Blue Jays’ Pearson hones in on fastball command ahead of second start

Nate Pearson delivers a pitch. (Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

When Nate Pearson went back over the film from his dominant MLB debut last week in Washington, he wasn’t looking for what went right. He wasn’t looking for the 99 m.p.h. fastballs he located just above the kneecaps on the outside edge; not for the devastating sliders that earned him a strike 22 of the 30 times he threw it; not for the first pitch curveballs that dropped perfectly into the zone at a back-breaking 77 m.p.h.

He was looking for his flaws. He’s still not crazy about his fastball command, which he’s been battling since his first unofficial outing of 2020, an exhibition game against the Boston Red Sox on the eve of the season. He didn’t love the sequencing he used to a few of the 19 batters he faced. And he really didn’t like the two walks he issued to Adam Eaton, who didn’t offer at a single one of the nine pitches Pearson threw him and was awarded two free bases for his patience.

“That was just fastball command — it just wasn’t there,” Pearson said Wednesday, a day before he’ll finally follow up that debut eight days later against Atlanta. “You want to look at the positives. But you also want to look at what you can improve on, because that’s the whole message. You want to get better each start. And if you just look at only the positives in each start then you kind of ignore the stuff you actually need to work on. So, I look at both.”

That’s why Pearson spent his between-starts side session — thrown Sunday in Washington where the Blue Jays were marooned for a weekend after getting caught up in the fallout of Miami’s COVID-19 outbreak — honing in on that heater. It’s not only his most effective pitch, it’s the one the rest of his arsenal is contingent on. He needs it to be right.

“Just throwing strikes with that fastball, just commanding the zone — that’s really what I tried to work on this past week,” Pearson said. “That’s my best pitch. And to not have it be leading all my other pitches, it’s kind of just making me focus on other pitches during the game when I really need to get that work in.”

Here’s what he means by that. If Pearson can locate his fastball around the edges of the strike zone, his curveball, slider and changeup will be that much harder for hitters to put good swings on. They’ll have to always be geared up for something in the high-90’s, which makes it next to impossible to time your swing with a high-80’s changeup, mid-80’s slider and mid-to-high-70’s curveball.

This is all by design. Pearson arrived in pro ball as a hard thrower without a complete arsenal. But he’s spent the last several years honing his secondary weapons, utilizing Rapsodo data and footage captured with high-speed Edgertronic cameras to tweak grips, find release points and tailor the pitches to do exactly what he wants.

Part of that was learning how to tunnel his slider with his fastball, as he often did against Washington. That’s what makes the pitches play so well off each other — Pearson repeats his delivery and throws both from an identical release point before they move in very different directions at very different speeds. As a hitter, it’s extremely difficult to tell whether he’s throwing one or the other until it’s too late.

But that’s only half of Pearson’s arsenal. An effective changeup and curveball are the weapons that will allow him to turn lineups over again and again, pitch deep into outings and carry a heavy starter’s workload. They’re also what will allow him to get through the nights when he doesn’t have his best slider and needs to lean on a different secondary pitch.

And to that point, expect to see a lot more of those pitches on Thursday than you did in Pearson’s debut. The changeup in particular is one Pearson’s excited about and a pitch that ought to help against left-handed hitters, like Atlanta’s Freddie Freeman, Matt Adams and Ender Inciarte.

“That’s definitely a pitch that’s gotten a lot better for me and I get really weak contact and swing-and-misses on it,” Pearson said. “So, I’m definitely going to throw that a lot more.”

Of course, it all depends on the night. Blue Jays scouting suggested the Nationals struggled against sliders and hit changeups well, hence Pearson’s slider-heavy approach. It was also evident from the get-go the pitch was devastating on the night — and if it keeps getting good results, you keep throwing it.

Pearson only shook off his catcher, Danny Jansen, once the entire outing. It was a 2-2 pitch to Trea Turner. Pearson had just missed with a couple fastballs, but Jansen wanted another. Pearson wanted to throw his slider and shook to it. Turner saw it well and sent it thought the left side of the infield for a single. It was one of only two hits Pearson allowed on the night.

“That’s just living and learning,” Pearson said. “If I would’ve thrown what Jano called, maybe it would’ve ended different. But you can speculate all day. I kind of just go with whatever the catcher’s calling. And if I feel really convicted about a pitch, that’s when I’ll shake.”

That’s why every outing Pearson pitches this season is crucial — living and learning. He’s only 23, and still in the nascent stages of discovering how his stuff plays best at the sport’s highest level. And he’s still adding to his game, too.

In the coming years — possibly as soon as this off-season — Pearson envisions himself reintroducing the cutter he was throwing back in 2018 during the Arizona Fall League. Pearson shelved the pitch in order to work on his slider, a similar pitch with more break. Pearson was throwing it around 93-94 m.p.h. at the time and wanted to slow it down in order to add more action to it. And the cutter was getting in the way.

But now that Pearson has his slider where he wants it, he’d like to bring that cutter back and use it to pitch in to left-handed hitters. Same intent as his fastball, different velocity and movement. He’d even like to toy around with a harder slider — one in the low 90s like Jacob DeGrom and Gerrit Cole throw. Now there’s a thought.

“You know, it’s always cool to look toward the future and what different things you can add to the arsenal. I definitely see that cutter being added,” he said. “Something just to get into lefties more or whatnot, I’m always thinking of ways to get better and just develop more.”

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