Shapiro: Blue Jays need more ‘transparency and communication’ with game-planning

TORONTO – Take note, Ross Atkins, that’s how it’s done.

Mark Shapiro stepped to the dais and immediately acknowledged that the Toronto Blue Jays let down their fans in 2023. Called it unacceptable for the organization to fall short of expectations. Said “that responsibility and that accountability clearly lies with me,” a key message his general manager didn’t deliver while hanging manager John Schneider out to dry for the early Jose Berrios pull last Saturday. “We’ve got work to do,” the president and CEO conceded before taking questions for 30 minutes Thursday, falling on the sword at times, fighting back at others.

The stakes for that work are higher now after Shapiro, opting for continuity over change, confirmed that Atkins will continue as the club’s GM, saying, “you’re not evaluating on a series or even a season and in Ross’ case the body of work, to me, is undeniable.”

Litigate Atkins’ run as you will.

But given that he’s coming back for Year 9, which will move him past J.P. Ricciardi and make him the second-longest tenured GM in franchise history, Shapiro saying “there needs to be a higher level of transparency and communication with our players in our preparation and game-planning process,” becomes rather significant.

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The lightning-rod Berrios move in what turned out to be a season-ending loss brought to the forefront longstanding internal frustrations about the way the Blue Jays run games. While in a sense separate from the club’s hitting issues, to which Shapiro also promised a deep dive, both really tie into a core issue of trust between different branches of the club.

How much a disjointed framework that led to open questions about whether manager John Schneider was forced to pull Berrios contributed to the Blue Jays underperforming their talent this year is impossible to say. But it’s worth noting that it’s not only a 2023 issue, as the club spun its wheels for too long during 2021 and ’22, when Charlie Montoyo was fired mid-season, as well.

For Shapiro to say that there were “things that we were probably not aware of and should have been aware of” around that planning piece speaks to a longstanding blind spot finally identified, especially since some dismissed talk of misalignment as the by-product of a small minority.

That’s a message that will resonate internally if real change follows.

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That doesn’t mean throwing analytics to the curb and making numbers the bad guy in this – the Blue Jays have good data and need to leverage their info. As always, though, the secret sauce is in application and creating an environment where there are enough voices to push back in order to make, ultimately, what Schneider feels is the best decision in the moment.

As an example, take the Blue Jays’ idea to flip the Minnesota Twins’ lefties in Game 2 of the wild-card series.

Sure, in theory it makes a ton of sense to turn over their lineup midway through to create platoon advantage in the late innings. But, are all those acrobatics really needed to get Alex Kirilloff and Matt Wallner out of the game? Royce Lewis and Carlos Correa are the guys you can’t let beat you. And what are you telling the league about your faith in the bullpen, which was elite all year, against good, but not great, lefty hitters by going that route?

Worth reiterating is that the Blue Jays didn’t lose 2-0 because of that decision alone. You can’t win 0-0, after all. But the issues around it, the feel around it, the players’ disdain for it, were emblematic of larger-scale inefficiencies around who and why decisions are being made.

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Even in his comments last Saturday, Atkins neglected to mention that a front-office official is a part of the club’s pre-game meetings while detailing the other participants. Even if accidental, you can’t build organizational trust that way.

“We need to be more open, we need to be more transparent about who the people are that are in the room, what the purpose for them being in the room is, and the information that is provided to our staff and John before each game,” said Shapiro. “The information that he gets is directly what John’s asked for. … It’s extremely tough for people to understand what that information is, how that affects decisions and there’s still a human element that will always come down to the beauty of the game, to executing on that information. And that’s where you balance your experience, your gut, your feelings with the information.”

To that end, there must be a clear “a line of demarcation when it comes into the game, that the decisions lie with our staff and with John,” Shapiro added later.

And that’s on Atkins to make sure that Schneider or the other coaches won’t feel indirect or implied pressure – if a front-office official believes strongly in an idea, even if it isn’t the GM, it sure becomes harder to resist an idea that person feels strongly about – and can run games on their own.

“Leaders have to be empowered to make a decision in the moment,” said Shapiro. “They can’t wait for somebody else to come in and tell them what to do. That probably applies, more materially, within a game than any other moment in time.”

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Change, then, will have to come not through staffing but through process tweaks, and trust there will have to be earned.

Pulling it off won’t be easy amid the usual off-season business – Shapiro expects the Blue Jays’ payroll to remain around current levels, although a special opportunity could potentially push that upward; there’s a tight timeline to complete the next phase of the Rogers Centre renovation that’s underway; Shapiro said, “Yes, I’m satisfied,” when asked if he was satisfied with the club’s handling of Anthony Bass’ release after he shared an anti-2SLGBTQ+ post and added, “that’s all I can say about that for now.”

But for a Blue Jays team continually searching for any marginal gain possible, to get every bit out of the roster it has, cleaning up the game-planning and preparation process is an opportunity to fill in the cracks that have continually undermined this window of opportunity.