John Gibbons has proven himself to be both hard-nosed and flexible. At the helm in Toronto since August 2004, Gibbons has balanced an in-your-face managerial style with a willingness to do whatever it takes to compete in the highly-competitive American League East. Gibbons led the Blue Jays to a second-place finish last year, their best showing since 1993. David talked to Gibbons about managing pitcher workloads, lineup construction, and his thoughts on the stolen base and sacrifice bunt.
David Laurila: Before we get into the more specific questions, tell us a little about John Gibbons.
John Gibbons: I’m a guy who kind of came out nowhere to get to Toronto. I’m an old roommate of J.P. Ricciardi’s, which is kind of how I ended up here. I spent my whole playing career in the New York Mets system, along with starting my coaching and managing career there, and then J.P. brought me over here. I started out in the bullpen, moved over to first base, and then they gave me a shot to manage. Before all of that, I grew up in San Antonio, Texas in a military family. I still live there, so I basically consider myself a Texan, although my roots are actually in Massachusetts, which is where both of my parents are from.
DL: How would you describe your managerial style?
JG: I’m think I’m a pretty flexible guy who will analyze what he has for a team. You know, how will you be strongest? Are you a running team, a power team, are you this or are you that? You kind of go from there, and adjust. I consider myself a fair individual. I’m open-minded, but there are also things I believe strongly in. I guess you could say that I’m a player’s manager, but you also have to keep that fine line.
DL: How would you assess the Blue Jays’ season thus far?
JG: To this point, looking back at what we’ve gone through–we were hit by some pretty significant injuries early on, but the guys hung in there until we got people back. We’ve played steady baseball, and outside of one losing streak we’ve avoided any big pitfalls. Of course, we haven’t had that big run in the other direction to put us in pretty good shape, either. So, we’ve kind of hung around the outskirts of the Wild Card for most of the year, and we’re still not totally eliminated. Considering all of the injuries we went through, and the changes we made to our starting rotation and bullpen–especially losing B.J. Ryan–I’m very happy with the effort these guys have given. They leave it on the field every night.
DL: Your team has a .326 OBP so far this season. Are you disappointed with that number?
JG: It’s lower than we expected. Last year our offense pretty much carried us; we were one of the top offensive teams, and automatically you go into the next year expecting to at least repeat that. It hasn’t happened, but I think a lot of it has been due to some of the injuries. This year, our pitching has actually taken over. It’s been unbelievable; a lot better than we thought it would be. So, things have kind of been reversed this year, but as far as on-base, that’s a little lower than we expected. Sometimes there’s nothing you can do about that.
DL: Do you feel that a lack of plate-discipline has contributed to the lower OBP, or are you happy with the quality of at-bats your players have been putting up?
JG: I’m happy for the most part. There have been times, here and there, where you’d like to see more discipline, but I’m not disappointed. As a team, we have a combination of some disciplined guys, and we have some guys who are very aggressive hitters and have done that their entire careers and been successful. Ideally you’d like more discipline at times, but you can’t take away from what guys are, either.
DL: How do you look at the overall value of OBP?
JG: The bottom line in this game is to score runs. You have to get guys on base, however that’s going to be; the hit, the walk, the hit-by-pitch, whatever way. When you get guys on base it’s a good thing, and there’s no question that with discipline, those things increase. You also put more pressure on the opposing pitcher, and get into their bullpen earlier, where in today’s day and age teams are more vulnerable. And once you get them on base, you need to drive them in, so it all works together. There are times where you need to be more aggressive, because there are certain pitchers who aren’t going to walk certain hitters. If you’re too selective, you end up sitting 0-2 and it gets tougher to hit.
DL: How do you approach lineup construction, specifically at the top of the order?
JG: Ideally,you want your leadoff guy to be someone who can get on base and make things happen. I prefer a guy who has some pretty good speed. Coming into the season, our guy for that was Reed Johnson, but he went down two weeks in with back surgery. After that, we didn’t really have a guy who fit that mold, so we experimented a bit. We put Alex Rios there, and he actually did a nice job, but we went into the season looking at him as more of an RBI guy, a middle of the order guy, so we moved him back. Then we decided one day to put Vernon Wells up there, just to see how that would work, and he really took off. We held that for awhile, and he really thrived at it, but we wanted to get him back to having more RBI situations, too. With Reed out, we really don’t have anyone to fit that mold; a guy who can see a lot of pitches and put pressure on the defense when he gets on.
DL: What about your second-place hitter?
JG: The two-hole hitter is a guy who should be able to take a lot of pitches and hit behind in the count. If your leadoff guy is someone who can run, he has to be able to give him an opportunity to do that. He has to be able to hit behind the runner, into the hole that’s over there, to move the guy from first to third. He needs to be a guy who can handle the bat and is disciplined. Then, of course, your three-hole hitter is the best hitter on your team.
DL: Your team is last in the league in stolen bases, although you have run more of late.
JG: Basically, you have to look at what you’ve got. We’re definitely one of the slower teams in the league, especially in the middle of the lineup. That’s just a fact. We’ve got some big boys. We do have three or four guys who can run, but we don’t have that one guy who is going to go out and steal you 30 or 40 bases. Rios could probably do it, and he’s one of the best going from first to third–or from home to third–because he has those long strides. He maybe doesn’t have a first step as quick as some guys, but he’s capable of stealing bases. Vernon is capable of doing it, but our team just isn’t built that way, and there are certain situations, depending on how guys in the middle of the order are hitting, where you don’t want to take the bat out of someone’s hands. If there’s no fear of getting thrown out on the bases–if you’re confident that you can take a bag on the pitcher–that’s one thing, but that’s not always the case.
DL: Is there an organizational philosophy regarding the running game?
JG: I think early on there probably was; there wasn’t a lot of importance put on it, but I’ve always been a believer in that you never say no to anything. I’m a believer in the pressure game. If you can get somebody into scoring position, a lot more singles get hit than doubles, triples, or home runs. Any time you get runners in scoring position you’re in better shape, but I also believe that you need to have a high percentage. Unless you have guys where that’s the case, that the steal is almost guaranteed, sometimes you’re better off being conservative. So the bottom line is that I’m not against anything, but the way we’re built, we’re not a speed team.
DL: Do you have any influence on who is on your roster?
JG: J.P. runs some things by me, and I give him my opinion, but putting the team together is his job. So much goes into it, with payroll restrictions and flexibility, and what you have on your own team. For instance, some guys get locked in where you can’t move them, so there isn’t the flexibility to bring other guys in. But that’s all the GM’s responsibility. He runs things by me and gets my advice from time to time, but that’s about it.
DL: Do you have a lot of dialog with J.P. over the course of the season?
JG: We talk constantly. J.P. is a hands-on guy, so he’s around all the time. We talk about a lot of things, like our own personnel, what’s going on around the game, who’s hot, who’s not. Yeah, that’s constant.
DL: How do you view the relationship between a manager and GM when it comes to in-game strategy?
JG: I think a GM has every right to question what goes on, but it’s a manager’s job to make the moves. That’s why he was hired. The way I look at it, you hire someone and let him do his job. If those guys aren’t happy with how something is being done, then they make a change. The manager is the guy under the gun when it comes to making decisions. The thing is, the manager knows the pulse of the team and what’s going on out there. We know who’s banged up, and who might be available and who may not be. As far as the public goes, they don’t always understand some of the things you do. The GM is up to date on what’s going on, of course. J.P. and I talk about different situations, like using certain guys here and there, but he lets me do my thing. Basically it comes down to if they’re not happy with the results, or what you’re getting out of your players, they’re going to make a change. And if that’s the case, you better do it your way.
DL: The Blue Jays lead the American League in pinch-hit at-bats this year. What does that tell us?
JG: Coming in, maybe it’s not your typical American League lineup, but the only position we were planning on doing that was shortstop. We were going with Royce Clayton, and then John McDonald, so we brought in Matt Stairs, in part to hit for them late in games where we maybe had a crucial situation. That’s where the majority of our pinch hits have come from. It’s also been through injuries, and having to plug young guys into spots where they weren’t our regulars, where maybe you end up with a little more of a platoon situation.
DL: Across the American League, pinch-hitters came into today hitting only .211 on the season. Why do you think that number is so low?
JG: It’s a tough thing to do, it really is. There are very few guys who are good at it, and we have one of the best in Matt Stairs. It’s one of the toughest roles in baseball, because when you come in, you’re cold and a lot of time it’s late and you’re facing good pitchers with the game on the line. A lot of time, with limited at-bats, it’s tough to find a groove.
DL: The player you send up may have better numbers, but if a John McDonald already has three at-bats that day, is there a definite advantage to using a pinch-hitter, especially given the .211 league average?
JG: No, not always, but you also look at other things. John McDonald is basically a singles hitter, with an occasional double, and you might want to send up a guy who maybe can hit you the long ball, which you may need in that situation. We primarily base it on lefty/righty. There are also certain guys you want up with men on base, guys who are proven RBI guys. Another thing with a guy like John McDonald, the outfielders tend to play him shallower because he’s not likely to drive the ball over their head. That makes it a little tougher to score on base hits, but if you have a guy with a little more sock, maybe you can give yourself a better chance and equalize that opportunity.
DL: What is your opinion of the sacrifice bunt?
JG: I’m all for it. I think there’s a time and place for everything in baseball. There are certain times when you’ve got to get that runner into scoring position. Usually that’s second base, and sometimes it’s even third. You might get a lead-off double and the guy at the plate–there are certain guys that you’d do that with, like the first two in the order or the guys at the bottom. Maybe there’s a guy on the mound who it’s tough to hit the ball to the right side against. If you’re talking about a huge run late in the game, with the game on the line, the sacrifice bunt might be the route to go. In certain situations, I’m all for it.
DL: Roy Halladay threw 126 pitches last night, and has three complete games in his last five starts. Can you address pitcher workloads, including the fact that starting pitchers throw fewer innings than they did in years past?
JG: Yeah, that’s kind of the way baseball has gone, primarily in the last decade. I think a lot of it has to do with the number of injuries, and you’re trying to find out why, so you put restrictions on pitches. Maybe that’s a good thing. The tendency is to try to protect your younger guys in the minor leagues, because you don’t want to burn them out. In the past–in the olden days–it used to be the opposite, and I don’t know if there were more injuries or less. But I know that just about all organizations are focused on that, and it’s a big concern. As for Halladay, I base it on–our guideline is 100 pitches, but I look at how he’s throwing. If he’s laboring at all, we’re going to be smart with him. But if he’s doing his thing, and it’s basically effortless, we’ll let him try to run it. The thing is, he’s very efficient at what he does. He’s kind of turned away from the strikeout mode where now he’s more of a contact guy; he can still get the strikeout when he needs it, but that’s kind of his philosophy. Plus, we give him a chance to win the game every time he goes out there. If that means going that extra inning for us, and we’re not putting him at risk, we have no problem with doing that. What you base your moves on is, if we bring someone in from the bullpen, is he better than what we’ve got out there? A lot of times, when Roy is out there, that’s not the case.
DL: What did you think when you saw Grady Little stick with Pedro Martinez in Game Seven of the 2003 ALCS?
JG: I don’t think that anyone, realistically, can even comment on that. We weren’t in his shoes, and we didn’t know what was going on in his mind, or with Pedro–their relationship, what his status was, what his workload had been. The way it turned out, there was a huge uproar and backlash about it, but there were also a lot of people out there who, if he had made the move, and the game still got away from them, they would have criticized that, too. That’s kind of the way the game of baseball is now. It’s such a media-driven sport. That’s a good thing though, because the media coverage is a reason baseball is such a popular sport, and so lucrative, but every move you make gets picked apart, right or wrong, and some of your best moves backfire, and at times, with your worst ones, you come out smelling like a rose. So it’s not a perfect science, and unless you know what’s going on in that pitcher’s head, or in the clubhouse, what this pitcher has been doing the last two or three weeks, the magnitude of the game, how he’s doing in that particular game at the time, who is coming up. Unless you’re in those shoes, I don’t think it’s fair to try to analyze what someone else did.
DL: What are your views on using your closer for more than one inning?
JG: Ideally you don’t want any part of that, but we haven’t been afraid to do it here. We did a little bit with B.J. Ryan last year, because sometimes you need to do it out of necessity. You know, when you have the luxury of having one of the best in the game, it’s awfully tempting to do it, but the thing is that you can’t do it that often. There has to be some time in between those types of appearances. The bottom line is to win the game, but you also need to keep an eye on a guy’s workload. What happens when relievers throw three, four, days in a row; yeah, they may be healthy doing it, but are they going to be as effective? It takes a toll on your arm, so that your fastball may be missing something, or your breaking pitches may be missing something; they may not have that snap. I don’t care how big and strong you are, you get fatigued when you’re used a lot. A lot of people sit in the stands and go, “Why didn’t you use this guy? He was available.” Well, maybe he was, but how effective would he have been and what impact would it have on the long run? So you’ve got to be careful. That said, there are certain games, especially if a guy is fresh, and you’ve got to win that game, that you have to do it.
DL: Are you willing to bring your closer into a game in the seventh inning?
JG: No, I would never do that. For one thing, you couldn’t expect him to run the game. Maybe in the old days you could have, because that’s the way relievers were, but you can’t really bring in a guy in the seventh and ask him to go back for the eighth and the ninth, and if he goes the seventh and eighth, do you have a guy you can bank on for the ninth? If you have two guys who are pretty good, maybe one who’s a righty and the other a lefty, and not just a guy who’s strictly a closer, maybe then it would be different. Unless it’s a big postseason game, you’re going to have a hard time finding anyone who’ll bring their closer into the game in the seventh inning.
DL: Much like players, managers are always learning. What do you know now that you didn’t know three years ago when you replaced Carlos Tosca as manager?
JG: The thing that really jumps out at me is that things happen really fast in the big leagues. When you’re in the minor leagues, there might be two or three guys, maybe four, on the other team who can burn you offensively. Up here, lineups are generally strong, top to bottom, so things happen fast. If you’re caught sleeping, or aren’t on your toes–I’m primarily referring to handling bullpens–the next thing you know, boom, the game is out of hand. You can see those things happen as a coach, but until you experience actually making the calls, you don’t appreciate that. I think that’s the thing that jumps out the most, because if you’re not keeping a good eye on the situation, and you leave a guy in for one or two too many batters, the cat ends up out of the bag and it’s over.
DL: A lot of people don’t realize that you have a World Series ring. Tell us about that, including what it means to you.
JG: It’s a dream come true, it really is. It’s from when I was with the 1986 New York Mets, and Gary Carter was injured at the beginning of August. He was playing first base one day, and dislocated his thumb, so I got called up from Triple-A when he went on the Disabled List. So I caught a few games, and then hung around in September after he was activated. When we got to the playoffs, Rick Anderson–who’s now the pitching coach for the Twins–and I weren’t on the postseason roster, but we were still around just in case someone got hurt and they had to activate one of us for the next series. So I was there with the team in Houston, and then Boston, and even though I didn’t get to participate, it was still a thrill. I had a chance to be with the team for two months, and it was arguably one of the best teams ever. It was a wild and crazy team, and also one that was very talented. It was a team that only had one thing on its mind, and that was to win. That’s what it’s all about.