Blue Jays’ bullpen has been a weakness, rather than a strength

Photo credit:John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
Thomas Hall
1 month ago
Coming into this season, the Toronto Blue Jays were counting on their bullpen to be a major strength of the roster, just as it was in 2023. While some natural regression was to be expected, since that’s typically how baseball works for relievers, no one could’ve foreseen this group becoming one of — if not the worst — bullpens in the majors.
But that is precisely what has unfolded just over a month into the 2024 campaign.
The Blue Jays’ bullpen has struggled mightily over the first 35 games of the year. Their woes haven’t been as troublesome as the offence’s, and it’s a good thing for that. However, they’ve certainly played a role in the club’s early-season failures that have them three games below .500 and last in the AL East heading into Tuesday’s series opener versus the Philadelphia Phillies.
TOR’s BullpenMLB Rank
Only one other team possesses a bullpen that’s been less valuable than the Blue Jays’ so far: the Tampa Bay Rays, whose ‘pen has been worth an MLB-worst -1.7 fWAR. That covers two-fifths of the AL East Division. As for the remaining three, they all reside in the top 10 of the sport in bullpen fWAR.
Toronto’s relievers used to be part of that upper-echelon group, as they placed inside the top 10 in ERA (3.68), FIP (3.91), xFIP (3.99) and fWAR (5.1) last season. But perhaps the biggest departure between 2023 and ’24 has been their swing-and-miss capabilities.
This bullpen led the majors in strikeout-to-walk rate difference (K-BB%) a season ago, with a 17.6 per cent clip while placing fourth in whiff rate (29.6 per cent). Not only have they issued more walks and recorded fewer strikeouts in 2024, but they’ve also fallen to 30th in whiff rate (19.9 per cent) amidst a near-10-per-cent decline.
It is worth pointing out that avoiding home runs and hard contact were also a concern for Blue Jays relievers last year, just not to the extent they’ve become this season. They earned the second-highest hard-hit rate against (40.3 per cent) but were far more successful at missing barrels and keeping balls in the yard, placing tied for 18th in barrel rate against (7.4 per cent) and 20th in HR/9 (1.15).
Many factors have contributed to Toronto rostering arguably the worst bullpen in the big leagues thus far. The most prominent element, of course, has been health — or a lack thereof.
Let’s start with the big-ticket items here first. Jordan Romano and Erik Swanson, two of the club’s most important relief arms, began the regular season on the injured list, and neither has looked quite like themselves since returning. That is especially true for Swanson, whose ERA has ballooned to a team-worst 16.50 in eight appearances.
Then you have Chad Green, who’s currently on the 15-day IL with a shoulder injury and hasn’t pitched in a game since April 15. This team should’ve been able to keep its head above water without him. And yet, they haven’t. With Swanson and Tim Mayza performing well below expectations, that’s forced others into high-leverage situations, such as Nate Pearson, Trevor Richards and Génesis Cabrera — all of whom have provided minimal value, if any.
To make matters worse, the Blue Jays have been operating without a traditional multi-inning reliever, also known as a long man or bulk-type pitcher, with Yariel Rodriguez and Bowden Francis on the mend. Paolo Espino made a very, very brief cameo in that role, in which he allowed four earned runs on eight hits over two appearances before returning to triple-A.
Recent call-ups from Zach Pop and Brendon Little have also done little to move the needle, although the chances of either coming in as a saviour were slim to none, anyway.
The organizational depth Toronto once possessed is now gone because of injuries and a roster crunch that led to the departures of Mitch White (Giants) and Wes Parsons (Guardians) last month. All this has made Yimi García’s early-season emergence into one of the game’s most dominating relievers more crucial.
Amidst the best stretch of his career, García has been a staple for the bullpen up to this point, with his 0.68 ERA tied for 10th-best among qualified big-league relievers. He also ranks in the 95th percentile or higher in xERA (1.96) and OPP xAVG (.157), as well as with his strikeout (34 per cent) and chase rates (39.8 per cent).
Simply put, Toronto’s bullpen woes would be significantly worse if you were to remove the hard-throwing righty — whose fastball velocity is higher than ever, placing in the 88th percentile — from the equation.
TOR’s Bullpen w/ Yimi Garcíaw/o Yimi García
But as reliable as García has been, he is only one piece of the puzzle, albeit a critical one. When he’s unavailable, like he was during the series in Washington due to an ailing back, probably caused by carrying this bullpen, it’s a clear reminder that Toronto needs the rest of its top relievers clicking on all cylinders again.
That has started to happen recently for Mayza, who’s quietly recovered from his earlier struggles, holding opponents scoreless in eight of his previous 10 appearances in a span of six strikeouts to only one walk. Better days appear to be ahead for Romano, too, considering he had regained the upper-90s velocity on his four-seamer prior to his most recent appearance against the Nationals.
The circumstances surrounding Swanson are far less promising, though. Over his last four appearances, he’s surrendered seven earned runs on six hits — including three home runs — and one walk while striking out only two, inducing just four whiffs.
Much of Swanson’s struggles are tied to the success of his splitter, which has enjoyed very little thus far, as opponents have hit four home runs off it — matching its total from 2023 — and are slugging 1.222 against it.
What’s been the difference between last season and this current one? Swanson has no idea where his splitter will wind up after releasing it.
Swanson would be a perfect candidate for a phantom IL stint. If the Blue Jays had any pitching depth to spare, that is. Since that isn’t the case, he’ll need to work through his command issues while facing big-league hitters — a less-than-ideal situation.
But he isn’t the only high-leverage reliever who requires improvement. Cabrera does as well, considering he’s walked as many batters (eight) as he’s punched out (eight) in 14 outings this season. Plus, the left-hander has already allowed more home runs (three) in 2024 than he did in 29 appearances with the team after coming over mid-season from the St. Louis Cardinals in ’23.
Toronto’s offence could simplify this problem by scoring a bunch of runs, providing the pitching staff with a larger margin for error (what a concept!). To do so, however, they’d need outbursts like Sunday’s eight-run showing to become much more frequent moving forward, which, for a lineup that’s scored three runs or fewer in 19 of its 35 games, doesn’t appear overly favourable.
It also doesn’t seem like any significant reinforcements from triple-A Buffalo will arrive any time soon since the recent shortage of arms has caused the Bisons to lean heavily on its bullpen, which has seen heavy workloads and inconsistent performances from potential call-ups like Hagen Danner, Connor Cooke, Hayden Juenger and Mason Fluharty.
That’s also why the Blue Jays have brought in expendable hurlers such as Aaron Sanchez, Joel Kuhnel and Beau Sulser in the last week-plus.
Chances are this club will have to bet on internal improvements — just as they are on the offensive front — for solutions in the bullpen until bodies start to return from the IL and potential trade acquisitions become more realistic in a few months — if they’re still looking to buy, that is.

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