Blue Jays’ Nate Pearson eager to feel like himself again after hernia surgery

Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Nate Pearson (24) works in the first inning of a baseball game against the Atlanta Braves Thursday, Aug. 6, 2020, in Atlanta. (John Bazemore/AP)

TORONTO — Seeing as he’s thrown only 63.2 innings over the last 26 months, Nate Pearson’s had a lot of time to think about a lot of things. How quickly the air can let out of a top prospect’s rise to MLB. Where it went off the rails over two years marred by injuries and wayward control. Why he’s seldom felt like himself when healthy enough to take the mound.

“Dealing with injuries — it affects you physically, obviously. But it also affects you mentally. If you're not going out there confident in your health, if you're worried about something else, it's hard to compete. And I struggled with that,” Pearson says. “You're OK to pitch. But in the back of your head, you know something might be lingering or isn't quite right. And now you're tightening up. The game’s speeding up on you. You have to try to slow it down. And sometimes I wasn’t able to, and I’d have these blow-up innings.

“I just need to be in the present. It's so hard when you’re thinking about things negatively. I had to learn how to not get too down when I was down. And how to enjoy it when I’d have a good outing. How to be even keeled through the whole process. How to not put too much pressure on myself. There’s a lot that goes into it.”

These are the things Pearson’s been reflecting on since the end of a 2021 season in which little went his way. He entered the year near the top of prospect rankings across the industry and positioned to claim a job in the Blue Jays rotation. But then he hurt his groin in early March and missed the start of the season. And only seven outings after he returned in May, he hurt it again. He finished the year with 11 stretch-run appearances out of the Blue Jays bullpen and a date with a surgeon in New York to repair a sports hernia.

Surgery was discussed thoroughly after Pearson’s groin problems arose a second time in June, as he went from waiting room to waiting room, receiving multiple opinions on the recurring injury. Ultimately, Pearson and the Blue Jays decided to kick the ball down the road to the off-season, opting instead for the right-hander to continue pitching through the issue in shorter stints to better manage his workload and recovery.

In July, Pearson received a cortisone injection to relieve his pain and began working towards a return. By mid-August, he was back on a mound in triple-A. And a half-dozen outings later, he was called up to pitch out of the Blue Jays bullpen during a post-season push. It was the best he’d felt all year.

“I finished the season great — I felt like myself again,” Pearson says. “I pitched in the last game of the season and came out of it expecting to pitch in the playoffs.”

A post-season appearance wasn’t in the cards. But returning to New York to see the doctor he consulted with mid-season was. Over a five-day visit during the second week of October, Pearson was advised to have the hernia procedure, went under the knife, and left the operating room with a month-long recovery ahead of him.

“We all decided that enough was enough with this. I wanted to get it done and put it behind me,” Pearson says. “I was at peace with it. Coming out of surgery, I felt that I really needed it.”

Not that Pearson looked like he needed it this September, as he averaged 98.5 m.p.h. on his fastball (touching 102), earned a 48.6 per cent whiff rate with his slider, and struck out more than a third of the batters he faced. He was electric. But cortisone treats a symptom, not a cause. The pain Pearson was dealing with earlier in the season was ultimately going to return until he had the hernia repaired.

Still, finishing the season the way he did was extremely meaningful to Pearson. After spending most of April and May adjusting his mechanics to alleviate the stress on his groin — “Yeah, that backfired,” he says now — Pearson returned to the delivery he’s used his entire life and went on the most sustained run of success he’s had in two years. He reminded himself he can get hitters out at the highest level; that the stuff plays. The September bullpen stint wasn’t about proving he was healthy, because technically he wasn’t. It was about proving something to himself.

“I had a goal of getting back up to the big leagues. I didn't want to end my season struggling in triple-A,” Pearson says. “With everything that's happened and everything I’ve gone through, I really wanted to get that feeling back of being myself on the mound. Going after guys. Getting that adrenaline again. I feel like I got that itch back where I want to be out there all the time. I want to be on that mound. You get that drive again. It's addictive. It’s so fun.”

Pearson’s not sure when, how, or why he lost that drive. He had it in 2019, when he rocketed up Toronto’s system from high-A to triple-A, pitching to a 2.30 ERA across 25 starts. But over time, through injuries and control struggles, it bled away.

It really hit him this May, when he was demoted to triple-A following a rocky, three-run, five-walk, seven-out start against the Houston Astros. As Pearson was stepping back, Alek Manoah was leaping forward, storming through his first taste of the level in a breakout season. From the dugout’s top step, Pearson watched a pitcher two years his junior take the mound with a tenacity he couldn’t find.

“Alek’s got amazing stuff. But what makes him so good is that he’s so confident. His mound presence is crazy to watch. I learned so much from him,” Pearson says. “I was like, ‘That's how I need to pitch. That's how I should be. I should be that bulldog out there.’ And I realized I’d kind of lost myself. I was like that and I lost it for a bit due to injuries and everything else.”

While Manoah was attacking the zone, Pearson was nibbling at corners, falling behind, throwing uncompetitive pitches. He was thinking too much about the quality of hitters he was facing; thinking about needing to get through six; thinking about his second and third trip through the order, rather than focusing on getting the out in front of him.

And he was thinking a lot about velocity. Looking up at his readings on the scoreboard during games; obsessing over every data point Rapsodo spat out between bullpen pitches. Pearson was measuring his success on throwing a tick harder; pushing his curveball spin efficiency up over 90 per cent; moving the vertical break on that pitch beyond minus-20. It was consuming.

The irony is that Pearson probably isn’t a big-leaguer if not for a data-driven developmental process he used to build his arsenal. But getting to the majors and staying there are different challenges. That’s why velocity and spin are the last concerns he wants on his mind going forward.

Now it’s about throwing those nasty pitches he built for strikes. Using them to get quick outs. Ignoring the data during bullpens and asking more universal questions. Was my fastball playing in the zone? How did my stuff look to the hitter in the box? Did my slider start as a strike before moving off the plate? Did my curveball stay up long enough to get a swing?

“I say this every year, I know. But I've just got to attack the zone,” Pearson says. “I’ve got to actually go into bullpens and focus on that. Not focusing on velo. Not focusing on curveball spin efficiency or slider break or any of that Rapsodo stuff. Obviously, that stuff is really good to know and understand. But I feel like I got absorbed into it. And if it's not translating into a competitive setting, then what's the use for it?

“I can throw these immaculate bullpens — these legendary bullpens. But I need to prove it out on the biggest stage. Focusing so much on that stuff and obsessively fine-tuning everything, it took away from my competitive side. It took away from the fact I still need to go out there with whatever I have and compete.”

That’s the thing. A curveball with over 90 per cent spin efficiency and vertical break beyond minus-20 is a great pitch. As is a triple-digit fastball. And a hard slider that spins over 2,600 revolutions per minute. Plenty of pitchers would be ecstatic to develop just one of those offerings. Pearson throws all three. A changeup, too. But what good is a great pitch if you aren’t throwing it for strikes?

This can all sound so obvious. But, at 25, Pearson wouldn’t be the first pitcher with elite stuff to face these hurdles while acclimating to major-league competition. Kevin Gausman — the No. 4 overall pick in 2012 — flashed frontline weapons coming out of college but is just now fulfilling his potential at 30. Jacob DeGrom had a 4.52 ERA at triple-A the year prior to making his MLB debut at 26. Robbie Ray couldn’t get his devastating fastball-slider mix into the zone until he was 29.

“I actually talked to Robbie a lot throughout the season. I learned a lot from him,” Pearson says. “He has two really good pitches. And he was able to dominate lineups because he was so convicted in those two pitches. Each one he threw, he was probably thinking the same thing. Like, ‘These pitches are too good. They aren’t going to hit it.’ If I can have his mentality, I know I can do that. I’ve got two really good pitches.”

There’s no disputing that after the way Pearson ended his season. It’s why his career floor is likely as a high-leverage MLB reliever. But his ceiling’s still so vast that the Blue Jays would be foolish to not try him again as a starter in 2022 with a healthy groin, more comfortable mechanics, and a better mentality. And they will.

That process begins shortly as Pearson nears the end of his rehabilitation and is cleared to begin throwing again. He wakes up every day thinking about it. But almost all he’s done over these last two years of stops and starts is think. Now it’s time to pitch.

“When I step on the mound each inning, I'm going to go right after these guys. Like, right after them,” Pearson says. “The way I look at it, I’ve got one inning. Attack. And when that inning goes by, regroup in the dugout, come back out, and attack. Attack the zone. It doesn’t matter who I’m facing. I won’t get caught up in the bigger picture. I’m staying in the present. I've got one inning. I've got one batter right now. Get through this one. And then the next one. And then the next one. And next thing you know, you're through six. And you're shoving. That’s how it's supposed to be. That’s how it was before injuries and all the other stuff. And I know I can get back to that.”

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