Ross Atkins concedes Blue Jays are behind in analytics arms race

Ross Atkins was unusually candid about the Blue Jays analytics situation on Wednesday. (Nick Turchiaro/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

When Ross Atkins hops on the radio, generally speaking, it doesn’t result in any must-listen moments.

That makes sense given the Blue Jays general manager inhabits a role where telegraphing his future moves — and even general thought processes — can be a competitive disadvantage. So, he tends to answer in broad strokes and offer exceedingly vanilla optimism about players in his organization.

When he appeared on Sportsnet 590 The Fan Wednesday, he was a little more candid than usual - specifically when it came to his team’s analytics department. When asked about whether the Blue Jays had a ways to go to catch up to teams like the Houston Astros, Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Yankees, and Tampa Bay Rays in data-based decision making, he conceded there were “clear gaps that we’re motivated to close that we’re aware of.”

Instead of leaving it there, the general manager went on to explain the root of the imbalance.

If you think about the amount of time, and the number of resources, that have been committed to the Rays, the Yankees, the Dodgers, obviously Houston, for a number of years, those departments are robust. They’re 20 [employees] plus. Not all of those organizations but I believe L.A. and New York are in the 20s if not 20. We’ve grown from 1 or 2 members depending on when you talk about the starting point to 12 members.

Admittedly, the topic of which team employs the most number crunchers isn’t going to get every baseball fan out of bed, but having a baseball operations department bolstered by as much information as possible is exceedingly important. The Rays, for instance, have found enormous success despite their financial limitations, in part due to their mastery of analytics.

“We’re getting close to them,” Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo said during the season’s final series against the Rays. “But they’re one of the teams that do the most when it comes to that.”

Considering Montoyo spent 21 years with the organization, he would know.

If the Blue Jays are going to ascend to the top of the American League East behind their young core, they’ll need to be better than teams like the Yankees and Boston Red Sox at player evaluation — because even if Rogers ratchets up payroll, it seems unlikely they’ll ever outspend those giants. The Rays have already shown that being among the league’s best from an analytical standpoint can help close the gap. In the Blue Jays’ ideal world, they would catch up to Tampa in that domain, while running a far higher payroll.

By Atkins’ own admission, they aren’t there yet. What he sees as his club’s strength at this point is an organization that embraces information regardless of its source and tries to apply it creatively:

The real competitive advantage in our view, and what we’re so excited about is across the organization, is the open mindset, the openness, to think about the integration. To think about tapping into all the subjective experience and opinions that we have and think about how we can research subjective opinions theories, thoughts on development, thoughts on acquisition, thoughts on advanced scouting and how we attack hitters — and what our approach is in a major league environment. That’s where we feel like we have a true competitive advantage.

That’s a mouthful, but generally speaking it sounds good. The problem is that those words can be applied to most baseball organizations these days. With few exceptions, being willing to integrate data into one’s work tends to be a prerequisite for working at the highest level in the sport. Even if the Blue Jays do it better than some clubs, it’s tough to see that quality being a true difference maker.

Atkins and the Blue Jays can have all the openness to integration that they want, but to be a model franchise they’re going to need elite analytical horsepower too.

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