Blue Jays Make a Surprising and Solid Choice in Gibbons

In a surprise move, John Gibbons has been hired as the the new manager of the Toronto Blue Jays. By some, this will be seen as the questionable decision to rehire a retread that had limited success and several public controversies as Blue Jays manager from 2004-2008, but Gibbons is more than qualified for the job and the issues he had in his first go-round were circumstantial.

Here’s why.

He knows what he’s doing strategically

The Blue Jays in those years lived up to their talent level in the standings. Trapped in the AL East with the Yankees and Red Sox at the height of their powers, there was little more that Gibbons could have done. In fact, he brought them home with an 87-75 record in 2006 and in second place in the AL East ahead of the Red Sox.

There’s a stark difference between Gibbons and the former Blue Jays and now Red Sox manager John Farrell—experience running a game and the confidence of knowing what he’s doing. Gibbons has it, Farrell doesn’t.

Few are addressing that elemental problem that Farrell had: he’d never managed before. The Red Sox and their fans aren’t going to like to hear it, but the reality of Farrell with the Blue Jays was that he was clueless how to run a lineup and the woeful fundamentals exhibited by his club emanated from him. If the players don’t think their manager does the job correctly, that manager is doomed. Such is not the case with Gibbons.

Gibbons has managed in the big leagues and is a longtime, successful minor league manager. He developed young players and the veterans know what to expect from him. As a player, he was a catcher giving him experience with pitchers. Strategically, he made the right calls and divided up the innings for his pitchers evenly without abusing them.

Two clubs are inextricably entwined in their choice of manager. The Red Sox took the Blue Jays former manager Farrell and traded Mike Aviles to get him even though it looked as if the Blue Jays were going to fire him if the Red Sox hadn’t come calling. Both clubs reached into their pasts with the Red Sox seen as making a great hire in Farrell and the Gibbons hire likely to be viewed quizzically with only his initial tenure as the reason. Overall, the Blue Jays looked at Gibbons’s work as more than his record; the Red Sox looked at Farrell as a link to the glory years when he was pitching coach. It was the Blue Jays that made the smarter maneuver.

Gibbons’s history is blown out of proportion

What people remember—and will repeatedly mention—are Gibbons’s confrontations with Shea Hillenbrand and Ted Lilly.

Hillenbrand was unhappy with the Blue Jays organization and his diminished playing time and wrote on the clubhouse whiteboard, “This is a sinking ship, play for yourself.” In a clubhouse meeting, Gibbons demanded to know who wrote the message. Hillenbrand raised his hand and Gibbons challenged him to a fight. The entire team and organization stood behind Gibbons. Hillenbrand was designated for assignment and traded. It wasn’t a first time offense for Hillenbrand who had problems with other authority figures with other clubs including Red Sox GM Theo Epstein.

The Lilly incident stemmed from Gibbons removing the pitcher from a game and Lilly arguing with Gibbons on the mound. After the pitcher was taken out, Gibbons followed Lilly down the runway to the clubhouse and a brief fight ensued with Gibbons, surprisingly, getting the worst of it. Here’s a dirty little secret: this type of thing happens between managers and players all the time over the course of a season. The mistake Gibbons made was doing it so all could see; so the media could get wind of it; so it was a story. Lilly was totally wrong for arguing with his manager on the mound and, if anything, it was a “don’t screw with me,” message from Gibbons.

What made these occurrences seem worse was that they happened in such a narrow timeframe leading to an appearance of disarray that wasn’t actually there. These are blips. Gibbons doesn’t take crap and has experience in the job—that’s what the Blue Jays needed after the disaster with Farrell.

The hovering specter of Moneyball is gone

In the days following Moneyball when the book was considered the new “Bible” of how to run a club, teams that followed the philosophy were saddled with its rules. One in particular was that the manager had to be a nameless and easily replaceable functionary who would be paid minimally and implement the ideas of the front office.

In subsequent years, even Billy Beane has backed away from that. At the time Gibbons was hired, his close friend and former minor league teammate with the Mets, J.P. Ricciardi, was the Blue Jays GM and was a solid backer of the Moneyball strategy. In fact, somewhat admirably, of all the Moneyball GMs from Beane to Paul DePodesta to Ricciardi and everyone in between, it was Ricciardi who adhered most closely to the template described in the book.

That said, the way the manager was pigeonholed didn’t do Gibbons any favors with his players. Every team has around 15 players who’ll play hard and do what they’re told regardless of who the manager is; there will be 5 players who might give them some grief every once in a while, but mean well; and another 5 who have to be knocked into line with macho, testosterone-fueled strong arm tactics. Gibbons knocked his players into line, but that shadow constantly cast a pall over the good work he did.

When Gibbons was fired in 2008, it wasn’t done because he had to go. Ricciardi was under fire and there was a groundswell to bring Cito Gaston back due to a strong and positive memory the fans had from Gaston managing back-to-back World Series winners. The GM understandably made the change to save himself.

Now with a GM who worked in the prior regime, Alex Anthopoulos, running the show, there’s no longer a “middle-manager” aspect to the job. Teams are hiring managers and letting them manage. In truth, the autonomy is probably about the same as it was for Gibbons the first time, but the perception is different and there won’t be the open invitation to try and walk all over him making it necessary for him to do what he did with Hillenbrand and Lilly the first time around to maintain order. Sometimes that has to happen, but it won’t be from a wide open gate provided by the front office.

The resume

The Blue Jays looked at Farrell’s resume and made the hire thinking his Red Sox days and vast experience in numerous baseball capacities would yield strong results. They didn’t and two years later, it was proven to be a mistake. Gibbons’s resume isn’t as sexy; he has his black spots; he doesn’t have Farrell’s jutting jaw, intimidating size, straight out of central casting “manager” countenance, and well-spoken manner to charm the media and bosses, but Gibbons is a better choice and with this collection of talent, he will win. The same would not be said for Farrell because there was always that looming in-game ineptitude. With Gibbons, strategy isn’t an issue. The team will play the game properly and with fundamental soundness. The Blue Jays now have a better team and a better manager to go with it.

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