Photo Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Is Grilli Toast?

I don’t want to get all Mike Wilner about this, but over 10 appearances between May 6th and May 31st — his last appearance before Saturday’s awfulness — Jason Grilli looked like he might have been turning his season around.

He threw just 8.1 innings in those ten appearances — a testament to the short leash John Gibbons had been forced to give him based on his terrible April — but over that span he struck out 10, walked only two, allowed eight hits (only one of which was a home run), and just three runs, only two of which were earned.

That’s maybe not great, but it’s a long way from terrible.

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Perhaps even bigger than the overall numbers over that span was the improvements he made with his slider. Fewer of them were finding the heart of the plate, as compared to the start of the season — which we can see in these two zone charts from Texas Leaguers:

Grilli sliders, April 1 – May 5:

Grilli sliders, May 6 – May 31

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According to the data, opposing batters whiffed on the pitch 12.2% of the time during this 10 game bright spot, which was down from the 17.6% rate that they swung and missed on it from last June 1st to the end of the 2016 season, but up significantly from the 5.5% whiff rate Grilli’s slider generated in April and early May.

And then Saturday happened.

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Saturday was a gut punch for Grilli, for the Jays, and for every Jays fan who didn’t have the good sense to have already turned the game off to watch the Champions League final. *COUGH* And, look, it’s absolutely possible that May 6th through May 31st was simply an odd bright spot in a decline that began in earnest at the end of 2016. After all, those are very much the most arbitrary of endpoints. But I don’t think one spectacularly awful outing means that all of the progress of the last few weeks — if that’s what it really was — has been completely undone.

It never makes sense in this game to change our analysis of someone based on a single outing; it’s all about the big picture. It’s just, for Grilli, the big picture right now still looks quite murky, and would have whether he blew up over the weekend or not.

This isn’t a “Grilli’s fine, don’t worry about Saturday” piece, in other words. But it’s not the other thing, either.

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What other thing, you ask? This piece from Bluebird Banter, basically.

Here are some choice baseless quotes:

“The sobering reality is that Grilli doesn’t belong on this roster anymore.”

“The Toronto leg of 2016 was not a renaissance in Jason Grilli’s career, but rather the last gasp of a reliever who’s already held back the hands of time longer than most could reasonably expect.”

“Giving up four in less than an inning of work is pretty much all the proof you need that he’s no longer a guy who can miss barrels.”

“The only thing that should stop the club from cutting Grilli and Howell loose now is if they truly believe they can pitch successfully in high leverage situation again at some point in the next few months, and right now that looks like a pipe dream.”

I don’t want to be absurdly pro Grilli here. The front office will have a really difficult decision to make at some point, y’know, if he doesn’t immediately go back to pitching more like he did in the ten outings previous to this one. But that’s the thing: it’s absurd to say that it’s a pipe dream to see him pitch well again when he just spent the past few weeks pitching pretty well!

Also absurd:

“The real issue here, the real problem holding Grilli back ….. is that he has a case of the early forties, and they don’t have a cure for that.”

He… uh… he was almost as old last year when he was pretty damned close to great. I know nobody can beat age and that there will come a point where he just can’t hack it anymore, but writing off a player at the first sign of trouble solely because of the age boogeyman is how you get Tulo being written off last April, Martin last September, and José Bautista last month. Sooner or later you’ll be right that age has caught up to a player, so I understand why people are quick to go to that well, but if we’re serious we should be looking for evidence that corroborates age being a factor for poor performance, not looking at an older player’s poor performance and simply assuming the reason must be age.

That Grilli is old and has pitched poorly is pretty good reason to be skeptical that he’ll suddenly start pitching well, but I think you have to account for the fact that he’s pitched well for stretches, too. And his stuff, though it’s not what it once was – and there’s absolutely a chance it’s no longer good enough, especially if he’s losing his ability to command it — looks a whole lot like it did last season.

Oh, but wait, apparently 2016 was just a mirage anyway!

The electricity he provided last season when he came over from Atlanta was a perfect storm. You had an arm that only spent half a season in the American League since 2009 (2014 with the Angels) coming to the team he always wanted to play for, and that team was having all sorts of problems bridging the gap between the starters and Osuna.

It was an ideal situation for Grilli, and a shrewd pick up by Ross Atkins. The hitters in this division weren’t familiar with his stuff, Grilli was getting an extra boost because he was riding an emotional high, and he fit in perfectly with a bullpen that at the time needed a jolt.

Man, if an emotional high gets him to pitch better, he must have been great down the stretch and in the playoffs! *COUGH*

In a poll at the bottom of the piece, 64% of Bluebird Banter readers answered that they think the Blue Jays should designate Grilli for assignment and just move on. I get their concerns that John Gibbons needs to be able to manage with his full complement of relievers, and not have to manage around guys like Grilli and J.P. Howell (now on the DL), who he doesn’t trust outside of mop-up duty. But holy shit, that’s fucking ridiculous.

Grilli may well be useless at this point — it’s hardly impossible to think he might be; it might even be somewhat likely that he is — but given what he did for this team last year, given that he was starting to look good over the four weeks leading up to Saturday, given the fact that his velocity is still basically there, and that his struggles with the Braves in early 2016 were more injury-related than age-related, there is still plenty of reason to think that he might be able to turn it around. I’m not sure at what point you give up hope on that, but for me it’s certainly not after a single catastrophe coming at the end of a string of nine or ten pretty strong outings.

No matter who you bring in to be your fifth choice right-handed reliever, you’re not going to be getting a whole lot of value from that spot. Throwing away a reliever who was your no-doubt setup guy as recently as last September and this April to reap that “reward” is something you’d better be damned sure about. And right now I have no clue how anybody could be sure that Grilli’s finished, ugliest relief outing in team history or not.

Deep breaths…

  • Mule or etc...

    Grilli had a 4.33 FIP last year so he wasn’t “pretty damned close to great.” He had an unsustainable strand rate with the Jays of 84.2%. He gave up 8 home runs in 42 innings. The warning signs were there.

    • Kyball

      Uh…. yeah but his results on the season were pretty damn close to great. He sustained the “unsustainable strand rate” through the season, to that was… great?
      Remember how he was reliable? That was great? Remember how he kept that up through the whole season? That was great.
      Remember how when he came into games last year, you never had to worry? That was great.
      “Here’s a thing he did last year that was great, but since he shouldn’t have been able to do it for as long as he did, he wasn’t actually great.”

      • Mule or etc...

        It was great that he achieved the success he did but he didn’t achieve that success based on skill alone. Luck was a huge element. So yes, the results were great but Grilli wasn’t solely responsible for them so it’s rather unfair to give him full credit.

        Grilli’s career strand rate is 73.2% and he’s never posted a higher strand rate in his career than he did with the Jays. So who in their right mind would expect that to continue?

        His home run-to-fly ball ratio with the Jays was also the highest it’s ever been last year at 18.6% leading to a terrible 1.71 HR/9.

        Your saying we should just look at the results but they aren’t very predictive but the advanced metrics say he was turning to shit and he’s kind of turned to shit.

  • Bagged Almond Milk

    Always have been a bit nervous when the GRILL MAN grabs the ball…. even last year, the eye test appeared like he was lucky to escape a few innings unscathed that maybe he shouldn’t have

  • Knuckle Balls

    Well it certainly looks at the moment he will be the odd man out when Sanchez comes back. Even though fishman, and the other guy with beard (Barnes), and Loop have options, no way you lessen the team BP sending one of them down to keep Grille.