John Farrell was standing near home plate, his two hands jammed into the back pockets of his baseball pants to guard against the unseasonably cool weather, closely monitoring the pitchers as they were schooled on the finer aspects of fielding their position.
“Lose it in the sun?” Farrell chided pitcher Jesse Litsch on an overcast Sunday here at spring training after Litsch failed to see a ball coming his way.
Later, when a photographer dared to wander out near Farrell to get a better angle for a shot, the manager joked to no one in particular that the intruder was also going to act as a runner in one of the drills.
The photographer, suitably humbled, quickly moved out of the way.
The 49-year-old Farrell is entering his second full season in major-league baseball as the manager of the Toronto Blue Jays, and he appears comfortable in his own skin as the leader of the Blue Jays pack.
“I know the players returning a heck of a lot better than I did walking in at this time a year ago,” Farrell said when asked how much easier his job might be this year with a year’s experience to draw on. “And I think just familiarity with what their abilities are will hopefully give more understanding of putting them in situations where they can have success.”
Last season with the Blue Jays was certainly a learning curve for Farrell.
The former pitching coach was hired to his first managerial job in August of 2010, giving him five months to assemble a coaching staff and acquaint himself with the players of an organization that hasn’t been to the playoffs since 1993.
“Obviously when you’re doing something for the first time, you go through your learning periods,” Jose Bautista, the Blue Jays slugger and team leader, said when asked what he saw from Farrell in that first year.
“I can’t speak for him but I see him making adjustments [this year]when it comes to knowing some of the rules, when to make a pitching change, when to send somebody to warm up or not. I think that’s where he can manage his pitching staff a little more efficiently.
“I think he would agree [with that]now that he’s got more experience under his belt. And I think it was way better the last four months of the season than the first two months.”
Farrell will readily admit that he was unhappy last season how he managed his bullpen which over the course of the season coughed up 25 blown saves, tying Toronto for the highest total in the league.
There was also a failed attempt at the start of the season to install Edwin Encarnacion at third base that was a miserable failure.
Farrell also tripped up during an interleague game in June in St. Louis when he made a mistake attempting to make a double switch in a game against the Cardinals.
“Hell, I hope I learned something,” Farrell said with a big laugh when asked about last year.
With a year under his belt, Farrell said he has a better understanding of the areas the Blue Jays need to emphasize in order to contend for the playoffs.
Toronto finished the year 81-81, a daunting 16 games behind the New York Yankees for first place in the American League East Division. The team was only 10 games off the pace of the Tampa Bay Rays, who secured the wild-card playoff berth.
The acquisition of Sergio Santos to be the closer this season should help smooth out the problems of the bullpen and Farrell said another key will be to coax more quality innings from his starting rotation.
Farrell said he thought his hitters at times were susceptible to breaking balls, especially early in the count. The players are already hitting off a pitching machine that hurls breaking balls here at camp.
Perhaps more than anything, Farrell and his staff will continue to hammer home to the players that there is no room for complacency in the clubhouse.
“When you return a group of players I think it’s natural progression that we have to increase our overall expectation across the board, not just pointing to any one area,” Farrell said.
Farrell said he has “raised the bar internally” a mindset that the players will also have to adopt if they want to make up that 10-game deficiency in the standing.
“So it starts with our thoughts, it moves to our words, hopefully it plays out in our actions and ultimately ends up in the results,” Farrell said.