Are you ready to believe in Julian Merryweather once again?
The Toronto Blue Jays hurler is finally healthy after missing the last few months with an oblique injury and is currently dominating the opposition while on a rehab assignment with triple-A Buffalo. He’s posted eight strikeouts while allowing just one hit and one walk across 4.2-scoreless innings in four appearances.
It’s a small sample size, however, this is easily the best that Merryweather has looked all season. Considering he performed to a 6.38 ERA over 18.1 innings with the Blue Jays prior to his injury, it’s difficult not to be excited about his latest results with the Bisons as they’re another reminder of his potential when healthy.
Merryweather, who resides on the 60-day injured list, has struggled to stay healthy throughout his three major-league seasons. The 30-year-old was limited to just 13.0 innings last season due to a similar oblique injury. But now that he’s healthy again, the 6-foot-4 right-hander appears poised for a return to the majors before the end of this season.
That is, of course, assuming he doesn’t encounter any setbacks moving forward. The 30-year-old was pulled from his most recent outing on Sunday after throwing 18 pitches and recording just two outs, although nothing as of now would suggest he suffered an apparent injury.
For everyone’s sake, let’s hope it stays that way moving forward.
Ever since Merryweather dominated the New York Yankees during the opening series of the 2021 campaign, the entire fanbase has been waiting for him to replicate that performance, where his fastball looked explosive and repeatedly touched 100 m.p.h. But that’s yet to occur thus far.
Upon returning from his oblique injury last season, Merryweather’s average fastball velocity dropped from 98.2 m.p.h. in April to 97.2 m.p.h. in September. His velocity is eerily similar this season, averaging 97.3 m.p.h. and maxing out at 99.7 m.p.h.
The former Cleveland Guardian, who was acquired in exchange for third baseman Josh Donaldson in 2018, has also witnessed significant declines involving his average spin rate and horizontal movements since April 2021. At the time, his four-seamer averaged 2,438 RPMs and nine inches of horizontal break, but those figures have dropped to 2,223 RPMs and six inches of break since then.
As a result, opponents were hitting .474 AVG and .816 SLG against Merryweather’s fastball before he landed on the IL in June. It also produced career-worsts in hard-hit rate against (69.4 per cent) and average exit velocity (95.1 m.p.h.).
One encouraging sign for Merryweather is that he’s slightly regained the horizontal movement on his fastball while rehabbing his oblique injury. The veteran righty’s heater has averaged eight inches of break, a two-inch increase on his season average.
The Berkeley, California native has also improved the shape of his changeup and its movements. It’s now averaging 33 inches of vertical break (two additional inches) and 14 inches of horizontal break (three additional inches). That’s a pretty noticeable improvement.
Thanks to these changes, Merryweather has been virtually – and literally – unhittable during his time with the Bisons. Of the 16 batters he’s faced, half of them have struck out, with only two of them reaching base safely.
The strikeouts have come fast and furious for the explosive reliever, although a fair number of them have been via his low-80s changeup and high-80s slider. With his four-seamer returning as a reliable offering, he’s utilized his secondary weapons to generate plenty of swings and misses, as well.
A few off-speed pitches have even caught a couple of hitters off guard, forcing them to look at strike three.
The Julian Merryweather hype train appears to be finally back on track. It’s been a long and winding road to return to this point, but the right-hander is proving he’s ready for another chance to earn a roster spot with the big-league club. The only thing stopping him now is the current logjam within Toronto’s bullpen.
Since Merryweather’s rehab assignment began on Aug. 6, the Blue Jays have until Sep. 4 before his 30-day window expires. At which point, they’ll need to either option him to the minors, promote him to the majors or shut him down. Hopefully, it doesn’t end up being that last choice.
So a decision doesn’t need to be made before MLB rosters expand to 28 players, pushing the maximum limit of pitchers to 14. That is a positive. As currently constructed, though, it likely won’t be as simple as making him one of the club’s two September call-ups.
Aside from now-reliever Yusei Kikuchi, the Blue Jays’ bullpen doesn’t include any arms that could benefit from being sent down to triple-A. What was once a struggling unit earlier this season has since transitioned into a reliable part of this roster, and this situation will become even more challenging when Tim Mayza returns from his dislocated shoulder.
Mayza began a rehab assignment in Buffalo this past weekend and could potentially return before the end of August. If so, management would need to send someone down before the left-hander could be reinstated on the major-league roster. That’d likely mean optioning right-hander Zach Pop, who still features all three of his minor-league options.
Pop’s demotion to the minors probably wouldn’t last long, though, as he’d likely return when rosters expand on Sep. 1. However, that’d further complicate Merryweather’s path back to the majors. He does feature a minor-league option, which could keep him in triple-A for the time being.
Amid a tight wild-card race, pitching depth could play a major factor down the stretch, especially if additional injuries arise. And with two double-headers scheduled next month, one versus Baltimore and the other against Tampa Bay, Toronto will need to call upon at least a few minor-league arms to help them through that tough stretch.
So while there isn’t a role for Merryweather in the majors at the moment, don’t be surprised if that changes between now and the end of the regular season.