Seven thousand words. Here in this post I’ve transcribed seven thousand words spoken by Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins at a Pitch Talks event earlier this month in Toronto. You can see the whole session on video via Periscope — Ross, who is joined on stage by Shi Davidi, follows an equally compelling talk from Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, along with Morgan Campbell of the Toronto Star — which may leave some of you asking why the hell would I type all this out?
There were times while transcribing Ross’s answers that I wondered that myself. But it genuinely was an enlightening conversation — not just into how the GM of the Blue Jays thinks, but how the industry thinks — and there’s something about having it all down on the page (or most of it — I’ve excised a couple parts I deemed unnecessary) that makes it all a little easier to absorb, and easier to digest. Not to mention easier for me to interject my own thoughts! And to rearrange the order from time to time, for maximum clarity.
Plus, though some of this stuff has already come out in dribs and drabs — I’ve pulled quotes from it quite liberally over the last couple weeks, we discussed much of this material on the most recent Birds All Day podcast, and John Lott had an excellent piece for the Athletic about some of the things Atkins said regarding baseball’s suspiciously slow free agent market — and I suspect more of it will eventually surface in one form or another, I think it’s valuable to have it all in one place. It was a hell of an interesting, and oftentimes frank, discussion. From Josh Donaldson, to Vlad Guerrero, to Anthony Alford, to the people let go by the club earlier in the fall, to the importance of catching defence, to the marriage of scouting and analytics, to sport psychology, to Ross’s favourite books, to lord knows where else — it was a wide ranging and really thoughtful discussion.
Those Jays fans who’ve already made up their minds about Atkins will, I’m sure, find things in here to rip him over, but those actually willing to give him a chance, I think, will see an executive growing more and more comfortable in his role — especially the front-facing aspects of it — all the time. And I even think that fans of other teams will get something out of this, if not simply to contrast with how their own club’s executives operate, but for the insights into the industry as a whole.
On Josh Donaldson…
Obviously the big question on a lot of Blue Jays fans’ minds is what the club is going to do with Josh Donaldson, who continues to inch closer and closer to free agency. Atkins admits that the Blue Jays want to do a deal, but that they’re only willing to go so far. He also… uh… says a whole hell of a lot on this one:
Elite talent like this is so hard to acquire. You don’t just come across players who, at one spot on the field, in one spot in the lineup, make such a significant impact toward you winning and losing baseball games. Parting ways with that kind of talent is never something you’re excited to do. As you consider your alternatives, they’re obvious, right? They are, let’s first try to understand that value and what he means to this organization — beyond computer screens and the research. Historically, what does that mean, how does that project going forward? His age, his performance, everything he’s done offensively, defensively — that’s just one piece of the equation. Then there’s our insight. Subjective information that we have and that we apply to that very objective research — which is obviously important. The insights that we have into his leadership and his health impacts all of that objective analysis in a strong way. So that’s one piece of the equation, and that determines the value. We come up with a number, and that number is X. Danny Lozano, his agent, I’m sure would find out if I told you guys what that number was, but we do have that number — we have come up with a clear walk-away that we would be willing to commit to him for him to remain a Blue Jay probably for the rest of his career. That’s one part.
So they have a number! Clearly, though, it doesn’t align with Donaldson’s (or Lozano’s) number or there’d be a deal to announce by now.
Donaldson, in his back and forth with Jon Heyman last week said, “I would listen to an offer, but I haven’t had one to listen to, so it’s been pretty easy.” I suspect, though, that this sort of stuff falls into the category of the nonsense about David Price and the “formal offer” that was reportedly never extended. The two sides know where the other is at. And my guess is that one of them would need to move a bit before anybody bothered putting forward something formal for Josh’s perusal. As I theorized a few weeks back for the Athletic, maybe much of it will hinge on how the J.D. Martinez situation ends up playing out, because though Donaldson is the much more valuable player, because Martinez will be in his age-30 season in the first year of his next deal, and Donaldson will be in his age-33 year, you could project them both to provide pretty similar value over the next five or six years. (Incidentally, Alex Speier of the Boston Globe reports today that the Red Sox have an offer to Martinez for five years and $100 million, and are determined not to bid against themselves. So… maybe it will be Josh who needs to aim lower — which was precisely what Heyman was saying in the first place.)
For the sake of completeness, here’s what Atkins said about the other factors:
The second part is your team. Your projected payroll, the team that will be built around him — how much room you’ll have to complement that asset. Where you project him to play.
The third, much smaller piece of it, that actually we get asked about a lot, is Vlad Guerreo. He’s the “third baseman of the future.” And there’s a lot of talented individuals in our system — Bo Bichette, Lourdes Gurriel, Richard Ureña, and then I could start to talk about the pitching that’s going to complement him. Some of the young outfielders we have in not just Triple-A but below that. Some of the young catching we’ll have in Triple-A and Double-A. There’s a lot of talent that we could build around him. That is not going to keep us from signing Josh Donaldson.
He kind of went off on a tangent about the depth that they have there, but it’s reasonably clear what he’s driving at. Fortunately, later in the talk, he was able to address this same point much more directly, as he was asked by an audience member during the Q&A session after his chat with Davidi about The Third Base Question:
I think that would be an incredible problem to have. And that’s really the way we look at it. That level of talent, if you can have someone impacting the game, if that means Vladdy has to play left field until Josh Donaldson is really suggesting that maybe another position is better. I don’t think we’ll ever hear that out of Josh Donaldson’s mouth, but maybe he gets to a point where — it’s interesting: aging curves, what happens with players getting older in the game is, as they get older playing time decreases, and it’s pretty linear — it’s a steady decline — but what spikes is performance. In other words, guys like Josh Donaldson, Pujols, Votto, they’re always going to get reps. They’re always going to get the at-bats. Where they get them and how they get them — may turn into DH, may turn into first base — because they’re always going to get that playing time because of the name on the back of their jersey, because of the reliability of their at-bats. But there’s a lot of things that could transpire and we would really love to have that challenge.
Again he went off in a different direction a bit — not to obfuscate, but just because that’s where the conversation took him — but I don’t think he needs to be any clearer. Vlad could play left field if need be. I could certainly think of a DH he might be able to steal some at-bats from too — at least if 2017 is any indication.
Speaking of that: is the name on the back of Kendrys’ jersey significant enough that he’s one of those guys who is “always going to get reps”? Is Tulo’s? Let’s hope for a couple of those performance spikes if so!
Back to Donaldson, Atkins had some really interesting stuff to say about the kind of thinker he is, and how he’s just on another plane altogether compared to most guys — which can be a challenge, evidently.
Josh is one of the smarter — when you’re talking hitting with Josh — you guys should get him here — you guys should get JD and Votto, when they’re both in Toronto, to have a left-handed hitting, right-handed hitting discussion. He’s a savant. He’s talking hitting — one of the problems with that is, it’s on another level. It’s not only on another level analytically, psychologically, just in intellect, but also athletically. His ability to connect what he’s thinking to what he’s doing — with his range of motion, his coordination — is so elite that that can become problematic for young hitters, because he starts talking about doing things that sound like they make a lot of sense and they’re going to provide — we watched Troy Tulowitzki do it and try to make some small adjustments; we watched Ryan Goins do it — there I go, I said it again — where his swing started to mirror and mimic some of the things that JD does. But they’re built differently, and they analyze and process information differently. So, he’s so unique that he has a massive impact and influence, so it would be extremely powerful to help those individuals develop, but the challenge would be balancing just how elite he is. If you’re talking baseball, hitting — sometimes politics — or umpires’ strike zones, his recall, his insights, they are absolutely remarkable. There are very few like him.
It reminds me of the stuff about Ted Williams being a poor manager because he could do things that normal humans simply cannot. And it’s very interesting that the Jays are cognizant of this, and maybe even working to keep it from being too much of an issue.
As for the Goins comment, Atkins is referring to what happened the first time Goins came up during this discussion, as he was reiterating just how valuable Donaldson is, and what the hell they’re going to do about this mess:
Back to my first point: what he means to you winning a game on a daily basis, that’s easy to see, right? What’s the confidence level that you have that he’s going to hit a double or a home run every time he comes up, versus Ryan Goins? That feeling in your stomach. [Gasps and laughter from the room] [Shi: Ryan Goins is a touchy issue for some.] Or, uh… let’s pick any other one. I was going to say “Player X.” Emotion’s a good thing. So that’s kind of the first part of it, as we factor in: OK, do you just hold, do you extend, or do you trade? We work through that analysis constantly. The biggest thing you have to factor in are the alternatives. Not just alternatives to him if we aren’t able to extend him, but what does that mean if we go into the year with him on our team — how does that impact us in the short term and the long term. Really, Shi’s perspective is dead on: it is a challenging situation; it’s one that we embrace.
ZING! TAKE THAT, GUY WHO WAS FORCED INTO TOO MUCH PLAYING TIME BY MY INABILITY TO FIND ANYBODY BETTER!
(Side note on that point: heading into the 2017 season, Troy Tulowitzki had made at least 512 plate appearances in three of his previous four seasons. That’s a lot more than I’d have guessed!)
On Current Targets, and the Market…
I would say primary focus is definitely on pitching. Possibility [of adding on the position player side]? Sure. The possibility would most likely come with some subtraction, and that’s a touchy thing to be talking about. We’re talking about potentially trading away from our Major League team, but you don’t want to close yourself off from that. So, if we have a little bit of redundancy, we have some outfield depth, if we could trade away from that to acquire pitching, or trade away from that to acquire what we view as better outfield, or what we view as better just overall catching depth, then we would be open to do that. One of the most encouraging things is how many teams have come after our young players. A lot of the trade discussions that we’ve had this year have — we’re extremely aggressive in reaching out to all 30 teams, but a lot of the trade discussions have happened with teams coming aggressively after us. We’ve talked to ten plus recently — we touch base with every definitive free agent, with every potential trade acquisition — and recently in the last two weeks we’ve talked at very steady levels with ten plus pitching options for our team. We feel that there’s more people to sit in the chairs that exist at this point, so we feel we’re in a decent position.
And there, in a nutshell, is why the Jays haven’t been as active yet as fans would like them to be. It’s a buyer’s market, and the Jays are one of an unusually low number of teams (relative to the number of free agents still out there) that are actually buyers. Several teams are through spending, and several teams have no interest in spending big dollars on lost seasons just for the sake of it, and that seems to be playing into the Jays hands. (Or it will, if they actually take advantage of it at some point. And speaking to the stuff about adding on the position player side, I’m still very here for moving Kevin Pillar and going after Jarrod Dyson, who I think is a much better complement to this roster at just about the same price.)
Atkins spoke a little bit about the opportunities of the market earlier in the talk, too:
It would be an easy situation two years ago to come in here — well, easy is the wrong word. It would be one that would be understood and explained well in the industry if you’d just said “reset, rebuild.” There are currently eleven to thirteen teams doing that, depending on how you think about it. That’s a benefit to us. If you take eleven teams that are in the “rebuild,” not investing heavily towards winning, that is not something that’s factored into the analysis of your individual organization deciding — or… not factored into ours. But as the industry talks about, in isolation, do you reset based on the construction of your roster, based on expiring contracts, there’s more to it. And historically there haven’t been that many teams that are in that mode. When the Cubs and the Houston Astros did it there weren’t that many teams that were in that mode — and that’s a shift. That’s a significant shift, and that’s an opportunity for the Blue Jays. So there are so many different layers to it, and this offseason, as Shi described, has been interesting. Every interaction I have with an agent, the first thing they say to me is, “I can’t believe we’re still talking about trades.” And they’re right. This is a very unusual time — a week and a half from us leaving to go to Florida — for us to still be talking about trades. So, we’ll see — back to Shi’s original question on how much better the Blue Jays get — we’re definitely going to make additions to this roster to compliment and supplement what we do have. I think the one thing that does get somewhat lost, even in our minds, is just how solid this team was — a lot of pieces of it — from ’15 and from ’16. We took a lot of hits in ’17 that we don’t expect to take the bulk of [again] — but our Triple-A roster is one of the better rosters in baseball, so we’re going to be able to absorb those hits better.
Of course, it’s not just the fact that the market is lacking in aggressive teams that seems to be jamming things up this winter:
You constantly have to reassess. So just roughly, from some type of demonstration in here, who is familiar with win projections for teams — roughly? No? Not a ton? — So, OK, then… the crowdsourcing on contract values? Have people seen some of that on Fangraphs? It’s just, it’s not that different. What is happening, I think, is now, as front offices are much more robust. Are we valuing players in a more similar fashion? Potentially it seems as though that’s the case. Because these guys are not coming off the board, because teams are getting to a certain point and saying, “This is our value.” That’s good business, to walk away not going over your value. It seems as though that’s the case, that teams are valuing players in a similar way.
The other factor is, when you’re talking about free agency you’re talking about older players. I think the industry is realizing that older players have been compensated, potentially — the players association and there’s a few agents who would be really disappointed hearing me say this — but the aging curve has potentially been overcompensated in the past. That seems to be correcting a bit. However, all trends come to an end. And we value experience, we value — if you get into the playoffs, you see what happens at the deadline: every team goes after that more veteran type pitcher or that more veteran type bat, so that when they get in the playoffs they feel a lot better about what they’re going to get in that environment. So to be a winning team you’ve got to have it, and I think because of the success of the Houston Astros, the Cleveland [Baseball Franchise], even the Dodgers and the Red Sox with their young position player lineups, you’re seeing a trend — a shift towards these younger players. But there’s a lot of volatility in them, and I think that, again, the trend will shift back again. But we’re not going to rely on that, we’re going to have to rely on our analysis.
And, evidently, what their analysis is telling them is the same as what just about every other club’s analysis is saying. WOULD HAVE BEEN NICE IF THAT HAD BEEN THE CASE ON MORALES LAST WINTER *COUGH*.
Drew and I got into this sort of stuff quite a bit on the Birds All Day episode linked above. The thing is, there’s no mechanism to prevent front offices from being stingy with these older free agent types, and they’re all being awfully disciplined when it comes to their unwillingness to overpay. This might not even be such a horrible thing if there were mechanisms in place for younger players — draft picks, international amateurs, pre-arb guys, arbitration-eligibles, minor leaguers — to get paid what they’re actually worth, but quite the opposite is true. Those players all have their salaries suppressed artificially, and the longer-term members of the players association (who in many ways sold out their young union brothers, and soon-to-be union brothers) have for a long time reaped the rewards of this system. Not anymore, it seems. Which isn’t to excuse cheap-ass owners who are making more money now than ever before, yet paying executives to find ways to justify paying the players even less. It’s just to say that the whole economic system of the game is truly broken. But I digress…
On Depth and Culture…
I think overall — I think depth, versatility — that’s something we’ve targeted, we’ve gone after, we’ve looked for that constantly. And with Solarte we’ve definitely gotten that and with Grichuk we’ve definitely gotten that. They can play multiple positions. In Grichuk we have speed, we have defence, we have upside in the offence, we have power. In Solarte we have the switch-hit ability, can play mulitple spots in the infield, and can play the middle — in playing second; I doubt he’ll see much shortstop. Aledmys Diaz provides us another level of shortstop depth. It’s going to be more offensive protection than… dare I the names I mentioned before. [Pause for laughter]
I think biggest thing that we can point to is that Triple-A depth that we’re going to have to overcome any injuries that we have — whether that be a setback in catching, now that we look at the depth that we have there, with Reese McGuire, Dan Jansen, Luke Maile. Even with Josh Donaldson. If he has a hiccup and he can’t play for a few weeks, we just have so many more options to come from not only our Major League roster, to provide a solid level of Major League protection. But the biggest area of improvement will be in our Triple-A rotation, in young, controllable pitching, and our Triple-A outfield. There are guys that are not just going to provide some layer — Teoscar Hernández, you guys saw what he did in September; Anthony Alford is about as exciting as it gets. Anthony Alford might be as good as Vladdy and Bo. He has, hands down — the word makeup gets overused, but he has the best intangibles that you’ll see in a professional environment.
Then there’s the one name that comes up whenever I’m asked that question, Aaron Sanchez. We have a lot of reason to believe he’ll be a lot closer to the ’16 pitcher than the ’17 pitcher, based on the work that he’s put in, based on where he is, physically, where we feel our medical staff is with him. So, we could potentially — and we’ll look to improve upon it — but we could potentially have one of the better rotations in the American League.
One of the players who could help in this regard is Taylor Guerrieri, who Atkins was asked about at one point:
He was one of the better pitching prospects in baseball two years ago. He’s done it before, high ground balls, he’s got that crazy arm speed — just that alone, we feel like, there could be some potential that if we don’t need him as a starter that he’s helping our bullpen. Great athlete that’s done it before, he was unhealthy this last year, a lot of upside if he is healthy. And he’s working very hard to be healthy. Sometimes players get a bit of a wake up call when they have gone through the waiver wire and have cleared and now they’re with another team — or, not cleared entirely, but they weren’t traded for, and they’re just going to another team. They’re starting to understand where they rank in the range of the industry, and that can be, like I said, somewhat of a wake up call. But he has interesting upside.
Last year Dominic Leone was a waiver claim, and that turned into Randal Grichuk for us, and worked out pretty well. There is a lot of opportunity at that level, so keeping flexibility in your roster — and we feel like we have, because of Pete Walker and Dane Johnson, our pitching coach and bullpen coach, they’ve managed our pitching staff exceptionally well, and we want to get more guys like Dominic Leone and Taylor Guerrieri in their hands.
Faith in the Jays’ pitching coaches — who this front office inherited — is pretty impressive. And as far as depth goes, where the club is at now is certainly a big step forward from where they were this time a year ago. Not only is the depth impressive in terms of quantity, and maybe even quality, but Atkins seems genuinely excited about how some of these depth guys are coming along in terms of their development as teammates, and members of the kind of culture he says he wants to create:
Let me just talk about a couple of other players. We recently had 15 of our younger players come to Toronto for ten days and spend time with our front office, spend time with — beyond just the front office names that you guys hear — all of the people that will touch these players. All of our directors, all of our medical staff, all of our admin staff — people who are going to help them with their travel, people that are going to help them on the PR side of things — so that this environment is more comfortable. An orientation, for lack of a better term. But it’s also a time to talk about what’s important to win, and what it takes to win. We bring in people like Roberto Alomar to talk to them about that and what it’s meant. Paul Beeston meets with them, our ownership meets with them, of coaching staff meets with them. And what you see is you see young players starting to talk about being a good teammate, and not what it means just be a professional baseball player, but what it means to be a Toronto Blue Jay.
That takes a commitment. You don’t just say those things, you have to provide opportunities to devlop those things. We had this one — I’ll try to be quick so that Shi doesn’t make fun of me again for being long-winded — Mike Shaw is our director of travel, he takes care of all of our logistics, moving players and our team and our equipment all around the North American continent. He’s explaining to them the expectations, and after he talked to them about his expectations, what they should expect from the environment, some of the things they’ll learn when they come to the Major Leagues for the first time, he told the guys that whoever had the best question for him he’d have something for them at the end, and so he threw Ryan Borucki — one of our young pitchers — a set of Bose headphones. You know, like, “Hey man, nice question, thanks.” Tom Pannone — they’re both going to be in our Triple-A rotation, competing to be the next guy to come up — that’s the cool thing about minor league baseball, you’re teammates but you’re competing against each other for that real opportunity. And when you can really pull for that person, to raise their level, that’s going to pull yourself up. You guys all know about that in your work environments. So, Tom Pannone said to Ryan Borucki, “Oh wow, that’s cool, I was just going to buy a a set of those,” in front of the whole room, and Ryan Borucki threw them to him and said, “They’re all yours.” And the whole room was like, “that’s cool — that’s great.”
These guys just met — we just traded for Tom Pannone — they didn’t even know each other. But that type of environment, where guys are pulling for one another, they’re not looking over their shoulder, is a good sign.
The heading for this section, “On Depth and Culture,” maybe indicates that I’ve just shoehorned a couple disparate concepts together that don’t really fit well — and that could be true. But one gets the sense from Atkins’ comments that he really does want there to be a unification there: depth of talent up and down the organization, but depth of resources and coaching available to best help bring out that talent, and an organization that from top to bottom has common values. For me, all this stuff — like it always does — goes right back to those infamous comments made by John Farrell in the summer of 2013, about the difference between a player development organization and an organization that’s coming from a scouting base. “In the player-development vein, you’re going to look at things in three dimensions — mentally, physically, fundamentally — to address and develop people, or develop an organization,” he said. And you certainly can feel that when Atkins speaks. (Of course, to continue Farrell’s Alex-slagging quote, he added, “I think as a scouting base, you go out and you evaluate the physical tools. And that’s kind of where it ends.”)
All of this comes out in a different way when Ross was asked to name his two favourite books (Warren Buffet books they are not), and then to also talk about something that he believes today that he didn’t five years ago:
I’ll go the easy one first. My favourite books are Old Yeller, then, actually, How Children Succeed. I love Angela Duckworth, the Mindset [Note: I assume this is Mindset: The Psychology of Success by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck], Grit — yeah, Grit’s incredible. We have a relationship with Angela, she’s come and visited us and our staff. She’s a remarkable researcher.
When I think about life and what I knew five years ago, I think about my daughters. I think about how hard it is to set the right example for them. There’s things you can tell them, but actually living them on a daily basis is the hardest thing I have to do. But that’s probably not what you were looking for. Baseball-specific, to say that I didn’t know it — it’s more that I believe it so much more — is the power of culture and environment. So how do you create that? I can’t do that. John Gibbons can’t do that. There’s only really one [group] who can do that, and it’s players. That’s what I firmly believe, and it’s having the right players leading your clubhouse at the right time in their careers. Like you look at the Spurs and you look at the Patriots, and it’s the sustainable success of a Tom Brady, the sustainable success of having a Tim Duncan, in those environments, and just how powerful that is. There’s only a few teams in professional sport that have it. It’s not something that five years ago I didn’t think, but when you get closer to it and you learn more about it it just becomes more prevalent.
Atkins also spoke about adding sport psychologists, and how that all relates to this, too:
One of the additions we made here — there was no subtraction on that side — there was one person working here on the EAP [Employee Assistance Program] side of things, and we’ve hired since then four sport psychologists to work here at various levels throughout the organization. They’re leaders, they’re not just problem solvers. They’re not, “OK, you have an issue, you’re struggling with anxiety, go talk to him.” It’s foundation, and build that foundation and educate everyone to use that as a resource.
“It’s extremely important,” he adds, “something that we’re extremely passionate about. And it’s something that we talk about from the acquisition level, to their first time that they put on a Toronto Blue Jays hat, and will be something that is expected of them throughout. I think you’ll see over time that that is extremely important to us.”
With some of this stuff I don’t have a clue what he’s talking about — I cut out a couple sentences just because I could make neither heads nor tails of them — but it at least seems clear that the Jays, and Atkins, are out here thinking about the kind of organization they want to be, top to bottom, and how they can get there.
This all came up in one of the more interesting exchanges of the night, too.
On Front Office Layoffs…
I don’t want to type out the guy’s whole question, but basically there was an audience member who (mildly) grilled Atkins about the people let go from the front office following the season, which the media here weirdly made quite a lot of noise about. The questioner brought up the fact that there were people here to learn from, who’d been part of a championship organization, and wondered if it was incongruous for Atkins to be talking on one hand about how great it is to not have Pannone and Borucki looking over their shoulders, while at the same time going around firing longtime employees (which, y’know, is one way to characterize it, I suppose).
Perfectly fair, I’m glad you asked the question. Every decision that we make is based on our values. Are people looking to collaborate, learn, empower other people, achieve, and respect people they’re working around and with. Every decision that we make. And as you try to create change, there are some people that buy into the change and some people that don’t. And when you don’t buy into it, or change creates a situation where you have to evolve or change your responsibilities or job description and choose not to do that, then it doesn’t make much sense for that person to remain here from a fulfillment standpoint and from a production standpoint. People tell me that I sound corporate, I hope it doesn’t sound corporate too much, but really it’s the reality of the environment, right? If you were just trying to create the best possible environment to put a championship team, year in and year out, to sustain that, you all have to be pulling in the same direction. So, very, very difficult, very difficult decisions — the hardest. In many cases they’re more mutual than you’d think, because of the fulfillment aspect, but not always. And sometimes extremely difficult. To the second layer of, what does this administration know that others didn’t — that’s not ever the case. We want to learn from all of the good that is here, and we’ll always look to do that. I think that a lot of emphasis has been put on the change that has occurred, and not a lot of emphasis has been placed on the fact that mostly what we’ve tried to do is add and not subtract, and to complement and build around what was very good. It was very difficult for a lot of people, and it happens in a lot of transitions. If you have another question to that, if I didn’t answer that specifically enough — please…
“Are there reasons why you choose who to keep and who not to?”
Really it would come down to someone saying, “I’m not willing to change.” We would say, “OK, that’s fine.” That’s when that would happen — when someone would say, “Well, I’ve always done it this way, so this is the way I’m going to do it.” “Well… you know… OK… so…”
There were very, very few quick changes for the transition. It’s my nature, it’s Mark’s nature to try to learn from the people we’re working and help make us better. And in some cases some of the changes we were trying to make, they didn’t agree with.
Sure. OK. Whatever.
Odds and Ends
On Vlad and Bo…
Now, finally, here’s the good stuff that you came here for!
Vlad and Bo are obviously — when you have expectations, and you perform, and you’re 19 years old, all of the bells and whistles are going off, right? You have all of the research that says, OK, these 19-year-olds that perform at this level, they’re going to be very, very good. Then you have all your player development coaches telling me the same thing, you have all of your amateur scouts, your international scouts, your pro scouts, your performance staff saying, “We don’t see the holes. We see ridiculous levels of talent.” That’s when you know you have something.
You can place a value on those guys and say what it means to an organization — and we do that, we do that with math — but in reality that’s just based on math. We don’t know how good they’re going to be when they get here. They’re individuals, they’re human beings — I’m glad their last names have been in the big leagues before, because that will help them. It will help them a great deal, because they’re accustomed to it. They’re used to the third deck — they grew up in it. That is a big deal. When they walk into a clubhouse — a major league clubhouse — and they see the 40-year-old who’s been doing it, or they walk into the same clubhouse as Josh Donaldson, they’re not going to be intimidated. They’re going to look out and say, “I’m just as good as you are.” Because of growing up in the clubhouse. So that’s massive. That is definitely a separator for them.
But ultimately we need thirty of them. Maybe not at that level. For us to sustain winning environments, it’s going to be about more than two. However, having said that, having those two that talent, to sequence them at the same time, is franchise-altering. If you can have guys that hit at the same time for a team, that’s when you see special things happen.
On José Bautista…
José’s been awesome. He handled that as well as any human being good. He went from being the most significant — a part of, right in the centre of, one of the most significant moments in the history of this organization, and obviously someone who has had one of the better careers for the Toronto Blue Jays ever — to having a very, very difficult year that no one expected. Very low batting average, he didn’t have as much power.
He actually was our most reliable player last year. He was in every single game and had no problem running out there. And he was better defensively. That was part of the excitement for us acquiring him — we had reason to believe his arm was back; it was. We had reason to believe that he’d return to the defender that he was in ’15; he did. And we thought there was no reason to believe that the bat would fall off as much as it did. But he handled it with such grace. He handled it with such professionalism that he will always be revered here — certainly in our eyes, internally, and it certainly feels like he will be to you.
Why that occurs? If I knew the answer to that question… I don’t know where I’d be, but I wish I knew. I wish I knew why that occurred. I think it’s a part of where he is in his career. And I hope not, for him. I hope he goes off this year. I hope he has a great year.
On Catcher Defence…
Back to that question about what Ross believes now that he didn’t five years ago:
On a smaller scale — you probably want to hear about something that I say, “Man, I wish I would have done that differently.” I won’t say the player’s name, but it’s the impact of solid defensive play at the catching position can never be discounted. I feel that’s something that in the last couple years I’ve really probably overlooked a bit.
He won’t say the player’s name, but I bet it rhymes with Valtalavacchia.
And how do they ensure that a catcher is getting the job done?
So there’s external framing metrics. We have our internal framing metrics. And then we have our coaching staff and scouts. We look for those to align. We actually do a lot of video analysis ourselves, so it’s not just scouts going to games, but then when we see the data suggesting that guys are getting pitches in the buffer zone more frequently, and our scouts are suggesting the same — that they’re doing a good job of not just commanding the zone, but getting pitches in that area that is a bit grey for umpires — then we go back an analyze that pitch by pitch by pitch by pitch. It’s a process that we have to do it that’s cumbersome, fortunately we have a very robust front office, and a lot of guys working tirelessly to understand it.
And a great follow-up from Shi, who asked Ross, as a former pitcher, what he appreciated in a pitcher:
Two things. It’s more just my evolution of working in baseball, but as a pitcher I probably didn’t articulate it at the time, is how quiet a catcher is, but still mobile and agile. A lot of guys can be very quiet and stay in one spot, but when the pitch is not going where they expected it to go, they get really loud. Russ Martin does an exceptional job of being very still and very quiet, and then when the pitch it four inches higher than he was expecting it, his movement is very subtle. So the umpire will pick up on a very loud movement — if a guy is reaching and his body moves in a loud way — that’s a signal to the umpire that something wasn’t supposed to occur, and that usually happens to be called a ball — even if it does go to the zone. There’s a lot of analysis that suggest guys who have significant range of motion through their ankles and knees and their hips is what allows that — so that’s athleticism, right? Russ is a freak. He is an absolute freak athlete.
And Speaking of Internal Stats…
Defensive metrics is one of the more interesting ones that’s being discussed in front offices in the industry today, because they’re not as reliable, they’re not as consistent, there’s a lot of variance across the board. So if you can beat other teams at making them reliable and consistent, and retroactively studying that to understand that they are, there’s a lot of opportunity there.
I understand that, as you guys do, on a basic level. I’m not an analyst. I don’t have a background of R&D. But what we do is, we bring in people like myself, who watch the game all the time who ask questions to our analysts about how to make our research better — so, how do we make our research better than the Chicago Cubs or Houston Astros? We know what ESPN and MLB have. We know what Statcast — there’s a lot of publicly available information. But how do we find the holes that our scouts are telling us are clearly there — or the inconsistency in the information is telling us is there — and plug them.
So the example I gave you on catching metrics is one small example. Another example would be outfield defence. Statcast is great information, but there’s holes and flaws because you don’t always understand the starting point, or just how hard the ball was hit, the trajectory of it, or if it was just a total fluke that happens in a game that you don’t see in the data. But when you do see those errors in the information, we go back and watch the video, so that we can pull it out. And that just takes manpower. That’s what it comes down to: understanding what the flaws are and using the manpower to go back and either tease in or tease out the appropriate information.
But what you’re talking about is what all thirty teams are thinking about, to varying degrees and varying levels, a lot, and often. It’s never going to take away the question about what your instincts are telling you. That’s what you’re trying — to marry that information. And we need the Cito Gastons of the world, and the John Gibbons of the world, to be really challenging some of the newer research. And that will always be the case in our view.
On a similar note:
The worst thing you can do is think the way people have always thought. “We’re not going to do it differently, this is the way things have always been done.” This is another trend: that front offices are more analytical, with less, maybe, baseball playing expertise than historically has occurred. I think that’s a trend and that will shift — we’re going to see, in my opinion, a lot more of the Kevin Towers’ of the world coming back into front offices. Guys like Jerry DiPoto. I think there’s a lot more creativity now], but sometimes that can be problematic. Having that balance of — there reason to really understand experience, and respect that there are certain things that just aren’t going to work and are too risky to try.
Not too much gut feeling, though:
There is definitely a big subjective part of it. You try to limit how much you follow your gut. Think about it in terms of hiring: Google does an incredible job of researching the best way to hire people, and making those decisions individually typically doesn’t end well. Making those decisions collectively, they usually do. There’s always gut involved in every decision we make. There’s always huge scout influence — of one guy beating the bushes, who has worked extremely hard to understand where the upside is on a Randal Grichuk, and is pounding the table for that individual. But we’re never going to discount and just completely say, “I don’t care what the research says.” It’s marrying the two — it’s wedding the information. And when it does happen, that’s when you’re getting excited.
I will say that Justin Smoak comes to mind, because of his consistency. A lot of the subjective — and it wasn’t just me, one person — but a lot of the subjective information around him, of what he was thinking and trying to change about his swing, what he was doing, physically, how he was handling his performance, how he was respected in the clubhouse, his strength, his character — there was a lot more subjective reasons to believe we should extend him when we did — so that’s the individual that comes to mind.
Praise-ish For His Predecessor…
As I said, we’re not quite as agile as the Yankees or the Dodgers. We don’t have a $200 million plus payroll. Two years ago we didn’t have one of the better systems in baseball — now I feel we do.
Well, actually, you know, Alex did an incredible job. Three years ago, before those trades, they did have one of the better systems in baseball. They traded away from it — fortunately they didn’t trade Vlad. And I mean that with respect. He made good decisions in those trades that improved the roster. Now we have these contracts that — there are some that… that’s part of just about every bigger market team. We don’t view it as our hands are tied, we view it as we have more resources than most, a better farm system than most, and we want to make sure that we’re respecting the future at the same time.
On the 2017 Home Run Spike…
Does the spike in home run rate change how you think about pitching going forward?
It absolutely does and has. I think there are a couple things that have happened that have created that. Kevin Pillar — he and I were having a discussion about this last weekend at Fan Fest where his take on it is that’s how players get paid, by hitting the ball over the fence. That has certainly influenced players. If he’s saying that, then that’s real. If he’s articulating that, and he’s a player, and he has a chance to go out there and hit, that is influencing it.
I think there’s a lot more layers to it than that. I think a few things that you’ve seen are swing plane and launch angle — guys are trying to get the ball in the air more often, because of shifts, because of better defensive play, because of better surfaces. Everyone talks about the baseball potentially being juiced — baseballs are better. They’re just better. Just like this beer is better — it’s pretty good, Left Field, “Maris”? Whatever, it’s pretty good — I had one back there. The baseballs are more consistent. The range of variance in baseballs has steadily decreased. They’re harder. It’s not that they’re individually harder, they are in aggregate harder. So that’s going to create more opportunity for balls to travel farther.
Is that sustainable? Yes. But the other thing you’ve seen is as launch angle has changed for hitters to try to elevate, pitchers have started to throw higher — to throw above that launch angle. That’s great if you can execute it, but pitchers, as they’re learning to pitch higher, they typically don’t miss higher than that sweet spot. They probably are going to miss on that sweet spot. So, there are so many variables and layers. I think that people are going to adjust, and I don’t think it’s going to continue to climb.
Would you tolerate more swing and miss or more home runs?
In a vacuum, no. That’s two-strike approach. I’m just one individual, I’m not going to drive that change for an entire industry, but I think the two-strike approach is a very important part. And Shi makes an important point — that has changed, in my opinion, in a negative way. Guys are not thinking about — that’s what a winning player does, in my opinion, if you have a man on second, and you have a two strike count — or even if you don’t — depending on the situation, there are times where you should just forget about the count and try to hit it over the fence — and there are times of the game where that makes sense, depending on the player that it is. But for the most part, if there’s man on second in a one run game — or not even — and you have two strikes on you, your approach should be different. And we’re seeing less of that.
On the Difference Between a Team With a Single Owner Versus Corporate Ownership…
So every organization, every challenge is different. Ours is unique in that we are corporately run. We have some clear benefits to that. The potential and the upside of maximizing that corporately run structure — I think we have the best person in baseball to help us maximize that, in Mark Shapiro. Mark’s been considered a future commissioner, he’s been considered one of the best executives in the game, he’s one of the smartest, best leaders I’ve ever been around. So if there’s going to be a way to maximize what we do have here — the upside of being corporately run — it’s him. He’s the person to do it in the game. The downside of it is we have a little less agility from time to time. And that’s just part of it. There are other situations where you have more agility but less resources, so, there are some situations in professional sport that you would look to as ideal, and we’re working towards that. We feel that because we’re representing a nation and have the market that we do — incredible city, which, by the way, I absolutely love living here, it’s an incredible place to work, live, raise family, all those. So, I think maximizing that, we have the right leader to tap into it, but there’s no denying that it can be at times less than agile.
“Agility” here would seem to me to mean the ability to blow up payroll to seize an opportunity, which… yeah. That seems about right. Love the reminder that he’s not going to fall into the Ricciardi trap, too!
On the Cleveland Logo…
I can tell you that Mark Shapiro is extremely passionate about that, agrees with you, and has tried over time — years ago he started that transition. Unfortunately, how they’re handling that now I can’t comment on — I hope you understand why I can’t get too deep into that analysis — but I do feel that the organization is in a place that they can more readily transition out, because of how hard Mark Shapiro worked in the past to prepare them for that. The timing of it and how they’re being proactive or not is something that is too delicate for me to comment on. But please know that your compassion, I admire, and I share.
A bit of a cop out here, given that Shapiro was the team president there for so long, but since he did lay the groundwork for change with the block C logo, I guess I can allow it. (On the other hand, though, how many fans are going to actually walk away from the team if you just changed the name and that was that? Oh, sure, plenty of them would make a lot of noise, but what are they actually going to do about it?)
So… yeah. Ross Atkins said a lot of words, eh?