Like cats at feeding time, a baseball team’s fans are notoriously finicky. So it is in Toronto, where portions of the Blue Jays faithful are up in arms over their team’s failure to advance beyond the first round of the 2023 postseason.
The particular object of their ire is Toronto Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins.
At a superficial level, it’s easy to understand why Atkins is catching heck these days, especially as the Arizona Diamondbacks prepare to play in the World Series. Two of the central members of the Diamondbacks’ cast (catcher Gabe Moreno and outfielder Lourdes Gurriel) were traded by Atkins to Arizona over the winter in exchange for Daulton Varsho.
There’s no disputing that the math on that deal favors Arizona. In tandem, Moreno and Gurriel were worth 4.1 Wins Above Average to the Arizona cause this past season. Varsho had a nice season in Toronto, returning 2.0 WAA … but that still means the trade was a 2.1 WAA victory for Arizona.
And that’s only considering the short-term impact. Down the road, there’s not much question that Moreno, a 23-year-old rookie, is likely to have the greater value.
But judging the totality of Atkins’ impact on the Blue Jays by one trade is akin to judging "For Whom The Bell Tolls" by its three least interesting pages. The Moreno-Gurriel-Varsho swap notwithstanding, the reality is that Atkins had a decidedly positive impact on Toronto’s talent base in 2023.
Considered in their entirety, the numbers make the case. The Atkins front office made 36 personnel moves involving major league talent between the conclusion of the 2022 postseason and the conclusion of the 2023 regular season. Nearly two-thirds of those moves worked out in Toronto’s favor as measured by WAA, the preferred yardstick for these types of measurements because it is zero-based, meaning it approximates the impact on the actual standings.
What was that impact in the case of Atkins? It works out to +6.1 games. That means the Jays were 6.1 games better off by the end of 2023 than if Atkins had left the 2022 roster intact.
This may be an appropriate time to point out to Atkins’ critics that Toronto (89-73) qualified for the 2023 postseason by the margin of just one thin game ahead of the Seattle Mariners (88-74). Atkins was one of just five front office execs in MLB who improved their teams by more games than the margins by which they qualified for postseason play.
In short, Atkins was the reason the Jays got to October in the first place, not the reason they failed to advance.
His personnel successes may be less obvious than the Gurriel-Moreno failure, which is playing out on MLB's biggest stage this week. But from a standpoint of impacting the 2023 race, they are no less important. Start with the patch job he did in center field.
Somehow, and despite all evidence to the contrary, Atkins saw value in Kevin Kiermaier, who had been consigned to the dustbin of history by his team of 10 seasons, the Tampa Bay Rays. Kiermaier had a renaissance season in 2023, both offensively and defensively, bringing +2.5 games worth of WAA to the Jays. Atkins alone saw it coming.
He signed free agent pitcher Chris Bassitt and got a league-leading 16 victories against just eight losses in 33 starts. Infielder Davis Schneider, promoted from the Jays’ system in August, hit .276 with a 1.008 OPS down the stretch.
In assessing Atkins’ performance, it’s worth taking his measure relative to the Blue Jays’ other front office chief execs. There have been six since the franchise was created in 1977, although the first (Peter Bavasi) only lasted one season.
The chart below shows the average short-term impact (that is the impact of decisions made since the conclusion of the preceding season) of the other five. It also shows the average long-term impact, that being the impact on a season’s performance of decisions made prior to the conclusion of the previous season.
GM, years Short-term Long-term
Pat Gillick, 1978-94 -1.7 +8.1
Gord Ash, 1995-2001 -2.7 -3.6
J.P. Ricciardi, 2002-09 -3.5 +5.6
Alex Anthopoulos, 2010-15 +2.3 +5.6
Ross Atkins, 2016-23 +3.0 +4.6
Of the five men who have presided over operations in Toronto since 1978, Atkins has been the best (No. 1) at short-term (season-to-season) improvement. He has improved the team’s talent base in six of his eight seasons.
He’s also the only Jays’ GM to have twice created enough improvement to make a playoff team out of what would have been a non-playoff team. Atkins did that in 2016 as well as this year.
His record for long-term improvement isn’t quite as glossy, but it’s still positive.
And if you add both the average short-term and long-term numbers, Atkins (+7.6) ranks only behind Anthopoulos (+7.9, and just fractionally at that) for overall impact on the Blue Jays.
Criticize Atkins if you want. After all, that’s a fan’s nature just as it’s a cat’s nature to turn up their nose at dinner. But the data says the Jays are fortunate to have him.