Joe Biagini debate rages on after outing vs. Yankees

Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Joe Biagini throws against the New York Yankees. (Fred Thornhill/CP)

TORONTO – A question the Toronto Blue Jays will take into the off-season without definitively answering is what exactly Joe Biagini is as a starter. He’s demonstrated, tantalizingly, an ability to dominate at times, the way he did twice against the Baltimore Orioles this month. On the flip side, there are enough bullpen-sapping duds on his log to make you wonder whether the gems are actually the outlier.

Where the evaluation lands carries major implications on the team’s winter plans, which is why the five innings of three-run ball Biagini delivered in Saturday’s 5-1 loss to the post-season bound New York Yankees is an intriguing entry into the discussion.

The right-hander was overpowering his first time through the lineup but really grinded through the second, working around a double and a walk in the fourth thanks to a line-drive double play before Greg Bird followed a pair of walks in the fifth by lashing a first-pitch cutter over the wall in right field.

Biagini then walked Todd Frazier and only escaped the frame when Brett Gardner lined out to Ryan Goins at short and doubled off Frazier. That was it.

"I think I’ve established some consistent inconsistency," said Biagini. "The maddening thing for me is that I see small little parts of my game that come on out on occasion that I feel are good, that I feel is what I should be doing, and what I should be trying to tap into a little more. It’s frustrating because I’m just continuing to tinker, continuing to try to make sure I can locate that process for that to come out."

While still a marked improvement over his last start, when Biagini failed to emerge from a second inning in which the Minnesota Twins pinned six runs, four earned on him, Saturday’s outing won’t help tip the scales since people on both sides of the debate can point to different things to support their view.

Using his four-seamer 54 times out of 74 pitches, he stuffed a tough lineup, allowing minimal hard contact for the first three innings, surrendering only a Chase Headley single. He struck out both Gardner and Aaron Judge to open the game. That plays. But once they Yankees had seen the heater, Biagini didn’t have a secondary option consistent enough to keep them off it, and the results flipped.

Coming in, Biagini had an OPS against as a starter of .712 the first time through a lineup, a number that jumped to .846 the second. The third time through it goes down to .725, although he didn’t get there Saturday.

"Like most guys, he’s got to really command that fastball, we’ve seen him do that a lot," said manager John Gibbons. "He’s always been able to do that when he’s been coming out of the ‘pen, but had a couple of games as a starter where he’s been erratic there. That’s going to hurt anybody but it’s key for him because he’s a sinker-baller, a groundball guy, balls up in the zone go a long way.

"He’s got a nice curveball. Today it was a little hit or miss, but since he’s been here it’s been a good pitch for him. He’ll throw the occasional change-up, a little bit of a cutter. He’s feeling his way around. He’s a year and a half removed from being a starter, now he’s building back up to that. I’ve seen a lot of good things."

To be fair, the way Biagini has been yo-yoed between the rotation and bullpen – out of necessity, it should be noted – is far from ideal. Saturday was his 17th start in the majors, the first few coming as he tried to build up his durability on the fly, with four more at triple-A Buffalo last month when he was stretched out a second time.

Remember, too, that he had never pitched above double-A before joining the Blue Jays last year.

"What I needed to experience this year is just the experience of it. Basically I needed to learn what I needed to learn, and I can see how early in this game versus the last inning, two different stories," said Biagini. "For me I recognize that my ability to keep the ball down early in the game was effective like in a couple of previous starts. Then a couple of other starts, either fastball was down, off-speed pitches were up or it was reversed. Although that is really nice and frustrating for me, and the process and length of time it’s taking to learn in the fire out there on the mound, it’s frustrating. I’m really grateful to get the chance to do it because it’s a necessary thing for me to have to go through this process and say OK, that doesn’t work, let’s tweak it this way and try this."

That’s why the right thing for him and the team may be to bring him to spring training next year as the club’s sixth starter, destined to open at Buffalo unless an injury creates an opening. A fine 2016 season as a big-league reliever truncated his development as a starter, and this year he’s tried to play catch up in stops and starts.

Betting on him to take off out of the gate next April may be too risky, and the Blue Jays should have enough effective relievers for the bullpen to give Biagini the time he needs to give starting a legitimate shot.

Teoscar Hernandez, meanwhile, continues to make a positive impression, turning on a 1-0 sinker from Sonny Gray and rocketing it into the second deck in centre field. He also pummelled a ball into the second deck in left field Friday off Masahiro Tanaka and taking a pair of quality playoff-bound pitchers deep is the type of thing that helps alter opinions.

"Getting more experience," Hernandez said when asked of his main points of progress. "I’ve talked to the veteran guys, especially Jose Bautista. He’s the one who tells me the most new things about baseball, about how to improve everything here, on the field and off the field. I’ve been learning a lot … I’ve just got to keep working."

Asked what are some things he’s learned, Hernandez replied: "How to control the bad moments and how to control the good moments."

As for Biagini, he was one more start left this year, next Friday in the Bronx against the Yankees again, a last chance to impress before the off-season begins.

"You don’t get chances like this forever, they don’t just keep handing it to you forever and ever," he said. "But if I’m able to take what I’ve learned and apply it to my approach as I decompress from the season and re-enter next season, in whatever role it may be, that’s the best possible way I can try to handle it."