Is John Schneider the one to blame for a season that’s fallen below expectations?

The Toronto Blue Jays have failed to live up to lofty preseason predictions so far in 2023. Who is to blame?
Toronto Blue Jays v Baltimore Orioles
Toronto Blue Jays v Baltimore Orioles / Scott Taetsch/GettyImages

After a tough 5-4 loss at home Tuesday to the Washington Nationals, many Blue Jays fans and pundits have questioned the play where Alejandro Kirk was thrown out at home in the bottom of the 8th after tagging from third on a fly ball. They Jays were down 5-3 at the time, but let Kirk stay in the game instead of pinch running for him with the much speedier Mason McCoy.

With a sprint speed of only 23.5 feet/second, which ranks Kirk 537th in MLB out of 544 players with at least 10 opportunities on the base paths, it’s a fair question. Of course, at the time we didn’t know that Brandon Belt was experiencing back spasms, and was unavailable to pinch hit for Kirk if it had come to that in extra innings.

As manager John Schneider said on not pinch-running for Kirk: “If it was anyone but Kirk that got thrown out it probably wouldn’t have been as questioned”. He said had Belt been available, they would have pinch run for Kirk.

Is John Schneider to blame?

The Kirk play has renewed a steady drumbeat of chatter that perhaps Schneider is at fault for the Blue Jays playing below expectations for much of the season, with too many frustrating losses in close games. But is he really to blame for a team that sits in third place in the AL East, 10.5 games back of Baltimore and 2.5 games behind the Texas Rangers for the final wild card spot?

The Jays are 21-18 in one run games this year for a .538 winning percentage. They are 8-8 in extra innings games. Obviously that’s not great for a team with postseason aspirations in the tough AL East, but its not the whole story. More damning might be the 12-25 record versus AL East opponents, or the 36-41 record against teams above a .500 winning percentage.

We all know about the .251 batting average with runners in scoring position (RISP), which ranks them 16th in MLB, but they are also bottom half on home runs (16th), runs scored (15th), RBI (17th), sacrifice flies (25th), stolen bases (19th), and they’ve been caught stealing the 5th most times of any team.

That’s certainly frustrating given the outstanding performance by the pitching staff, which has the 2nd lowest ERA in baseball behind Seattle at 3.69, the 4th most strikeouts/9 innings at 9.41, and is tied for the most saves at 46, with the highest save conversion rate at 77%.

But to Schneider’s credit, he’s taken that mismatched roster combining outstanding pitching and just middle-of-the-pack offense, and guided them to a 73-61 record, 12 games above .500 with an upcoming nine games against three cellar dwelling teams all playing below .370 baseball in Colorado, Oakland and Kansas City. Seven or eight wins in those three series would propel this team to 80+ wins with 19 games left to play, and give them a legitimate chance at a wild card postseason berth.

He’s also had to contend with most of his hitters putting up numbers well below their career averages: Vladimir Guerrero Jr., is 67 points below his career OPS of .844 with only 20 home runs (which noticeably still leads the team). Is it a fitness issue? Does he miss his old barrio mates in Teoscar Hernández and Lourdes Gurriel Jr.? Does he have too many people putting too many thoughts in to his head when he’s at the plate?

George Springer’s OPS of .728 is 109 points below his career average of .837. Is he on the downside of his career given he turns 34 later this month? He’s enjoyed good health this season, and he’s on track to appear in the most games since he played all 162 games in 2016, having appeared in 127 (or 95%) of all Jays’ games this year.

Other players like Alejandro Kirk, who won the AL Silver Slugger award as the best hitting catcher last year, and Matt Chapman, with only 15 home runs versus 27 in 2022, have also played a role in the unexpected power outage; as has Daulton Varsho, with only 16 HRs compared to 27 last season.

While Bo Bichette, Whit Merrifield, Brandon Belt, Danny Jansen and Kevin Kiermaier are performing in-line or even above expectations, and Davis Schneider has been outstanding in a small sample size, surely the expectations were that Guerrero Jr., Springer, Chapman, Kirk and Varsho would all produce better power numbers in 2023.

Recall that the 43-year old Schneider signed a three-year contract extension to manage the Blue Jays after guiding them to a 46-28 finish and top wild-card spot last season after replacing the fired Charlie Montoyo on July 13th. He is the third manager under general manager Ross Atkins after John Gibbons and Montoyo.

For those keeping count, in 208 games as manager, Schneider has guided the Jays to a 119-89 record, for a .572 winning percentage. That’s a better W/L percentage than Bobby Cox’s .549, Jimy Williams’ .538, Cito Gaston’s .516, and John Gibbons’ .501 in their respective stints as Jays’ manager.

As Gregor Chisholm of the Toronto Star concludes in his mailbag this week, “If Schneider loses his job, it will be because the front office decides to make him a scapegoat — nothing more, nothing less. Will it happen? It’s too early to say. Based on this week’s questions I’m starting to feel like I’m in the minority, but I think Schneider is a good manager and a clear upgrade over the guy who came before. He’s not the one I’d be looking at if the season goes awry.”

Which leaves an open question as the Jays play meaningful baseball again this September. As fans, we can enjoy the ride and hope they qualify for postseason baseball. If they don’t, then surely questions will also be asked about hitting coach Guillermo Martínez, major league hitting strategist Dave Hudgens, assistant hitting coach Hunter Mense, the analytics department, and Ross Atkins himself, now in his 8th season as GM. That’s as long a tenure as J.P. Ricciardi had in Toronto as GM, is one more year than Gord Ash had, and two more years than Alex Anthopoulos had.