How long will the Biagini-as-starter experiment last for Blue Jays?

JD Martinez hit a two-run shot to help the Red Sox beat the Blue Jays 5-3, making it a series win for the visiting team in Toronto.

TORONTO — We all see what the Toronto Blue Jays are trying to do with Joe Biagini.

Selected from the San Francisco Giants during the Rule 5 draft in December, 2015, and made a permanent Blue Jay by virtue of his strong bullpen work throughout the ensuing season, he’s like found money. Teams generally need to expend something valuable — personnel, a draft pick, a large sum of cash — to acquire an effective major-league pitcher. But with Biagini, it’s as if one just materialized out of thin air.

Considering that, wouldn’t it be something if the Blue Jays could turn him into a useful starter? Wouldn’t it be a shrewd bit of scouting, roster manoeuvering, and development if Biagini became a potent part of Toronto’s rotation, with the only acquisition cost being the $100,000 the Blue Jays were required to pay the Giants?

Well, yes. That would be an organizational triumph. And that’s why, despite his success as a reliever, the Blue Jays have been letting Biagini work exclusively as a starter since last season. That’s why Blue Jays coaches have spent a great deal of time honing his arsenal, fine-tuning his mechanics, developing routines, talking him through the mental obstacles of starting, and imploring him to work faster than the Peter Jackson-esque pace he often operates at.

But how long can they continue the project in spite of the results? That’s the question a lot of Blue Jays fans and observers are left pondering after Biagini went only 4.2 innings Sunday, allowing four runs on four hits and three walks in a 5-3 Blue Jays loss to the Boston Red Sox. Biagini now owns a 7.98 ERA over three major-league starts this season. Factoring in his four triple-A starts, his ERA is 5.94.

“You try to just continue to grind through it and battle. That’s kind of what it is as a starter,” Biagini said. “You have one of those games once and a while where you kind of cruise through. But most of them you have to try to stay tough and stay consistent.

“It’s definitely a challenge to come up here, make a couple starts, go down there (to triple-A), make some starts, and go back and forth and be in different places and things. But, dealing with all that is just a great opportunity for me.”

What makes the sputtering nature of the Biagini-as-starter exercise so glaring is how good he was in a long relief role in that 2016 season, pitching to a 3.06 ERA over 60 appearances (22 of them longer than an inning), and how desperately the Blue Jays need a pitcher just like that in their bullpen today.

Over 13 games this month, Blue Jays starters have pitched into the sixth inning only five times. Over 41 games this season, Blue Jays starters have completed six innings only 15 times. Coming into Sunday, Toronto’s rotation ERA stood at 5.50, the third-worst mark in baseball.

Based on the ability and track records of Toronto’s starters, most expect those numbers to improve. But the fact remains that this has so far been a five-and-dive staff, frequently leaving its bullpen with an excess of middle innings that need to be pitched. Biagini was terrific doing just that in 2016 and for stretches of 2017. But he’s been unavailable to fill the role this season as he continues his rotation odyssey.

Somewhat ironically, it was Biagini himself putting the Blue Jays bullpen in another tough spot Sunday. He surrendered his first runs only five minutes into the game as JD Martinez made mincemeat of a first-pitch Biagini fastball, dropping it into the right field bullpen for a two-run first-inning homer.

Biagini settled in from there, retiring his next five batters faced with a pair of groundballs, a pair of strikeouts, and a fly ball. That got him through two. But the third was difficult to watch.

Biagini walked the leadoff hitter and, after a flyout and a single, walked another to load the bases. His pace slowed considerably, picking up only slightly after a mound visit from Blue Jays pitching coach Pete Walker four batters and 27 pitches into the inning.

Walker’s conference did not prove analeptic. Biagini lost the next batter, Mitch Moreland, missing badly above the zone with his 10th pitch of the plate appearance to walk in a run. In the left field bullpen beyond his right shoulder, Deck McGuire began to throw. By the time he sidestepped the jam, getting a double play groundball off the bat of Xander Bogaerts, Biagini had thrown 41 pitches in the inning.

Through it all, Biagini’s body language expressed his every emotion. He pounded his glove in frustration at calls that didn’t go his way. He bent at the knees and slumped his shoulders as Mookie Betts’s hit-and-run single snuck through the infield. He paced the mound tugging at his jersey after good pitches were fouled off.

That was Biagini at his worst. Biagini at his best? That would be the inning that immediately followed, when he induced three groundball outs on only 10 pitches. Those are the innings that make the Blue Jays want to continue pushing Biagini as a starter. That’s the potential. But his tendency to have innings like the third is impossible to ignore. Neither is his past effectiveness in relief.

Coming into Sunday’s game, Biagini had a 3.44 ERA over 99.1 innings as a reliever, and a 5.97 ERA over 98 innings as a starter. Pitching out of the bullpen, his strikeout rate had been much higher and his home run rate much lower. And it’s not like Sunday’s outing made the discrepancy any less significant.

Joe Biagini as a starter vs. a reliever

 

IP

ERA

FIP

K/9

BB/9

HR/9

AVG

OBP

SLG

Starter

98

5.97

4.52

7.16

3.12

1.29

.285

.343

.459

Reliever

99.1

3.44

3.29

8.06

2.81

0.54

.245

.315

.354

 

Only the Blue Jays know how long they’ll keep Biagini, turning 28 in two weeks, on his current path. The potential is undeniably there. He’s shown flashes of what he could be. But, considering the energy and resources expended in the pursuit, plus Toronto’s need for a reliever like Biagini in its bullpen today, it’s fair to wonder at what point they cross the threshold into diminishing returns.

“I think that any chance to get to play at this level in any capacity is really good — whether it’s bullpen or starter or both,” Biagini said. “A lot of guys have done that and made good careers out of that. And there’s a lot of things that I learned from last year, going back and forth.

“As much as I would always like to do just as well as anybody could possibly do, it was a really good opportunity for me to learn that. And [the Blue Jays] have been nothing but fair to me. I can’t say that some of the things that I wasn’t doing well was a result of changing my role. It was honestly a good challenge and a good opportunity for me to learn a lot. The timing of it all coming together takes more or less time for different people. Just like anything, really. So, I feel nothing but gratitude for the opportunity to get to do it.”

And, hey, credit Biagini for this — he lasted longer in Sunday’s game than Drew Pomeranz. The Red Sox starter laboured as he encountered a patient approach from Toronto’s hitters, who diligently worked counts in spite of some spotty home plate umpiring from Jerry Meals, and did everything they could to force Pomeranz into the zone.

Teoscar Hernandez set the tone, fouling off several tough offerings as he worked an eight-pitch plate appearance to lead off the bottom of the first. The Blue Jays forced Pomeranz to throw 26 pitches that inning, followed by a 19-pitch second, a 22-pitch third, and a 16-pitch fourth, which softened him up for a three-run outburst in the fifth that felt like it was a long time coming.

Hernandez started it with a single, before Josh Donaldson singled and Justin Smoak doubled to score both runners. Smoak later scored himself on a Russell Martin flare to shallow left. But the rally was killed swiftly and dispiritingly when Kendrys Morales bounced a first-pitch fastball back to the mound for an inning-ending double play.

That left the Blue Jays down one. But, two innings later, they had a chance to tie it as Yangervis Solarte singled off Red Sox reliever Matt Barnes before Martin drove a double — his third hit of the game — into the left field corner.

As Solarte rounded second, Blue Jays third base coach Luis Rivera assessed the situation — perhaps also the fact that Morales, five for his last 61, was on deck — and made an aggressive choice to send the runner home. Solarte went as quickly as his legs would carry him, but the ball was in the catcher’s glove before he’d even begun his slide. In a cruel twist of baseball fate, Morales singled leading off the following inning.

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