carter had a famous hit, McGriff and Olerud have a comparable case in Alomar), most of the pitchers have no excuse to stand above Stieb (and most only have age on Halladay, but they lost that headstart on him as soon as he retires). Jim Clancy takes third place from Key on the fWAR count, with 30.3 fWAR. He’s in fifth though in bWAR, with only 25.3. He was probably the first franchise ace, playing with them from 1977 to 1988, but his four years after leaving were more or less negatives, meaning he’s pretty short on value in every sense. That’s not really a case to skip him above Stieb.

Pat Hentgen actually produced a Cy Young during his decade with the team (1991 to 1999, 2004). But overall, he still wasn’t close to Halladay and Stieb, with 26.7 of his 32.9 bWAR and 20.8 of his 23.7 fWAR coming as a Blue Jay.

Juan Guzman only played ten seasons (1991 to 2000), with the first seven-and-a-half in Toronto. But with one All-Star appearance and only 21.1 bWAR and 23.0 fWAR, it’s hard to put him past Key and Hentgen, let alone the top two.

Really, to get around those roadblocks, a pitcher would have to more or less be not competing with them. Former closer Tom Henke is probably the only one who can claim that. Henke was, despite seemingly being forgotten, a pretty dominant closer, posting 311 saves and a 157 ERA+. He still leads the Blue Jays in saves (217) and ERA (2.48). He didn’t get a large WAR total due to his low inning count (only 17.0 bWAR and 16.4 fWAR from 1985 to 1992), but at least his claim to a retired number doesn’t directly compete with the top two candidates.

With that, we have only the current roster left to cover. Edwin Encarnacion has made a Jose-Bautista-like impression for the past two seasons, but I’d like to see him do it for a few years before saying he’s at all likely. Jose Reyes has only just arrived, but he’s under contract for a while. He has a shot to make a run at 3000 hits, and if he gets it in Toronto, they may decide to honor him. Colby Rasmus is having a break-out age-26 season, but he’s a free agent after next season, knocking him down a few notches.

The best bet is probably Brett Lawrie if he can stay healthy. Only 23, he’s been good so far. How good depends on which fielding metric you use; Baseball-Reference likes him to 10.1 Wins, while Fangraphs estimates a more modest 6.2. Health and improvement on an average bat will only help.

So, In Closing...

As of right now, the players that I think are most likely to get their numbers retired by the Toronto Blue Jays in the future are, in order:

Roy Halladay-32
Dave Stieb-37
Carlos Delgado-25
Tony Fernandez-1
Jose Bautista-19
Cito Gaston-43
Brett Lawrie-13
Fred McGriff-19
John Olerud-9
Joe Carter-29
Jimmy Key-22
Pat Hentgen-41
Tom Hemke-50
Jose Reyes-7
Edwin Encarnacion-10
Jim Clancy-18
Juan Guzman-66/57
George Bell-11
Jesse Barfield-29
Vernon Wells-10
Lloyd Moseby-15

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