Winning attitudes and success: The Toronto Blue Jays

This is by no means a success story, but it could be a month from now. The Toronto Blue Jays have been absent from Major League Baseball’s playoffs for 22 years, the longest drought across all current teams. Whilst in football, and indeed the majority of sports worldwide, there exists an established elite of teams hording trophies and the top players. There is little room for smaller budget teams to challenge for the pinnacle of their respective sports. Baseball is completely different. Yes, the New York Yankees dominate the free agent market due to their financial might, however a last placed team one year can win the World Series the next. For example the Boston Red Sox were adrift in last place in 2012 with a broken clubhouse chemistry but stormed back in 2013 to take the World Series by storm. That is not to say a small budget team cannot win the ultimate prize of a World Series. The San Francisco Giants have a mediocre budget and do not hand out extortionate free-agent contracts but have won the World Series three times since 2010.

You may be reading this and thinking of the film ‘Moneyball’, where Brad Pitt played the role as General Manager of the Oakland Athletics and transformed the team’s fortunes on a minimal budget, using analytics and otherwise obscure statistics to concoct a team of winners. The famous line from the film came in an office meeting where General Manager Billy Beane (Pitt) exclaims “if we can’t compete with the Yankees in here, how can we expect to compete with them out there?” That meaning, we cannot compete financially with the New Yorkers, let’s not try to. However on the field, they more than compete, they win. The Athletics, and indeed other small market teams such as the Tampa Bay Rays and Pittsburgh Pirates, consistently challenge for the World Series and are often more successful than teams such as the Dodgers, Yankees and Red Sox. Is it down to the most intangible of all statistics- team chemistry? Small-market teams using analytics and statistics to form a winning team will categorically say no. No because team chemistry supposedly does not affect how an individual player performs at any given moment. Essentially baseball is an individual sport played as a team; a game will be won or lost depending on the performance of an individual when the game is on the line. Whether or not this player has a good relationship with his coach and team is not relevant at this crucial moment.

So where does this leave the playoff-starved Blue Jays? Firstly, team chemistry must play a role in determining a team’s success. It may not be a tangible statistic but a team with an attitude of ‘winners’ is in a better position than that of negative and downbeat players. Only in the last two weeks have the Blue Jays re-discovered this ‘winning attitude’ that they have been devoid of since 1993 when they won the World Series. Up until July 31st this year, the Blue Jays had been hovering around making a run for the playoffs. They were neither here nor there. Then the ‘Trade deadline’ came, the equivalent to football’s transfer deadline day, and the Jays went all-in. By acquiring Troy Tulowitzki and David Price, they brought in one of the best hitters in the game and an elite pitcher too. They also made smaller moves to shore up any weaknesses they had. Yes it came at a substantial cost (they mortgaged the future by trading away top prospects), however ask any Jays fan whether or not it was worth it, the unanimous answer would be yes. Where team chemistry is relevant is that the Blue Jays have subsequently gone on a 10-game winning streak, overtaking the Yankees for the top spot in the division. Undoubtedly, the acquisition of two elite players has upgraded those positions but a winning streak of this magnitude cannot be explained purely by the on-field performance of two elite players. The incumbent players have stepped up the plate, literally and metaphorically. The presence of two new elite players so focused on the task of winning has no doubt provided a mental boost for the squad. If you are a player in the Jays clubhouse and you see your General Manager acquire top-quality players with the aim of winning, the confidence boost cannot be underestimated. It sends a message to the players with the belief in them that they can win and end that playoff drought. Suddenly being surrounded by players set on winning changes the way a clubhouse thinks and behaves for the better. Certainly, this is not a success story yet but with the way the Jays are playing since the acquisition of these high-calibre players, it could well be.

Its time to do away with the belief in sport, especially baseball, that team chemistry is overrated. Whilst individual relationships may not have as big of an impact as often perceived, the attitude of each individual player can go a long way towards bringing success to that particular squad. The Toronto Blue Jays have built a team with attitudes solely focused on winning, nothing less. In an age where money supposedly buys trophies, the differing attitudes of sportsmen and women is now becoming more important towards determing success. And that is refreshing to see. There are plenty of examples where a highly-valued team underperforms due to bad player attitudes. Whilst previously ridiculed by analysts, indivudual desires to win amongst a clubhouse may now go a long way towards bringing team success.

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