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Which Team Will Surprise in 2020?

July 21, 2020
I’ve been interested in the notion of surprise teams for a long time. By ‘surprise’ teams I mean teams that make a great leap forward, teams that go from loser to winners in a single season. I’ve looked into this question for most of the years I’ve been contributing to this site, with a few successes and a lot of failures along the way.
My intention, for this season, was to lay out a decent methodology to find surprise teams. I wanted to take guesswork and make it slightly less guesswork-ish, slightly more analytical.
I did about half the work for this. I went through the last two decades of baseball and made a list of the fifty-odd teams that had improved their record by fifteen or more games, and then I did a dive into what each of those teams looked like the season prior. I scanned for various markers, which I’m not going to list here. I finished that research, and I got about a third of the way through writing about it, and then I realized I had forgotten something.
I hadn’t made a control group.
Let me unpack that just a little. One of the criteria I looked at was a team’s W-L record in July. Reviewing a long list of surprise teams, I made a note of how all of them performed in July. Some of the surprise teams had had winning July’s, and some did not. Most did not.
I hemmed and hawed about what a winning month looked like and decided on a benchmark and counted the teams that reached that benchmark, and figured out what percentage of our surprise teams hit that benchmark. The percentage, just to give us a number, was 48%...48% of the surprise teams of the last twenty seasons had strong July W-L records.
That’s information, but absent a context, it is mainly trivia. To know whether it matters, we need to know how that number compares against a group of teams that continued to lose. How many of those teams had positive July W-L records?
I’m sure most did not, but It would help to know what the difference was. From that, we can figure out what markers really matter.
So I haven’t done that second part. It’ll take just a day or two of work, but I haven’t had a moment yet.
And it doesn’t matter, not for 2020. In a shortened season, every team has a chance to surprise us. Through 60 games last season, the Angels were 2.5 games back of a Wild Card slot. The White Sox were three games back. The Marlins…the worst team in baseball even though six games….were just nine games back of playoff contention. Anything can happen in a 60-game season.
But a few of you have asked about surprise teams for 2020, and I had looked into the subject.
So here you go.
*       *       *
The team that will surprise baseball in 2020 are the Toronto Blue Jays.
This is going out on a rather dramatic limb, for two reasons.
One is that the AL East is a very strong division. The Yankees and Rays are excellent baseball teams, and Boston, even absent Mookie Betts and Chris Sale, is a very solid club. For Toronto to surprise us, they’re going to have to pull ahead of at least two of those teams. And they’ll have to stay ahead of Baltimore, which is still paying Chris Davis.
The second challenge is that the Blue Jays going to have to beat those teams while playing an away season: Canada has not permitted Toronto to have American teams cross the border to echo around the Sky Dome (I’m not calling it anything else), so the Blue Jays will likely be playing their home games in Buffalo, and living out of a hotel there.
I do not, in general, factor considerations of geographic stress into my predictions for surprise teams, but this is a strange year and we’re in for a strange season: a good cap for the year would be crowing a dislocated champion. If the Blue Jays win the World Series, maybe they can have their victory parade crossing the Peace Bridge between Fort Erie and Buffalo.
The positives for the Blue Jays are obvious: they are a young team with considerable talent. Vlad-The-Younger is as formidable an impaler of baseballs as his old man, and Bo Bichette is right behind him in terms of hitting upside. Cavan Biggio, the eldest of the second-generation stars in the Blue Jays lineup, has perhaps the best batting eye in all of baseball. Rounding out the group is Nate Pearson, a top-10 prospect who might crack the rotation.
One of the indictors I gave weight to is how good a team plays during the second-half of the season, and how well they play during the months of July, August, and September/October. The Blue Jays were the only team to rate as positive across all those criteria: they were 33-38 after the All-Star break, and while they didn’t manage any winning months, they weren’t losers, either:
That record is more impressive considering their opponents: with the Yankees, Rays, and Red Sox sharing their division, Toronto had to hold their own against very strong teams. They did that.
Toronto’s hitters are the youngest in baseball, and their farm system has enough depth to expect support. They underperformed their expected (Pythagorean) W-L record by four games, which is not massively significant, but it is a positive sign all the same.
A few other teams have some positives. The Chicago White Sox played nearly as well as Toronto in August and September, and they have some dynamic young players. And over in the National League, Cincinnati experienced the same steady success as Toronto during the second half.
But I’m going with Toronto.
If this were an old team with star players accustomed to the luxuries of being a professional athlete, I’d say that a season on the road would be enough to derail their chances.
But the Blue Jays are a young team, not yet habituated to comfort and eager to prove themselves against their big rivals. They are looking down the parallel of life dislocation, but they will have to endure that for a ten-week sprint, not a marathon season. Anyone can tolerate anything for ten weeks.
The baseball season ahead will be strange and surreal, and it will bring with it unanticipated challenges. Perhaps the team best positioned to meet those challenges is a team that is starting from a place of radical readjustment. Maybe, in a season of discord and disorder, we’ll discover that the best team in New York isn’t the Bronx Bombers or the Metropolitans in Queens, but an immigrant squad hiding in western upstate.
The Blue Jays…Toronto or Buffalo…are going to be the team that surprises us in 2020.
David Fleming is a writer living in southwest Virginia. He welcomes comments, questions, and suggestions here and at

COMMENTS (2 Comments, most recent shown first)

Something to note in regards to the Blue Jays: when the Mariners were abruptly forced out of the Kingdome in mid-July 1994 because the dome's tiles were falling, they played the rest of the season on the road. The M's went 11-9 in those 20 games, vs. 38-54 before they had to leave the Kingdome. The story is that being forced on the road helped the team come together and set the stage for 1995, when the Mariners nearly won the pennant.
6:57 PM Jul 30th
Interesting pick, lots of young talent. I'm going with a team that has young talent but is in a weaker division. I don't have a system, haven't done any research. White Sox.
7:57 PM Jul 21st
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