Each week Jays From the Couch takes a Blue Jays-eyed look at the MLB landscape. This week we muse about how the MLB Draft can distract fans from the standings for a day; compare the Blue Jays firing of Charlie Montoyo to the two earlier managerial changes; and cheer the latest initiative being championed by MLB Special Consultant Theo Epstein.
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* The annual MLB Amateur Draft makes its pitch for sports viewership on Sunday (7pm ET MLB Network). While pro sports drafts have evolved into made-for-TV reality shows, the casting off of the cloaks of secrecy surrounding draft strategies and selections of major league teams has been a welcome change over the past decade. With the heightened public profile comes the inevitable private dread of endless ‘mock’ draft lists and comps to current and past baseball stars. But as MLB continues to struggle with its sense of relevancy in many North American markets, the spotlight shone on the amateur draft allows the casual and obsessive fan glimmers of future successes for each of the 30 MLB clubs.
As has become the norm for MLB drafts, the prospects lists are filled with names of the offspring of past fan favorites. Druw Jones (Andruw), Jackson Holliday (Matt), Cam Collier (Lou) and Justin Crawford (Carl) are the projected first round picks who will follow in the father’s cleat marks and start their journey to the major leagues. Kumar Rocker has been drafted in the first round twice and perhaps the third time will be the charm for the club that takes him in the first round with hopes of a late season promotion in 2022. There is even the new wrinkle of Competitive Balance and Compensation Round draft picks being available in trades- Atlanta acquired the 35th overall pick from the Kansas City Royals for a package of major-league ready prospects earlier this month. Fans will debate their teams’ strategy to “draft for need” versus “draft best available”. For a few hours, fans of every team can focus on winning the night-regardless of where current standings have doomed or zoomed their rooting interests.
JFtC Staff Writer and analytics guru Bob Ritchie published an insightful analysis this weekend of the Toronto Blue Jays’ performances in the draft room over the past 20 years (and three front office regimes). Jays fans can see for themselves the prized fruits picked under the stewardship of Alex Anthopolous and Ross Atkins and enjoy the talents acquired in part through the packaging of past draft prospects. This draft will see the Jays pick 23rd overall in the First Round and supplement that selection with picks number 60, 77 and 78 on opening night. Enjoy the thrills and skills while you can; the celebrations and consternations will be upon you before you know it.
* The Blue Jays dismissed manager Charlie Montoyo on Wednesday and replaced him on an interim basis with the team of John Schneider and Casey Candaele. Montoyo’s popularity in the clubhouse and with a large percentage of the Toronto fanbase was beyond reproach. As discussed in a JFTC article published within hours of the firing his uneven success rate managing in game situations throughout his tenure and the erratic performances of a highly praised (and paid) team throughout this season made the decision inevitable.
Montoyo became the third MLB manager to lose their job during the 2022 season. In the span of 4 days in June, the Philadelphia Phillies fired Joe Giradi and the Los Angeles Angels jettisoned Joe Maddon after poor starts and extended losing streaks. Questionable roster and game management decisions sealed the fates of Girardi and Maddon as well, but there is a distinct difference in circumstances surrounding the Montoyo firing and the previous two managerial changes.
In Anaheim and in Philly, the current General Managers and President of Baseball Operations inherited the manager they ultimately got rid of. Maddon was a longtime employee of the Angels prior to the start of his managerial journey through Tampa Bay and Chicago; more importantly he was the handpicked choice of Angels owner Arte Moreno. Dave Dombrowski assumed the reigns of the Phillies prior to the start of Spring Training in 2021 and also assumed the 2nd year of Girardi’s contract. Both managers were given new players to utilize in the building of winning rosters and one full season to produce a playoff result. When the Angels and Phillies continued to underperform, the head honchos convinced ownership that a change in the dugout was necessary.
Toronto GM Ross Atkins hired Charlie Montoyo to manage and accelerate the development of a young core into a contending team. Most notably, Montoyo was charged with the implementation a newly embraced analytics approach to roster and game management and selling the approach to the players. Montoyo was unwavering in his approach and support of these tasks. But eventually the positivity and promises lost their lustre after a star-crossed 2021 season saw the Blue Jays come up one game short and the 2022 roster not pay off on their increased investment in payroll and expectations.
Atkins tried to spin positive during the press conference announcing the Montoyo firing, saying “I truly wanted this to work with Charlie .” But one did not need a magnifying glass to read between the lines when he immediately added, “I’m extremely disappointed with where we are. I think we are better than how we’ve played. There’s been a lot of good individual things happen, but I think we could be playing better as a team.”
What’s done is done and the coming months will ultimately prove whether the Blue Jays are better than they have played thus far. But while the brain trust in Anaheim and Philadelphia may have bought themselves some time to find the right winning combinations in partnership with a manager of their choosing, Atkins and the Jays front office will, in the immortal words of Ricky Ricardo, “have some ‘splainin’ to do” if the current roster does not solidify and secure its claim on an AL playoff apot in 2022.
* Theo Epstein has assumed the role of the Face of Change in the MLB Executive Offices since leaving the Chicago Cubs to serve as a consultant for on-field matters. Pitch clocks, automated strike zones, base size and placement are just a few of the concepts Epstein has proposed and advanced since embracing the responsibilities the Commissioner and owners have placed on his shoulders. Even the potential overuse of advanced analytics by front offices when developing game strategies have come into his crosshairs-a stark observation from a guy who would join Sandy Alderson, Billy Beane and Bill James on a Weighted/Expected Analytics Mount Rushmore.
A recent espn.com article by Jesse Rogers outlined Epstein’s behind-the-scenes efforts to scale back the maximum number of pitchers on MLB rosters to 11 and entrusting starting pitchers to pitch deeper into games. Such a measure would be seen as heresy by analytics departments at every level of the game. The shift from the concept of limiting a pitcher to x number of pitches during an outing and the ability to face batters more than twice during any appearance strikes at the core of analytical practices. But the proponent has gradually become the critic and Epstein has not been shy about sharing his support of the 11-pitcher maximum with owners, executives, reporters and (gasp) fans.
Epstein points to MLB survey data that indicates fans “really like when the starting pitcher is a protagonist in the game. ” Epstein waxes poetic about starters being the “one player on the field enough over the course of the game that you can really get to know.” He also told Rogers that he believes that whoever is scheduled to start a game actually drives ticket sales and increases viewership. Epstein theorized that if starters were expected to pitch deeper into games, organizations could revert back to having their pitchers-starters and relievers- build endurance by pitching multiple innings regardless of performance, learn how to pitch through adversity and not feel pressured to give “max effort” on every pitch-only use that approach when the game situation dictates. Epstein has even discussed limiting the number of pitching changes in a game as well as the number of pickoff throws as a way to return the focus to development and improve pace of play.
Too radical? Perhaps…but a person can dream, can’t they?
*Featured Images Courtesy Of DaveMe Images. Prints Available For Purchase.
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Jersey born, Pittsburgh resident, baseball lifer. Staff Writer jaysfromthecouch.com. Host THE ON FEK CIRCLE on JFtC YouTube Channel. Regular guest on Jays From the couch Radio Podcast. Established WPPJ Rock-a-thon benefit, which has been broadcast annually since 1981 and has raised for than $500,000 for the Early Learning Institute of Pittsburgh. IBWAA member.