Blue Jays' newest starter delivers calm amid chaos

Francis' routine involves mindfulness exercises, yoga, meditation

March 31st, 2024

Understanding requires an open mind.

There’s plenty about the Blue Jays right-hander that fits the mold of professional baseball: His 6-foot-5 figure, the sleeve tattoo on his left arm, the pencil mustache. There’s the great breaking ball, the religious routines and all the talk about controlling what you can control.

Take another look, though, and you may see an eccentric. That’s when Francis walks around barefoot, burns sage or preaches “getting back to the source.” For years, the newly named Blue Jays starter has incorporated mindfulness practices into his life on and off the mound. All the eccentricity might well be Francis’ biggest strength.

“As I matured, I realized how our minds can grab onto negative things,” Francis said during Spring Training from his locker, which featured a jarful of beef-organ capsules and a vintage trucker hat that read Pray For Snow. “I kind of dove into our brain and tried to get back to the old us, the old human -- without the electronics, without all the negative stuff going on. So, I just try to get back to the source.”

That type of discourse might look out of place in a Major League pitching staff, and Francis’ teammates aren’t above jesting about it. But each of the personalities on the roster -- and the Blue Jays have a wide array -- can find something to respect in how Francis goes about things.

“He’s a different cat,” teammate Kevin Gausman said from the visitors’ clubhouse at Tropicana Field, shaking dry a Polaroid of Francis -- one of their shared interests. “And we like that, too. It’s fun to get to know him a little bit more. … We’re all trying to get better and find what works for us, and that works for him.

“I can’t meditate. I’ve tried it, but I just can’t turn my mind off.”

It’s not necessarily about turning your mind off.

A Major League mound can be a playground for intrusive thoughts: He’s going to hit a home run here. I can’t walk the No. 9 batter. Our offense is struggling, so I’d better not give up the lead. Trying to avoid it is a bit of a fool’s errand, but successful guys learn to let those thoughts go, observe them rather than cling to them and then get back to what’s in front of them.

That’s what Francis means when he talks about returning to the source.

“I wish more guys did that, to be honest with you, because baseball can be a very upsetting sport,” said Blue Jays pitching coach Pete Walker. “A lot of adversity, a lot of failure. So the guys that can handle those situations [stand out]. … For [Francis], it's through meditation, through finding peace, and he keeps himself levelheaded. I think that’s huge.”

Don’t mistake calmness for complacency, though.

The 27-year-old Francis earned his spot in the Blue Jays’ rotation by setting an intention and working obstinately toward it. After successful stints as a long reliever last year, Francis focused on strength and conditioning this offseason, renewing his focus on durability while adding a splitter to his repertoire.

A right shoulder injury to Alek Manoah cracked open a starting window for Francis. A 3.38 ERA in 18 2/3 spring innings sealed the decision.

“He's really driven, really focused and understands what he needs to do to put himself in the position to have success,” Blue Jays manager John Schneider said shortly before announcing Francis had made the rotation. “A lot of that goes unnoticed to the normal person, just what he does every single day. He dominates his days in terms of how he preps, how he recovers [and] the work in between.

“The byproduct of that is what you see when he's on the mound.”

The mound, it turns out, can also be the perfect practice mat.

“When I’m pitching, it’s like a meditation,” Francis said. “Anything, really -- even throwing program, it’s a meditation. I’m not talking a lot, I’m not thinking about what I’m eating later. I’m worrying about my breath and what’s going on [in front of me].”

Francis has always considered himself a “Zen person,” introduced to yoga by his mother at a young age. Since then, he’s made strides in channeling those teachings into his game.

He spent time in Arizona during the offseason, practicing meditation and breathwork with a Native American instructor. Francis was also one of a dozen Blue Jays pitchers who received breath coaching from specialists during Spring Training, and he has incorporated several yoga exercises into his routine.

There are clear benefits to those practices, such as bone and joint strengthening, better balance and improved concentration. But this is also where Francis found a well of self-knowledge, something that has put him light-years ahead of what his service time indicates.

“He's got all the tools to be a really good pitcher,” said Chris Bassitt, whose loud and self-critical personality on the mound could not be further from that of Francis. “His calmness and the mental side of it all, it’s come a long, long way. I give a lot of credit to him, just being around us and understanding that the bad days are [part of it], and the good days are [part of it], trusting it and staying calm through all these so-called storms.”

Bassitt knows the pressure of being a young big leaguer.

Coming up with the A’s, he needed several reminders of the “control what you can control” adage. If run support was lacking, he’d try to be perfect. If the defense was struggling, he’d become overly focused on strikeouts. It made things significantly more difficult from start to start.

“Younger me was what was intense throughout everything,” Bassitt said. “I've learned to focus on what I need to be intense about. It’s something that people taught me, like, ‘Why are you worried about this? What’s the point?’ … That's why we have a million people that work for us. There's so many intricacies within a baseball game that if you try to worry about all of them, you're just overwhelmed to the max.”

Letting go of that is liberating, and it paves a genuine path to continued success.

“[Francis is] already a little bit of a leader by example,” Walker said. “The way he goes about his business has an effect on other players. They see it, and it interests them. It doesn't mean it's for everybody, but I think it's eye-opening for some to see how he approaches things and how he handles tough situations.”

Blue Jays beat reporter Keegan Matheson contributed reporting for this story.