Thanks to some comments from John Farrell that hit the internet on Wednesday, questions about the Jays’ player development structure– an impossibly easy topic for any fucking idiot to spout a hopelessly uninformed opinion on at this stage of a lost season– have abounded. And I don’t mean Farrell by “any idiot,” since he’s one of the few people with some kind of actual insight into how the Jays’ front office thinks and how the organization operates in the depths of its minor league system. What am referring to, though, is much of what dribbled out of my speakers during what seemed like hours of discussion on the subject yesterday on the Fan 590.
To refresh your memory, here are the comments, via Evan Drelich of MassLive.com:
“We can have a seminar on this question — not just because it’s Toronto and Boston,” Farrell said. “There are very distinct differences and it starts, I think it starts, at the top. And the reason I say that: I found Toronto to be a scouting-based organization, which to me is on one plane, one-dimensional. You’re looking at tools. Here, it’s a player-development based system. It’s the paths of the individuals that are running the organization. And that’s not to be critical.
“We all know that there’s three different veins in this game that people advance (through): baseball operations, scouting, player development. Well, in the player-development vein, you’re going to look at things in three dimensions: mentally, physically, fundamentally to address and develop people, or develop an organization. I think as a scouting base, you go out and you evaluate the physical tools. And that’s kind of where it ends, or that’s the look at that time. That was my experience, that was my opinion.”
What jumps out, of course, is that he mentions fundamentals (we think), and the Jays are bad at those, right??? And just where are all of these developed players anyway!!
Well, guess what? We can actually think about these things– to an extent.
Now, I’m not going to say that the Jays may not be so enamoured with tools that they occasionally ignore a player’s lack of fundamentals– I think Emilio Bonifacio was maybe emblematic of that, though I’d caution anyone ready to assume his lack of success here means that, as a concept, overlooking fundamentals a bit is necessarily a bad thing. Colby Rasmus, for example, has been one of the Jays’ better players this year, and yet he routinely misses cutoff men and throws the ball up the line when attempting to throw out runners at the plate. Yasiel Puig misses cutoff men too, and he’s helped transform the Dodgers into a winner since be arrived there. Jose Bautista has made some awful baserunning mistakes this year, yet he’s one of the best players in the game. Talent, in other words, overcomes those mental or fundamental blips, and there are examples all over the place– on teams with supposed winning cultures and everything!
That isn’t to say fundamentals aren’t important, of course, but the nonsensical emphasis on them– and on some bogus crisis of “culture,” being put forth by TV commentators not clever enough to find… not just a more worthwhile explanation for what’s gone wrong, but maybe the fact that there really is no neat and tidy explanation to fucking pontificate about– is not doing anybody any good, and certainly not heightening the discourse.
That no neat explanation may exist is a horribly unsatisfying thing for a lot of fans to contemplate, I understand, but think of the 21 WAR stat I’ve noted a couple of times this week. Last year Brandon Morrow, Josh Johnson, R.A. Dickey, Melky Cabrera, Brett Lawrie, Jose Reyes and Maicer Izturis combined to produce 21 wins above replacement, per Baseball Reference– exactly as many wins above replacement as the Detroit Tigers offence has produced so far this season. This year, through injuries and underperformance, they’ve all combined to be below replacement level.
If you add together the rWAR produced by hitters and pitchers from each club in the league, you get a pretty good picture of how teams stack up: Boston, Detroit, Atlanta, the Dodgers, Texas, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Tampa, St. Louis, Baltimore and Oakland are the tops, while Houston, Miami and Minnesota are the worst. It passes the smell test. And those best teams all have combined WAR totals above 30 (with the Red Sox and Tigers being the only ones above 40). The Jays sit currently at 24.1– higher, in fact, than you might expect, given their record, which may actually lend some credence to the notion that things like poor fundamentals have cost them, at least a little bit.
Regardless, while the math of simply adding the 21 WAR from last year to the club’s total doesn’t quite work– for example, there have been small positive value performances from some of the guys who’ve filled that void, like Todd Redmond and Munenori Kawasaki– even ten additional wins of value would put the Jays on par with the Pirates, and behind only the Red Sox among AL East teams.
Does that mean that their record would correspond? I’m not suggesting that at all, but what I’m saying is, let’s not fucking kid ourselves about the root of the Jays’ problems here. Brandon Morrow got hurt, Josh Johnson was alternately hurt and fucking terrible, Maicer Izturis and Melky Cabrera bombed, R.A. Dickey wasn’t as advertised, Jose Reyes missed more than a third of the season, and Brett Lawrie was injured twice and slow in getting up to speed after essentially missing Spring Training.
That’s not on player development. That’s not on fundamentals. That’s not on culture. That’s not on the manager.
And it’s really, really, not fucking difficult to grasp. They didn’t “bad culture” away a bunch of skill and health, for fuck sakes.
Which isn’t to say that the Jays shouldn’t have a focus on playing good fundamental baseball as their young players work their way through the system, or that we shouldn’t be wary of a vision in which the club advances and covets guys with monstrous tools with little thought to anything else, but… uh… is that really what’s happening? They’re just letting guys like Anthony Gose or Dan Norris float along on their tools with no guidance in their development? They don’t have roving instructors like Sal Fasano or Tim Raines to precisely guide prospects in fundamentals? They’re not advancing Kevin Pillar– not a big tools prospect at all– just the same as anybody else, on merit?
Sure, you’ll get the odd Moises Sierra show up as an injury fill-in with little-to-no concept of how to actually play the game, or you’ll have to endure far too many years of J.P. Arencibia trying to learn this whole “catching” thing seemingly on the fly. You’ll get a Yan Gomes being regarded as positionless and then turning up in fucking Cleveland looking every bit a guy who can actually catch at the big league level (which, actually… that’s pretty damning given the pile of oily rags they currently let trot out behind the plate). You’ll get a Rajai Davis, who is who he is, just like he was in the Pittsburgh, San Francisco, and Oakland organizations previously. But how much do those examples really speak to what the Jays are doing, and whether they’re caught up looking only at physical tools “and that’s where it ends”?
They do, a little, I think, but that’s hardly conclusive. And Farrell’s insight is interesting, but given the way his relationship with the Jays ended, and who his current employers are, he’s hardly reliable.
The fact is, there simply isn’t nearly enough data to use to reach any kind of reasonable, informed conclusion about what the Jays may or may not be doing wrong in this area. Of course, that’s doesn’t stop two thirds of the fan base from bellowing “DURRRR FYRE GOBBONS!” at every opportunity, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised when people do anyway.
What we can do, however, is tackle the myth– which I think also fuels much of the instant agreement some people have when it comes to negative comments about player development– that the Jays system simply doesn’t produce big league players.
True, the Jays haven’t produced a homegrown star in quite a number of years, but that doesn’t mean they’ve done nothing, and that doesn’t give anybody license to tie past failures into what the current regime is doing. The jury is still way out on what Alex Anthopoulos has done since he took over, but there’s still some value in noting a few things about where the system is at– and where it was before he got here.
Firstly, though 2006 was a bit of a watershed for the Blue Jays under J.P. Ricciardi, taking high schooler Travis Snider with their first overall pick, they still only selected four high schoolers in the first 20 rounds of that draft. In each of 2004 and 2005 the number was two. I’ve heard it theorized, but can’t for the life of me find the citation, that around that time, as more organizations adopted Moneyball types of thinking and applied them in very narrow ways, the pool of draft picks those teams looked at somewhat seriously dried up pretty quickly. With that in mind, it’s not really fair to look at those earlier years in comparison to what a team like Boston was doing– selecting bushels high upside guys and, under the old CBA, grabbing all kinds of over slot talent, which the then-thrifty Jays wouldn’t dream of.
Obviously the Red Sox had the better vision for building through the draft at that point, and it shows very plainly in the players selected in those years. From 2004 to 2006 the Red Sox drafts produced eventual quality big leaguers Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Clay Buchholz, Jed Lowrie, Justin Masterson, Josh Reddick, and Daniel Bard. For the Jays that period brought Adam Lind, Casey Janssen, Jesse Litsch, Ricky Romero, and Travis Snider.
Ugh. (And, yes, I’m using the term “quality” loosely in the Jays’ case.)
In 2007 the Jays’ thinking changed. They weren’t quite as heavily seduced by tools as they’ve become now, but they did take seven high schoolers in the first twenty rounds, as they did again in 2008, adding six in 2009.
Contrast that with the drafts under Alex Anthopoulos, where they took 18 and 21 high schoolers in the two years under the old CBA, and 12 and 9 in the past two drafts, in which the rounds prior to ten are saturated with cheap college seniors to help the the team horde bonus pool money for the toolsy, projectionable prep players they fancy.
Because of the length of time it takes for drafted players to reach the big leagues, and the fact that the Jays in 2010 became so prep-heavy, I think it’s actually understandable why fans may think there’s a worrying gap in the club’s talent pipeline, when the reality is that it’s entirely to be expected. Not only that, but it’s actually quite impressive that AA’s drafts have produced two of the top 50 prospects in baseball, Aaron Sanchez and Noah Syndergaard, and that his organization identified, acquired, and for three years developed another, Travis d’Arnaud, who came to them as the Halladay trade’s wild card, an A-ball catcher with a high upside but no sure thing to become even what he has: the game’s top catching prospect.
Though not this regime’s drafts– and no matter how much people want to bleat about Anthopoulos being some kind of disciple of Ricciardi, the fact that he was there doesn’t make these his drafts, and I also don’t think anyone would have ever confused J.P. Moneyball for someone running a “scouting-based organization”– I think it’s at least somewhat fairer to look at the years 2007 through 2009, to see how the club has fared in terms of producing homegrown big leaguers, as compared to a couple of lauded competitors: the Red Sox and Rays.
You may be shocked to learn that the Jays wind up looking pretty good… sort of.
By the end of last season, seven players the Jays had drafted and signed in 2007 had made their big league debuts. The number for the Red Sox is five– though three players they drafted and didn’t sign are also now big leaguers as well: Yasmani Grandal, Justin Grimm and Nick Tepesch. For the Rays it’s three, with unsigned picks Joey Terdoslavich and Will Smith also having gone back into the draft and popped up elsewhere.
Before defenders of the Jays crow about it, though, there’s a bit of a quality-versus-quantity issue going on here. The Rays netted David Price, Matt Moore, and Stephen Vogt (now of Oakland) from the ’07 draft. For Boston, it’s Anthony Rizzo, Will Middlebrooks, Nick Hagadone, Ryan Pressly, and Drake Britton. The Jays came up with J.P. Arencibia, Marc Rzepczynski, Brett Cecil, Darrin Mastroiannni, Brad Mills, Brad Emaus, and Trystan Magnuson– and I think you can partly attribute a number of those guys having actually been in the Majors to the fact that they played for, y’know, teams like the Jays.
From the 2008 draft the Jays had, by the end of last, year graduated five players to the Majors: Eric Thames, Tyler Pastornicky, David Cooper, Danny Farquhar, and Evan Crawford. Not an impressive group, but Boston’s isn’t particularly so either– Ryan Lavarnway, Tim Federowicz, Stephen Fife, Kyle Weiland, and Casey Kelly– and the Rays hadn’t graduated anybody by the end of last season (an endpoint I’m using only because Baseball Reference hasn’t added 2013 debuts to the stats for players on their draft pages yet– I’d be sure to note any key guys who debuted this year, but I fully admit I might be missing the odd fringy guy).
The number for the Rays from the 2009 draft is again zero. Boston’s draft that year has produced Alex Wilson and Chris McGuinness so far. For the Jays, it’s Yan Gomes, Aaron Loup, Chad Jenkins, and Drew Hutchison– plus they drafted a decent prospect in James Paxton (and didn’t sign him, of course), and saw Jake Marisnick debut this year for the Miami Marlins.
Again, some of this is to do with the Jays having needs at the big league level, and because they were rushing guys and avoiding Las Vegas, as well, but it doesn’t quite paint the grim picture that I think exists in a lot of minds, does it?
And looking at 2010, while the Red Sox got one of their better prospects, Garin Cecchini, the Rays so far aren’t looking like anyone terribly impactful will come from that draft, and the Jays picked up the former Lansing three. So…
What does it all mean? This small slice of data doesn’t come close to showing us the whole picture, and I certainly wouldn’t want to say those inclined to be worried by John Farrell’s words that there couldn’t possibly be anything to be concerned about, I just… I don’t know how one would make a coherent argument that things are as out of whack as Farrell’s quotes and the results of this season make it seem, out of what little we, as fans, know about what’s going on internally or how this all works.
That, I think, is especially so given how easily the myths that the Jays’ fundamentals and lack of homegrown players are some kind of major concern can be dispelled. It’s certainly not as simple as drawing a straight line from observed fundamentals to the club’s record or the manager’s office, or a lack of recent star products to a player development apparatus that’s got it all wrong.