Did Don Mattingly Just Save the Blue Jays Season?

Toronto Blue Jays v Boston Red Sox
Toronto Blue Jays v Boston Red Sox / Gaelen Morse/GettyImages

A few days ago, Blue Jays bench coach Don Mattingly was asked about the team’s perceived hitting struggles, and he replied with a doozy:

To say Mattingly’s comments caused an uproar would be an understatement. Was this really the defeatist mindset Blue Jays coaches were operating under?

Consider, Vlad Guerrero Jr., George Springer, and Matt Chapman have all reached the 30-homer plateau in their careers; Brandon Belt hit 37 across 679 plate appearances in 2021 and 2022 combined, while Danny Jansen has 35 big flies over his last 643 PA.

That’s five already who might reasonably be expected to approach 30 home runs, and that’s without mentioning Daulton Varsho, who hit 27 last year, or Bo Bichette, or even, for that matter, Paul DeJong, who put up seasons of 30 and 25 homers earlier in his career.

And yet, faced with the prospect of essentially every hitter on the team underperforming expectations in the power department, Mattingly was not offering solutions, he did not provide an explanation of what the coaching staff was working on to return these hitters to their career norms, but rather, he seemed to be giving up, throwing his hands in the air and saying, maybe we just don’t have any power after all.

As if this sad resignation wasn’t bad enough, Mattingly doubled down, seemingly suggesting that the Jays abandon any hope of outslugging opponents, and instead take up a new identity as a small-ball team, the kind which scratches out a few runs here, and a few there.

While it is perhaps a nice thought, many were quick to point out the glaring hole in the strategy. It’s not exactly breaking news to say the Jays have been horrific with runners in scoring position this year – bottom three in all of baseball with a .237 average. Simply, it’s hard to be a small ball team if you can’t consistently cash in runners from scoring positions.

Of course, in Mattingly’s defense, a deeper look into the Jays’ struggles with runners in scoring position reveals additional layers, and perhaps, a reason for optimism.

Note that of the bottom ten teams in baseball hitting with RISP this year, nearly every one is actually exceeding, or at least matching, their overall hitting numbers. In other words, they can’t hit with runners in scoring position because they can’t hit in general.

The Jays, meanwhile, are 5th in the Majors in overall batting average at .260, an astonishing 23-point difference from their average with RISP, by far the highest number in baseball. Surely the coaching staff, not to mention the tall foreheads in the front office, see this as a bizarre statistical anomaly which will normalize at some point.

But is it? Or is it representative of a flawed approach?

The answer might lie in the fact that the Jays’ struggles with RISP have gone beyond just batting average. Not only have the Jays been unable to hit for average, but their power has evaporated in these situations. Again, where the Jays are a top ten team in overall OPS (.749), they are 28th in OPS with RISP (.677).

Think about it: how many times do you remember the Jays running into a 3-run homer (or grand slam) this season? Over the past month, the Jays have hit one such homer, and in fact, since the first week of May, a stretch of 77 games, they have only hit seven, and two of those came in 10-run blowout games which were already decided, and one came off a position player in the 20-1 game down at the Trop.

That’s right – only four times in the past three months have the Jays hit a 3-run homer that impacted the game. The Orioles, for comparison, have done it four times in the past two weeks.

Step back, and what we are left with is a Blue Jays team which has neither shown the ability to Punch-and-Judy their way to victory, nor to follow Earl Weaver’s “pitching, defense, and the three-run homer” blueprint.

Which brings us back to Don Mattingly.

Hours after Mattingly made his comments, the Jays went out and clobbered five home runs, beating Boston 7-3 at Fenway. The next day, they went 5-12 (.417) with RISP and again beat the Red Sox, 5-4, before completing the sweep with a 13-1 thrashing during which they went 7-14 (.500) with RISP and had seven extra base hits.

Old Donnie Baseball is a sly fox. Is it possible he was not being defeatist, but rather, trying to light a fire under the players, to shift the narrative from ‘everybody expects more’ to ‘nobody believes in you,’ and push the players to prove the doubters, even those within their own organization, wrong?

Seriously. Did Don Mattingly just save the season?

Is Mattingly playing 4-D chess? Or has the Blue Jays coaching staff ruined its hitters en masse? Let me know what you think – @WriteFieldDeep.