Understand that this was way back before analytics were all the rage – long before anybody was talking about an “opener,” and back in a time when closers had an almost mythical quality attached to them. Baseball people, or many at least, understood there was a fungible nature to the job. But it was almost like it ruined the narrative; like quantifying it would take some of the shine off the badge of honour.
The question was: On a team that wasn’t very good, or didn’t expect to contend, was there any value in investing in a closer? Was there any value in having somebody who could get the final three outs of a game on a team that might only win 65-70 games? Or was a team in that situation better off dealing the closer to a contending team for another asset?
Montreal Expos manager Felipe Alou made a lot of pitchers into a lot of closers and made them a lot of money in the process, and one of his hobby-horses was that few things were more damaging to a young, up and coming team’s psyche than a blown save – that it renders a lot of good work meaningless, in a game that is often penurious with reward. Toronto Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo echoes those sentiments and why not? Knowing there’s a power arm that can lock down the final three outs means, in the words of Montoyo’s predecessor John Gibbons, “you can manage your bullpen backwards from the ninth.” (As an aside? The job security it can provide is comforting for a manager, too.)
What has become obvious at these meetings is that the Blue Jays have reached a point where the development of their off-field analytics and, for want of a better phrase, their research and development staff, is way ahead of the development of the team on the field. Whether or not it results in a championship in four of five years, when Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette finally get up here they will find themselves with an organization essentially unrecognizable from that of the past five years.
And that goes beyond the conventional wisdom that just because Montoyo was a bench coach in the Tampa Bay Rays organization he will be open to the concept of an opener, or that he is considering starting spring training workouts later in the morning (interestingly his former colleague on Kevin Cash’s Rays staff, new Minnesota Twins manager Rocco Baldelli, told reporters on Wednesday his workouts will begin later, too: at 10 a.m. instead of 9). Wednesday, at the annual managers’ luncheon, Montoyo spoke openly about possibly utilizing a four-man outfield at times this season.
General manager Ross Atkins said the team’s catchers will be wearing wristbands similar to those worn by quarterbacks, noting that because there are so many cameras in MLB ballparks and opposition analysts beavering away in-game that the trend is toward giving more “sophisticated, advanced signs.” Blue Jays outfielders will be given cards to take out to the field to aid in positioning. It’s not all necessarily the devolution of baseball into a sort of Mommy State endeavour; as part of the culture the Blue Jays hope to develop, Atkins wants coaches and players challenging suggestions. He won’t use this phrase, but what we’re talking about here is the notion that it’s OK to have some intellectual curiosity about the game.
If it all works out? Then you have room for the old and the new. I loved what Houston Astros manager A.J. Hinch, part of the revolutionary forces, said when he was asked about the opener strategy: “Some of that (Rays) success in my opinion was that they had the Cy Young Award winner in Blake Snell. I think you’d have a hard time having the opener in multiple spots if you don’t have some stable horses that are providing the innings for the rest periods for the pitchers that are pitching in those games.” And how about Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona’s answer Wednesday after a series of questions about the opener and bullpenning and piggybacking two starters and all manner of hocus-pocus: “Uh … your job as a manager is to use your club’s strengths and stay away from its weaknesses.”
Which brings us around to the Blue Jays and what they might plan to do with closer Ken Giles, in a day and age when the marquee, ninth-inning free-agent arm on the market, Craig Kimbrel, is asking for a six-year contract. Six. Giles, by comparison, is 28 years old and entering his second year of arbitration after earning $4.6 million last season. You remember his year: an on-field meltdown that precipitated his inclusion in a trade from the Astros to the Blue Jays that saw Roberto Osuna go the other way, a late-season recovery in velocity and an earned run average with the Blue Jays (4.12) that was better than with the Astros (4.99) coupled with a decrease in WHIP from 1.272 to 1.119, and bump up in strikeouts per nine innings of one full strikeout.
No, he’s not Kimbrel. But given the fact that the Blue Jays are entertaining offers for anybody whose father didn’t play in the major leagues, and given the fact that most observers think a continued openness to the opener will mean teams having essentially two one-inning, overpowering arms for the beginning and end of the game, it’s no surprise that the Blue Jays have been approached about Giles, who according to three talent evaluators spoken to in the Mandalay Bay lobby has removed a fairly significant amount of the stain from his time in Houston.
“Let’s see if he can be a good clubhouse guy and hold his velocity in 2019,” said one rival GM. “If that happens, somebody will take him.”
The Blue Jays organizational philosophy when it comes to developing closers won’t be altered as part of this cultural change: a potential career as a starter will not be sacrificed for an immediate need in the bullpen which, as Montoyo noted, is pretty much the way the Rays do things. (Hey, if you were tired of hearing Cleveland this and Cleveland that, get used to Tampa Bay this and Tampa Bay that and Houston this and Houston that.)
So, let’s play the game: If the 2019 season is a mess but Giles is a standout … where would the Blue Jays go?
“We don’t put guys into vacuums, where it’s we’re going to trade this player,” said Atkins. “From Day 1, we’ll be thinking of winning each game and see where it goes. The Oakland Athletics and Tampa Bay Rays probably weren’t thinking of winning 90 or 93 games at the start of last year, so to start planning to trade a player at the deadline is not how we think.
“There’s so much debate about the stat of the save and how it’s evolved and potentially over-compensated but, you know, I’ve seen the reaction of a closer after blowing a game,” said Atkins. “You almost know immediately if they’re going to be a closer and how they handle it and how it impacts them and what it does to a teams psyche.
“There is significant power to that stability at the back end of the bullpen.”
You can make the case that Giles’ service time window jibes better with the Blue Jays’ reality more than that of Marcus Stroman or Aaron Sanchez. Right now, that makes him more valuable to the Blue Jays than any other team in the market. But that could change in a hurry. The game’s funny that way.