The Toronto Blue Jays bullpen has a swing-and-miss problem.
The group ranks 24th in baseball in both K/9 (8.20) and strikeout percentage (21.9), though that’s not to say Toronto’s ‘pen hasn’t been effective. Jays relievers are fourth in saves (17) and 11th in win probability added (0.47), but they’ve also accounted for 12 losses, tied for second-most in the league this year.
The bullpen has been steady, which Jays fans will agree is an upgrade over last year’s early-season woes, but there’s room for improvement. That starts with executing pitches in critical counts.
“I think, for the most part, the little things on the strikeouts, it's probably just some pitch selection with two strikes,” said Blue Jays bullpen coach Matt Buschmann.
Toronto’s bullpen is decent at filling up the zone, evidenced by its solid 8.8 per cent walk rate, but relievers have trouble finishing hitters once they get to two strikes. In two-strike counts this year, hitters are batting .175 off the Blue Jays bullpen, which is 23rd in baseball, indicating the group has a habit of letting hitters off the hook.
“I think no one's really panicking by any means because the good thing is, underlying, we're throwing strikes; we're getting ahead, and we're getting to two strikes really well,” Buschmann said.
There’s no frustration or sense of pressure from this Jays relief corps this season, Buschmann said, which is important given all the one-run games Toronto’s been thrust into this year. Thanks in part to the Blue Jays’ repressed offence, the club’s bullpen has handled 131 high-leverage plate appearances, eighth-most in baseball.
“We’re doing something right,” said Blue Jays reliever David Phelps, pointing out that his club’s 11 wins in one-run games are tied for the most in baseball.
Phelps said the team favours strikeout-minus-walk percentage (K-BB%) as an evaluator of team success. And while that number hasn’t been exactly where the Jays want it either, the 35-year-old said he believes his fellow bullpen-mates are getting the job done.
“I think what our strength is,” Phelps said, “is we give a lot of options on how to get guys out. It doesn't always have to be swings and misses.”
There are dangers to focusing too much on strikeouts, too. Phelps explained how when he pitched for the Philadelphia Phillies in the second half of 2020, his strikeout rate was extraordinarily high at 12.9 K/9, but so was his home run rate at 5.9 HR/9.
“It's a delicate balance because when you start to sacrifice command for stuff, quality of contact goes up,” Phelps said. “Yeah, there are times in at-bats where we need to be hunting the strikeout, [but] it's not necessarily from pitch one.
“The reason we’re talking about [strikeouts] is because guys aren’t striking people out at the rate that they were before.”
K% in 2021
K% in 2022
Yimi García is having the most trouble missing bats this season, as his strikeout rate has dropped to 20.3 per cent. With García, the lack of swing-and-miss hasn’t exactly made him ineffective — his 3.71 ERA and 1.6 BB/9 are respectable marks — but it has prevented him for dicing his way out of late-inning jams like in years past. His bullpen-leading three losses reflect that.
“I don’t think it's an issue of stuff with him,” Phelps said of García. “I think you come to a new place; you're trying to learn new teammates, new coaches, new philosophies. As someone who's had to go through that a handful of times, it's not always easy.”
As García adjusts to his role in Toronto, the lack of swing-and-miss is something the Blue Jays staff is “talking about,” general manager Ross Atkins said during the club’s last homestand.
Toronto believes it can improve the strikeouts with its current personnel, Atkins said, and that the issue will improve once Nate Pearson works himself back into game shape after an offseason bout with mononucleosis.
“[Pearson] needs to, obviously, earn getting back up here from a physical standpoint,” Atkins said. “And then fundamentally, he needs to be built back up in triple-A games. But [he] definitely has the weapons to be someone that can help that way.”
Pearson, with his high-90s fastball and improving slider, is an obvious candidate to inject some much-needed nastiness into the Blue Jays bullpen once he’s healthy. Atkins also mentioned Julian Merryweather as someone who, despite some hiccups this season, plays into improving the Jays’ strikeout abilities.
The Blue Jays aren’t at a point in the season where trading for a bullpen arm is necessary, or even possible, but 44 games is a large enough sample size to pass judgement — and the team has identified strikeouts as an area to improve. Only time will tell if the Jays bullpen follows through on that commitment.
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