The Toronto Blue Jays are prioritizing the intangible makeup of players as they build up their organization
The Blue Jays are on a journey that is common to every team in the majors. First, build a system filled with talented prospects. Then, take that promising system and develop it into a World Series contender. While the quality of the system’s talent is a big part of this process, there are many other things that might help along the way. As Mark Shapiro has said in the past, he wouldn’t be okay with himself if he didn’t do everything that could have helped make the team better.
Shi Davidi’s excellent recent article on the programs being run this fall for Blue Jay prospects speaks to this idea of doing everything possible to build a winning franchise. This idea is borne from an understanding that the Blue Jays need to think outside the box in order to compete with the Yankees and Red Sox.
In particular, the Blue Jays need to have a system that pumps out overperformers. In Shapiro’s view, overperformers tend to be those who “are high-character, tough, resilient and good teammates”. There’s strong intuition behind this idea.
Baseball is a sport characterized by ups and downs, over the course of a game, a month, a season and a career. High-character guys are more likely to be able to navigate these peaks and valleys smoothly. They are more likely to stay positive when things are going against them and stay level-headed when everything is going right. They are more likely to judge themselves honestly and look for areas where adjustments can lead to meaningful improvements. They are more likely to want to pick a teammate up, rather than put him down. They are more likely to stay locked in on their goal of being the best baseball player they can be. If you group a bunch of these high-character players together, there is more likely to be a positive, confident, focused and hard-working atmosphere in the clubhouse.
Obviously, building a system filled with players that possess these traits starts with the scouting department. They need to be tasked not only with finding good ball players, but young men with good heads on their shoulders. In my view, 2018 draftee Cal Stevenson is a prime example of this type of player.
A 2017 article written ahead of his senior season with the University of Arizona highlighted his leadership role with the team. Through quotes from Cal, his teammates and his coach, a picture is painted of a young man who is tough, resilient and a good teammate. His coach had glowing praise for the example he set for younger players: “it’s not just production…it’s [his] commitment to discipline on a daily basis. It’s about doing what you’re supposed to do when you’re supposed to do it.”
In describing his approach to being a good teammate, Stevenson said that “when a guy makes a mistake or doesn’t make an execution play, like a bunt or something, you kind of bring him to the side, talk him through it, like, ‘Hey man, it’s all right. Just do this a little better and you would have gotten it down. You can’t really dwell on that. Get to the next play, because we’re going to need you.'”
Stevenson also noted the struggles he faced as a junior with Arizona, his first season there. He started hot, but couldn’t maintain his strong production as he started to face tougher and tougher pitching. Eventually, after a great deal of hard work, he made the adjustments that propelled him to a strong season (.311 batting average). As his coach noted, “he did a good job of getting through that. It’s really tough (for) college baseball players to learn. He has good baseball maturity to him.”
Beyond acquiring players with the right character traits, it’s vital for the team to build an infrastructure that squeezes every drop of character out of the system’s prospects. The programs highlighted by Davidi speak to this side of the club’s efforts.
There were two programs (one for pitchers and one for hitters), led by staff members who are recently retired ball players, for anyone seeking to make mechanical adjustments. These programs relied on a mix of video, analytics and the wisdom of former major leaguers. They provide a platform for naturally proactive players to make improvements, while also motivating others to be more proactive themselves. From a prospect’s first year in the system, the importance of making adjustments is highlighted and supported by the team.
There were also programs aimed more at building camaraderie among the newer prospects and instilling the team’s culture in them. One such program is a “rookie camp aimed at recent draft picks and Latin American signings with focuses on being a good teammate, participating in a winning culture, developing strong practice habits, acclimating to pro ball and the Blue Jays”. This type of camp serves to get every Blue Jay prospect on the same page, within their first few months in the system, making the team’s culture and (expectations of its players) clear to all.
Moreover, it starts the process of building camaraderie, between guys who will develop together for years to come, right away. Bringing together and beginning a dialogue between prospects raised in North and Latin America is particularly vital, given the oft-alluded to ethnic divisions in MLB clubhouses.
In that vein, there’s also “a cultural experience camp taking newly drafted players to the club’s complex in the Dominican Republic to gain insight into what Latin players go through so they are more understanding once those players arrive in North America.” The obvious benefit of this camp is the insight it provides North American players with respect to the life experience of their Latino teammates—the environment they grew up in, the obstacles they faced on their journey and the family they’ve left behind.
Those lessons alone make the camp invaluable. However, experiences like that also serve to instill a more generally applicable sense of empathy in the team’s prospects. Understanding where your teammates come from helps young men understand that everyone comes from somewhere, just like they did. While the details are different, we are all influenced by the world around us. Once a person understands that we are all products of our environment, it becomes a lot easier for them to put themselves in another’s shoes—empathy, in other words. Empathetic young men is something the world could use a lot more of right now.
Empathy strikes me as a key trait in good teammates. Empathetic people are a lot less likely to put down a teammate and a lot more likely to lift one up or share insights that can help them out, keys to a healthy and cohesive clubhouse. While plenty of World Series have probably been won by teams filled with warring teammates, the vast majority of toxic clubhouses end up losing far more games than they win. Overcoming your opponents is difficult enough. Having to overcome your teammates unnecessarily adds to that degree of difficulty.
For his article, Davidi spoke with Gil Kim, the Jays’ director of player development. After describing the team’s altered approach, he noted “we certainly could have done a better job, like we always could, but at the end of the day we were able to reach a large number of players and develop specific needs for them.”
This is the sort of mentality you want to see in a team’s head of player development and one echoed in the team’s evolving approach—humble and aware of what could be improved, but also aware of what was done right. I highly recommend the article John Lott wrote after Kim’s hiring back in January 2016. His history has clearly shaped who he is and how the team is approaching player development. I strongly believe that the Blue Jays are benefiting a great deal from that.
Beyond the aforementioned programs, Kim also spoke of “a handful of teammate sessions led by one of our mental performance coach[es] or one [of] our co-ordinators or one of our on-field coaches to highlight what being a good teammate looks like. It means picking up your teammates, it means being positive and supporting your teammates, it means holding them accountable, as well.”
These sessions didn’t simply involve a staff member telling the young players what a good teammate entailed, which is good because young people don’t necessarily absorb lessons well that way. Instead, the team had its prospects “go through different skits, different role playing on it, an activity like that. Or it can be asking guys what is their definition and putting it up on the board and creating buy-in and a definition of what a good teammate is based off what our players are saying.” By experiencing a simulated situation themselves or by collectively describing the traits they themselves like to see in teammates, Blue Jay prospects are a lot more likely to fully grasp what it takes to be a good teammate.
It’s important to note that the club is not simply building an “everybody love everybody” culture. Instead, they seem to be building a culture of positive assertiveness. They want their players to want to help their fellow teammates and are teaching them what that looks like. They also want their players to know what a bad teammate looks like and how to react to teammates that are behaving that way. A lot of this can certainly be internalized as well—being aware of what a good/bad teammate looks like allows them to be the best teammate they can be and to check themselves when they aren’t.
Ultimately, the Blue Jays’ long-term on-field success will depend most upon acquiring talented players. But, for a team competing against the Red Sox and Yankees, it’s vital to squeeze out every drop of talent. Instilling in each prospect the importance of being tough and resilient will help them navigate the ups and downs of their own development. Teaching them to proactively make adjustments will lead to a relatively high number of Blue Jay prospects reaching their ceiling as players. Building a group of good teammates ensures that the team is always moving in the right direction, with few unnecessary distractions getting in the way.
In modern sports, teams are constantly seeking out any edge they can find. The Blue Jays front office is often accused of being overly analytical and too focused on what can be quantified. While I see nothing wrong with using analytics to build a team (just look at every post I’ve written before this one), that is an unfair criticism of this front office. They put a lot of stock in unquantifiable things as well, like a player’s character (as they should).
I think there’s a lot to like about this blend of analytics and intangibles. These are not mutually exclusive concepts. The numbers tell us a lot about what a player is doing on the field, much more than the human eye can. They tell a club which players are good at which skills, which helps it add talented players to its system.
Numbers also allow a team and player to better understand what he’s doing right and what exactly he should work on. Intangibles that speak to high-character (like toughness, resilience and humility), help that player actually turn those lessons into tangible improvements on the field. High-character intangibles also help turn a collection of players into a cohesive unit, a group of empathetic people working together towards a shared goal.
For this group, that goal is a World Series. While there are no guarantees that this (or any) approach will succeed, I fully endorse it and look forward to seeing what this franchise develops into.
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I’m an economics professor in the GTA whose lifelong love for the Jays was reignited by that magical August of 2015 and the amazing moments since.