LOS ANGELES – At this stage of the Toronto Blue Jays’ rebuild, the difference between success or failure to a significant degree rests on their ability to help talented but struggling players develop and get them through the inevitable bumps that arise in transitioning to the big-leagues.
An intriguing test in that regard is the enigmatic Sean Reid-Foley, the big-armed right-hander with spotty command and an erratic track record just optioned back to triple-A Buffalo. With a dominant fastball, a slider that can be wipeout good and a progressing changeup, he’s got all the tools to succeed in the big-leagues.
In flashes he’s shown that, like July 2 when he threw 3.1 clean innings against the Boston Red Sox with four strikeouts, or Aug. 9, when he held the New York Yankees to a run on five hits and two walks with five strikeouts over five innings. On the flip side, there are messes like Tuesday’s five runs on five hits and two walks in 1.2 innings against the Los Angeles Dodgers, or his 21 walks over 31.2 innings in the majors this year.
Rescuing distressed assets in Reid-Foley’s position by helping them find the tools needed to unlock their abilities is, right now, pivotal for a franchise trying to turn the corner on three seasons of losing.
And the task begins the moment a player is demoted, a moment that is often difficult for the player to take and for the team to impart its own message.
"I think no matter what you say and how its addressed at the time, the player hears what they want to hear, initially, because they’re obviously disappointed that they’re not staying with the major-league team," says Blue Jays pitching coach Pete Walker. "They’re going down for an extended period of time, or a short time, and the best you can do is tell them honestly if they’re a big part of the organization or not.
"As disappointed as they are in going down, it’s important they realize they’re part of this thing moving forward and that as soon as they get things together, they’ll be back. And that we want them back. That’s the biggest thing, just know that we’re in it together. We’re not sending them down as a punishment. We’re doing it for a reason, for the betterment of the team, and to get them to a position where they can help us out."
Reid-Foley, who turns 24 on Aug. 30, has been up and down a few times already this season but this one was no doubt the toughest, as the move came amid what was supposed to be an extended audition, and left the Blue Jays with only two starters on the roster.
Still, he’s far from the first player to get a Buffalo reset, as both Lourdes Gurriel Jr., and Teoscar Hernandez have used time at triple-A to get themselves right. Lefty Thomas Pannone, optioned a day before Reid-Foley, is in the same boat right now. Double-A righty Yennsy Diaz debuted earlier this month, couldn’t find the strike zone in his lone appearance, and was quickly sent back for more refinements.
Walker says that whenever a pitcher in such a circumstance is demoted, he is sent down with "something specific" from the big-league coaching staff "that needs to be addressed."
"We’ll give some ideas as to what can help them get back here and stay here," he continues. "There’s a player-development plan in place to get them here and we’ll incorporate that with what they’ve been doing at double-A or triple-A. But sometimes they get here and there are some things that are recognizable that need to be addressed. With Sean, it’s simply just fastball command, get more consistency with the slider and his delivery is kind of out of whack right now. It’s a matter of pulling those things together."
Improving command is easier said than done, a task that’s frequently the bane of player development staffers on the pitching side. Reid-Foley’s career walks per-nine rate in the minor-leagues is 4.4, but this season in the majors it’s 6.0 and in 82 innings at Buffalo, it’s in an even more alarming 6.8. Some inconsistencies in his pitching mechanics all season long are behind that, but thus far a fix has been elusive.
"We’ve been going back and forth to different movements, trying to get him comfortable and I thought we found it," says Walker. "Now this past game, he seemed choppy again and he needs some more fluidity in his delivery. So between me and Doug (Mathis, the pitching coach at Buffalo), we’ll make sure that we’re on the same page as far as what he can work on to get back here. The biggest thing is to get some fluidity in his delivery, to get some consistency in his landing, and his timing with his release point needs to be better."
One theory is that Reid-Foley has been chasing his velocity all year long, trying to regain the 1.2 m.p.h. average drop on his four-seamer from last season to this one, down from 93.7 to 92.5. Given that he throws his fastball 47.6 per cent of the time, and his slider 35.5 per cent of the time, if he can’t spot it and can get away with fewer mistakes because it’s not as hard, it’s a dangerous mix.
"Sometimes, when you’re trying to reach back and trying to throw a little bit harder, you’re looking at the gun, for any pitcher that has had velocity, or a little bit more velocity and maybe it’s down a click or two, typically they get in trouble," says Walker. "They come out of their delivery. They get behind the baseball. They start to lose command of the fastball. With that, sometimes your confidence is shaken, so the worst thing you can do is pitch for the radar gun. You’ve just got to stay within your delivery and trust that your velocity will come back."
Ross Atkins said the Blue Jays continue to see Reid-Foley as a starter, and though there have long been suggestions that he’d be best served by a move to the bullpen, the GM still views that as a potential "fallback plan."
"We just still feel he has a chance to start," Atkins says, "and we want to exhaust that."