As Blue Jays ride bullpen to success, Roark calls out short leash on starters

TORONTO – The Toronto Blue Jays head into their first off-day in four weeks holding second place in the American League East, thanks in large part to the way they’ve used an expanded pitching staff to game the pandemic-shortened schedule.

A 7-2 loss to the New York Yankees on Wednesday night followed a familiar track, with the starting pitcher going through the lineup twice before handing over a close game over to the bullpen. This time, it was Tanner Roark on the short leash, yanked after four frames and only 68 pitches despite allowing only two runs, with Ross Stripling taking the reins of a 2-2 game and allowing three runs in the decisive fifth inning capped by Gleyber Torres’ two-run double.

The backfire was a rare one for the 24-18 Blue Jays, whose bullpen has been the foundation of a 19-9 romp through a gruelling stretch of 28 games in 27 days. Still, frustrations over the wall between the rotation and a third trip through the batting order are bubbling over, surfacing publicly Sept. 3 in Boston, when Taijuan Walker cursed loudly and didn’t make eye contact with manager Charlie Montoyo as he came to the mound to pull the right-hander in the sixth inning.

Roark then blasted the approach after his start Wednesday, beginning his post-game discussion with media by running through his pitching line and saying bluntly that, “I felt like I got taken out too early.”

“I think that’s horsecrap,” Roark said when asked about the club limiting starters to two turns through the opposition. “Just because the computers are saying something different – I hate it. I’m old school. They signed me here for a reason, to not go three, four innings and throw only a certain amount of pitches. I throw a lot of pitches. I try to go as deep as I can. I don’t know. That’s baseball. It started last year and again this year, keeping that trend going. I disagree with it. Not everybody’s the same. Not everybody throws 98 miles an hour.”

Roark, signed to a $24-million, two-year deal as a free agent during the off-season, has faced only 19 batters for the third time in an outing so far this season, allowing six hits including a homer and a double. Collectively, Blue Jays starters have faced 102 batters for the third time in a game, with a 1.074 OPS against.

It’s compelling evidence, although across the majors this season, the OPS against pitchers in their third time through is .776 in 4,196 plate appearances, the same as it is for the second time, above the .724 the first time through a lineup.

By not offering more rope, Blue Jays starters can’t really build themselves up to grind through that third trip, when in Roark’s words, “the true grit comes out,” and “it shows who you are as a pitcher … show your manhood a little bit.” In his career, the 33-year-old has relatively even splits, with a .689 OPS against his first time through the order, .706 the second time and .752 the third time.

Roark has raised his concerns with Montoyo and pitching coach Pete Walker, “and they’re doing their best, which I know they are,” he said. “It’s out of my hands and out of every other starter’s hands. But I know that if this was a 162-game season and we made playoffs, come August, we can’t have the relievers being exhausted. We’ve got to let us (starters) go, no matter if we give up seven, to eat up innings. That’s our job. To give everything we’ve got until we’re out of the game. It’s hard to establish a rhythm when you have that in the back of your head, that when you see the leadoff guy the third time through, it’s questionable if you’re going to be able to pitch against him or not.”

Without a doubt, this approach isn’t sustainable over 162 games and with 26-man rosters limited to 13 pitchers instead of the current 28 with as many pitchers a team wants. The Blue Jays are currently carrying 15.

Hence, entering play Wednesday, they ranked 23rd in rotation innings at 181, and when you add in the four frames from Roark, they were at 185 of 380.2 total frames for an average of 4.1 innings a start. No starter has thrown a pitch for them in the seventh inning so far, although Walker did it twice with the Seattle Mariners before he was traded.

Yikes.

Four relievers – Anthony Bass, Rafael Dolis, Tom Hatch and Shun Yamaguchi – were tied for fifth on the team in innings pitched at 20.1. Set-up man A.J. Cole is right behind them at 19.1, followed by lefty Anthony Kay at 18.1.

Nine different relievers are in double digits for appearances, led by the 20 each for Bass and Dollis, 19 for Cole, and 17 for Wilmer Font, who hit the IL on Tuesday. Canadian Jordan Romano was at 15 games when he hit the injured list 10 days ago, and would likely be over 20 now if not for his finger injury.

All of it is by design.

“We’ve been in every game because of the way we’ve moved the pitching around,” said Montoyo. “Every game, except today. That’s because of what we did. We have starters in the bullpen that can go two and three innings, which helps. That’s a reason we’re here where we are right now.”

Indeed, under normal circumstances, Hatch, Kay, Ryan Borucki, Julian Merryweather and Sean Reid-Foley would all be starting at triple-A Buffalo, developing as starters and providing depth. But with no minor-leagues and only 60 games to cover, the Blue Jays have structured games to continually concentrate innings in the hands of their most reliable arms, an approach the Washington Nationals rode to a championship in the post-season last fall.

Yet Montoyo and Walker have continually been juggling a bullpen running on fumes, often going to a fresh arm out of the bullpen at the first hint of leverage in the middle innings onwards.

“I think it’s the trend of the way the game is going,” said Roark. “Yes, there are some strategic moves that we do, which I understand. Thank God we have an off-day (Thursday) but during this 28-game span, these guys are normally starters, most of them, not used to day off, pitch, day off, pitch.”

Underlining that dilemma is that when Nate Pearson returns from the injured list, he’ll come back as a reliever (there isn’t enough runway to build him up to start) and Montoyo said the Blue Jays will be sure to give him extra time to prepare before entering a game.

The adjustment in role and workload creates some risk for the young arms, but with no minor-leagues, it’s also their only chance to develop this summer, too.

So, put all together, there are many competing interests for the Blue Jays to balance here, with 17 games over the next 18 days after a badly needed breather Thursday.

Roark, a self-described “diesel engine” who “starts off slow and then gets better as you go on throughout the game,” is having to adjust, as is everyone else.

Montoyo said part of the reason he lifted Roark so soon is that he knew Stripling had 80 pitches and wanted to make sure the righty stayed stretched out. He spoke with Roark afterwards and “he was fine with me. But I like the fact they get upset. Walker was upset the other day. That’s how it goes. That’s why we’re doing fine, because we’ve got guys like that, they want to battle, they don’t want to come out of the game. I love that.”

Just not enough to let them pitch deeper when there’s a high-velo bullpen arm at the ready.

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