In the final part of this season preview we will look at the Blue Jays bullpen and their ZiPS projections. Losing Kirby Yates before the season even starts is a big loss, but there are still lots of good pitchers in the pen and this should be a sneaky good bullpen.
As a reminder we are dealing with pitching so under in this case means I expect the player to beat their projections.
We will start with the bullpen ace Jordan Romano. The Blue Jays haven’t officially announced a closer replacement for Yates, but I think sooner rather than later this will be Romano’s job. He has the big fastball, running it up to 99 in Spring. He strikes batters out, striking out 36.8% of batters last season. The projections are low on Romano because of how poorly he pitched in 2019. The mechanical change he made last season was small but enough for him to have a breakout 2020 season even if it only was 14.2 innings. Per Baseball Savant, Romano added 200 revolutions per minute of spin to fastball in Spring and that will make his fastball that much harder to hit. Especially when he throws it at the top of the zone. I expect Romano to blow past these projections and be one of the best relievers in baseball this season.
Dolis doesn’t get the hype of a Romano but he is a very good pitcher and if Romano doesn’t end up closing games, Dolis will be the guy. The splitter he picked up while pitching in Japan has made all the difference. It comes out of his hand with the same spin based movement as his sinker but the splitter’s spin rate is 1000 rpm lower than the sinker and is eight miles per hour slower. This made Dolis tough to square up and was why he was one of the very best pitchers at suppressing exit velocity and hard hit rate. All his Spring stats look good, his velocity is identical to last season. I’ll take the under on his projections, I expect Dolis to have another strong season.
In going through these projections I’ve noticed that ZiPS doesn’t account for a player’s role changing. Because Borucki made 19 starts between 2018-2019 ZiPS projects him for 17 starts this season. The other projection systems have him as a full-time reliever and have Borucki’s innings pitched at 58.0. Borucki’s velocity ticked up to 94 mph as a reliever last season and he’s added close to two miles per hour this Spring. His sinker at that velocity is going to be deadly on lefties and he is going to get a ton of strikeouts. I think he beats his ERA, FIP and K projections easily. Walks were an issue for Borucki last season, but with higher velocity he can challenge hitters in the strike zone more. I think he will be much improved in that area as well.
When Chatwood was primarily a reliever with the Cubs in 2019 he could get fastball up to 99, but he wasn’t getting the strikeouts you expect from someone who throws that hard. Back in the rotation for 2020, Chatwood started throwing his cutter more and saw a huge increase in his swinging strike rate and strikeout rate. If he could combine the high velocity with that swing and miss cutter he could be a tremendous late inning reliever. The velocity hasn’t been there this Spring though. He’s hitting 95 mph which is still very good, it just isn’t the 97-98 I think many were expecting. Even at 95 he will be a good reliever. He won’t hit that innings projection but I think he beats the ERA, strikeout and walk projections.
* Steamer projections are used here as ZiPS does not have projections for Mayza
The projections here really seem to heavily weight Mayza’s strong 2018 when he had a 3.28 ERA and 3.36 FIP in 35.2 innings. 2019 Mayza regressed pitching to a 4.91 ERA before being shut down and ultimately needing surgery. His sinker velocity is up to where it was in 2019 which is a great sign. The three batter minimum rule shouldn’t have much impact on Mayza. In 2019 he was used equally against righties and lefties and showed no noticeable platoon split, (righties had a .316 wOBA against him, lefties .310). I think Mayza will be fine as a mid-inning lefty but I don’t see him having a sub 4 ERA, so I will take the over on his projections.
It was announced on Sunday that Thornton had made the team and that he will be the long reliever out of the pen. He seems to be fully recovered from having loose bodies removed from his elbow. As a starter in 2019 Thornton struggled the second and third time through the batting order. His OPS against the first time through: .696, second time: .857, and third time: .893. As a long-reliever he won’t be asked to go through the line-up more than once. He has dropped his curveball from his arsenal focusing on his four-seamer, slider, cutter and change-up. I think the projections here do a good job of what to expect from Thorton, I’ll take the over but barely.
Phelps had a weird 2020, he pitched really well for the Brewers and then caught whatever was plaguing the Phillies bullpen. ZiPS projects him to bounce back to where he was in 2019, with a solid ERA and strikeout rate. Phelps hasn’t had a great Spring from a results perspective but he has been the victim of some bad defence behind him. Phelps’ velocity has been down this Spring but it’s better of late. I think Phelps will be better than last season but not quite as good as these projections.
ZiPS has Merryweather making 15 starts this season which is why his ERA is projected to be so high and his strikeouts so low. I expect Merryweather to start some games but in more of an opener situation (perhaps in front of a guy like Ross Stripling or Thornton). Merryweather is better in short spurts where he can air it out and get his fastball up to 99. He’s had too many injuries to see him as a traditional starter and at this point he could be an impact reliever in the big leagues and that has more value to the Blue Jays as they contend. I’ll take the under on his projections as I think he will succeed if moved to the bullpen.
Castro has had a good Spring Training. A 1.93 ERA and 15 strikeouts versus one walk in 9.1 innings. His quality of competition per Baseball Reference this Spring has been 5.8, which just above Hi-A. His velocity has started to come back to where he was as a prospect, hitting 96 a couple times this Spring. His innings projection is high because he was a starter in the minors and ZiPS projects him making 17 starts. He likely ends up as a low leverage reliever for the team. I’ll take the over on his projections.