Blue Jays’ Pearson impresses with velocity, secondary weapons

Arden Zwelling and Arash Madani discuss Nate Pearson tuning heads at spring training and if he could break camp with the Blue Jays.

BRADENTON, Fla. — As “100” flashed up on the scoreboard at LECOM Park, the Toronto Blue Jays fans grouped in the stands running down the third base line broke from a low buzz into a loud cheer. Standing on the mound, throwing absolute gas against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Nate Pearson looked back over his shoulder.

“I heard everyone chanting. I didn’t know what they were chanting about. And then I looked back and I peaked at the scoreboard and I saw 100,” he said. “So, that was good. That was the first time I hit it in camp so far. So, it was a good feeling.”

It had to be, not only for Pearson but for Blue Jays fans who are finally getting to see what the club’s top pitching prospect looks like against big-league opposition. Pearson dominated the Pirates over two innings in his second spring appearance Sunday, needing only 20 pitches (15 strikes) to retire six hitters in order. He threw wicked change-ups and biting sliders. He sat 99-m.p.h. with his overpowering fastball, hitting triple-digits twice. He was exactly as advertised.

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“Impressive. That’s the word I can use. Impressive,” Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo said. “I’ve been around the game for a long time. And you don’t see arms like that very often.”

Pearson started his outing in the fourth inning, striking out Bryan Reynolds looking with a 98-m.p.h. heater on the outside edge and getting Adam Frazier to fly out softly to left field with another 99-mp.h. fastball. Then he made Josh Bell, who put up a .936 OPS in the majors last season, look absolutely foolish. Pearson got the 2019 all-star to whiff over a first-pitch, 89-m.p.h. changeup before locking him up later in the at-bat with an up-and-in, 99-m.p.h. heater that produced an awkward sword of a swing.

Back out for a second frame, Pearson fell behind a batter for the first time this spring before getting Gregory Polanco to look at a pair of strikes and swing through “a bad changeup” he missed his location on. Brian Moran then flew out on a 100-m.p.h. heater before Jacob Stallings grounded the first pitch he saw, a 99-m.p.h. fastball, to third.

“It went really well. I commanded the zone. Didn’t get into any bad counts. Threw strikes with off-speed pitches. That’s really all I can ask for,” Pearson said afterward, before heading off to complete the extensive post-game arm care routine he’s honed over several seasons. “Two clean innings. That’s what I wanted to try to accomplish.

The results are obvious and spectacular, as Pearson has now struck out six of the 9 batters he’s faced this spring, getting the other three on two flyouts and a groundout. But it’s the process that’s most encouraging. Pearson’s entered his outings dialled in on the strike zone, coming right after opponents and challenging them to try hitting his stuff. Even Sunday, with his regimented pre-outing routine disrupted by a couple long early innings, Pearson looked just as strong as always the moment he touched the mound.

“That’s a big deal — he throws strikes,” Montoyo said. “He’s poised on the mound. I like that. He’s coming right after people.

Pearson’s thrown 24 of his 32 pitches this spring for strikes, eight of them swinging. Only one of the 9 hitters he’s faced has worked beyond a one-ball count. The two times Pearson’s fallen behind a hitter, he’s immediately responded with a high-90’s fastball for a strike looking.

He’s showing hitters different sequences, too. The first-pitch changeup he threw to Bell set the course for the rest of his most impressive plate appearance yet this spring, as Bell clearly didn’t know what might be coming next. That’s how Pearson got the awkward third-strike swing that he did. It’s also how he got Polanco to strike out swinging through a mistake he left on the plate.

“It just gives me such a big advantage because I can go so many different ways,” Pearson said of using an off-speed weapon for a first-pitch strike. “They really don’t know where I’m going to go next. I can throw a hard fastball by them or I can go changeup, changeup. Really, the ball’s in my court after that first pitch strike.”

Pearson’s been so dominant this spring that he hasn’t even thrown his curveball in a game — not yet finding an opportunity in which to deploy his fourth offering. When he needs to, Pearson will flip it in for first-pitch strikes or bury it beneath the zone for a swing-and-miss later in plate appearances. He was ready to throw it on Sunday. He just didn’t got there.

Pearson spends his winters honing all those secondary weapons, using Rapsodo units to measure the spin efficiency and break of his pitches. He’s spent long days hunkered down in pitch design sessions at Driveline Baseball, playing around with tiny grip and release adjustments to make his pitches nastier and more consistent.

Ben Nicholson-Smith is Sportsnet’s baseball editor. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer. Together, they bring you the most in-depth Blue Jays podcast in the league, covering off all the latest news with opinion and analysis, as well as interviews with other insiders and team members.

It’s easy to dream on Pearson’s potential when you see his eye-popping velocity — but it’s those secondary pitches that will truly dictate the success of his career. Plenty of pitchers throw hard. More than 40 averaged 97-m.p.h. or higher with their fastballs in the majors last season. But none of them featured two distinct breaking pitches they could throw for strikes, plus a change-up that fades down in the zone and comes in as hard as Hyun-Jin Ryu’s fastball.

If Pearson’s going to be a front-line starter, and not merely a dominant reliever throwing gas out of the bullpen, he has to have good command of those offerings in order to have different ways of putting batters away. It’s why he works so hard at it and closely monitors the spin and movement data gathered during his side sessions and in games.

The velocity’s the easy part. Pearson barely thinks about it on the mound, focusing instead on his grip of the seams, his arm angle, and his mechanics. The triple-digit gas fans were wowed by Sunday will come naturally if he nails the rest. The crowd may react when he puts up a big figure on the scoreboard. But it’s the last thing Pearson’s concerned about on the mound.

“I just try to stay inside myself, you know? Have clean mechanics. Try not to get too out of whack,” he said. “Once I start being a thrower, that’s when I start spraying the ball and getting into bad counts. I’m trying to get that first-pitch strike. So, I try to keep my mechanics as simple and clean as possible.

“When I’m healthy, I can hit [100-m.p.h.] pretty easily. I come into camp pretty ready. My velo comes pretty quickly once I get back throwing and everything. The command is what I try to focus on once I’m getting back throwing and building up. The velo, that comes pretty easily for me.”

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