TORONTO -- Kevin Cash rolls his eyes when told about all the second-guessing Charlie Montoyo gets in the Toronto Blue Jays discourse, knowing well that anyone looking to solve a baseball problem can find an easy answer in pointing fingers at the manager.
The relentless scrutiny can be a lot to take.
“Correct, that’s fair,” says the Tampa Bay Rays skip, the reigning American League manager of the year. “You’ve got to have a really strong support group, where you can have some of those venting conversations. But when three o’clock rolls around and the guys start filtering into the clubhouse, you’ve got to find that consistency that you show day in and day out.”
The ability to remain on even-keel no matter the circumstance is, to Cash, what’s been most impressive about the way Montoyo, his former bench coach, has stewarded the Blue Jays through the pandemic, and the two seasons of franchise displacement it caused.
“Charlie should be manager of the year,” says Cash. “I mean, what he has gone through over a two-year period, it's pretty remarkable. It's a special group over there but he has helped keep that group together and unified it with all the B.S. that has taken place because of the travel and inconsistencies.
“Look at the uncertainty that all those players, certainly Charlie and the staff, but ultimately all the players faced. You've got three home ballparks, you're getting booed half the time because when we played them in Dunedin, we've got fans there, in Buffalo, you've got New York Yankees fans there -- that's not how you draw it up. And the way that team has shown over the last two years the ability to just wipe that off and be very, very good is a testament to the players, but also Charlie.”
That viewpoint from a rival dugout runs contrary to the daily griping about Montoyo within the larger Blue Jays conversation, with venomous posts questioning each call he makes and blaming him for each failure.
Now, debating different approaches to key strategic moments is part of baseball’s beauty, because ballgames can be won and lost in so many different ways. Analytics have transformed the traditional discussion by replacing long held pieces of conventional wisdom -- like platoon advantage above all else, sacrificing a runner to second base or constantly trying to steal bases -- with real data that can be used to develop more insightful planning.
As an unintended consequence, too much data has essentially created a new conventional wisdom that relies solely on stats-based decision-making and wholly discounts gut-feel, with decisions that buck the numbers immediately excoriated. In truth, a balance between the two approaches is best in which the objective information is weighed against a subjective sense of what players may be feeling or going through at a given time.
For instance, Montoyo’s decision last week to use Corey Dickerson at leadoff to not disrupt the rhythm of Marcus Semien, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and Bo Bichette batting two, three and four didn’t make much sense on an analytical front. But the Blue Jays factored in the rhythm the three of them had at that point, didn’t want to alter their timing and prep process by moving them up in the order and really like Bichette in an RBI spot. So, they decided for a short period, there was more value in maintaining all of that rather than adjusting the lineup just so Dickerson wouldn’t potentially be in the leadoff spot at a key time late in the game.
Or take last Saturday, when Montoyo stuck with a shaky Hyun Jin Ryu to try and escape a bases-loaded jam in the third inning, rather than go to a warmed Ross Stripling. Ryan McKenna then ripped a cutter up for a two-run double that put the Baltimore Orioles up 7-3, leading to the usual finger-pointing.
Lost in the vitriol was that Montoyo was consistent in showing trust for one of his aces, desperate for innings in the first game of a doubleheader and that if Ryu executes the cutter down he’s probably out of the inning with a double play.
That doesn’t make the decisions right, it doesn’t make them wrong. But judging them strictly based on outcome and ignoring nuance isn’t fair, either. There are many variables in each call the public isn’t aware of and pivotal is that a team’s players understand why things happen the way they do so the public discourse doesn’t penetrate their bubble.
The Rays and Cash have made that a priority.
“Our guys are so good, so bought in and so willing to remove the game last night from the next one,” he says. “Over time, we've gotten more of that buy-in because winning helps. But there were three and four years of decisions that we made early on that were challenging not only to the fanbase, but also to the players in there. We owed it to the players to sit them down and say, this is what we're thinking. We pride ourselves so much on communicating with them and trying to get ahead of and out front of those decisions before they happen.”
The Blue Jays, similarly, have excelled at preventing one game from carrying over to the next. Last year, they shook off not knowing where they would play their home games until the morning of opening day and calling triple-A Sahlen Field in Buffalo home to win a wild card. This season, they began at their spring home in Dunedin, Fla., moved to Buffalo and finally to Toronto. They’ve shaken off gutting bullpen losses, an offensive dry spell that threatened their season and key injuries to contend for a wild card in a four-team deep American League East.
Full credit goes for that goes to the players. Some of it should go to the manager, too.
“They play with a looseness. They don't play with any panic. They're having fun in the dugout,” Cash says of where he sees Montoyo’s impact on the Blue Jays. “Granted, you score 47 runs in Baltimore, everybody's going to have fun. But they've shown that consistently all year long, even when we were in Dunedin and we swept them (May 21-24). You saw frustration like, all right, we're pissed we're losing, which you should be. But it wasn't demoralizing to where everybody was hanging their head. That's where Charlie is special because he's pretty darn consistent. I know he was helpful for me. I admired and strived to be the level of consistent he showed day in and day out while he was here, and tried to take some of those things from him.”
That’s high praise from one of the better managers in the game, which doesn’t mean Montoyo’s decisions, the moves made and those not, are immune from debate or criticism. That’s part of the territory and part of the fun. But, maybe the game doesn’t need to turn into a referendum on his merits, because there’s more than meets the eye, too.