Charlie Montoyo: right character to manage the Blue Jays

 

The Blue Jays have chosen their new manager and they went with someone who has the right mix to lead this team moving forward

 

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On Thursday afternoon, the Toronto Blue Jays announced the hiring of Charlie Montoyo as manager. Unlike a new player, there aren’t really any stats for one to dig into in order to better understand what a new manager might bring to a team. That’s especially true for a new manager who is a rookie in the role at the major-league level.

 

That said, I think that positive reviews of the hire by individuals unaffiliated with the Blue Jays are a great sign. While Statcast’s Mike Petriello isn’t very enthused about the David Bell (Reds) and Brad Ausmus (Angels) hires, he does like the decisions to hire Montoyo and Rocco Baldelli (Twins). Petriello’s thumbs up gives us some insight into the strength of Montoyo’s analytic bonafides.

 

Jessica Quiroli spent time covering the Durham Bulls when Montoyo was managing the Ray’s Triple-A affiliate. She described Montoyo as “warm, thoughtful, fun, super baseball smart”, noting that she “love[s] this hire by the Jays”. Keith Law, never to be mistaken for a Jays super fan, said that “from everything I hear it sounds like a tremendous choice for the Jays”.

 

As I read up on Montoyo, my mind went back to a post I wrote last week, discussing the high priority the Jays’ front office puts on makeup and character when acquiring and developing players. Building off of Shi Davidi’s excellent article on the topic, I examined the traits the front office looks for in acquisitions and looks to instill in those already on board.

 

At the top of the list are traits like toughness, resilience, empathy, humility and selflessness. These are the sort of adjectives one would use to describe “good teammates”, which is something the team wants each of its players to become.

 

These are also traits that seem applicable to Charlie Montoyo. I obviously have no first-hand knowledge of who he is as a person, but the stories I’ve read are positively glowing—I would point specifically to this documentary by the Rays, these articles by Sam Stephenson (from 2012 and 2018) and the views of Rays’ broadcaster Neil Solondz. On the whole, these testimonies speak to why the Blue Jays decided to give Montoyo the very important job of ushering in the next era of contention.

 

Montoyo’s toughness and resilience shine through in so many different ways. He spent a full decade in the minor leagues, fighting to achieve his dream of playing in the big leagues. While he was only limited to five big-league plate appearances, he made it a lot farther than most with the same dream he had. At 30 years old, his experience as a veteran teammate in the Expos’ system motivated him to pursue a career in coaching.

 

That started a new journey for him. In 1997, he got his first coaching gig with the Rays’ rookie-level affiliate, the Princeton Devil Rays. He proceeded to coach at the Short Season-A level (1998), then Low-A (1999-2000), High-A (2001-02), Double-A (2003-06) and Triple-A (2007-14). He’s been with the Rays MLB coaching staff since 2015, first as third base coach (2015-17), then as bench coach (2018).

 

With the AAA Durham Bulls, Montoyo experienced a great deal of success, winning six division championships and two International League titles. 2012 represented his worst season as Bulls manager. However, like many tough and resilient individuals, the difficult experience was one of his most fruitful. Near the end of that season, Montoyo noted that it had been “the toughest season I’ve experienced at this level, but I feel good knowing that I can endure it. I’ve known nothing but success. I’d never experienced anything like this on the field, so I didn’t know for sure if I could handle it. Now I know I can.”

 

He added the caveat that it he’d “never experienced anything like this on the field“. He had, by that point, experienced much worse off the field. In 2008, his son Alex was born with one heart ventricle (instead of two), requiring a series of open-heart surgeries. Fortunately, Alex is a healthy 11 year old now. From Montoyo’s perspective, the experience made baseball a lot less anxiety-inducing: “bases loaded, two outs, that’s nothing compared to what I’d gone through.” It also helped make him “a better man and  a better manager”.

 

His empathy, humility and selflessness most shine through in the ways he manages, an approach clearly influenced by his own experiences as a player.

 

In a conversation with Stephenson back in 2012, Montoyo noted that “psychologically, baseball at the AAA level can kill you…Just when you think you’re out, you’re in…Then, just when you think you’re in, you’re out.” That leads players to “focus on things that [they] should forget about, things [they] can’t control, and [their] performance bottoms out.” Having gone through all of this himself, Montoyo could empathize, which helped him understand that his job as a minor-league manager was “to keep players focused on today’s preparation and today’s routine, not what happened yesterday or what might happen tomorrow.”

 

His empathy also shone through in how he approached his players from a physical standpoint. A former player of his noted that “he does an outstanding job keeping guys fresh, especially during the heat of the summer. Minor league players get worn out all the time by overbearing managers. Charlie doesn’t do that.”

 

At the same time, his players are impressed by his humility, as Montoyo set “a great example of working hard and wanting to succeed. Guys see him out [there] running, lifting weights, throwing batting practice every day.” One day in July 2012, Stephenson noted that, despite the “ninety-eight degree heat”, Montoyo threw 178 pitches in BP. When Stephenson spoke to Montoyo again, earlier this month, Stephenson noted that the Jays new manager was still running five miles a day. My guess is that he’ll get to the pitcher’s mound a bit quicker than Gibby did (though I’ll always miss the waddle).

 

In his more recent article, Stephenson spoke to Neil Solondz, a former Durham Bulls broadcaster who was promoted to the Rays in 2012. Solondz has nothing but praise for Montoyo, speaking to his selflessness as a manager: “What Charlie has in his heart and soul was evident in Durham and it is evident [in Tampa], and that is, he’s not doing this work for his own satisfaction or gain.”

 

Upon hearing this praise, Stephenson noted that, while it “sounds like a simple statement from Solondz…it’s profound to me, in part because after the years of my exposure to Montoyo it rings unusually true. And after two decades of writing and documentary work, and more than five hundred oral history interviews around the country and world, I know that you don’t often meet people that aren’t driven by self or gain, especially not at this level of any profession or craft.”

 

Thursday, after hearing the news about Montoyo’s hire, Solondz tweeted, “he’s even a better person than he is a baseball man, which is saying something.” Clearly, Montoyo is a special human being, the kind of person that leaves a mark on the people he encounters.

 

Montoyo’s selflessness comes through in his own attitude towards his role as a manager. In the aforementioned documentary, he discussed the way in which ambition can get in the way of a manager’s ability to do their job: “as a manager, I think a lot of guys are always looking to get ahead and they forget the job at hand. I didn’t want to be that guy.”

 

In contrast, Montoyo preferred to focus on his role developing young men into baseball players: “I want to do my job. If I get promoted, great. If I don’t, then I just got to keep working and help the kids, ’cause it’s all about the kids at the end of the day.”

 

A key reason why members of the Rays’ staff are often targeted in manager searches is their comfort applying analytics during baseball games. In his recent article, Stephenson mentioned that when Montoyo managed the Durham Bulls, “he was known to rarely pay attention to statistics (in part because the roster and lineups are determined by the parent team).” Instead, Montoyo “perfected techniques of human relations.”

 

After three years with the Rays, Stephenson asked Montoyo “if the switch to statistics-based decisions was difficult.” Montoyo’s response? “No, not really. You still have to manage human beings and give them what they need”. That response suggests to me that Montoyo really gets analytics and its usefulness to major league baseball. The point of analytics is not to turn baseball into a lifeless computer simulation. The point of analytics is to add to our existing understanding and appreciation of the game of baseball.

 

Analytics help us overcome the biases that prevent us from seeing everything that happens on the baseball diamond. They help us understand how to better achieve our goals—namely, scoring more runs than our opponents. Optimizing one’s launch angle and exit velocity isn’t any baseball player’s goal, but it is a means to achieving their goal of succeeding in the majors. Defensive shifts are imperfect. But, used correctly, they can help prevent runs better than no shift at all, ever.

 

A manager doesn’t need to be a math wiz. They simply need to understand the underlying message their in-house analytic people are telling them and relay it to their players in an easy to understand, easy to apply way. Everything I’ve read about Montoyo suggests that he has the skills to do exactly this.

 

As with any move, only time will tell how this decision will play out. Given Montoyo’s incredible character (namely his toughness, resilience, empathy, humility and selflessness) and his ability to work with analytics (underlined by his time with one of the major league’s most progressive-minded team), I’m optimistic that he will get the most out of the Blue Jays upcoming wave of talented prospects and help build a strong, competitive team.

 

 

 

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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.

Jeff Quattrociocchi

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.