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Photo Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Gibbons Named a Top 10 Tactical Manager, But His Best Player May Not Think So

In his most recent newsletter, Joe Sheehan (the one you have muted on Twitter, not the Blue Jays’ one) has ranked all the managers currently in MLB based on their strategic and tactical acumen. A panel featuring MR. Brian Kenny and Ken Rosenthal, among others, discussed this recently on the MLB Network, as you can see below. What you can also see below is that… uh… John Gibbons ranked tenth!

I will admit that I am about as hard a stan for John Gibbons as you’ll find, and even I find this a bit weird.

Granted, it maybe becomes a little less weird when you see the names ranked 11-20 — Kevin Cash and Bruce Bochy probably deserve to be higher, but Clint Hurdle? Craig Counsell? Paul Molitor? These are hardly guys playing three-dimensional chess out there, so far as I can tell. Which is another thing: what fan pays enough attention to what the manager in the opposing dugout is doing to even act like they could possibly know this stuff? Certainly not blame-desperate, Gibby-hating C.H.U.D.s! That’s for sure!

Anyway, agree or disagree, the clip is worth watching if only for the fact that they bring up a certain Cy Young candidate reliever that a certain Baltimore manager left in a certain bullpen during a certain Wild Card game a certain last October. And also because the panel sort of glides past Gibbons’ inclusion in the top ten, as though they’re thinking what we’re all thinking: really? top 10?

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Whatever you think of Gibbons as a manager — be you a completely reasonable human adult or a clown with tear stains down the front of your piss-soaked diaper — it is rather well timed that this subject has arisen today, because… uh… it seems that Gibbers’ gut, and one of the many managerial decisions to have recently emerged from it, could be the cause of a developing rift between the skip and his club’s All-World superstar MVP third-baseman.

To wit, from Steve Buffery of the Toronto Sun:

“Bautista’s known to be around .380 to .400 on-base and I don’t think he’s anywhere near that right now (.337),” said Donaldson. “I’m not sure Kendrys Morales’ on base is (.307), but I can’t imagine that he’s a very high on-base guy (career .331). So the fact of it is, if those guys weren’t getting on base, then he (Smoak) is going to hit solo home runs. With that being said, I think the tougher question is, where would he need to hit in order to have guys on base? I think that’s what we need to (consider).”

“You know I can be stubborn and I am a patient guy and guys that have always done (good things) I like to leave them alone because eventually (performances) come out of them,” said the manager. “And with certain teams if you start juggling too much it causes more chaos. And believe it or not, guys identify with certain spots. That doesn’t mean we won’t do it because we’ve done it in the past. But we do talk about that, especially when you hit those stretches when you’re not scoring.”

OK, so a “developing rift” is much too strong. I have no idea how this simple difference of opinion is actually impacting anybody’s relationship, if at all. But it’s interesting to see the contrast spoken about so openly — even if both player and manager are coming close to saying the same thing: we’re thinking and talking about this.

For me, Gibbons’ patience and his steadiness are virtues. Sometimes he hangs onto ideas for a little too long, even for my liking — could have used Russell Martin being moved down the lineup a liiiiiittle bit sooner last fall, there, Gibbers — but baseball truths are revealed slowly, and the types urging their club to flop around from one radical shift to the next always come across to me sort of like this:

Of course, the counterpoint to this is that Gibbons’ tilt toward inaction probably reminds the haters of the infamous line from Ned Flanders’ mom, which comes just a moment after the above scene: “You’ve gotta help us Doc, we’ve tried nothing and we’re all out of ideas!”

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Before I tell you what I think — wishy-washy bullshit that I’m sure you all know it will be! — let me first say that arguing about lineup construction is kinda dumb. I mean, I’m all for a manager putting his players in the best position to succeed, but because it’s one of the few tangible things about a manager that we can criticize, the tendency among critics is to blow the importance of small shifts completely out of proportion. “SMOAK HITTING BEHIND MORALES AGAIN JUST BECAUSE GIBBONS THINKS HIS BAT’S GOT SOME KIND OF EXTRA SPECIAL MAGIC THAT ONLY COMES OUT WHEN HE HITS FIFTH? THIS IS AN OUTRAGE!!!!!!”

But, to be honest, that one is kind of a minor outrage. Per Buffery, “Gibbons said he’s not adverse to moving Smoak up the order but added that the big first baseman ‘has found a home’ batting fifth.” I’m not sure why he couldn’t just as easily be at home hitting fourth, and I’m not sure how far the “he believes in his players!” stuff goes when on one hand he’s showing belief that Morales and Bautista will turn it around, but on the other he’s afraid that Smoak’s success might dry up outside of his extra-special spot.

Granted, that’s not exactly a fair way to frame it. We know from Troy Tulowitzki’s aversion to hitting lead-off that hitters do have preferred places in the order, and do like the routine and rhythm of coming up at a certain spot. But flipping Morales and Smoak seems a fairly obvious thing to do. Or, at least, it does on the surface. The one thing I’d say on the other side of that argument is that Kendrys is, perhaps, better at getting on base than we’re giving him credit. Morales struggled in April and May of 2016, but from June 1st forward his on-base was .357 (and his wRC+ was 135). The year before that his on-base was .362. There’s certainly more in there than the .309 OBP he’s given the Jays so far — though I’m not sure why he can’t be asked to try to find it while hitting fifth (which he did a lot for the Royals last year — the Royals).

On Bautista, though, I’m with Gibbons.

“I haven’t thought about (dropping Bautista in the lineup either),” Gibbons said. “He struggled in April, he was really good in May and I think he’s due. I’ve seen him over the years, and I think he’s due to explode.”

I’ve thought he was due for this for a year-and-a-half now, so I get why the impatient, panicky, glass-half-empty folks out there are probably right now convincing themselves that May was the aberration and José is already a long way down the road to being finished. But I like to think that I also get why those types of people are — always, inevitably — sitting in the fucking stands. And I’m glad that the Blue Jays have a manager who is of the opposite mind.

It might take Gibbons longer than a lot of fans — or players, it turns out! — to come to certain conclusions about which move to make next, but you can hardly accuse him of not trying his best to do right by his people or his ideas. There’s a whole lot of value in that — more long-term value, I think, than in the chaos he rightly believes can come from flitting around on impulse.

At least, there is when the ideas are sound…

* * *

OK, so those are my John Gibbons thoughts for today. My Josh Donaldson talking about Bautista and Morales and their on-base struggles thoughts are a little less nuanced: he’s maybe a bit fucking brilliant.

Perhaps that’s a stretch, but here’s where I’m coming from: It would be easy to be somewhat aghast that a player would criticize his manager and the guys behind him in the lineup in such a way. My guess is that it would also be really easy for fans and teammates and everybody else in the world to excuse that, because it’s Josh fucking Donaldson saying so, and he’s the goddamned greatest.

But the thing is, he’s pretty tactful with what he says about Bautista and Morales. He’s also not wrong. He acknowledges that Bautista is an on-base machine who hasn’t been doing so lately. He’s simply states the fact that Morales has never really been a big on-base guy (which, despite what I was saying earlier, is basically true if you look at his year-by-year numbers), and says that it’s worth talking about getting guys on base more often when Justin Smoak is at the plate.

I don’t think this kind of talk is anything for fans to worry about — and, frankly, quotes like this from a player are beyond welcome. I much prefer a little openness and thought to the usual boilerplate.

What I can’t help but wonder is if maybe Donaldson isn’t talking about Smoak here as much as he’s talking about himself.

If he isn’t, he should be. “If those guys [hitting ahead of him] weren’t getting on base, then he is going to hit solo home runs.” HELLO, MR. THOMPSON.

Kevin Pillar’s on-base for the season is down to .305. His career on-base is .304. Since the day in Atlanta when, after a frustrating 0-for-4 he lashed out with a homophobic slur directed at the Braves’ Jason Motte and got himself suspended, Pillar has slashed .161/.217/.259. For all 121 of those plate appearances he’s hit at the top of the Jays’ order. Since Donaldson returned from the DL on May 26th, he’s come to the plate 87 times, each one following a Pillar plate appearance.

There’s not a good solution to the Jays’ current problem at the top of the lineup, and I’m sure as hell not going to keep this post going to fumble around for that. But there’s a lesson here about reading between the lines, whether you’re looking at comments like, or at Gibbons’ lineup card. And there’s maybe also a lesson in the idea that patience is a virtue… all the way up to the point where it isn’t. Not everyone can be as patient as Gibbons is — believe me, I know — and he needs to be aware of that, and on top of it. If Donaldson is talking about this publicly, you wonder what is being said behind closed doors — and you just hope to hell that it doesn’t take on the tenor of conversations online about this sort of stuff!

Better yet, you hope the team piles up a bunch of wins, hitters break out of their slumps, and it all becomes moot.

  • The Craig

    So taking a quick look at the Jays current OBP leaders here’s what I got as a potential solution:

    1. Donaldson
    2. Bautista
    3. Smoak
    4. Morales
    5. Tulo
    6. Pearce/Carerra
    7. Barney/Goins
    8. Pillar
    9. Martin

    This way, Martin (who currently has the 2nd highest OBP) is up ahead of Donaldson every inning after the first, you get two guys who should be on base a lot up ahead of Smoak. If Pillar can get it going in the 8th spot then even better for Donny. You still get your best hitters up as often as possible, there isn’t too much to worry about as far as upsetting the current order, as long as Josh doesn’t mind hitting lead off and I think he has before if I’m not mistaken.

  • Oz Rob

    One thing is for sure, the bullpen has been amazing. Anyone who things otherwise is grossly misguided. Sure, there some problems at the beginning of the year, but our starters (some of them anyway) have not done them any favours. The workload has been massive. It’s hard to see them not suffering from a relapse at some point. Gibby has done a great job of spreading the workload out I reckon.