There will be a reckoning. There always is. But despite the bitterness of a second failed trip to the American League Championship Series … wait, did I just write that? Bitterness because of back-to-back post-seasons? In Toronto?
“It’s probably a bad time to get into what happened, who did what and who didn’t,” Toronto Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said Wednesday, when asked about his teams missing bats following their second of two shutout losses to the Cleveland Indians. “If you’re watching … you probably saw what happened.”
That works for the 2016 Blue Jays as a whole, to be honest. What they showed time and again in the playoffs was what you saw in September if you were paying attention. So let’s try that again: despite a season that seemed over in September, yet still felt prematurely done when the curtain fell on Oct. 19, and despite the reality of a new management team having plenty of data and first-hand observations, indications are that Gibbons will be back, at least for 2017.
Blue Jays president and chief executive officer Mark Shapiro made that point unequivocally in an interview last weekend with Stephen Brunt. He reiterated it again Wednesday in a conversation with Shi Davidi. I don’t know how much of a news flash that is, but it’s worth contemplating on the morning after, especially since Gibbons asked for and received a change in contract language this spring to remove a clause that tacked on a year to his deal every New Year’s Day, meaning it is no longer a perpetual, rolling, two-year deal.
That means it’s on paper that he’s back next season.
It also means that he will be a lame duck the first time his team loses three in a row, so if I’m Shapiro, I move right away and give Gibbons a formal extension. I’d give him three years total; two at least.
Baseball isn’t football or hockey. There is no offensive or defensive coordinator. It is not a “systems” game, it is a matchup game, and the team that most often matches up well against the most opponents usually wins. Josh Donaldson was right on several levels last season when he noted that “this isn’t the try league, it’s the get it done league.” Effort, grit … there’s not always much of a payoff in this game, especially if the guy throwing the ball can handle you.
Would I like to see Gibbons do some things different tactically? Hell, yeah. In a perfect world, I’d hit and run more than he does … maybe run a bit more in general. I’d also like my lineup to be more athletic, younger and less right-handed. Good grief, wouldn’t it look good to have a couple of switch-hitters like the Indians? But know what? None of those things are really Gibbons’ responsibility. He doesn’t pick the players; he can’t make a 30-something pull-hitter suddenly spray the ball all over the field. He can’t put on a hit-and-run with a hitter who can’t make contact and can’t get inside Michael Saunders’ brain when he’s stuck between second and third base. And don’t get me started about bunting, not with the visitors clubhouse at the Rogers Centre soaked with champagne.
There will be time for a more in-depth analysis, but let’s lay down a marker: managers should be judged by their pitching staffs, because this is a sport where the defence – by virtue of pitching – has possession of the ball. And the Blue Jays finished the season with the game’s best starting rotation, in the process getting Aaron Sanchez and that gilt-edged arm over the 200 innings mark – getting all of those arms, in fact, through an entire season. A staff that was without an identifiable ace coming out of spring training will go into next spring with a 20-game winner in J.A. Happ, a guy who is the best clutch pitcher the organization has seen since the early 1990s in Marco Estrada … and Sanchez.
Gibbons’ starters tossed the most innings in baseball – and didn’t have a complete game. Think about that: a team made the playoffs in the brutal AL East Division with a guy on a work-load limit, another pitcher in his second full season (Marcus Stroman) who endured not unusual growing pains … and R.A. Dickey. That team made the playoffs with a second-year closer, two veteran right-handers who likely wondered whether this was the short strokes of their careers, and a goofy Rule 5 pick named Joe Biagini. Push Gibbons hard in spring training and he’d tell you the Blue Jays needed Brett Cecil to be huge for them for it to all come together. Cecil was erratic, but finished the post-season looking like a guy you’d want back next season.
Oh, and that bullpen: it was bulletproof in five ALCS games where they had the lead, I don’t know, once? The pitching side of the ledger looks better than it has since the days of Roy Halladay, Kelvim Escobar and Chris Carpenter, although unlike that time you get the idea that the guys in charge now have a better handle on things.
There will be a time when Shapiro and general manager Ross Atkins make their final notations about the 2016 season and this time the year-end report will be in their words, not Alex Anthopoulos’ or someone else’s. I’ll admit, in my gut, I thought Gibbons would not make it through this year, that Eric Wedge or Bud Black would end up replacing him. He knows I felt that way, too, and – hell, I don’t know … maybe he did himself. But my sense is the new guys like the way Gibbons handled his pitchers, and appreciated the hand he showed in dealing with a clubhouse described by many as “high maintenance.”
There will be stories that come out in the next few weeks, I’m sure, that shed light on what happened during that players-only meeting in early September, and probably touch on some of the competing agendas brought on by the free agency of Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista. Only then will we be able to fully appreciate Gibbons’ steady hand.
This ALCS had to be an odd one for Shapiro and Atkins. After all, it was Shapiro who hired the guys who put together the team that beat the Blue Jays. Through it all, you heard a lot about the Indians’ “organizational culture,” a very focussed set of principles and notions executed by Francona, a manager destined for the Hall of Fame. It’s all mathematics and philosophy and old-school tobacco juice and radar guns and models. Lots and lots and lots of ‘models.’
I asked somebody from the national media familiar with Shapiro the other day whether Gibbons … well, whether he was cultured enough or in-tune enough to work under him. I thought Gibbons was too ‘old school,’ at which point I was reminded that Shapiro hired Wedge as a manager … and Francona, and that neither of them were exactly new school renaissance guys. Besides: Earl Weaver and Davey Johnson were using spread sheets before Billy Beane became a thing. How you dress and how you talk isn’t the key to working in the type of collegial, cooperative environment that Shapiro wants; it’s how you think. It’s what’s in your core, not the stuff on the fuzzy edges.
Look, it’s possible that Shapiro and Atkins know a guy who is the ‘perfect’ manager for them, and that guy isn’t Gibbons. But based on what I’ve seen in the second act of Gibbons’ career as Blue Jays manager, and understanding how important stability is to instituting that collegial setup, it seems to me this relationship can continue to work splendidly. At least, that’s what I saw when I was watching.