TORONTO – The overhaul of the Toronto Blue Jays coaching staff is reflective of the dizzying churn triggered by baseball’s sweeping information and technological advances, a data-driven revolution that continues to displace experienced and successful coaches and managers.
Of the five managerial openings this off-season, three have been filled with rookie managers fluent in analytics, with the Baltimore Orioles still searching for a new skip. The Los Angeles Angels, so far, are the only team to hire a former manager, settling on Brad Ausmus, who prepped for the role by working in the club’s front office as an assistant to GM Billy Eppler.
Charlie Montoyo with the Blue Jays, Rocco Baldelli with the Minnesota Twins and Chris Woodward with the Texas Rangers all to varying degrees fit the game’s new mould of manager while, at least to this point, accomplished skips such as Joe Girardi, Mike Scioscia, Buck Showalter, John Gibbons, Paul Molitor, John Farrell and Jeff Banister remain on the sidelines.
Subsequently, coaching staffs are transforming along a similar vein, with the Blue Jays crew under Montoyo, for example, featuring four newcomers to the big leagues, each under 40, two as young as 34. General manager Ross Atkins, during a conference call Wednesday, described a general theme what the team was looking for as, “first and foremost open-minded.”
“The innovation that is occurring in today’s game with information, with technology, everything is changing rapidly. That was at the forefront of every discussion,” general manager Ross Atkins said during a conference call Wednesday. “The open-minded nature of each individual, that was very important to Charlie, and then as important, certainly not less important, was collaboration. Guys that were willing to do things together, not wanting to stay in silos, not wanting to say, ‘This is my area, I want to be accountable for just this and nothing else.’ The two things we were pushing very hard were collaboration and open-mindedness.”
Hitting coach Guillermo Martinez and bullpen coach Matt Buschmann are both 34, major-league coach John Schneider is 38 while major-league field co-ordinator Shelley Duncan is 39. They’re balanced out by Montoyo, who is 55, bench coach Dave Hudgens who is 61 and the sole returnees from last year’s staff, third-base coach Luis Rivera, who is 54, and pitching coach Pete Walker, who is 48.
Caught in the transition were bench coach DeMarlo Hale, hitting coach Brook Jacoby, first base coach Tim Leiper, quality control coach Mike Mordecai, and, most jarringly, bullpen coach Dane Johnson, who was drafted by the Blue Jays in 1984 and had been a coach in the system since 2000.
As the sport transitions, some loyal organizational lifers such as Johnson are being cruelly spat out of the system.
“That is a great question,” Atkins said when asked how to balance the value of veterans such as Johnson against the baseball’s current landscape. “Dane is a great baseball professional. He’s extremely hard-working, very passionate, I have a ton of respect for him, I know he’ll continue to do great things. Every situation is different and that was significantly valuable to us, his contributions, his experience, his commitment to the Blue Jays. All of that had a lot of value. Very, very difficult decision to make that change. But the way Matt Buschmann complemented the rest of our staff, ended up, we thought, a better way to go.”
What does Buschmann bring to the table?
“His experience in the front office (assistant director of player development for the San Francisco Giants) is extremely interesting and will be very helpful for him in this role as he learns how to use the resources available to him and applies them as coach,” replied Atkins. “His passion for technology that is occurring in and around not just pitching but in helping young baseball players and mature baseball players improve and really realize all of their potential was elite. That’s what stood out the most.”
Atkins said last year’s coaching staff has been since the final day of the 2018 season “free to talk to other clubs, and we wanted to make sure that was clear to the other teams, to the staff members and that will continue for guys that are under contract.” He added that the Blue Jays will “try to help them either land with us in a significant way, or elsewhere.”
They are good coaches who have long track records of making players better, but, like Gibbons and so many others, are suddenly on the outside looking in. An old axiom in coaching is that the jobs usually don’t have happy endings.
When asked how the new coaching staff will be different in using information than the old group, Atkins replied: “I’m confident that this staff will collaborate, and it’s really less about the comparison. What I am confident (about) is these guys are going to work together, they’re going to have a sincere thirst for that information, for being open-minded to trying do things differently. It really comes down to my confidence in their character, each of them having that thirst and curiosity for all the information that is available to them.”
For coaches in a quickly changing game, those seem to be the new words to live by.