TORONTO – It’s been 25 years since Joe Carter touched ’em all and gave Canada back-to-back World Series championships. For 1992 and 1993 alumni, it doesn’t feel all that long ago.
Gathered at an event Tuesday in downtown Toronto to mark the anniversary, players, coaches, and front-office personnel from those famous teams were smiling like the ball Carter hit had just cleared the left-field wall. Carter, asked about the most significant home run in Blue Jays history for the thousandth time, wasn’t tired of reminiscing, either.
“Which one was that?” Carter asked, keeping a straight face for a few seconds before cracking a wide grin.
For a new generation of Blue Jays fans brought on board by playoff runs in 2015 and 2016, 25 years is a lifetime. The franchise has aged and changed, and so has Major League Baseball; the game’s taken on a new style and identity over the past two-and-a-half decades.
Home runs and strikeouts rule the day. Relievers start games, infields shift more than ever, computers record and analyze every inch of player movement, and bunting is bemoaned. Baseball doesn’t look the way it used to.
In its own era, that 1993 team was built to dominate offensively. The ’93 Blue Jays ranked in the top five in runs scored, batting average, on-base percentage, stolen bases, and strikeout rate. Toronto’s pitching staff was in the middle of the pack, but the Blue Jays were the best hitting squad in baseball.
“We overpowered people, which is impossible to do in Major League Baseball, but we did it that year,” manager Cito Gaston said. “It helps when you have a John Olerud finishing first in the league in hitting, Paul Molitor finishing second in the league, and Robbie Alomar finishing third.”
Let’s drop the 1993 Blue Jays into 2018, then. How would that team fit in today’s MLB?
“We wouldn’t,” Carter said without hesitation. “It’s almost like we’ve turned into these millennials who have taken the game to the computer, to the phones, to the analytics, and we’ve taken out … What happened to ‘see the ball, hit the ball, throw the ball, run fast, score runs’? Now, it’s all percentages. It’s all based on those things, so it’s mathematical equations.”
And that leads to the ugly word that divides 1993 and 2018: Analytics.
Analytics, as a word, can get in its own way. For many, it brings to mind a room filled with computers and recent business grads wearing thick-rimmed glasses and dress pants that don’t quite meet their shoes. In the simplest terms, analytics in baseball are used to measure and predict the game more accurately.
Carter isn’t saying whether the ’93 Blue Jays would win or lose in 2018, but suggesting they simply wouldn’t make much sense in today’s game. The 58-year-old believes that modern players are thinking too much in the moment instead of relying on their talent and instincts.
Carter’s teammate Dave Stewart – the 1993 ALCS MVP who went on to be an MLB coach, MLB agent, and eventually general manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks – agrees with Carter.
“Information is good. It’s up to the player to take what he needs and take what he can use,” Stewart said. “For me, as a starting pitcher, I didn’t need that information because I had my own. In this day and time, these guys don’t use a lot of this anymore,” Stewart said as he pointed to his head, “they use video, or information that you read.
“My information was locked up here,” he added, pointing to his head again. “I remembered hitters as if I saw them yesterday.”
Stewart’s continued involvement in baseball seems to put him somewhere between the old ways and the new. He doesn’t understand the hesitation to bunt runners into scoring position, which is now considered an old-school move, but he knows that analytics would have helped him.
“If I had shifts when I was around, I would have thrown a whole lot more no-hitters,” Stewart said.
Pat Gillick, the architect of Toronto’s championship teams, has been with several organizations since. In 1993, Gillick’s front office valued ERA, wins and losses, hits per nine innings, batting average, and RBI.
“Now they’re talking about OPS, WAR, et cetera, and that’s the difference,” Gillick said. “I don’t know that what they’re saying now is much different from what we did then – they’re just putting different names on it.”
Duane Ward’s name was heard often Tuesday. The dominant reliever, who had 45 saves and a 2.13 ERA in 1993, is the type of player who would be a star in today’s game. His rate of 12.18 strikeouts per nine innings may look normal in 2018, but 25 years ago, it was astonishing.
In 2018, would Ward be the Blue Jays’ version of Andrew Miller in the playoffs, coming into a high-leverage situation in the sixth inning? Would Danny Cox or Mark Eichhorn – who both had strong splits against right-handed hitters in 1993 – be used as “openers” against righty-heavy lineups in 2018, with Stewart taking over in the second inning?
It sounds like the ’93 Blue Jays still need some convincing, but if they accepted the edges that modern analytics can offer, perhaps they would replicate their success in the present. Getting on base and putting balls in play never goes out of style, after all.
But the analytics discussion goes both ways. Would the ’93 Philadelphia Phillies, knowing what teams know (and do) now, have made the same choices in that fateful ninth inning? For his part, Gaston says he was ready to let Alfredo Griffin – who’d entered the game as a pinch runner for Olerud and hadn’t yet made a plate appearance in the postseason – hit after Carter instead of using Darnell Coles. Gaston actually missed Carter’s home run because he was looking at his clipboard, making that very call.
And crucially, with everything on the line, would Mitch Williams still have thrown that 2-2 fastball?
“He came with a fastball down and in, and that’s my happy zone,” Carter said. “That’s the ‘beware’ zone. I was able to keep it fair and, as you say, the rest is history. Great history.”
The most important history for Carter and a set of Blue Jays supporters, no matter how much the game changes.