Ross Atkins was hired as Toronto’s Executive VP of Baseball Operations and General Manager in December 2015, shortly after Mark Shapiro was officially named the team’s President and CEO. Both came to the Blue Jays from Cleveland, where they’d worked together with the Indians for the past 15 years. A formidable pairing atop Toronto’s front office hierarchy, they are — as Atkins is quick to point out — nonetheless just two pieces of a much larger puzzle.
The Blue Jays have undergone organizational change in recent seasons, but the past six months stand out. John Gibbons was formally dismissed as manager in late September, and several members of his coaching staff followed him out the door. The roster has also undergone change. Troy Tulowitzki has departed, as have Russell Martin, Josh Donaldson, Curtis Granderson, Marco Estrada, and JA Happ. Notably, all of these player are 33 years old or older.
Fifty-three-year-old Charlie Montoyo is the biggest incoming name. The bench coach in Tampa Bay last year, Montoyo has replaced Gibbons in the manager’s chair. Four of his coaches are imports from other organizations, while two others were promoted from Toronto’s minor league system. Pete Walker and Luis Rivera are the only holdovers.
As is common within the industry, there have also been hirings, promotions, and the shifting of responsibilities throughout Toronto’s various departments. How do Atkins and Shapiro go about making such moves — not just in the front office, but across the board? Atkins addressed that question in a wide-ranging interview late last week.
Atkins on the Blue Jays’ collaborative process: “We’ve tried to create a culture that’s extremely collaborative. It comes down to constantly thinking about how we can improve — how can we get better every day — and having a large number of people doing that. Not just Mark, or me. We want to have 200 players thinking that way, and another 200 employees thinking that way. Where an idea came from — whomever came up with the idea — isn’t what’s important. What’s important is that it helps us to get better.
“The word ‘collaboration’ is probably a bit overused in professional sports, or in whichever corporate, or business, world people are referring to. That said, it’s a really important word. And it’s a hard thing to do. It’s easy to make decisions on your own, without a process. It takes a lot of work to have a process and collaboratively make decisions that are going to be best for the organization.
“We don’t really have an inner circle. We have a very large group that is exposed to every trade discussion that we have, every free agent discussion that we have. It’s not limited to people with director titles. It goes well beyond that. Our baseball operations staff is 25-plus, but the number of people touching decisions is even bigger.
“One of our goals is to never be working in silos. When it’s time for us to be focused on the amateur draft, we’re all focused on the amateur draft. When it’s time to make decisions at the trade deadline, we have the performance, analytical, amateur (scouting), and player development staffs all helping us make the best possible decisions.”
On making informed decisions: “We try to keep emotion out of our decisions, and we try to make sure that we’re weighting things appropriately. That’s why projection systems and analytical decision-making models have gotten — in my opinion — more and more popular, and more and more powerful. That goes for any business, baseball included. Analytics have become more robust. It just makes sense to have a framework that helps you objectively value and process, in our case, human talent.
“I feel confident in saying that it’s different for every organization — how you build your projection systems, how you build and deploy the potential of your decision-making models, In our case, those are the starting points. From there we peel back the layers and look further at all of the questions. We dig into a player’s character, the player as a teammate, the player as a person off the field and how he’s ultimately going to impact the environment that we want.
“It’s a challenge to work through the difference between what one scout thinks compared to another scout, regarding what a player will be in two or three years. We still have those discussions all the time. However, we’re now more prepared to prioritize where the highest leverage information gathering is going to occur.”
On having a robust scouting staff: “Our view is that all aspects of scouting are a competitive advantage. Having people who excel in that areas gives you a competitive advantage. Understanding how to value those evaluations, and use those evaluations, is the difficult part. And analytics only help. If you don’t have some analysis of how you’re making good decisions, and when you make poor decisions … if that’s left to just one, or two, or three human brains, there is too much noise to effectively do that.
“There are some really sophisticated scouts, and some really sophisticated analysts in this game. And they’re getting better all the time. We want to benefit from both. Our scouting staffs — pro, amateur, and international — have only grown. And they were large when Mark I got here.
“Our amateur scouting staff has been largely in place, with some shifts in leadership roles. There was addition of Steve Sanders. There was the shift to Tony LaCava going back to focusing almost entirely on amateur scouting. We ask Tony to help us make decisions in other areas, but when he wakes up in the morning, he’s thinking about amateur scouting.
“We’ve had staffing changes on the leadership side in different areas. Some people have stayed in similar roles, but for the most part, individuals who were leading — and still are leading — have had their responsibilities shift.”
On hiring a new manager and several new coaches: “First, many of us have been through the hiring process in different organizations. Mark, myself, Tony LaCava, Ben Cherington, Mike Murov. So have guys who were here, like Andrew Tinnish and Joe Sheehan. We’ve all learned from those experiences.
“Secondarily, the industry as a whole is extremely helpful when it comes to hiring a manager. We learned so much about the available talent — the available baseball leadership, and instructors. We spent a lot of time on that, and like what I said at the start, we take a collaborative approach. We made sure to be all-hands-on-deck. There wasn’t really anyone in baseball operations who wasn’t helping us identify Charlie Montoyo. And once we did, it didn’t stop there. We had an extremely thorough process to then identify the additions we made — Dave Hudgens, Matt Buschmann, Mark Budzinski, Shelley Duncan. Same for the promotions of Guillermo Martinez and John Schneider onto the staff. There were also the decisions to retain Pete Walker and Luis Rivera. There was a process to all of that and Charlie was driving it.
“There’s a big shift in mindset — again, my opinion — to players improving at the major league level that maybe wasn’t as strong 10-15 years ago. Not that players haven’t always tried to get better, but there was more a mindset of, ‘These are the big leagues and we have to win tonight,’ and less of ‘Let’s help this individual recognize more of his potential; let’s help him think about his game in a different way.’ I feel that’s changed a little, and with open-minded players, this is an opportunity for coaches.”
On the team’s new bullpen coach: “We have a first-year coach in Matt Buschmann, who worked in the office and was helping with the pitching coordination in San Francisco. It’s not about ‘Where have you been and what have you done?’ It’s about what you can do to help players.
“Matt has the potential to be a major-league pitching coach, or to go even beyond that. His experiences at Vanderbilt — starting there under Derek Johnson and Tim Corbin — and then applying them as a player, plus the people he’s surrounded himself with and how he’s continued to learn, is impressive. Everything we’ve learned about him is impressive.
“Learning is exceptionally important to us. We obsess about that across every department. It’s important in the hiring process, and in the development of our staff. What we’re collectively learning is important, whether it’s from amateur baseball, the New Zealand All Blacks, the San Antonio Spurs, or from ourselves. Learning from our own internal resources is paramount.”
On the team’s new bench coach: “Dave Hudgens has experience as a hitting coach in a very successful, and cutting edge, environment (with the Houston Astros). We feel that will help (new hitting coach) Guillermo Martinez in a very strong way. Having been our hitting coordinator, Guillermo has an incredible amount of familiarity with every one of the players in our system, as well as the bulk of the players on our major league team. That will certainly help, as well.
“Hudge will have his hands full as a bench coach, helping Charlie Montoyo be a first-year major league manager. That said, job descriptions — just like in any industry — have always evolved. Hudge will probably be spending 60% of his time thinking about winning that game tonight, and the other 40% thinking about how we can help set players up for success in the future. Because his expertise is in hitting, a lot of times he’ll be thinking about offense.
I’ve known Hudge for a long time — I’ve worked with him a great deal — but while we had a relationship, there was still the process to go through. Our process hired him. He was interviewed by our baseball operations staff. Ultimately, it was then Charlie Montoyo’s decision to add him to his coaching staff.”
On the Blue Jays roster becoming younger and more athletic: “I think if you ask 30 GMs if they’d like their team to be younger and more athletic, every one of them would say, ‘Yes, absolutely.’ It’s about the how, and at what cost. Ultimately, you have to pick up the ball and make contact, so there are absolutely places for players who don’t have the best runs times, or don’t have the first-step quickness you’d ideally like. And if you want those 23-24-year-old players who have that athleticism, you’re going to need a strong farm system.
“Ben Cherington and Gil Kim have done a great job of developing our (player development) philosophies and systems. When Ben is a GM again, and Gil is a GM, we’ll have those philosophies in place. They’ve done an incredible job of integrating our analytical leadership, tapping into Joe Sheehan and his team. They’ve also tapped into our performance staff to ensure that we put the player at the center of anything that we’re doing. But a lot of people deserve credit for our system being in good shape. A lot of people are thinking about it on a daily basis, if not a minute basis. As I said at the top, a lot of what we do is based on collaboration.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.