TORONTO – All the caveats inherent to these making-things-up-as-you-go days very much apply, but privately baseball officials are speaking with greater confidence about the prospects for a 2020 season of some type.
The conversations right now are carrying more of a how-and-when tone as opposed to the big if that’s been omnipresent since the COVID-19 pandemic forced the continent’s shutdown in March. Tentative steps toward an economic reopening in parts of the United States, along with public statements by U.S. President Donald Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, seem to be creating a pathway to games, as are essential progressions in testing and therapeutics.
Logistical matters from the obvious of how to keep everyone safe to the basics of how to get everyone together may yet prove to be intractable, as might the fight over whether player salaries should be reduced for games played at empty stadiums. It’s here the distrust between players and owners festering since the last CBA was signed in November 2016 is most detrimental, past and present contentions preventing partnership to manage the upheaval.
Whatever emerges from the current maelstrom will be closely dissected, largely through an economic prism, but lasting changes to how the game operates on a number of other levels, particularly on the coaching and player-development side, will be similarly impactful.
The forced dispersal of teams by social-distancing provisions led to a number of adaptations – from video conferencing to virtual coaching – that have worked so well during this period of isolation that they’ll become part of the organizational tool-kit moving forward.
“It’s eye-opening,” says Toronto Blue Jays pitching coach Pete Walker. “Everybody from all walks of life are figuring that out. My kids are online studying right now, and maybe there won’t be any more snow days in the future, they can always get their work done. From our standpoint, it’s the Zoom calls, the way we can correspond, especially during the off-season, all sorts of text chains, group chains, things we’ve used in the past but not to this extreme.
“It has been really valuable as far as getting information out and seeing guys face to face, as opposed to a call or text. I envision that changing and being a bigger part of our organization moving forward. The off-season is approached a little bit differently … watching guys work out, watching guys throw, something I’m sure we’ll co-ordinate and be a part of our program. … It has been impressive, the way we’ve stayed together and connected and communicated.”
In that way, the current down time hasn’t been an idle time for the Blue Jays, and while the loss of repetitions and competition is impossible to mitigate, they’re hoping to try and overcome some of that by finding ways to push their various philosophies forward.
For example, one recent Zoom meeting pulled in about 200 people from across the organization – research and development; international, professional and amateur scouting; player development and high performance; sports science; nutrition; sports psychology; pitching coaches; and coaches from other areas – to discuss pitching.
“It was, ‘Here’s where we are. Here’s how we’ve gotten here. How do we make this better? And how do we continue to push this forward to not only make the philosophy better, but how can we make it more integrated?’” says general manager Ross Atkins. “Within that, we’ll use examples of how we have applied the philosophy. So, let’s talk about how we scouted this player. What we saw. What we identified. Now think about how we help them, and then let’s study that. Did it work? What could we have done better?”
The Blue Jays had done similar video conferences before, but never with such a wide cross-section of the organization. There were about 10 people driving that discussion, but dozens of others participated by asking questions or having side conversations within the software’s chat function.
Previous iterations of such meetings would quickly fade into the constant churn of the baseball calendar.
“As we continue to interact that way, we’re seeing that it continues to move forward,” says Atkins. “And it’s getting even more departmental integration than we’ve had, candidly, because of our physical locations and the demands on each department of the day to day baseball existence that are very different.”
Not all conferences are as comprehensive or overarching as that one on pitching, although similar versions on hitting have also taken place. More targeted tactical sessions have focused on the finer points of defence, or base-running or one that that pulled in catchers from all levels for a tutorial on game-calling.
“That was, let’s walk through a lineup. Let’s talk about how we prepare for it. Let’s break down hitters and talk about how we game-plan, how we execute. Let’s role play those scenarios and give each other feedback,” says Atkins. “We’d done that in smaller groups when we are in one location. But we hadn’t done it with major-league catchers and minor-league catchers all the way through our system. Similar on the pitching front with all of our minor-league coaches and all of our major-league coaches.”
Convention is one reason for that. The lack of proximity another, as coaches and front office executives are frequently criss-crossing the continent on conflicting schedules.
Some of it simply is the habitual expectation that such conversations or coaching sessions happen in person, which is nearly impossible to pull off when differing responsibilities continually keep everyone separate.
“If half of us are in Toronto, we sometimes brought in others via video conferencing,” says Atkins. “Now, we’ll always make that available because we broke through the awkwardness of it, and realize the strength of the presentation tools within it.”
The applications offer a number of options for individualized coaching, as well.
Hitting coach Guillermo Martinez has for a while now used FaceTime to watch his players take batting practice during the off-season, but now the Blue Jays are looking at ways to create remote real-time training sessions that utilize multiple arms of the organization.
“Now is the time where it’s accepted that we can use a little bit of trial and error, but at the same time, we don’t want it to be extremely awkward or unprepared for a player,” says Atkins. “So we’re just now getting to the point that we’re going to be integrating that.”
The vision for such sessions would feature the hitter or pitcher performing on live feed video while Rapsodo or Blast Motion data simultaneously flows from the training site to coaches and staffers who from various locations can instantly interpret the information.
Putting that together would allow the Blue Jays to simulate, to some extent, the new hitting and pitching labs that will be a prime feature of the club’s under-construction complex in Dunedin, Fla.
“That’s all down the road,” says Walker. “Right now, we’re able to get clips and break down deliveries. I know our player development is doing that as well. They send us video clips of them throwing, and we could probably set up live cameras of them throwing, as well, in the future, to be there as their pitching coach in December and January, which would be pretty cool.
“In the past it’s been ‘How are you doing? How are you feeling? Are you keeping up with your program?’ without laying eyes on somebody. Now, this could be part of our future, being able to correspond differently and to actually be able to see guys work and make mechanical adjustments and make sure they’re making the proper adjustments that we’ve talked about.”
The first returns on those efforts won’t come until the pandemic has been contained enough for baseball to safely resume, with hopes building that will be sooner rather than later.