Toronto Blue Jays Minor League Manager John Schneider has travelled a long road, and like many of the players on the championship teams he’s managed the past two seasons, he’s on the cusp of a Major League job.
A career Blue Jay, Schneider was originally drafted by the Tigers in the 24th round of the 2001 draft after making All Colonial Conference Association as a Catcher, Schneider opted to return to school at Delaware (where he says he, “Majored in Sociology, and minored in baseball”):
I didn’t know if I was quite ready to leave school yet, and I was signed up to play in the Cape Cod League, which I really wanted to do. I had two years of college eligibility left, and I felt like one more year of school would be good for me. It kind of worked out for me, and I decided to leave school the next year.
Schneider was drafted by the Blue Jays in the 13th round the following year, and soon after was off to Auburn of the New York Penn League (the Blue Jays’ short-season affiliate at the time), where he slashed .240/.381/.352 in 40 games. Schneider moved up through the organization, until back surgery following the 2006 season and three concussions suffered the following year gave him cause to consider his post playing career:
I had back surgery in 2006, and then came back and played the next year, then – everyone reaches a point in their career where you start thinking, “maybe this isn’t going to work out for me,” and I had bounced around so much…..then it was the concussions (three in 2007) that gave me a pretty good scare, and started me thinking about my long-term future outside of baseball….you put everything together, between hitting your peak as a player, and throw in some injuries, and it was time for me to call it a career, and luckily I had a coaching gig with the Blue Jays lined up. I went from being in the locker room at spring training to going into a coaches meeting the next day.
When asked what was the biggest adjustment he made from literally being inside the lines one day to the outside the next, Schneider said:
One of the hardest parts was seeing something that you loved and done your whole life, and your friends are still continuing to do it. You know you could probably still do it, but it wouldn’t be realistic.
As his playing career reached its final stages, Schneider admits that staying in the dugout in a coaching or managing capacity had already entered his mind:
I had conversations with Managers and Co-ordinators – when you’re managing, you can tell which of your players might make a good Manager or Coach down the road, the way they talk, their demeanour, and how they interact with guys on the team. Dick Scott, who was our Farm Director at the time, was very open with me, and gave me the opportunity to start coaching right then and there (spring training 2008). He even said if I wanted to keep playing, they would give me a release and we could re-visit things in a year. I played about another week in spring training, and then realized it was time. I also wanted to get a head start on coaching while I was young, and I was told after 2007 that if I had another concussion I’d have to retire, so that made the decision a lot easier.
Schneider was assigned to the Gulf Coast League as a hitting coach for the 2008 season. Having not played rookie ball, it was another period of adjustment for him:
I went from playing at a high level back down to rookie league, but you do forget about the mistakes that get made, and the repetitions players have to put in. You learn patience – if you have to tell them something a thousand times, tell them a thousand and one. That took a little bit of time. I look back on it now, and when I started managing I was 29. I thought I had made it, and I realize now when I look back on how I acted, and things like arguing calls with umpires, and then you remember the kids were so young. It’s funny to look back and realize how much you’ve changed like your demeanor and the way you go about things.
If you talk with anyone who has been around the minor leagues for a while, one thing players, coaches, and managers alike agree on is that the nature of the relationship between players and coaching staff has changed. Minor League instructors who yelled at players to motivate them are on the way out, as patience and teaching are the keys to dealing with young players. For his part, Schneider embraces that:
I’ve always believed in that, I believed it since I first started managing. You had managers that you love playing for and some managers not so much. You try to take a little bit from each guy who managed you or coached you. On teams that I manage, I like the messages to come from teammates. If you have that kind of vibe and chemistry going on in your club house it just makes things so much easier. Problems tend to take care of themselves that way, although there are times when you have to step in and take charge. I tend to be one of those managers who doesn’t scream at kids, and I try to remember how hard the game is to play, And I try to relate to them the message that I probably made more errors and mistakes in my careers than they’re ever going to make. They could look at my stats and see I wasn’t very good, and say, who are you to yell at me? Unless it’s something that’s fundamentally incorrect, or something that’s in violation of what we stand for as an organization, I’m much more than kind of guy that’s going to pop them on the back and say way to go keep doing what you’re doing, rather than what are you doing? I don’t think you get a lot of results if you’re the kind of guy that just goes up there screaming.
When asked which players in New Hampshire helped deliver the message to their teammates this year, Schneider spreads the credit around, but points out two players in particular:
There were a lot of players like that, which is one of the reasons why I think we were so good. Whether it was (Cavan) Biggio who was there all year, or Pat Cantwell who is there all year – The thing we tried to do was build a positive, winning culture. I knew we were going to have a good team, but I also knew we were going to have a lot of fluctuation in our roster. You want the guys were there and playing every day to be able to show the new guys coming in how we do things and how we roll. The core guys who were there just made it fun, and as much as we try to make these guys better on the field, what goes hand-in-hand with that is teaching them how to win, and teaching them how to be good teammates. So if they can take care of things and their own backyard – which they did a really good job of this year – It makes my job really easy.
Schneider prefers an environment where players can be comfortable:
Baseball’s too hard not to have fun. I wanted guys to be themselves. I’m a little bit different than other managers in the organization. I don’t have a dress code. I tell players to dress the way they want to dress I just be who you are, because I think you get the best results when people are comfortable. From the stuff we did in the clubhouse, to the stuff we did on the field, to the stuff we did on the bus, we just had a lot of fun this year. It’s not something you should take for granted. It’s tough to do in the minor leagues Dash you get the talent together you get the personalities together, where guys really liked being around one another, it makes for a really good year.
But Schneider doesn’t run a loose ship; the expectation of hard work is still there. Many clubhouses across baseball have ping-pong tables – it’s an excellent distraction. But sometimes the line between distraction and obsession is easily crossed, and when it happened in Lansing in 2015, Schneider didn’t hesitate to have it removed (temporarily, at least):
You have to do stuff like that every once in awhile if guys are spending too much time at the ping-pong table and not enough time in the cage or on the field. I took it away for a couple of weeks, but I did give it back.
Like the players he manages, Schneider has made his way through the system, starting in the GCL, and advancing to Vancouver, a place that he still remembers fondly:
It’s a big League City in a minor league. The people in the front office do everything first class. The stadium is awesome, and for our guys to get that kind of experience right out of the draft was unbelievable. I’ve been to a lot of minor league Parks, but there’s no atmosphere like there is at The Nat. I have a lot of great memories from Vancouver.
I put Schneider on the spot somewhat. There has been so much written and said about Vladimir Guerrero Jr that I asked him to tell us something people might not know about the slugging prodigy. He didn’t hesitate with his answer:
How funny he is. I’ve told numerous people that. When you watch him playing on the field you know he’s having fun. When you see him in the clubhouse, when you see him in the cage, or when you see him on the bus, He’s a funny dude, man. He speaks way better English than anyone thinks. He and I text back and forth in English. He’s a really keen observer of things around him and he’s a bit of a jokester in the clubhouse, then he goes out onto the field and works his butt off. His teammates really respect him and look up to him, and not just because of the player he is. His numbers speak for themselves, but I’ve really got to know him well over the past two years, and we’re talking about someone who’s as good a person as he is a player.
When Guerrero joins the Blue Jays (likely in mid-April), there will be an enormous amount of pressure and media attention on him. Schneider thinks he’ll be more than up to the challenge of dealing with the high expectations:
He’s been doing it for the past couple of years in the minors. I think he responds to challenges well, whether it’s the Futures Game, or the Fall Stars Game, or whether it’s the thousands of people who came to see him play every day, he handles it well, all at 19 years of age. He’s surrounded himself with really good people away from the field who help him that – obviously, his Dad is a huge support.
When asked if Guerrero has the skills to stick as a Major League 3rd Baseman, Schneider feels that he does, but he also has thinks Vladdy will adjust to an eventual position change:
I do. I think with baseball it’s tough sometimes to see the long-term, and things can change quickly, but for the next handful of years, I see him at 3rd Base. He’s better there than people think. He makes the routine plays, he has good and quick hands, and an above average arm. It’s the little things, but I’ve seen him make diving plays to his left and plays down the line, which are above average Major League plays. I think that once his athleticism, agility, quickness, and first step reads, it’s going to be really fun to watch him over there. I think whenever you look at a hitter like that, people say, “oh, his bat’s ahead of his glove,” but Vladdy could be Adrian Beltre defensively and I think his bat would still be ahead of his glove – that’s just how good of a hitter he is. I think he’s fine at 3rd and will continue to make improvements, although he does have the athleticism to move elsewhere one day. I definitely see him as a 3rd Baseman right now.
While Guerrero was flirting with .400 and getting top prospect acclaim across the continent this summer, his fellow top prospect Bo Bichette was scuffling for the first time in his pro career, his average dropping into the .230s in May. Bichette was over-aggressive at the plate, and word quickly spread around the Eastern League that you didn’t have to throw a lot of pitches inside the zone to get him out. Time, patience, and the help of Schneider and hitting coach Hunter Mense allowed Bichette to break out, but Schneider says the organization wanted to challenge Bichette this year:
That was part of the reason we wanted to put him in AA at 20 years old. You have to struggle some times, right? His struggles were more like for a two or three week span, he was really grinding offensively a couple of times, but then you look up, and he’s hitting .286, with double-digit Homers, 75 RBI, 32 Stolen Bases, 43 Doubles, and made tremendous strides defensively and as a leader of the team, and he won his second championship in a row as a starting Short Stop. I couldn’t be happier with the year that he had. I told him in April, “I’m going to purposely run you out there every day, and I want you to tell me when you’re tired,” because I knew last year he and Vlad had pretty strict schedules. I told them both this year that the training wheels were off, and to let me know when they needed a rest. Bo still played over 130 games. I think the most impressive thing this year was when he was going through a rough patch in early May, and I kept throwing him out there, but he didn’t complain, didn’t ask for a day off – I gave him a couple, because I could tell, and that’s my job as a Manager – but he expected to play every day and work his way through it. To me, that’s invaluable.
Earlier in the season, Schneider had Lourdes Gurriel Jr in the lineup. After a nearly two year hiatus after leaving Cuba, Gurriel looked very rusty in all aspects of his game. He was a different player this year:
He was like that right from spring training……I saw him in Dunedin last year, and he just hadn’t played in a year and a half, he was kind of raw – you could see the talent, but you couldn’t see the results right away. Coming into spring training this year, he was a completely different guy. Offensively, defensively, he just seemed more comfortable. It was awesome to see the start that he had, and then get called up later to Toronto. He’s a good guy to have for his work ethic, and the other guys see that.
And no conversation about New Hampshire’s lineup this year would be complete without a discussion about Biggio, the EL MVP and HR leader. After managing him in Dunedin last year, Schneider knew Biggio was destined for big things, but this year’s breakout was a bit of a pleasant surprise:
If you ask him, I don’t think he expected to hit 27 Homers and 99 RBIs – we tried so hard to get him to 100 – but I think this season showed what he’s capable of. He’s so intelligent, and has such a good command of the strike zone. He made adjustments going into this year, and he’s going to have to do the same thing next year, but I think will be consistent is him playing every day and being productive, and being a solid defender. I saw him after the got drafted, and he was a typical top-of-the-order guy: hitting everything up the middle, working the count. And then he started to become more aggressive early in the count. I think hitting behind Vladdy for part of the year helped him, because Pitchers would tend to take a deep breath after facing Vlad and maybe throw the next pitch over the plate…..then 450 feet later, you’ve got a couple of runs coming in.
Like Guerrero, there is some question as to Biggio’s long-term position. After starting his pro career at 2nd, he saw time at 1st and 3rd with New Hampshire, and played the corner OF spots in the Arizona Fall League. Schneider thinks 2nd is his best position, but his versatility will be the key that drives him toward the bigs:
I think he’s going to be versatile. He’s such a good athlete and student of the game that he can play several positions. He looked good at 1st Base and 3rd Base and with what they did with having him play the OF in the Arizona Fall League. He even got an inning at SS with us this year. I think 2B is where he might fall back on, though. I think he’s going to do a lot of things, with his best spot being 2nd.
Winning or development? The question is often asked of all farm directors and GMs. Do organizations focus on building minor league teams that win, or let players take their lumps in an environment that sees them get reps, if not necessarily wins? For Schneider, it’s best to try to focus on the best of both worlds:
I think you kind of want to a bit of both at every level. I’ve always said that the minor leagues is a filtering out process, so for the guys who aren’t going to get to the major leagues, the games we play are practice games, and the post season games are higher leverage practice games. It’s fun for me as a Manager to be in those situations, and it’s fun for the players to see how they react to those higher leverage games, but you really can’t replicate that during the regular season – when you have to get a guy from 2nd to 3rd, when you have to make a pitch with a runner on 3rd, when you have to make all the routine plays, when everyone knows you’re going to steal and you have to get a good jump. All those things you put so much time and effort into over the course of spring training and a year, they really come into play in the playoffs, whether it’s the guy making decisions, or it’s me making decisions, everything is sped up. So I think that if you can do some of both, you’re doing a good thing. The biggest thing is you want the guys to expect to win, whether it’s the Dominican Summer League or AAA, you want them to expect to win every day. If you can create that environment and that culture, I think you’re going to be better off than most other organizations. It’s been cool over the last 2 years to know as a manager or as a coach, your players are developing, and still be winning.
Watching New Hampshire play this summer was a lot of fun, and not just because of the prospect depth the team featured. Schneider managed aggressively, and had the team always looking to run on the base paths. The Fisher Cats led the Eastern League in stolen bases, with five players in double figures of steals. The team went from 1st to 3rd probably more than any other team. This was all part of Schneider’s plan:
I love it. You do have to adapt to your personnel, but I’ve always said if you can run, keep going and force the issue. I told the guys everyone on the team has the green light to steal, and we came up with the term running in the outfielder’s face. In spring training, I said, if it’s a ground ball to left field on you’re on first, I want you to keep going on to third, just run right in the left fielder’s face. Now, you can’t go crazy, and you can’t run yourselves into outs, but the more aggressive you are, and the other team knows you’re going to be that way – you’re going to ,steal, hit and run, go first to third, go for extra bases – they’re going to play on their heels a bit. I take pride as a Manager knowing when other teams talk about us, and they say these guys are going to be really aggressive on the bases.
After managing two teams at two levels to successive league titles, he knows the core group that forms the next wave of Blue Jays better than anyone else in the organization. And he can’t say enough about their collective work ethic:
This group that’s coming up, they’re really good, but they’re also really hard workers. I can’t say enough about how hard they work and what kind of guys they are….it’s a special core, and I think to have them on the same team for a period of time will do wonders for them. They’ve learned how to work, they’ve learned how to win.
Like his players, Schneider’s ultimate goal is to be in the majors one day, although he’s not one to rush the schedule. He’s content to trust the process, and continuing to develop alongside his players:
It’s definitely a goal of mine. It’s nice to hear my name out there a little bit, and hopefully I can be one step closer (next year). Much like players, coaches and managers want to get better every year, be around challenging situations and good people, and to be open to different ways that things are done. To me that was very fulfilling last year to hear different views about hitting or pitching, and I just always want to continue to evolve with the game. I love the core group that I’ve been able to spend the last couple of seasons with, and hopefully I’ll be able to be around them in the big leagues in some capacity. I’m thrilled with the addition of Charlie (Montoyo) in Toronto – I think it’s a good blend of what we’re trying to do up there.