Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Blue Jays Quietly Building a Strong Organization

Gil Kim
National Post photo

   A Major League Baseball team's off-field personnel roster encompasses many people, with a wide variety of skills and backgrounds.  There are those who specialize in scouting, while others have expertise in instructing and developing minor leaguers, and more and more teams are building analytics departments. If each of those groups pull on their oars in their own direction, the result for the organization will be chaos, and the team will be sailing in circles on second division seas for years.  It takes a concerted effort for all of these employees to be on the same page, and to work toward a common goal.

   Mark Shapiro has taken more than his fair share of heat since he took over as President at the end of the season, effectively becoming the face of the franchise.  A slumbering fan base had been re-energized, and thousands more lapsed fans scrambled aboard the Blue Jays band wagon, but the elation of October baseball turned to the November blues for many when GM Alex Anthopoulos, opted not to accept a new contract when his expired at the end of October, and free agent David Price, who would have been a difficult sign even if AA had remained with the organization, bolted for the Red Sox.

    AA was a tough act for Shapiro to follow in the eyes of many.  Anthopoulos was the (kind of) local boy who made good, a guy who worked his way up from interning the Expos mail room to running the nation's baseball team.  And where Anthopoulos was effusive (if not evasive) with the media, Shapiro is concise, and not afraid to be blunt - his comment that a grass playing surface at the Rogers Centre was not a priority may have been correct, but it sure did not play well with some.  To his credit, Shapiro did not tiptoe around the issue, however, or offer vague promises somewhere down the road.  Still, this rankled with some fans, who have turned Shapiro their own personal Rogers-bashing pinata.

   So, while fans and the media may be complaining about the failure to sign Price, or any other remaining free agents, and the fact that departing President Paul Beeston's warm and fuzzy assurance about grass coming to the Dome by 2017 seem to ignore the major engineering issues that will come with that project, Shapiro has been quietly revamping the organization, particularly the player development side.

   His first and most notable hiring was Ross Atkins, his VP of Player Personnel in Cleveland, who was brought over to fill the same role in Toronto.  Despite many fans' misgivings about the new guy bringing along one of his own to run the team, Atkins' story is one of shrewdness and determination.   Atkins has an impressive record as a drafter and developer of talent, with the Indians now boasting one of the deepest farm systems in baseball.  While the Blue Jays pennant run filled the Rogers Centre (and Rogers' coffers) unlike at any time since they took ownership of the Jays over a decade ago, the heavy toll it took in terms of prospects clearly did not set well with the corporation - hiring Atkins is proof that this is a team that wants to work towards being a model of player development.

  Atkins' hiring was just the first of several for the Blue Jays.  Just before Christmas, the team announced that analyst Joe Sheehan was promoted to Director of Analytics, taking over a newly-created department.  The Blue Jays, under Anthopoulos, under-utilized Sheehan, and lost several promising younger analysts and interns when they proved reluctant to use their data interpreting skills for much more than figuring out if a player would be a good fit in the clubhouse.  The Indians, of course, with their proprietary baseball information system DiamondView, were pioneers in developing the analytical side of the game.  Shapiro protegee Neal Huntington married the best of traditional and analytical methods shortly after taking over as GM of the Pirates, and the club was named organization of the year by Baseball America for its ability to find value in players, and new methods of playing the game.  Travis Sawchik's excellent Big Data Baseball detailed how the Pirates were able to blend analytics and traditional baseball methods seamlessly.

  Early in the New Year, the Blue Jays announced the hiring of Angus Mugford as the head of their new High Performance division, responsible for the mental and physical development of all Blue Jays players.  Mugford has an impressive resume, having worked as a sports psychologist at the famed IMG Academy in Florida. His plan is to expand the department, hiring another psychologist, and experts in nutrition and sport science. The whole performance coach issue is not new to the Jays - hitting guru Steve Springer has done an excellent job working with Jays prospects on the mental side of the game, but the hiring of Mugford is a huge investment in the players in the organization, and takes the sport science angle to a higher level.

   The hirings continued last week when the Blue Jays hired world-travelling Gil Kim from the Rangers (who he was scouting for) to become their first-ever Director of Player Development, overseeing the club's minor league operations.  Kim has extensive playing experience from time spent in the Netherlands, China, Spain, and Venezuela, soaking up as much baseball knowledge as he could at each stop.  Like Atkins, Gil speaks Spanish, and has the ability to develop a rapport with Latin players, which gives an indication about where the team may be headed as far as scouting is concerned.  The club did lose Ismael Cruz to the Dodgers after the season ended, and while they may decide to promote his replacement from within, the Indians and Director of Latin American operations Ramon Pena parted ways last week, and it may be just a matter of time before he's introduced in that role with the Blue Jays.

   The most recent hiring this past weekend was Mike Murov in yet another newly created post, that of Baseball Operations Director.  Murov had been with the Red Sox since 2010, and will be responsible for creating and implementing decision-making processes, according to a press release. He will help in the preparation of financial, statistical, and contractual information, coordinating contract negotiation, and preparing for arbitration hearings.  One of this last duties with the Red Sox was to help put together a study on Price prior to his signing with Boston.

  So, looking from a glance, the Blue Jays have hired an expert that will develop the conditioning, nutrition, and psychological aspects of their players, as well as a co-ordinator of the minors who has a background in working with Latin players, expanded their analytics department, and have hired a specialist in contract negotiations.   This is another sign that the Shapiro regime is in things for the long term, and while Blue Jays fans may be more concerned about the present more than the future, the organization does appear to be building a template to gain a competitive advantage for years to come.   A MLB front office is a complicated, many-headed beast, and Shapiro is at least attempting to tame that monster, and it's unlikely that he's done just yet.

   For further reading on the analytics-driven growth of MLB front offices, here is an excellent look at that trend by Fangraphs' Dave Cameron.  The Blue Jays appear to be headed in the direction of what Cameron calls a "classically hierarchical (vertical) structure."

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