Tactical moves paying off for Blue Jays’ Montoyo this season

Arash Madani and Arden Zwelling discuss how the expanded playoffs have made it hard for the Blue Jays to trade for a quality reliever at this point in the season and how the team may be looking at the waiver wire for bullpen relief.

Even four years into Charlie Montoyo’s tenure as the Toronto Blue Jays manager, he remains a figure whose approval rating with the fanbase oscillates wildly on a week-to-week basis.

While Montoyo tends to be credited for creating a calm, positive atmosphere around his team, he also takes flak for not being animated enough, and his in-game tactics are heavily scrutinized.

Some of that scrutiny has been warranted, but considering he’s led his team to a solid 161-128 record since the beginning of the 2020 with two top-four finishes in AL Manager of the Year voting, the benefit of the doubt has proven elusive for him.

For those who’ve questioned Montoyo’s tactical acumen, the rebuttal has often been that what he did to keep the team on track overshadowed the odd in-game blunder. The problem with that argument is that it put something intangible and unverifiable up against a highly visible phenomenon. That’s not a good way to make someone question their priors.

More recently, though, the debate over Montoyo’s value need not reside solely along tangibles vs. intangibles lines. That’s because there’s some solid evidence that the Blue Jays’ on-field tactics have improved this season in multiple areas:

Shifting

No team has shifted more than the Blue Jays this season, who’ve moved out of a traditional defensive alignment 64 per cent of the time. That included a variety of positioning structures, including a heavy dose of the four-man outfield.

Because it’s easier to see base hits that occur because of the shift than potential hits taken away, it’s natural to come to the conclusion that the Blue Jays are overdoing it. The fact they’re a league-wide outlier is another indication they might not be on the right track.

That said, all indications are that Toronto’s shifts take away far more hits than they concede. The team’s BABIP against with no shifts on sits at .326 while that number sits at .284 when there’s some kind of shift on.

There’s a lot that goes into shifting, but it’s firmly under the umbrella of “on-field tactics”, which is a manager’s domain.

Avoiding the gimmes

There is a time and a place for every baseball play under the sun, but it’s widely accepted conventional wisdom that giving away free outs and free bases is bad for business.

Early in Montoyo’s tenure he was infamous for a tendency to call for bunts — a rate that was 89 per cent above league average as recently as 2020. Luckily for the Blue Jays, the skipper’s enthusiasm for the sacrifice has cooled in recent years.

This season, just six teams have attempted fewer bunts than Toronto, and the only Blue Jays to attempt sac bunts in 2022 are Taylor Heinemann, Bradley Zimmer, Gosuke Katoh, and Raimel Tapia — a quartet for whom the move is more justifiable.

On the intentional walk front, Montoyo has also cut down significantly. In his first two years as manager, his IBB rate was 37 per cent and 32 per cent above league average. This season only three teams have called for fewer intentional walks than the Blue Jays.

Bullpen usage

This one is tough to quantify, but it’s worth remembering how much criticism Montoyo got for managing his bullpen in 2021, and how little he’s received this year — outside of a single tough-to-justify decision not to use Jordan Romano in May.

While the quality of relief talent on a team is often the biggest indicator of how its manager will be graded on bullpen management, Montoyo deserves credit for appropriately allocating the high-leverage innings.

Below is a list of every Blue Jays reliever who’s thrown at least 10 innings in 2022 by average leverage index.

You could quibble with Yimi Garcia vs. Adam Cimber if you were so inclined, but this is pretty much the order you’d want. Montoyo took some heat for putting an undue amount of trust in Thornton in 2021, but that hasn’t been the case this year despite Thornton’s improved performance.

More than anything, a manager’s bullpen management is usually at its best when it’s not consistently noticeable. Montoyo’s has rarely been notable this year, unlike last season when Tyler Chatwood, Rafael Dolis and Anthony Castro had three of the top five ALI marks among Blue Jays relievers.

Challenges

Deciding what to challenge and what to leave alone isn’t Montoyo’s domain alone, but he’s making the final calls — and so far in 2022 those calls have been excellent.

Coming into this season, the Blue Jays skipper was successful on 34.4 per cent of his challenges when the league average has tended to hover around 45 per cent during that time. This season, he’s flipped the script hitting on his challenges at a 55-per-cent clip.

Montoyo has already got more calls overturned in 2022 (11) than he did in 2021 (nine), and just two MLB bench bosses have gotten more plays reversed this year.

We’re dealing with small sample sizes here, but the difference in the Blue Jays’ decision making on challenges is too significant to ignore.

For those who are firmly entrenched in the anti-Montoyo camp, the evidence above probably isn’t going to be enough to change hearts and minds. But it’s still worth acknowledging that criticizing the Blue Jays’ on-field tactics means something different in 2022 than it did in the past.

This team has clearly improved in that area, and it looks less like one of Montoyo’s weaknesses than it did in the past.

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