Mottola firing odd in light of Jays’ strong offence

Chad Mottola was coming off in his first year coaching at the major league level with the Toronto Blue Jays in 2013. (Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)

TORONTO – Deserved or not, there was always going to be at least a casualty or two for the Toronto Blue Jays’ failure of 2013, and in the dismissal of hitting coach Chad Mottola, they found their fall guy.

General manager Alex Anthopoulos spoke about the decision on Prime Time Sports Tuesday evening, saying that the retirement of first-base coach Dwayne Murphy “changed the dynamic” of the team, because the club viewed he and Mottola “as a tandem going into the season.”

There was no real explanation of how the dynamic changed—Murphy was Mottola’s assistant and basically worked only with Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion because of their pre-existing relationships—or what the Blue Jays were looking for in Mottola’s successor. The closest Anthopoulos offered was some vague talk of using the whole field more without cutting into the club’s home-run ability, and about cutting down on strikeouts.

Both are admirable goals—the Blue Jays certainly did have a propensity for selfish at-bats—but all that is more about personnel than coaching. Mottola, who may be offered another position within the organization, can’t be held solely responsible for those failings. And given how Anthopoulos has regularly pinned the past season’s woes primarily on the starting rotation, getting rid of Mottola made for an odd turn, particularly because he was appreciated by a significant group of players.

A veteran player once explained to me that the best ways to judge a hitting coach are on his availability, his positivity and his ability to help a player get out of slumps. Mottola certainly had the first two qualities in spades, and players like Adam Lind, Colby Rasmus, Brett Lawrie and Anthony Gose have repeatedly credited him for his work with them.

Only two players under his watch collapsed this season—J.P. Arencibia, who had a monster April and had difficulties adjusting afterwards as his hitting fell off a cliff; and Emilio Bonifacio, who struggled out of the gate both offensively and defensively but posted a .700 OPS with 16 stolen bases in 42 games after he was dumped to the Kansas City Royals.

Two Blue Jays players contacted by expressed surprise and disappointment about Mottola’s departure, and couldn’t understand the decision.

Notably, it sounds very much like the new hitting coach will be Gibbons’s call, a development that suggests the manager is on fairly stable footing. Kevin Seitzer and Mickey Brantley might be two names to watch, with big-league experience likely to be a prerequisite to follow the previously untested Mottola.

Seitzer was the hitting coach for the Kansas City Royals when Gibbons was there as bench coach, and espouses the benefits of using the middle of the field in general, and going the other way when down in the count, two things Gibbons also believes in. Brantley, a long-shot candidate, is another close friend who served as hitting coach with the Blue Jays during Gibbons’s first tenure as manager. Gibbons opposed Brantley’s firing following the 2007 season, left the hiring of his replacement up to then GM J.P. Ricciardi, and ended up with Gary Denbo, who angered several key players by pushing them to use the opposite field more. The offence slumped as a result, and both Gibbons and Denbo were fired in June 2008 with the Blue Jays struggling badly.

Whichever way Gibbons goes this time, the new hitting coach inherits an offence that ranked eighth in the American League in runs with 712, 10th in batting average at .252, eighth in on-base percentage at .318 and seventh in slugging percentage at .411. Basically, they were league average across the board.

Regardless, change was coming after a 74-88 train wreck. Cold as it is, that’s the deal, and whether this makes much of a difference won’t be known for a while.

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