Blue Jays’ Waguespack aces toughest test yet in Dodgers heartbreaker

Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Jacob Waguespack. (Mark J. Terrill/AP)

LOS ANGELES — No matter the outcome, one start against the Los Angeles Dodgers wasn’t going to make or break Jacob Waguespack. The potential for random outcomes in such a limited sample is so high that drawing any definitive conclusions from it would be foolhardy.

Still, the Toronto Blue Jays were particularly curious about how the 25-year-old would fare against the National League’s most dominant club. To this point, Waguespack has exceeded expectations at every turn, and given that he’s vastly outpacing his minor-league numbers in the majors, there are questions about whether the performance thus far is sustainable.

The Dodgers offered up his most significant test yet and he aced it, allowing one hit over seven shutout innings, leaving with a 2-0 lead and putting a Blue Jays lineup featuring a team-record-tying seven rookies in position to avoid a sweep Thursday night.

As manager Charlie Montoyo put it, “he got an A-plus.”

But with Ken Giles on paternity leave, Derek Law couldn’t close it out in the ninth, surrendering a two-run double to Corey Seager and a walk-off single to Kike Hernandez in a heartbreaking 3-2 loss. The Dodgers, now 51-16 at home and 85-44 overall, are going to crush souls in October.

“I’m not going to lie, this one hurts,” said Montoyo, who quickly added that he didn’t “want to take away from Waguespack and what he did. He was outstanding against that lineup, one-hitter. It almost felt like he was throwing a no-hitter.”

While Waguespack wasn’t overpowering, he was masterful, mixing five pitches to regularly induce weak contact, while also generating 11 whiffs before a Dodger Stadium crowd of 49,796. He struck out five, including Max Muncy twice, retired the last 14 batters he faced and would have gone longer if not for some cramping.

It was as good a start as any Blue Jays pitcher has made this season, and given how far down the depth chart he began the season, he’s one of the more unlikely candidates to throw such a gem.

“I was confident in my plan,” said Waguespack. “I didn’t really feel that great in the bullpen, I felt better last outing in the bullpen, but that just goes to show that once you get out there, it’s about competing and trusting your stuff and your catcher and your defence and that’s what I try to do each time out.”

Waguespack’s ERA is now 3.63 over 52 big-league innings, compared to 5.30 in 52.2 frames at triple-A Buffalo. His walks per nine innings (2.6-vs-4.3) and WHIP (1.173-vs-1.557) have also improve drastically since joining the Blue Jays and facing better competition.

How is he doing this?

“It’s interesting,” said pitching coach Pete Walker. “He’s a professional, he’s an intellectual, he takes his pitching seriously. I think he’s better at the major-league level because his pitch selection is a little better and he knows he can actually attack hitters’ weaknesses. He’s got life on his fastball and his breaking stuff is good enough.”

Intriguingly, some of the most common advanced metrics aren’t kind to Waguespack, with everything from his fastball velocity to his hard-hit percentage rating well below average.

Courtesy Baseball Savant

Yet the Dodgers only put five balls in play against him at more than 95 m.p.h., topping out at a 101.1-m.p.h. groundout by Seager in the fourth inning. He induced six balls at 78.7 m.p.h. or less, including a third-inning Russell Martin lineout to short at 56.2 m.p.h.

Waguespack threw 29 cutters at an average of 89.7 m.p.h., and 27 two-seamers sitting at 90.4. He mixed in 19 four-seamers, 13 curveballs and seven changeups, keeping the Dodgers from keying in on one specific offering.

“Those guys can do damage on any pitch, so we were trying to sink it away and come back in with a cutter, elevate the fastball and bounce the curveball,” said Waguespack. “I wasn’t really flashing anything major, I was just trying to compete.”

Clever sequencing is one way pitchers without elite stuff can maximize their offerings, and there are other ways to add, too.

“The delivery is interesting. The way the ball comes out of his hand is interesting,” said Walker. “It all comes out of the same slot, which is important. His pitches tunnel well. And they’re all solid major-league pitches. They may not be above average, but they’re not below average, either, and he’s got enough weapons to keep hitters off-balance.

“Since I’ve watched him, he’s had some good outings, obviously, and he draws weak contact. They don’t get a lot of great swings on him. That’s the most interesting thing, you’re still waiting for guys to really barrel up some balls and they haven’t seemed to do it too consistently.”

Keeping the enthusiasm curbed is important since the smaller the sample size, the more likely an outlier outcome. Waguespack doesn’t have major prospect pedigree and was acquired from the Philadelphia Phillies last summer for Aaron Loup. He’s only made seven starts and the league is still gathering info on him.

Despite that, he’s the type of guy who’s had to exceed expectations at every point of his career after going undrafted and signing with the Phillies as an undrafted free agent in 2015. Players like him are usually meat for the minor-league machine to protect around more highly regarded prospects.

Out of necessity, Waguespack has had to elbow his way up the ladder.

“You only get so many opportunities and when you do finally get one, as someone who isn’t heralded and isn’t considered a top prospect, you take advantage of your opportunities more and you understand that this game is fleeting,” said Walker. “You want to prove yourself. That’s what he’s doing. He knows he can pitch here. He knows he can be effective and he’s making the most of his opportunity.”

To the point that he dominated one of the best, if not the best team in the majors, at their home park, before a large and boisterous crowd.

“It sounds really good, but for me, I try to treat it like every other day,” said Waguespack. “In this game, as soon as you let your guard down somebody is going to get you. It doesn’t matter what team is out there, I’m just trying to compete and give my team a chance to win.”

He certainly did that, and a whole lot more, too.

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