Alright, I’ve had it. I don’t normally like to slander other writers because I understand how hard it is to try and get anyone to read anything you write. I also don’t normally do it because I feel like bad writing speaks for itself. If what you’ve written is derivative nonsense than the intelligent reader will dismiss it as crap and move on. In other words, if you suck at writing about a certain subject, people won’t read it.
But friends, a phenomenon is occurring and I’ve never been able to explain it. MLB Reports—yes, that upstart website led by the tireless Jonathan Hacohen—continues to this day to attract readers to its virtual pages despite the laughably awful content that appears on the site daily. Although I can respect Hacohen’s work ethic, I can’t respect the self-importance and arrogance that oozes from every typed word. His team of writers shares equally in the pool of delusional grandeur and their lack of knowledge of how the game of baseball actually works is quite appalling. What they write is almost always the same tired, uninformed rhetoric you hear from casual fans that don’t bother to dig deeply into the game. These fans are of course necessary to the game’s survival, but they probably shouldn’t claim to be professional writers—it’s arrogant and stupid.
What causes me to go on this rather random rant about a website that ultimately doesn’t matter one bit in the grand scheme of things? Boredom, mostly. I nearly published a scathing rant about MLB Reports a few months ago, right before I dropped off the map for a while, but I think that anger came from somewhere else so I decided not to let it see the light of day.
But today, I opened up my browser and saw a link on Facebook for an article by MLB Reports Lead Baseball Writer Chuck Booth titled “Hiring John Gibbons Is A Huge Mistake.” I won’t link to it here because I don’t want to encourage the website hits it will generate for them.
I had actually planned on writing something about the return of John Gibbons as field manager of the Toronto Blue Jays anyway, so this gives me somewhat of a focus. I always thought Gibbons got the raw end of the deal his first go-round with the Blue Jays. Gibbons managed Toronto for parts of five seasons from 2004-2008 and oversaw some very talented teams in his tenure. Remember 2006? That was the last time the Jays finished second in the AL East. In fact, the Jays were 305-305 under Gibbons in an era when the AL East was as tough as any division in sports history. The Red Sox and Yankees were spending wildly and making it nearly impossible to break their hold of the top two spots—and subsequently the only two available playoff spots. The Jays were consistently a very good ballclub under the Gibbons and J.P. Riccardi regime. Had they plied their wares in any other division, they likely would have had two, maybe even three playoff appearances in the mid-aughts.
But of course, we’re overrating what a manager can affect. Field managers are not useless—they do provide a lot of value, most of which is impossible for any of us on the outside of the game to determine. How they manage a clubhouse, how they run drills, how they get the most out of each player’s talent base, how they interact with the front office; all of this stuff is outside of the purview of the casual fan, and even the most ardent and wired-in journalist (which all of the people over at ‘The Reports’ are certainly not).
But there are aspects of what a manager does that we can measure—at least somewhat. How does he deploy the bullpen? Does he understand the platoon advantage? How does he manage the running game? How does he deal with the media? Does he give away outs needlessly? In all of these areas, John Gibbons is nothing short of an excellent manager. It’s one of the reasons why after being fired by the Blue Jays he was almost immediately hired by the Kansas City Royals as a bench coach. Which, as Drew and Stoeten said on yesterday’s DJF Podcast, is not nothing. There aren’t exactly a plethora of big league coaching jobs available and Gibbons occupied several different ones consecutively from 2002 to 2011. Then last season he managed the AA-San Antonio Missions of the Padres system. You don’t land these jobs for more than a decade without being considered an excellent coach.
When Riccardi fired Gibbons in 2008, it came at a time when the team was underperforming after two very good years in ‘06 and ’07. Riccardi was facing increasing scrutiny over the team’s inability to take the next step despite all of his very public promises. He also came out and slandered Adam Dunn, saying he didn’t really like baseball, which blew up in his face.
Riccardi was desperate and very likely aware that he was going to lose his job if the team’s fortunes didn’t turn around quickly. So, he did what any GM in a similar position would probably do—he fired the manager. To further improve his image to a disinterested fanbase, he hired Cito Gaston—purported “architect” of the early 90s World Series winners.
The main difference between that re-hire and this one is that the Gaston re-hiring in ’08 was designed to quell fans and the media—it was not a good baseball move. There was a reason Gaston was not hired by any other team from 1997 until he was re-hired by Toronto in 2008—and despite claims by Gaston, it had little if nothing to do with the colour of his skin. He wasn’t a very good field manager. Although he did have a reputation of being a player’s manager, he is one of the worst tacticians I’ve ever witnessed. He’s rigid with his bullpen roles and completely ignorant to the platoon advantage. He also highly favours veterans and has a reputation for stunting the development of young players.
The Gibbons re-hire is a good one for many reasons, but maybe the biggest is that it isn’t a popular move. Casual fans, the mainstream media and some inside baseball don’t like the move. If Alex Anthopoulos was at all concerned with optics—like Riccardi most certainly was back in 2008—he never would have re-hired Gibbons.
Gibbons was fired after a 35-39 start in 2008 and the team went on to win 86 games that year. It’s seems far more likely that the team’s slow start was indicative of bad luck and random variance than a statement on their true talent or Gibbons’ ability to manage competently. He was the victim of optics—something that shouldn’t affect him this time around.
Most of the ire directed at Gibbons revolves around the respective incidents he had with Shea Hillenbrand and Ted Lilly in 2006. Hillenbrand was challenged to a fight by Gibbons in the clubhouse after the utility infielder wrote “This ship is sinking. Play for your own jobs” on a clubhouse white board. Gibbons took full responsibility for the episode and said it was wrong of him to do what he did. Hillenbrand, meanwhile, was traded to San Francisco and was out of baseball 18 months later.
Hillenbrand had a reputation for being a bit of a douche to put it lightly. In June of the following year, shortly before being waived by the Angels, Hillenbrand was quoted in Sports Illustrated saying “If I’m not going to play here, give me enough respect to trade me or get rid of me.” He was also involved in a feud with former Red Sox GM Theo Epstein after being traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2003.
The Lilly incident occurred when the pitcher refused to be taken out of a game where he coughed up an 8-0 lead to the Oakland A’s. Lilly—as he is apparently wont to do—was getting a little too comfortable with the lead and was experimenting with pitches and arm angles. He then showed up Gibbons on the mound in front of TV cameras and the crowd. After the episode, Gibbons followed Lilly down the tunnel toward the clubhouse where the two had to be separated by teammates and staff. They apparently made up afterwards and there were no hard feelings. Yet, somehow Gibbons was blamed and Lilly was absolved in the eyes of fans and the media.
In his article for MLB Reports, Booth says the following:
Gibbons managed the Blue Jays from 2004-2008 and held down a mediocre 305-305 record. While he did post back to back winning seasons in 2006 and 2007 in a tough AL East, he also had some talented players to work with. Roy Halladay was the premier pitcher in the American League and would give a 12-13 games over .500 clip just by taking the hill ever year.
Nope, that’s not how that works, Mr. Booth. I’m not going to get into why that’s the case—it’s a subject that has been tackled ad nausea elsewhere, but just because a pitcher’s record is 12-13 games above .500, doesn’t mean that pitcher alone makes a team 12-13 games better. Case in point, Cliff Lee from this year. In 2006, Halladay was worth just over five wins above replacement according to Baseball Reference; same for 2007—not 13. 13 wins above replacement would be the greatest season by a pitcher ever.
But that’s besides the point. Booth continues:
Everyone also remembers the famous incidents with Shea Hillenbrand and Ted Lilly. While he was right to pull out Lilly in a 8-7 game, plus he was right to admonish the Hillenbrand for not being a team player in his actions towards his fellow team, I believe that Gibbons did not treat Hillenbrand fairly. In fact, I believe that Gibbons lost the clubhouse right after that, although no Blue Jays said if it were the case either way. Hillenbrand had some parting shots saying that “Gibbons treated him unfairly.” Hillenbrand had also written ‘the ship is sinking’ on the clubhouse chalkboard. He cited the Managers lack of communication and failing to be ‘Human’ to him after he adopted a baby girl and that Gibbons had benched him upon return. To me, once is happenstance with a coach and twice is a pattern. The Lilly incident occurred just two months later. This leads me to believe there were more problems.
It’s weird that someone with such intimate knowledge of the situation at the time is now writing for a no-profit hack website. How did Mr. Booth obtain such insights? Or is it more likely that he’s baselessly speculating?
From everything I read at the time, the team was crushed when Gibbons was fired in 2008 and he has a reputation for being not only a great baseball man, but a very player-friendly manager. He holds his players accountable, but based on accounts from John McDonald, Jose Bautista, Jason Frasor and others who were around at the time, Gibbons was loved in the clubhouse.
As far as I’m concerned, I want a manager who doesn’t let his players get away with the kind of shit pulled by Hillenbrand and Lilly in 2006. Give me the guy with the fire over the guy who lets his players walk out on the field with the word “Maricon” emblazoned on his eye black any day.
Booth then goes on to suggest some other candidates that would have been better than Gibbons. He suggest that Ozzie Guillen would have been a good fit—which I don’t entirely disagree with, but Booth seems to think that Guillen is still employed by the Marlins who fired him last month:
The Jays should have negotiated a deal to acquire Guillen when they pulled off the blockbuster trade, by picking up some of his 9 Million Dollar contract and adding another year for the guy.
Why would they need to negotiate him into the trade when he’s not an employee of the Marlins anymore? Shouldn’t a lead baseball writer have a better understanding of the basic everyday workings of the game he supposedly writes about?
He also suggests Ernie Whitt (who isn’t on any team’s managerial radar and likely for good reason) and even Gaston again.
It’s not that I don’t think there’s an argument against re-hiring Gibbons, but Booth hasn’t made it here. He comes off sounding like a casual and uninformed fan rather than a purported “baseball writer.” This is a common occurrence on MLB Reports and it drives me bananas. I know I shouldn’t care and I should just ignore it—but I just can’t. Arrogant self-importance is a big pet peeve.*
We tend to overrate the impact a manager has on a baseball team. There were plenty of qualified candidates out there including former Clevelands manager Manny Acta, Cleveland bench coach Sandy Alomar Jr. and current Jays bench coach Don Wakamatsu, but Anthopoulos decided to go with a man he knew personally and who was familiar with the organization and its philosophy. And who can blame him? It’s impossible to say what will happen with the recently re-constructed Blue Jays in the coming years, but whatever happens, Gibbons will not have much of an impact. It’s something that Gibbons himself remarked on several times during yesterday’s press conference: he just wants to get out of the way and let the talent on the field decide the game—like any truly good manager should do.
*I should also note that Hacohen was also one of the self-proclaimed “reporters” that was saying with certainty that the Jays had landed the rights to negotiate with Yu Darvish last winter even though there’s literally no way he could have known.