Skip to main content


Blue Jays bet 2024 season on veteran voices, internal improvement

Justin Turner Toronto Blue Jays Justin Turner - The Canadian Press

When your 2023 season was defined by a lack of offence and your two biggest off-season additions are a 62-year-old hitting savant and a 39-year-old designated hitter, the door has been left wide open for criticism.

Agree or disagree with the off-season evaluation and tactics put together by the Toronto Blue Jays management group, there’s no arguing they’ve at least stuck to their guns and decided internal improvement is the key to getting over the hump.

That 62-year-old is Don Mattingly, a man with a long and impressive resume on the coaching side, and a .307 career batting average that shows he’s done a little hitting of his own.

The 39-year-old is veteran righty bat Justin Turner, a player with a .288 career batting average and a reputation that some believe could lead to a future as a hitting coach when his playing days are finally over.

In different ways, both are tasked with helping get the most out of a lineup that underachieved in so many ways last season.

It’s the unsexiest of answers to last year’s problems, but it’s a plan that this club has all sorts of confidence in heading into 2024, simply because of the talent dotting the roster.

Communication and consistency are the two words used most around Blue Jays camp this spring.

After falling from fourth in baseball in runs scored in 2022 to 15th last season, the club believes those are the keys to righting the ship.

Mattingly, in his new role as offensive co-ordinator, has been enjoying the challenge, alongside a beefed up coaching staff that includes hitting coach Guillermo Martinez and assistants Hunter Mense and Matt Hague, who’s credited with helping produce a number of productive seasons for Triple-A Buffalo bats last year.

“Over the winter, there were numerous Zoom calls going over all our guys, walking through their strengths, what they do best, how we can help them, and just what our plan was coming into spring and what our mindset wanted to be as a hitting group,” Mattingly said. “I keep saying group because it’s all of us combined, just making sure we’re staying on top of that, knowing there’s going to be parts of the season that you struggle as an offence and there’s going to be times you’re not hitting with men in scoring position, and it becomes a thing for two weeks and things like that. But just fighting through that and, again, keeping our consistency and our messaging and our work on what we’re trying to do.”

The list of Jays hitters who met expectations in 2023 is a short one. The list who exceeded them is mostly non-existent.

That will have to change this year if the Blue Jays are going to get to where they ultimately want to go.

Turner needs to be a big part of that, both in the middle of the lineup and in the middle of the clubhouse as a veteran voice with clout.

“I think it’s just talking about my experience and things that I’ve done,” Turner said of his role. “I’ve been around a long time and tried a lot of different things. I think hitting, for the most part, there are a lot of principles that are the same in every single guy, but trying to get those out and trying to get to that point is always the challenge. How things are said and how things are communicated usually all have kind of the same intent, but for whatever reason it doesn’t always land the same from one guy to the next guy to the next guy. I’m hoping I can be another voice who can maybe say the same thing as some of these guys, but maybe in a different way to help it land.”

Practically, landing the ball over the fence more would be a good place to start.

From a league-leading 262 home runs in 2021 to 200 in 2022 to 188 last season, the club’s power has been dwindling, making it much, much tougher to score runs in bunches, especially against top quality arms.

“Hitting’s tough, man, and you get a lot of voices during the course of a season,” Mattingly said. “You know, your high school coach, you see something on the internet – guys are just trying different things, and we just want to keep, more or less, a simplistic view of how we’re going about our business. Making sure we’re thinking right, our approach is good, how we’re going after the pitcher and attacking them, and that can’t really be one way. I’m not going to ask Isiah Kiner-Falefa to do it just like Bo Bichette. He has to have his approach for that guy and that’s where you build, for me, an individual team approach. Each guy has a responsibility to be a tough out, his part of the battle.”

If you want a quick-and-dirty on the job descriptions, it’s this: Mattingly sets the philosophy, direction and approach, while Martinez, Mense and Hague handle the day-to-day fundamentals, cage work and video research, a never-ending grind that includes getting 13 hitters prepared the best pitchers in the world on a daily basis.

Someone is always struggling and needs extra attention. And it’s usually more than one at a time.

Turner’s philosophy on hitting has aligned with Mattingly’s in the past, making his free agent addition a no-brainer in terms of adding a veteran voice who can make things easier on the new OC.

“JT’s a joy, man,” Mattingly said. “He understands hitting. He understands all the things I’ve been talking about here. Game-planning, how we go about it, being consistent on what we want to do, team approach, the whole thing. And JT’s got clout and most of the time players have the biggest influence.”

When Turner isn’t talking hockey at his locker, he’s talking hitting in an advanced way.

“First and foremost, the most important one is timing,” Turner said when asked to describe his hitting philosophy. “No matter how good or bad your swing is, if you’re not on time you’re probably going to have a hard time hitting. Timing, vision, swing decisions, contact points –  it all kind of goes into my pillars of hitting. You nailed it, we could talk about it forever, but those are kind of the principles in it. How we move, how we get to 50/50 … I could go on for a long time.

“I just want to go up there and take quality at-bats and situational hitting when it needs it and drive in runs when I get the chance.”

Nobody inside the Blue Jays clubhouse wants to dwell on what went wrong last year.

They all did their own post-mortems over another long winter and are focused on a new season that will bring inevitable ups and downs, and inevitable criticism when they aren’t raking one through nine.

“It doesn’t matter what happened last year, honestly,” Mattingly said bluntly.

He also wasn’t about to declare this offence fixed.

“Well, we’ll see,” Mattingly said when asked how much better this offence can be in 2024. “But I do think we’re capable of having competitive at-bats up and down the lineup where we’re tough outs and making pitchers work and fight to get us out.

“I don’t worry about down year last year to this year. I’m only worried about this year. My approach and thought process is really pretty simple. What are we doing to get a good swing off? Are we putting ourselves in position? What’s your gameplan and what are we doing with this guy? If we can do that consistently, then we trust the ability of our guys that their numbers are going to be there.”

More consistency in terms of competitive at-bats, less waving at pitches up in the zone and then breaking balls off the plate, more damage, and essentially more looking like they have a plan on a nightly basis.

It all seems so easy.

But that’s exactly what Mattingly is attempting to do — simplify the message and let his hitters’ talent shine through.

“I think a guy having his plan and executing that plan and staying with it, and that ends up being a competitive at-bat,” Mattingly said. “What do you want to do with this guy? What are you trying to do? How are you trying to get him there? And then sticking with that. You’re not going to cover the whole zone or cover every area or every pitch. It’s really hard to do. So, we’re going to try to minimize where we’re trying to handle and we’re going to try to, hopefully, cover the areas of that guy’s strengths and get the ball in those areas and go to work.

“Just let their ability come out.”

Internal improvement is the solution the front office decided on months ago after the Shohei Ohtani chase came up empty.

Time will tell if it was the correct direction to take.