DUNEDIN, Fla. – Sleepy Dunedin is a little less sleepy these days.
Within a five minute walk of the tastefully rebranded Dunedin Stadium, there are at least three residential developments approaching completion. The quaint little downtown is due to see some added activity in the years to come.
At the ballpark, the activity seems to have ticked up a notch as well.
In 2016, the last time I attended the Blue Jays’ spring training, the mood seemed to fluctuate somewhere between laid-back and somnambulant. After the franchise’s first trip to the postseason in nearly two decades, veteran hitters were given ample days of rest and early exits from games, while pitchers ramped up extra slowly.
Surely, no one wins championships with early morning sessions of stretching and spitting. But that April, the Blue Jays got off to an 11-14 start, and spent much of the season chasing the wild card spot they eventually landed on the final day of the season.
In fact, Blue Jays have not posted a winning record in April since John Gibbons returned to the helm in 2013. Last season, an 8-17 start mostly doomed the team’s chances before they’d even cracked the roof on the Rogers Centre.
While it was a greater leap than I was prepared to make at the time to suggest any causality between the two, the nagging feeling that maybe there was hasn’t left me in two years, as much as I could write it off as observer bias. Last season’s start only served to reinforce matters.
Maybe I’m reading too much into these first few days at camp, or maybe I’m seeing what I want to see, but at first blush, there seems to be a heightened approach to the pre-season preparations.
Blue Jays manager John Gibbons acknowledged to Jeff Blair and Stephen Brunt on Sportsnet 590 The FAN Tuesday that there is a different approach this year.
“We’ve looked at some different things. You look around at most camps, basically they’re run the same everywhere,” Gibbons said. “I do think the key is that the hitters get enough at bats, because of timing. And the pitchers too, you want to make sure they’re ready to go out of the gates.”
“There’s no magic formula,” Gibbons continued. “In the big leagues, you can get over a so-so start, but I don’t even think you can get over a bad start like we had last year.”
This week in Dunedin, the pre-game workouts were noticeably amped up. On Tuesday, first base coach Tim Leiper hit fungoes of the wall in right with outfielders fielding them and hitting a cut-off man. Meanwhile, Luis Rivera had infielders turning grounders around the horn.
Both drills were run at full speed.
On Wednesday morning, seven-time Gold Glover Devon White had a group outfielders running a drill where balls were tossed up, and they had to find them over their shoulders. Again, the drill noticeably pushed the players to perform.
Even the morning stretches seem more focused, energetic, in comparison to what I’ve observed in past years.
Moreover, the lineups – at least in Dunedin – invariably resemble something that could be rolled out on Opening Day. Some of that is a function of the added layers of depth around the diamond, but sending Josh Donaldson on the road on a split squad day would seem to reflect a desire to get the players enough reps so that they are not attempting to find their swings against the Yankees or Orioles in the first weeks of the season.
None of this added activity assures the Blue Jays of a hot start, or good outcomes either in the short term or at the end of the six-month marathon of a season. The perception of the importance of those early games is always out of step with their actual value in the schedule. A win in April is worth the same as a win in September. But with fewer results to create the context, those early season games always feel magnified.
Branch Rickey said: “Luck is the residue of design.” For Blue Jays fans who have bemoaned laggardly starts for what seems like most of the past two decades, having a more focused approach to getting out of the chute in this critical year will be heartily appreciated.