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Photo Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Toronto’s ragtag bullpen has been extremely good

I like to imagine the 2018 Blue Jays bullpen assembled during the offseason as if it were within a montage scene of a cheesy sports film about a loveable group of misfits recruited to make an improbable run to the championship game.

John Axford walks down an empty street in his hometown of Simcoe, Ontario. He stares at himself in the glass of a closed shop. He’s on the way to the local Cineplex, ready to hand in his resume and begin a new career. Suddenly, the face of Ross Atkins materializes in the glass beside him.

“John? I heard you could throw it pretty good once upon a time. I’m trying to putt together a team, we’d love to have you join us…”

Seung Hwan Oh clutches his aching right elbow as he holds a letter from the Texas Rangers informing him they have to withdraw their contract offer because of his failed physical. Suddenly, the mailperson knocks at his window. There’s a new letter for him. It’s from the Blue Jays…

Tyler Clippard sits in his study reading the headlines in the morning paper. The Yankees have traded a few laundry detergent coupons to the Miami Marlins for Giancarlo Stanton. He looks across the room to his old Yankees jersey crumpled on the floor before burying his face into his hands. Suddenly, the phone rings. Tyler lets it go to his voicemail.  The familiar Texas drawl of John Gibbons fills the room.

“Tyler, how the hell are ya?”

While it remains to be seen if this ragtag group of relievers can lead the Blue Jays to the state championship game, or better yet, October baseball, the early results have been promising. As of Monday’s off-day, they led the AL with a 3.06 bullpen ERA and stranded 82 per cent of all base runners, the highest rate in all of baseball. 

It doesn’t take much digging to find signs that this success might not be sustainable—the group’s 4.30 xFIP is 21st best in MLB, their 1.30 WHIP ranks 13th best, and their 14.6 K-BB%  is only 14th best. Those numbers are inflated by the fact the group has been overworked in the past two weeks, and suffered through two very poor performances from Carlos Ramirez and Luis Santos during the garbage-time innings of last Thursday’s ugly 13-4 loss to the Cleveland baseball team.

In order to get a better sense of how the bullpen has performed up to this point in the season, I’ve ranked the individual performances of its core members. I’d like to apologize beforehand to Tim Mayza for his exclusion—Gibby’s broken my heart with too many quick call-ups and demotions this past week for me to get too attached to your 29.4 K% through four games.

1. Roberto Osuna

The fastest player to record 100 saves in major league history got off to a very good start this season, allowing only four hits and zero runs through his first nine appearances. Since then, Osuna has been hit around a bit. In his last five appearances, he’s given up five runs on 11 hits, and seen his WHIP rise to 1.12

But those recent results are a bit deceptive. Osuna’s blown save against the Red Sox on April 24th was more a result of some bad luck BABIP (his .341 BABIP for the season is more than half a run higher than any of his previous seasons), and the home plate umpire missing a clear strike three call that would’ve ended the game with zero runs allowed.

What’s encouraging about Osuna’s first month is that he has yet to give up a home run, the velocity on all his pitches except his changeup has increased since last season, and he’s won eight rounds of thumb wars with his buddy Russ already:

Don’t be surprised to see Osuna’s traditional stats return to all-star levels by the end of May.

2. John Axford

It’s safe to say Axford’s facial hair game will never match his 2015 performance with the Milwaukee Brewers, but he’s done everything else you could ask for on the mound this season to make up for his clean shave.

Axford is throwing his nasty sinker very hard (96.4 mph avg. velocity), striking out batters at a solid rate (23.1 K%), and limiting his walks quite nicely (9.2 BB%).  With such great movement on his pitches, he’s always going to have to live on the edge in terms of control, but his $1.5 million contract is looking like a better bargain with each passing day.

3. Seung-hwan Oh

Oh has quickly become Blue Jays fans’ favourite player named after a vowel. What’s become abundantly clear through April is that he does not like to walk batters. Oh has walked only three batters in 15.1 innings thus far, while striking out 15 batters—good enough for a solid 5.00 K/BB ratio.

He’s also done well to limit damage from a fairly high BABIP of .273 and two home runs surrendered to keep his ERA at a very respectable 1.76.

In order for things to continue being A-Oh-kay (see what I did there?), Oh will have to find some way to induce more soft contact from hitters. Balls put in play against Oh currently are hit 84.8 per cent of the time with medium to hard contact, which is um…

4. Ryan Tepera

Tepera has come a long way in the past two seasons. Once a frequent QEW commuter to and  from Buffalo, Tepera has established himself as the Blue Jays set-up man with a 28.8% strike out rate, a 96 mph sinker/90mph cutter combination, and a very consistent beard line: 

He’s had a solid year so far, but he has to lower his 21.4 home run to fly ball ratio and 43.2% hard contact rate on balls in play in order to maintain his success.

5. Tyler Clippard

The former set-up man in Washington for Blue Jays legend Drew Storen has been really good this season. He’s limiting opponents to a .121 batting average, striking out 26.9% of batters he’s faced, and, according to Fangraphs’ runs above average per 100 pitches, is throwing his fastball (1.94 wFA/C) and changeup (3.62 wCH/C) better than he ever has in his career (.98 wFC/C and 1.15 wCH/C are his career averages).

Despite all these good things about Clippard’s pitching, there are a few indications it may not be sustainable. His current .108 BABIP is ridiculously low, his 12 HR/FB ratio is higher than you’d like, and there is a huge disparity between his 1.56 ERA and his 4.95 xFIP. Fangraphs actually has Clippard’s WAR at -.1 for 2018, which is surprising considering how positive the conversation surrounding Clippard has been thus far.

Let’s just hope he can at the very least continue to get left handers out 90 per cent of the time for the rest of season because our former goggled lefty killer out of the pen isn’t coming back from the Cardinals anytime soon.

6. Aaron Loup

Loup is the only member of the Blue Jays’ bullpen whose actual ERA is higher than his xFIP (4.97 ERA and 4.02 xFIP), which suggests that he is pitching better than his results and statistics have shown.

Opponents have a ridiculous .381 BABIP against him, he’s walking only 6.9 per cent of the batters he faced (two of those coming in a bad inning from Loup on Saturday against the Rays), and he has given up hard contact on only 16.3 per cent of all balls put in play against him.

Yet still, at this point, arguing Loup is underrated feels about as fruitful as getting into a debate about how the new Blade Runner movie was actually one of the best sequels of all time. You may convince someone to politely nod their head in agreement, but there’s no way that person will actually enjoy watching either on their weekend.

I for one, though, am happy Buzz Lightyear plays for us and not the other guys.

7. Danny Barnes

Current Bison Danny Barnes came into a game against the Orioles on April 18 and did this

According to Fangraphs’ Run Expectancy based on 24 base-out states, a bases-loaded and no outs scenario like the one Barnes faced is expected to produce 2.282 runs. Barnes gave up zero. Not a bad day at the office.

Barnes’ stats suggest he has been average at best for the Blue Jays. His 1.71 WHIP—not helped by a .359 BABIP—31.7% hard contact rate, and 5.15xFIP are not great. However, Barnes’ ultimate value to the Blue Jays cannot yet be measured in a statistic. Barnes’ two-way contract enables the team to send him down to AAA if they are in a bind with a tired bullpen—as double headers are prone to produce.

While it may seem silly to say a player’s value lies in his ability to be demoted from his team, it really is a necessity on a team when all other bullpen pitchers not named Roberto cannot be sent down to AAA without exposing them to waivers. The innings Barnes’ replacements have given the Jays have not been good, but the mere fact that they were completed is a bonus for a team playing as much baseball as the Blue Jays have played the few weeks.