As Blue Jays outfielders adjust to one another, adjustment to new dome wall looms, too

As Blue Jays outfielders adjust to one another, adjustment to new dome wall looms, too

DUNEDIN, Fla. – At the beginning of every visit to a different ballpark, even ones they’ve been to dozens of times, John Schneider and Mark Budzinski go out on a reconnaissance mission around the field. “He’s out there walking it like a madman, hitting balls off the wall,” the Toronto Blue Jays manager says of his first base coach, who accepts the barb about his sanity as a worthy trade-off for his diligence.

“John and I both have a thing about it,” says Budzinski, who also oversees the club’s outfielders. “We both like to walk the field, just make sure nothing’s changed, no gaps underneath walls, have they put in cameras up top anywhere just because the ball can take some hops and the umpires can’t always see everything from far away. So, try to get an idea what’s out there.

“Obviously with the new outfield wall in Toronto, we’re going have a lot of work to do.”

Very much so, as not only must the Blue Jays adjust to new dimensions at the refurbished Rogers Centre, they’ll also have to crash course it upon their return to Toronto after a season-opening, 10-game road trip while still getting to know one another.

With Schneider and the coaching staff emphasizing attention to detail this spring, that’s meant the prep work is already well underway for George Springer, who slides over to right field, along with free-agent signing centre-fielder Kevin Kiermaier and trade acquisition left-fielder Daulton Varsho.

Budzinski has thus far resisted the urge to scour construction blueprints for nuggets of information, but “I’ve seen the mock-ups and I’ve seen the distances, the wall heights, things like that.” He’s hesitant to draw any conclusions until he gets the chance to “literally take a ball, throw it off there, hit it with a fungo off the wall and see what it does.”

“We were just talking in the outfield, we’re not going to see it until we play,” he adds. “We have an off-day (April 10) the day we get back. Whether it’s later that afternoon on the day off or the next day before BP, we’ll get everybody out there to get a feel for it, obviously we want it to be an advantage for us.”

There’s certainly an opportunity for that as for the first time since the Blue Jays began play in 1977, they’ll have an asymmetrical outfield wall at home, with slight inward protrusions in the power alleys and fence heights that vary from eight feet up to 14 feet, four inches.

Defending in an unusual home outfield will be nothing new for Springer, who came up with the Houston Astros when Minute Maid Park still featured a 90-foot wide incline at the end of a 436-foot centre field known as Tal’s Hill. He remembers the odd sensation of “feeling like there was no wall behind you, even though there was – it felt like you could run forever.”

That won’t be the case at Rogers Centre, although he acknowledges, “it’s definitely going to be a little bit trickier now.”

“Obviously getting there and having an opportunity to walk the track to see how the ball will bounce and to honestly see how the ball will fly, that’s going to be huge for me, especially if I’m playing in the corner,” he adds.

Adjusting to the elite range of Kiermaier and Varsho after being flanked by Teoscar Hernandez and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. the past two seasons will also take some time and has been another point of emphasis early in camp.

“It starts with getting out there early and having these conversations of, hey, this is how I like to play, this the way I do it, what works for you, what doesn’t,” explains Springer. “Then, obviously, there’s no experience like getting into games, playing and understanding where he’s going to be or where I’m going to be. It’s all about the reps early and then you get in a game and if you make a mistake, oh well, that’s spring training. The goal is to understand each other so by March 30, it’s a full go and go.”

An intriguing dynamic is that all three outfielders are trained centre-fielders, who are tasked with taking initiative in the field. For Springer and Varsho, that means learning to defer to Kiermaier, even though their instinct may be to take charge on the ball.

Budzinski sees that as a plus, saying “they know well enough who has authority,” and adds “one of the things I always preach that’s important to me is just go make a play if you can make a play.”

“To have the mentality to go get it, that’s what I want. That’s like a dream,” he continues. “I remember when I first got to the big leagues in 2019 as a coach, Mookie Betts, Andrew Benintendi and Jackie Bradley Jr. (were together in the Boston Red Sox outfield). Those are three centre-fielders, too. It was like, I feel like nothing’s going to fall. That’s what I feel like at this point now. No disrespect to the past or anything, but when you have three centre-fielders out there, you cover a lot of ground and you’ve got to play aggressively.”

Having three elite defenders in the outfield should provide the Blue Jays with one important advantage this season and they’ll aim to turn their new fence dimensions into another. After 46 seasons of cookie-cutter dimensions at Exhibition Stadium and the dome, their home field will finally have some actual personality.

“It’s cool that every stadium is different, right?” says Schneider. “Whether you go into Yankee Stadium or Fenway or even Baltimore now just in our division, there’s some little things here and there that you have to get used to and it can be a home-field advantage. At the beginning it’s going to be new for everyone, obviously. But it’s great for the fans, for one, it’s going from a stadium to more of a ballpark, which the experience of the game is going to be night and day. At the same time, it’s our job to get used to it. Playing 81 games there as opposed to a three- or four-game series, we should have a little bit of an advantage.”

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