The Blue Jays Fired Charlie Montoyo. Now What?
By Gideon Turk1 year ago
If turning around a struggling baseball team was as easy as firing your manager, there would be a constant cycle of middle-aged baseball dudes getting laid off weekly. But it rarely is that easy, and thus despite the Blue Jays firing Charlie Montoyo yesterday, a lot of work remains to be done in order to turn this team into one that not only will make the playoffs, but will be built to go on a deep run in October.
It is impossible to tell if replacing Montoyo with John Schneider will have any impact on how the players perform, but it became clear yesterday just how important of a first step it was to getting this team on the right track. From the first reports that were trickling out of the US, to this excellent piece from The Athletic’s Kaitlyn McGrath, Montoyo had clearly lost the confidence of his team, and once that happens, a move needs to be made. (Ironically, all arguments I saw and contributed to pre-firing assumed Montoyo was well-liked by the team. Once that assumption was thrown out the window, the argument for making a change became much simpler).
Now, after taking responsibility for where the club is in the standings at this point in the season yesterday, the task Ross Atkins has ahead of him is to identify the faults in this team and address them. It’s a tricky situation to navigate because if you’ve been watching the Blue Jays closely this year, you might identify many issues plaguing this team. In reality, though, I believe the issues are actually pretty simple.
Despite what many might think, the Blue Jays’ offense is more or less fine. They’ve been the fifth-best team in baseball according to wRC+ this season in the aggregate. Their issues offensively have more to do with being inconsistent – which I don’t think is something you can ever avoid in baseball – and an inability to hit in high leverage spots.
That last point has been a thorn in their side since the beginning of 2021, and there have been many theories floating out there, from a lack of “clutch” – which would not be able to be demonstrated from data – to an inability to hit high velocity, something the data does point to being a likely culprit.
However, I do not think that the high leverage weakness is such a terrible aspect of this team. It hurts their competitiveness, sure, but a lot of that can be masked with a strong pitching staff, as was shown in April and May this season. The Blue Jays were still racking up wins in those months because their pitching was good, even when the offense couldn’t come up with the big hits. On June 1st, the Blue Jays had a 98 wRC+ as a team, which is two percentage points below league average, and was 14th best in baseball at the time. However, their 29-20 record at the time was seventh-best in baseball. The difference maker was, you guessed it, their pitching, which had an ERA- of 93, signifying they were seven percentage points better than league average, and 10th best in baseball at the time.
That leaves the biggest issue to be addressed as the pitching staff, specifically the bullpen. I am confident Alek Manoah, Kevin Gausman, and Ross Stripling will continue to be excellent this year, and while José Berríos has had an awfully weird year, I think he may be coming out of it given his recent string of performances. That leaves just one rotation spot to be filled, and if the 2020 Blue Jays showed anything, it is that it is pretty easy to acquire a back of the rotation guy at the deadline.
Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports
The bullpen isn’t a new issue for the Blue Jays, as it has been hurting them for years now under this management group, and in order to fix it this year and going forward, there needs to be a change in how they construct their bullpen both with outside acquisitions and player development.
Aside from a run at Liam Hendriks, Atkins has shied away from targeting the elite reliever class because their contracts tend to run high and often do not work out, leaving the team on the hook for the back end of an ugly contract. But by sitting out from that market, the Blue Jays are sidelining themselves from being able to acquire the type of shutdown guy that can make a huge difference in October.
This wouldn’t be so egregious if it wasn’t also accompanied by an absolute failure to develop high-velocity elite relievers themselves. If there was an easy fix to this, it would have been done a while ago, but I’d like to posit that one simple change the Blue Jays can make is to begin to transition failed starters to relievers earlier on in their careers. If you peruse the Baseball-Reference or FanGraphs pages of the relief pitchers for the best bullpens, like the Houston Astros and New York Yankees, a striking pattern emerges. The players can, with few exceptions, be easily grouped into high-priced acquisitions or failed starters turned relievers. And for most of those relievers, they often follow a pattern that goes something like this:
- Failed starter in minors and/or cup of coffee in majors
- Converted to reliever, struggle for a season or so
- Dominant reliever with success
The stuff of starting pitchers plays up when converting into a short burst relief role, so it should come as no surprise when these guys are pumping out elite velocity and breaking pitches that seem like they have three ft of movement. But for some reason, the Blue Jays have been reluctant to make these moves. Sean Reid-Foley was the exact type of player this conversion could have benefited, but the Blue Jays insisted on keeping him as a starter until they had used up most of his option years and eventually traded him to the Mets. He is now sidelined with Tommy John surgery, but his high-velocity fastball and strong breaking pitch would have been useful to develop as a reliever. Now he is behind the curve.
The strongest example of this on the Blue Jays currently is Jordan Romano, but they even failed him in the same way. The Blue Jays only pivoted him into the relief role once he was returned from the Texas Rangers after being selected in the Rule 5 draft. Trent Thornton, to a lesser extent, can also fit into this group. With a history of failed experiences as a starter, he has shown signs of brilliance as a reliever this year, even though his overall numbers don’t look great.
So how do the Blue Jays address this issue? At the trade deadline, it starts with paying the cost to acquire elite relievers. Before then, the team needs to look at its minor league options and decide who is a good candidate to be converted. It doesn’t even need to be a full-time conversion if the team wants to shift them back to being a starter next year or in the future. But the major league team needs elite relievers now, and the learning curve should start as soon as possible.
Adam Kloffenstein has stalled out over the last couple of years as a starter in A+ and now in AA. Why not see how he might do in shorter outings when his fastball might sit 94-96 rather than 91-93 mph? How about Yosver Zulueta? He hasn’t failed a starter yet, but will need to be added to the 40-man roster this winter to be protected from the Rule 5 draft, and switching to a relief role could be a good way to get him some high-energy innings after injuries have taken a toll on his development curve. There are other options as well, and I’m sure the Blue Jays with their extensive amount of data know the best candidates for these transitions.
Now it is time to show urgency and start making the tough decisions. Elite relievers are extremely valuable. Failed starters are not. Not every failed starter will become an elite reliever, but the more you try, the more you will have success. The current group of relievers is not going to get the job done in October without some changes to its composition. The Blue Jays are firmly in the playoff mix, and it would be a shame if they let that go to waste because of a few blown leads here and there.
With Montoyo gone, Atkins showed he is serious about turning things around. It can’t stop with a new manager.
Edit 2:12 PM July 14th 2022: I realized after publishing that I forgot to mention Nate Pearson as a prime example alongside Sean Reid-Foley of how the current player development strategy has failed. That he was completely out of my mind is probably a good proof of why he should have been converted to a reliever previously rather than continue to build up as a starter and continue to get injured.
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