The Blue Jays upgraded their bullpen, but did they fix their problems?
5 months ago
The Blue Jays bullpen has been a talking point all season. It seems like every team now has at least one bullpen arm who throws 100 and many teams have multiple players who throw hard. The Blue Jays simply don’t have that type of guy.
Per Baseball Savant, the Blue Jays are one of just four teams to not throw at least one pitch 100 mph this season. The others are non-contenders, Oakland and Pittsburgh, and the Brewers who have a pretty strong bullpen anchored now by Devin Williams. To further the point, the Blue Jays rank 28th with 323 pitchers thrown at or above 97 mph. The majority of those pitches come from three pitchers, Kevin Gausman, a starter, Julian Merryweather, who’s injured, and Jordan Romano. That’s one bullpen arm who throws hard. We talk a lot about velocity because it’s really important, the harder you throw the harder it is to hit.
These are splits for this season, but no matter how many years you go back or how you want to slice it, hitters do worse against velocity. Blue Jays relievers have an average of 93.8 mph on fastballs this season, the 23rd lowest in the league. That is of course being dragged down by Adam Cimber and his sub-90 fastball.
As a unit, the bullpen just hasn’t been effective as it needs to be. Per FanGraphs:
- ERA 3.90, 15th
- FIP 4.22, 25th
- K% 23.1, 16th
- BB% 8.5, 8th
- HR/9 1.25, 27th
They are average by ERA, average by strikeout rate, and they allow too many home runs. The one saving grace is they don’t walk many. This is why all anyone could talk about during the deadline was velocity and swing and miss. The more velo you have on the team the harder it is to hit.
According to FanGraphs, Blue Jays relievers have combined for a 10.9% swinging strike rate this season the 27th lowest in the league ahead of just Baltimore, Washington, and Colorado, and below Arizona, not exactly an elite company to be keeping. At the top of that list are the Mariners, Astros, Yankees, Braves, and Mets, all teams that are contending and have playoff/World Series aspirations. If you want to be a contending team, it’s very helpful to have a bullpen that has swing-and-miss stuff.
The Blue Jays added three pitchers at the deadline, picking up Anthony Bass and Zach Pop from the Marlins and Mitch White from the Dodgers.
Let’s start with Bass who I expect to have the biggest impact on the bullpen. Bass was having a career season with the Marlins, pitching to a 1.41 ERA, 2.06 FIP across 44.2 innings. He averages 95.2 with the fastball, so hard but not that elite velocity. He has made significant changes to his pitch usage since he was with the Blue Jays in 2020. He’s dropped his sinker usage from over 50% down to 28% and increased his slider usage, making that his new primary pitch, throwing it 56.8% of the time this season. He also mixes in the four-seam fastball on occasion. The location of these three pitches has been close to perfect.
The slider is down and away to righties while the sinker runs in. When he does go to the fastball he keeps up in the upper third and out of the strike zone. This has helped him to a career-best 26.0% strikeout rate, supported by a 12.9% swinging strike rate, also a career-high. That swinging strike rate would rank third among Blue Jays relievers behind Jordan Romano and Trevor Richards. Bass is getting hitters to chase more, is walking fewer hitters, and is keeping the ball in the yard; the perfect combination for a reliever to have a big season. He should slot in alongside
Pop, the Canadian from Brampton, is more in the Adam Cimber mold with his elite groundball rate. He’s only thrown 20.0 innings this season, and among pitchers who have thrown at least 20 innings his 63.1% groundball rate ranks fourth. He keeps the ball on the ground therefore keeping it in the park. We can debate Bo Bichette’s defence at short, but Matt Chapman, Santiago Espinal, and Vlad Guerrero Jr. have all been great defenders this season. Pop gets his grounders in a different way than Cimber. He brings velocity, averaging 96.5 mph with his sinker, he can run it up to 98 and has touched 99 three times this season.
Pop throws this sinker over 80% of the time and consistently puts it in that location, down, and in on right-handed batters. Pop isn’t a big strikeout arm, however he fills up the strike zone walking just 2.4% of hitters this season. His 3.60 ERA this season can be a bit misleading, he has a 2.99 xERA, 2.82 FIP and 3.13 xFIP suggesting he has even been a bit unlucky this year. I expect Pop to step into a middle inning role and help escape jams in the fifth or sixth innings.
Finally, we have White who draws the obvious comparison to Ross Stripling, as someone coming over from the Dodgers having pitched both as a starter and reliever. His primary pitch is his four-seamer which he throws 45% of the time. Hitters have hit just .220 off the pitch and per Baseball Savant the pitch has a run value of -8, making it one of the more valuable fastballs in the game.
It’s not really what comes to mind when you think of a great fastball. It’s not thrown super hard, doesn’t have a high spin rate, and doesn’t really have much movement. It pairs well with his other pitches which helps it play up. Overall White has had a solid season, he’s pitched to a 3.70 ERA in 15 games (10 starts), with a 3.95 FIP and 4.23 xFIP. He fits in as a solid long-man and someone who can jump in into the rotation, especially now with Stripling on the injured list.
Overall these three arms maybe weren’t the arms everyone was expecting. The front office didn’t go out and get David Robertson or Gregory Soto. What they did though was upgrade the pen at the margins ultimately raising the floor of the bullpen with players who fit certain roles. None of these players are rentals either, so they will all be back next season as well. The Blue Jays improved the bullpen with their trade deadline additions, maybe not in the way anyone expected, but it’s improved and should help the team down the stretch this season.
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