What can we expect from Nate Pearson this season?
7 months ago
After a bout of mononucleosis, Nate Pearson has reached Buffalo once again in his odyssey to become a full-time contributor for the Toronto Blue Jays.
His story may not be a Greek classic, but he has racked up more minor league stops than many would have expected when he debuted against Max Scherzer in 2020. He may have been placed on the 60-day injured list last week, but that was merely a paper transaction that does not really change his availability beyond needing a 40-man roster spot when he earns a call-up. If Nate Pearson can put together a couple more quality appearances in Buffalo, we may see him in the Blue Jays bullpen quite soon. His arrival in the big leagues in 2022 could also put together the Blue Jays’ pitching staff that is in a bit of flux.
Originally, Pearson was envisioned as the beginning of the process of surrounding Hyun-Jin Ryu at the top of the team’s starting rotation when he made his major league debut back in 2020. Things have certainly changed since then, As the ascent of Alek Manoah and the additions of Jose Berrios and Kevin Gausman have surpassed both Pearson and Ryu in quick succession. Arguably the offseason addition of Yusei Kikuchi also may have signaled something about how the organization now views Pearson. The injuries Pearson suffered in the minor leagues were often unrelated to his arm, but high-velocity and a violent delivery gave him significant reliever risk as a prospect. Arguably we have seen a lot of those reservations become reality. But that does not mean he can not still develop and be a very valuable piece of the Blue Jays in a bulk bullpen role.
With Ryu out for the rest of the season and the erratic performances of Kikuchi, there may be a reason to consider stretching out Pearson as a starter. However, at this point in his career, getting Pearson into a major league role may be a more worthwhile pursuit. He is kind of in a similar position to someone like Gabriel Moreno coming off of a year where he had his at-bats limited by injuries. The priority seems to be to get Moreno as many reps that challenge him in order to prompt further development.
For Pearson, a relief role may preserve his health and get him more major league reps. Especially when you consider further minor league time would be needed to stretch him out as a starter. At this point, we must also consider that Pearson as a fully functional starter is still likely two seasons away, even if that process started again right now. He has never pitched beyond the 101 and 2/3 innings he put together across 3 levels of the minors in 2019. From that, you would imagine there would have to be an innings build-up this year and likely restrictions next year too. Thus, a fully operational Pearson in the bullpen may be better for his development, as well as making the Blue Jays roster better right now.
It may seem counterintuitive that removing one of the highest upside potential starters in Buffalo from consideration would put the Blue Jays in a better spot. Especially given major concerns about Ryu and arguably Kikuchi. But looking at the roster holistically, a bulk role for Pearson may tie everything together. Despite Kikuchi’s struggles, there have been solid outings that follow a pattern of avoiding working deep into a lineup a third time. If Ross Stripling is going to be a starter moving forward too, he also carries similar concerns even with his strong recent outings in mind.
May 28, 2022; Anaheim, California, USA; Toronto Blue Jays relief pitcher Ross Stripling (48) reacts after making the final out and earning a save in the ninth inning against the Los Angeles Angels at Angel Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
Stripling has been magnificent as a starter filling in for Ryu this season and seems to be close to being fully built-up as a starter. But one thing to keep in mind is that in both of his recent outings he has pitched 5 and 6 innings and has not worked deep into the opposing order a third time. This may have simply been down to pitch count restrictions, but it may also be something the Blue Jays would be wise to avoid with Stripling moving forward. For his career, batters have hit .263/.319/.508 against Stripling the third time through the order for an OPS of .828. His ratio of strikeouts to walks plummets from 4.90 the first time through the order to 3.70 the second time and then falls to 2.74 the third time through the order. Last year the Blue Jays also generally avoided having Stripling face the order a third time, and for good reason. Batters were hitting .333/.354/.578 for an OPS of .932 the third time through the order against Stripling as a starter in 2021.
The reality of Stripling and Kikuchi as starters is that they can be effective when used carefully, with Kikuchi also holding the potential for starts to quickly unravel for him without giving up too many runs. With the Blue Jays’ offence coming alive, being able to use a bulk bullpen piece to keep a game close could be key for the Blue Jays getting a few extra wins.
Specifically, this could involve Pearson pitching 2-3 innings out of the bullpen. To start it could mean fewer cases where Trevor Richards or Trent Thornton have to come into games that are still close early on. Also, Pearson could spell someone like David Phelps who has largely been solid in an occasionally multi-inning role so far this year. Pearson also has the stuff to fill in as a high-leverage reliever. This could allow him to stand in for key right-handed relievers like Adam Cimber, Yimi Garcia, and Jordan Romano, who have been quite effective this year, but at times also overworked to the point of struggling. Finally, Pearson nailing down a bullpen role could also allow for the focus to be on finding a strong lefty-reliever to take some of the burden off of Tim Mayza when attention turns to the trade deadline.
Overall, I would expect Nate Pearson to keep knocking on the door for a bullpen role with the Blue Jays, unless they change their plans for him in 2022. It may seem underwhelming if he finally sticks in the majors as a reliever, but he may be a very effective skeleton key that unlocks many of the current concerns with the Blue Jays’ pitching staff. The last time the Blue Jays were a clear contender one of the best pitchers in baseball was Andrew Miller as a left-handed workhorse out of the bullpen. If the Blue Jays could add a right-handed version of that to their roster without having to give anything up, I am sure Blue Jays fans would be ecstatic.
(All Stats are from Baseball Reference, unless otherwise indicated.)
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