Sportsnet Tries to Change the Narrative on the Jays

by mike in boston / @mikeinbostonemail

 

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The Hate You Give

 

It has come to the point where the first premise in any discussion of the Toronto Blue is that fans (and possibly players) hate Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins. This sets up a debate either regarding why fans hate management or whether the hate they get is deserved.

 

In his widely hailed August 7th piece for Sportsnet Shi Davidi lays out the case for media, fans, and management to turn the page on the past and to start looking ahead. Boiled down to one quote, the article says this:

 

“Now, though, they are no longer tied to a situation they inherited and were forced to play out, but never believed in. The players they acquire now are obtained to fulfil their own vision, which is why it’s their talent evaluation that must be judged from here on out.”

 

As he writes, the future is bight and the current team of Shapiro and Atkins deserve a lot of credit for that, credit that they are not currently receiving.

 

“Over an extended period, the consistently poor messaging seems disingenuous, allowing for grey areas in the public’s mind and dumb narratives to develop and persist, aided by zingers from acid-tongued columnists. As a result, even the very important gains the Blue Jays have made over the past four years have gotten lost.”

 

Notice the phrasing here: “seems disingenuous” as opposed to “is disingenuous”; “grey areas” which suggests that the issue has to do with misinterpretation; and then of course blaming media for pushing “dumb” narratives presumably at the expense of what Shi believes are “true” narratives.

 

The gains that Davidi points to in order to bolster his argument are the following:

 

  • new “business processes” that apparently have not been updated since 1977
  • raises for coaches, which previous management had apparently been underpaying
  • raises for minor league players
  • raises for non-baseball operations employees who previously could not earn enough with the Jays
  • more money for analytics and player development
  • “clever incremental gains” for the farm system
  • “locked down” improvement to Dunedin

 

The net result of these moves is, according to Davidi:

 

“The Blue Jays now feature an exciting core of position players that offers lots of promise, although the challenge of how to properly align the group defensively to better aid run prevention isn’t being talked about nearly enough. Regardless, there’s lots for Shapiro and the Blue Jays to take credit for without continually disparaging what was inherited, or harping on irrelevant-to-the-fanbase intangibles like organizational culture.”

 

It’s worth pointing out that there are exactly zero links to supporting articles or data to back up the bulleted points above. The idea that business processes haven’t been modernized since 1977 is something Shapiro might say – how else would Davidi know about this – but it is the responsibility of the reporter to fact-check that claim. Davidi didn’t bother to act as a buffer between management and the readership in this case. Which process? How about some quotes from previous members of the organization on that point? Same for the stuff about staff raises.

 

The piece continues with some advice for management:

 

“[I]f the Blue Jays front office has full conviction in the path it’s on and the decisions it makes, criticism from media observers and bandwagon fans inanely spitting social-media venom should have zero impact.”

 

Again here Shi’s message is clear. The team is doing what is right and the main issues pertain to the toxic combination of “bandwagon fans”, columnists, and social media. Notably Shi never provides any examples of media criticism that he deems to be unfair. This is just a generality thrown out there for the reader to interpret or misinterpret.

 

The article ends with what Shi takes to be valid questions about the current roster and its development under Shapiro. He also adds something that is uncontroversial among the majority of Jays observers:

 

“They tanked this year and to keep pretending otherwise is insulting. In refusing to make significant adds prior to the 2017 and ’18 seasons, they pretty much ensured we’d get to this point, barring lowest percentile outcomes. Taking a step back financially is excusable when the team is this young, but to keep sitting out opportunities to add experienced or veteran impact is not. That needs to be watched vigilantly this winter.”

 

In Shapiro’s first year (and Anthopoulos’ last) the Jays made the playoffs. This outcome surprised many people, including Shapiro who had expected to be able to rebuild starting at the end of the 2016 season. Instead he opted to tread water with Alex’s roster, for reasons that are not clear to anyone outside of the Rogers Centre.

 

While some discussants believed that the 2017 spring training roster had a shot at repeating a post-season appearance, most thought the team needed significant additions to stay competitive and maximize the diminishing value of the likes of Donaldson, Estrada, Martin, and Bautista. Instead, fans were treated to a lot of baseball played by Ezequiel Carrera, Ryan Goins, and Darwin Barney leading to a 76-86 record. Things went from bad to worse in 2018 with 30% fewer fans showing up to watch a 73 win team saddled with the likes of Morales, Garcia, and Solarte.

 

All of this supports a key point when evaluating this front office, one which Shi points out at the outset of his piece:

 

“Like it or not, a rebuild happened after three tepid, toe-in-the-water years during which the Blue Jays never adequately augmented a still-talented base while trying to simultaneously retool for the future.”

 

This brings us to now, or “from here on out” as Davidi puts it. The Jays have a talented young positional core, some decent mid-career talent, and very little starting pitching. The wasted seasons of 2017 and 2018 loom large, as smart acquisitions and development would have put the Jays in a position to compete in 2020 with the right off-season moves. According to Shi, we should put the past behind us because it spoils what is an exciting future. This argument works if you cast your gaze into 2022. All of the young stars will still be here, be cheap, and be better rounded players than they currently are. Add a few quality arms currently in AA or lower and you have a powerful roster to which you can add quality free agents.

 

However in order to make this new narrative work you have to maintain the belief that 2020 and 2021 were always going to be development years. The dithering of 2017 and 2018 are part of Shapiro’s legacy, free from the meddlesome Alex Anthopoulos who left late in 2015. Whether you agree with Davidi that Shapiro & Co deserve a grace period for those years is up to you. But telling fans and media that the clock resets to 2019 since this is the first year when Alex’s shadow is no longer looming over the roster invokes a standard every other GM with would love, and none enjoy.

 

The Acid Tongues

 

Coincidentally or not the day after Davidi’s Sportsnet piece Shapiro was out and about and available to the rest of the media. Here’s a quick rundown of how others see the current Jays management:

 

  • Rob Longley at The Sun has several quotes from Shapiro, detailing that he understands fan frustration and that the lack of attendance and TV ratings are on his radar.

 

“As mentioned off the top, much of Thursday was an exercise in spin. Shapiro is not Paul Beeston. He rarely talks publicly, leaving Atkins to the day-to-day operations. But he also claimed to understand the restlessness of a fan base that led the American League in attendance in 2016 and 2017.”

 

  • For deeper analysis read Gregor Chisholm (recently interviewed here) of The Star.

 

“[Shapiro] acknowledged the recent negative “tone, tenor and frustration” surrounding the ball club and how Shapiro believed it wasn’t a fair representation of the progress the Blue Jays made over the last few months.”

 

Does the idea of “fair representation” sound familiar? It was the main focus on Davidi’s piece, and the next day the team’s president was out pushing that message. Consider also the following in the context of Davidi’s piece:

 

“For a front office that claims to read nothing, and watch even less, they sure seem sensitive to public perception. This was the sign of a man playing defence by going on the offensive, perhaps an indicator that he’s starting to feel the pressure that comes with being four years into his contract with no concrete path to contention.”

 

While some writers are talking about this being Year 4 Shi is arguing that this should really be Year 1 (AA – After Alex)

 

  • A few days before Davidi’s article Steve Simmons of The Sun had this to say:

 

“In fairness, [Atkins] doesn’t get much help from the Invisible Man, Mark Shapiro, the autocrat who is apparently granting the peasants an audience this week. So much of sport is the selling of hope. Especially when you’re not winning. The Shapiro disappearing act with Atkins seeking to find the right words is hardly comforting for Blue Jays fans in search of clarity.”

 

It’s hard not to draw the connection between the leading columnist in Toronto sports media calling Shapiro “the invisible man”, Davidi’s Wednesday article, and Shapiro’s Thursday media availability.

 

Concluding Thoughts

 

 

The last thing I want is to accuse someone as well respected as Shi Davidi of being a mouthpiece for management. This is not what I am saying. He clearly took management to task for their failure to acknowledge the great assets they inherited from the previous regime. Where I disagree with Shi is about the standard for assessing this current group.

 

During the “Wednesdays with JP” era Wilner once wrote, in defence of the beleaguered Riccardi, that you can’t compare GMs because everyone faces different circumstances. Davidi’s analysis is obviously not as shallow as Wilner’s but it falls prey to a similar desire to serve as gatekeeper for what counts as valid criticism. This is a tendency, understandably but also characteristically, of people who work for Sportsnet.

 

Perhaps Shi will serve up follow up articles covering all the details of the “gains” he alludes to in this piece. Presumably he mentioned them because he thinks they are relevant for analyzing the performance of the front office. However the tone of the piece is that we should be keeping the focus on the field, both here and in the minors, and not on the stuff about culture, likability, or finances. If that’s right then it is odd to be talking about raises for non-baseball ops folks.

 

Here’s a question not addressed in the article: could someone else be doing this job better?

 

Notice that this doesn’t start from Premise 1 – fans hate Shapiro. Rather it starts with the question of how we should measure the performance of the front office relative to who else could be running the show. This isn’t pining for the return of Alex. It’s just a basic question about whether the current group has done enough to give you confidence that they will a) get this team back to the playoffs and b) will do it as soon as possible.

 

If there is doubt on either point then it makes sense to start wondering whether another management group would be less prone to dithering and more astute at timing the development of the roster. I don’t pretend to know the answer to that question. But I hope it’s a question being asked at Rogers (by someone other than Ed Rogers).

 

Let’s return to Shi’s piece:

 

“[T]he tired, poisoned discourse around the team […] needs to change, for everyone’s sake, as it’s largely focused on the wrong things — things that have little to do with what happens on the field. And that’s on the club and public alike.”

 

Can you imagine the feeling around the team if there were already a few quality starting pitchers on the roster and a few more thriving in AA or AAA? I’m not sure if this counts as a valid question to ask according to Davidi’s accounting. Crediting this management for stewarding the young core to the majors is certainly appropriate. But criticizing them for the lack of surrounding pitching at precisely the time when these future all-stars are ready to contribute is part of the discussion. Life is short and windows close fast.

 

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thanks for reading and commenting,

until next time …

mike (not really in boston)

PHOTO CREDIT: Steve Russell/ Toronto Star

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