Blue Jays’ Anthony Kay trying to turn changeup into difference-maker

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Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Anthony Kay. (Chris O'Meara/AP)

DUNEDIN, Fla. — After Anthony Kay got a pair of swinging strikeouts with a nasty changeup during his second spring outing Friday against the Detroit Tigers, Charlie Montoyo turned to his pitching coach, Pete Walker, and smiled.

“Pete said, ‘That’s a pretty good pitch,’” the Toronto Blue Jays manager remembered. “The command, the action on it, is really good. It’s making a big difference. Because now that fastball — it’s 93 (m.p.h) but it looks like 95.”

Montoyo and Walker wanted to see Kay use his changeup more often Friday after he struggled to command it his first time out, spiking it in the dirt multiple times. It was an emphasis in his bullpen between outings and something he’ll have to stay on top of all season. Kay’s battled the pitch in the past, particularly when he returned from Tommy John surgery in 2018 and struggled to regain his feel for it.

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It’s an extremely important pitch for him. While Kay’s high-spin curveball was his primary put-away pitch over his three-game MLB stint last season, his changeup is much more versatile and usable in a wider array of situations. Friday, he used it to finish swinging strikeouts of Miguel Cabrera and Willi Castro. He also used it in a 1-1 count to Victor Reyes, who swung-and-missed as well.

“I feel like I can throw it in any count,” Kay said. “If I get behind, it’ll be good to force contact and hopefully get groundouts with it. And then I feel like I can use it when I get ahead also for a strikeout pitch. I can get a little bit lower and try to bury it and try to get swings over the top of it.”

If Kay’s commanding the pitch consistently, it’ll only serve to make his fastball play up and his curveball more effective as hitters have to guard against both secondary weapons. That should help Kay generate more reactions like this:

Tempo’s also a focus this spring, as Kay’s endeavouring to increase his pace and make plate appearances against him as uncomfortable as possible. Kay averaged 22.8 seconds between pitches over his brief MLB stint last season, which was already two seconds below the league average. This year he’d like to work just as quickly, if not quicker.

That has as much to do with Kay’s catcher as it does with him, as he can’t throw until he’s given a sign. Friday, Caleb Joseph caught Kay, which was a valuable experience as they’ll both likely start the year with the triple-A Buffalo Bisons — provided there isn’t an injury ahead of either player on the depth chart between now and the end of camp.

“I feel like my delivery’s just more consistent when I get in a good rhythm,” Kay said. “Me and Caleb were on the same page together. I think having a catcher that knows what you want to throw is definitely key to keeping that rhythm and consistency.”

Biggio plays centre

Blue Jays second baseman Cavan Biggio started in centre field Saturday, as the club experimented with a look Montoyo said it may go to at times this season depending on matchups. Naturally, the first ball of the game was hit right to him.

“It’s funny how that works, huh,” Montoyo said. “Yeah, and (Biggio) was comfortable. He looked good. He was comfortable. That’s the main thing.”

The Blue Jays highly value positional versatility, and Montoyo highly values getting every player on his roster regular playing time, shifting puzzle pieces around on a daily basis to make them all fit. Last season he used 148 different lineups over 162 games.

But it’s hard to envision Biggio seeing much time in centre this season, if at all. The sophomore second baseman playing a corner outfield spot is a much more distinct possibility, particularly on days when Montoyo wants to get Joe Panik — who’s well-positioned to come north with the Blue Jays — into the lineup. Biggio could also man first base if Travis Shaw is playing third in place of Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Rowdy Tellez is either in triple-A or on the bench.

Ryu’s next outing

Toronto fans will have to wait a week to get their next glimpse of Hyun-Jin Ryu, who will pitch in a simulated game on March 4 while the Blue Jays are playing the Tampa Bay Rays on the road. Ryu’s next Grapefruit League start is scheduled for March 9.

While keeping an oft-injured 32-year-old and expensive free-agent acquisition from a two-hour bus ride to play a division rival makes plenty of sense for the Blue Jays, the decision to pitch Wednesday on a practice field was Ryu’s. The club has given the highly regimented veteran plenty of leeway over his schedule this spring, allowing him to stick to the routines that have worked best for him in the past.

Alford scuffles

After an emphatic inning during Toronto’s first game of spring, in which he singled and stole three bases, Anthony Alford’s camp has hit a rut. He’s gone hitless in his subsequent 10 plate appearances with eight strikeouts. There have been miscues in the field, as well, on playable balls Alford’s more than capable of handling.

Much is riding on Alford’s spring. He’s out of options and currently behind Derek Fisher on Toronto’s outfield depth chart. If the club chooses to take all three of Brandon Drury, Rowdy Tellez and Joe Panik north at the end of camp, there won’t be room for Alford on the 26-man roster. The good news for him, as Montoyo pointed out, is that there’s still time.

“I don’t put too much stock into 10 at-bats, whatever it is,” Montoyo said. “Anthony’s going to get a chance to play. He could get hot from now on. He’s going to play. He’s going to get a lot of at-bats.

“He hasn’t played well. His first game was really good, actually. He stole bases and he won us that game. But after that, he has struggled. But that’s just a couple of games. We’ll see what he does after this.”

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