The Toronto Blue Jays greatest weakness in 2016 was the bullpen. With 22 blown saves during the regular season, the ninth-most in the Majors, the team had some holes to fill in the offseason. After the departure of Brett Cecil, the team’s only reliable lefty, things didn’t look good coming out of the gate. But the Jays’ front office has cobbled together a group that could be better than last year.
A little background
Bullpens are fickle creatures. A guy can have an outstanding season only to come back the following year and post pedestrian numbers. To try and get something more than words behind this, I checked the last five years of data on relievers that had pitched at least 40 innings in the course of a season. I used Fielding Independent Pitching to illustrate how difficult it is for relievers to stay at an elite level, year after year. FIP is a way of measuring a pitcher’s effectiveness independent of the guys playing behind him. It is based on strikeouts, walks, hit-by-pitches, and home runs allowed, approximating a pitcher’s ERA based on those statistics and the league average outcomes on balls in play. This can all be found in more detail at Fangraphs. After looking between 2012 and 2016 it becomes apparent that there are few relievers who can keep their game at a consistent level season after season.
I looked at the top five relievers based on FIP for each year and only one made the list more than 2 times, Aroldis Chapman. Andrew Miller, Dellin Betances and Zach Britton each got on twice. Now I am not saying guys can’t have long, fruitful careers as relievers, my point is just that even the most talented relievers have trouble pitching at a consistent level. This is a product of several things. First, with limited opportunities, it can be difficult for guys to rebound from a bad start to the season or a stretch of bad outings, especially when confidence is lost.
On top of that, a lot of relievers are put in the bullpen because they don’t have enough pitches in their arsenal to be a starter. Take Cecil for example. In 2015, after starting the season as our closer, which ended quite horrifically, he put together a 26 inning scoreless streak, tying the longest such streak ever by a Blue Jay reliever. Last year he wasn’t the same guy. He was dealing with some triceps issues but the thing many people were talking about was his curveball not hitting the strike zone. Because of that, teams were sitting on his average fastball and taking advantage of him.
Again I am not trying to make some claim about Cecil’s abilities, but trying to show how quickly a reliever can become ineffective. Even if the guy rebounds the next year, who knows what the rest of the team will look like, and whether or not your one inning pitcher will have an impact when you look at the bigger picture. This is also reinforced by Chapman’s presence in the top five in four of the five years I looked at. When your main pitch is a fastball, and that fastball regularly tops 100MPH, it won’t be as difficult to stay consistent(one reason the Yankees were willing to pay $86 million over five years for him). But imagine how ineffective he would be if he lost two or three miles on that fastball if guys didn’t have to swing before the ball even left his hand to have a shot at a hit.
This is also reinforced by Chapman’s presence in the top five in four of the five years I looked at. When your main pitch is a fastball, and that fastball regularly tops 100MPH, it won’t be as difficult to stay consistent(one reason the Yankees were willing to pay $86 million over five years for him). But imagine how ineffective he would be if he lost two or three miles on that fastball if guys didn’t have to swing before the ball even left his hand to have a shot at a hit.
This is all part of the thinking behind the Jays’ decision not to invest the kind of money (and term) in Cecil that the St.Louis Cardinals did. It also illustrates why the Jays have taken the approach to the bullpen that they have.
Lightning in a bottle
The Jays added three arms through free agency. J.P. Howell comes to us from the L.A. Dodgers and fills the role Cecil leaves open. A left-hander that has had several stellar seasons, he’s coming off a rough year, posting a 4.09 ERA, his highest since 2011. With three consecutive years of good work culminating in a 2015 season that saw him finish with a 1.43 ERA in 44.0IP, I am hoping that 2016 was an aberration. He was probably undervalued because of the down season in 2016, which was probably a big factor in why we signed him. If he gets back to the kind of work he did between 2012 and 2015 he will be one of our most valuable assets coming out of the pen.
Like his name suggests, we shouldn’t expect anything flashy from Joe Smith. If he makes the team out of Spring Training (given the guys he’s up against, he should) he will provide middle inning relief with some consistency. His best year came in with the Angels in 2014 when he posted a 1.84ERA in 74.2 innings of work. Mat Latos comes into camp as a guy that could be relied upon for a spot start when necessary, but will likely fall into a middle relief role as well, albeit with a track record that suggests he could go for two or more innings. The Blue Jays will be his sixth team since the beginning of 2015, as he’s never really regained what he had in San Diego and Cincinnati between 2010 and 2014. Over the course of those five seasons, he pitched 901.1 innings posting a 3.27ERA. If Pete Walker can get the best out of these guys there could be a renaissance of sorts happening in the Jays pen in 2017.
After a breakout year in 2016, Joe Biagini could be looking at a higher pressure role this coming season. With no clear setup man, the thinking seems to be that Biagini and Jason Grilli will be relied upon as the seventh and eighth inning guys. From what Biagini showed us last year, I am hoping one of either Latos or Smith steps up and takes the seventh (Howell being our only solid lefty precludes him from this role in my opinion), leaving Biagini open to eat innings when needed. We can also expect the same fire from Grilli whose play after being traded to Toronto was far beyond what many expected when he arrived. He brings experience and a love of tense moments often (hopefully) ending with belligerent fist pumping and screaming on the way back to the dugout.
Roberto Osuna continued to impress last year, though the six blown saves were a little concerning. Only 22 entering the season, all we can do is hope he continues to get better under the tutelage of Walker, and maybe stops making games that are seemingly in the bag nailbiters. Time and again last year he was thrust into games in non-save situations (tomorrow I will write about the front-office and coaching to address this among other issues)that quickly went from four-run leads to one, but more often than not he settled down when the pressure was greatest. He is mentally tough, and as Drew Storen sadly showed, that may be the most important part of his game.
That is six of the seven spots in the bullpen filled, presuming we have seven in there. With our strong starting rotation, the Jays could theoretically try and run with a six-man bullpen for the first part of the season. This would give John Gibbons a chance to sift through the plethora of bench options we have as there are six extra bench players to fill four or five spots depending on how many guys we have in the pen.
If Steve Pearce, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and Darwin Barney are given to make the squad, with seven men in the pen that would mean only one of Goins, Carrera, Pompey would make the team. This is the biggest issue with filling Edwin’s role with a sub-par hitting first baseman that needs to be offset with a DH that is solid at the plate.
There are five guys familiar to fans that could fill the last spot in the bullpen. Aaron Loup, Gavin Floyd, Ryan Tepera, Danny Barnes and Bo Schultz. Al of them had time in the Majors with the Jays last year and I would think either Schultz or Loup grabs the spot (Loup is lucky he is left-handed!).
Barring injuries to the pitching staff, I don’t see the need to have a seven-man pen to start the season. This would give Pompey or Carrera a chance to showcase their skills and possibly fight their way into the lineup. We will see how all this shakes out in the coming weeks.
The bullpen looks like it could turn out to be better than last season, and the pitching staff, in general, is much deeper than this time last year. Here’s hoping Ross Atkins managed to catch some lightning in a bottle.