Forcing a script cost the Blue Jays their October

Veronica Chung
9 months ago
After a long, grinding season, the Blue Jays finally won a ticket for their post-season redemption tour quite miraculously. They were the favourites to win this American League Wild Card series against the Minnesota Twins, and they were getting a pass for their overall roster strength. However, The Blue Jays were on the brink of elimination once again as they prepared for their second game of the series in Minneapolis despite baseball insiders’ bullish confidence in this team. 
During the first game, the Jays couldn’t muster up any runs other than one run against the Twins’ starting pitcher Pablo Lopez and couldn’t do much against their relievers. The Jays’ offence couldn’t string together many hits, and if they hit the balls hard, they died on the warning track. Meanwhile, the Jays’ starting pitcher Kevin Gausman gave up two home runs to the Twins’ designated hitter Royce Lewis while receiving virtually no run support from the lineup. To no one’s surprise, the Jays lost the first game to the Twins by 3-1, and with that, the Twins snapped their playoff losing streak. 
The second game–the inglorious elimination game–had to be different. The Jays needed to play their best game possible. All cards had to be on the table to squeeze out at least one win to avoid a shameful exit from the playoffs. With a reliable starting pitcher Jose Berrios on the mound for the second game, the Jays were ready to show their absolute best performance. Or so they thought. 
The Jays opened up the second game by challenging the Twins early on. Centre fielder George Springer single to start the game only for designated hitter Brandon Belt to strike out and first baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr. to fly out helplessly. While shortstop Bo Bichette singled to threaten the Twins further, second baseman Cavan Biggio missed a pitch in the middle of the plate to end the top of the first inning. In a way, this inning acted as a metaphor for the Jays’ season thus far: missed opportunities. What they didn’t know at the time was that things were going to get worse than they ever imagined. 
Unlike the Jays’ confoundingly frustrating offence, Jose Berrios cruised through the Twins’ lineup. He even threw harder than usual to give his team the best chance to win. However, when the bottom of the fourth inning rolled around, Berrios lost a battle to the Twins’ designated hitter Royce Lewis and gave up a leadoff walk. Starting an inning with a walk wasn’t ideal, but it didn’t warrant a significant in-game strategy change for the Jays. All they needed was to trust Berrios with at least two more outs to get out of the inning.
Instead, the Jays pulled their most perplexing move: they immediately took Berrios out of the game and brought in lefty pitcher Yusei Kikuchi to face the rest of the Twins’ lineup based on algorithms. It had been a strategy the Jays drew out hours before the game even started, and they weren’t going to go off script. In reality, the Jays paid dearly for this move as they gave up two runs when the Twins hitters took advantage of pitches from Kikuchi. 
The Jays now had to make up for their strategic blunder as they entered the top of the fifth inning. Things went swimmingly until George Springer and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. got on base. This was a golden opportunity for the Jays to recover from the two-run deficit. Unfortunately, baseball gods had other plans when Guerrero Jr. started drifting away from second base. After noticing this gradual drift, Twins’ shortstop Carlos Correa successfully picked off Guerror Jr. to end the inning. 
The pitching change and the pickoff in this game defined the 2023 Jays’ season too well. The season was full of baffling gaffes. On top of that, the Jays defied relying on the feel of the game and it proved costly as they exited from the playoffs. The Jays lost the second Wild Card game by 2-0 and experienced an excruciating sweep against the Twins. 
It was yet another demoralizing season and a playoff run. Just to be clear, numbers and measures are not all bad. They are great tools players and teams can use to maximize the positive attributes and outcomes in a game of baseball. It’s undeniable that analytics have brought boons to powerhouse teams like the Los Angeles Dodgers, Tampa Bay Rays and Houston Astros. 
Here’s the thing: analytics can’t replace unquantifiable parts of baseball. You can’t crunch numbers on trust, grit, passion and feel, and yet, they matter as much as exit velocity and on-base percentage. The main problem for the Jays this year was the team collectively (whatever that means) planning out their strategies without considering the intangible. That’s where the Jays made their biggest mistake. 
Throughout the course of the 2023 season, the Jays always blindly followed the script in the name of game planning. They slotted in odd pinch runners in crucial games and insisted on keeping Springer, Bichette and Guerrero Jr. at the top of the order despite their high swing-and-a-miss profiles. They refused to take out utility man Whit Merrifield from the lineup even when his bat went ice cold, and they prioritized aggression on basepaths only to create more egregious baserunning errors. As a result, the product on the field was lacklustre at best. The Jays may have recorded a decent winning record, but the constant low-scoring games stressed out the fanbase all too often.
Not too long ago, Seattle Mariners president Jerry Dipoto fumbled in his press conference when he said the goal is to win 54 percent of the time and that’s his bigger-picture process. The unfortunate part is that Dipoto said what most front offices think about their long-term strategy. The Blue Jays are no exception to the idea of building a “sustainable winner” in Toronto. Being a sustainable winner is winning more regular season games at times and not necessarily making deep playoff runs. That’s what the Jays are becoming as they miss out on their contention window each year.
Even the best-written script can only take a team so far. The 2023 Jays were supposed to be built for October, but when opportunities came their way, the Jays lavishly squandered them with questionable in-game decisions. The players had to be efficient in every way possible according to the Jays’ script. Yet, the more this team encouraged the Jays players to become perfect, the more mental mistakes they made. In fact, the Jays recorded the most ground into double play in the American League and 57 outs on base in total. 
In order for the game to thrive, the feel and trust have to flourish on and off the field. The Jays probably had some of it this year but if they did, it was hard to see them during games. Players kept trying something unnatural for their abilities and inattention to detail became more apparent as the season went along. Instead of fixing these issues, it seemed that the Jays stuck to the old script they had and hoped for the best result that would never come. 
Sometimes, you have to be brave enough to throw away the script altogether. Remember the 2011 Tampa Bay Rays and their last regular season game? At the bottom of the ninth inning with two outs, then manager Joe Maddon opted to bring in pinch hitter and minor league journeyman Dan Johnson to replace Sam Fuld. It was an absurd decision if you were looking at the numbers. There was no way Johnson could give the Rays a chance to win the game when they were trailing behind the New York Yankees by one run. But you know what happened when Johnson swung through a pitch on a 2-2 count? He launched a game-tying homer to give his team a chance at getting into the playoffs.
A script is great for laying out bigger goals and plans but knowing when to go off the script is important too because that’s when magic happens. You can’t write that into your script and hope that it happens – that defeats the purpose of it all. But you know what brings magic? It’s trusting the players; it’s trusting the moment; and it’s following the feel. You have to know when to rip your script because the game happens outside of the spreadsheets and calculators.
Yes, metrics matter and yes, game planning matters. But the game isn’t just about the math – it’s also about how the game unfolds and improvising as you go along. The game is meant to live and breathe. Are we really willing to give up the art of trusting players right there and then all in the name of following the data? 
The 2023 Blue Jays team let the numbers control their games for 164 games. It’s time that they take a step back from data and let the art of baseball play itself out. Because in the end, it’s the invisible things that matter the most.


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