Soft tissue injuries are a fickle thing. They aren’t like broken bones, which heal somewhat predictably and uniformly for everyone. Or like swelling and contusions — the recovery progress of which you can track visually. Muscle strains you can’t see. They can take a shorter time to get over for some, longer for others. Sometimes, your symptoms can be misleading. You can think you’re past the injury when you’re not.
That’s what happened to Nate Pearson, the Toronto Blue Jays starter who thought he was over an adductor strain he suffered early in spring training when he took the mound for a mid-March bullpen and… bang. There it was again — a familiar pain in a familiar area. And there he went again — back to the familiar grind of rehab, trying to get healthy for a season that was now going to start without him.
“I was feeling 100 per cent ready to go. And the training staff was awesome. They'd been taking care of it,” Pearson says. “But it's just something that can happen in the recovery process as you’re building back up. Obviously, it stunk that it happened. It just delayed everything.”
But if there’s room for optimism in Pearson’s unfortunate situation, it’s that the re-aggravation of his groin injury showed him he needed to change something in his mechanics. There had to be a reason it kept happening. So, off to the video room he went, slowing down his delivery frame by frame with Blue Jays developers, searching for clues in how he transitioned from one stage of his throwing motion to the next.
What they found was a tendency to tense up just as he was about to release the ball, born from Pearson’s desire to throw with as much velocity as possible. Rather than staying smooth and efficient through his pitching motion, he was introducing an unnecessary amount of tension at a point in his delivery when he’s already transferring a great amount of force through his body.
It was, as Pearson put it, “not necessarily in the best interest for me.” So, he went to work smoothing out that final action, focusing on staying relaxed and trusting the natural velocity his six-foot-six, 250-pound frame produces, rather than stressing himself to push through the ball with so much force.
“It’s about throwing with a little bit less effort and feeling more whippy — just throwing more effortlessly. Not trying to chase velo or anything, just trying to pitch. It's definitely a little bit new. I'm adjusting to those mechanics. But I'm feeling really great with them and feeling healthy,” he says. “Before, I felt like I was nice and smooth and then at the last minute I would tense up and try to throw the ball as hard as I can. That's when my command would get sporadic. And I feel like right now I'm focused on staying one speed the whole time and just keeping the body quiet through the whole delivery.
“The modified mechanics, they're not crazy different or anything. You may not even really be able to tell. It's more just staying calm on the mound and being less violent.”
The early returns have been encouraging. Pearson’s been pain-free as he’s deliberately increased his workload since returning to the mound in early April. He got up to 65 pitches at Toronto’s alternate site in Dunedin, Fla., last week, and will be pushed further during his next outing on Tuesday, starting the Buffalo Bisons season opener in Trenton, NJ.
And there’s more good news — the mechanical tweaks haven’t come at the expense of velocity. Pearson was sitting 97.5-m.p.h. during his final start at the alternate site, and got up to 101 late in the outing — a great sign for a pitcher who’s typically gotten stronger as his outings wear on.
“Honestly, I've been throwing hard,” Pearson says. “I haven't hit 101 over a three- or four-inning span since 2019. So, it's very awesome to see that the velo is still there. And now it's all about refining everything and controlling it and throwing strikes.”
Yeah, that’s a big one. It won’t matter how hard Pearson throws if he can’t locate against big-league hitters. He learned that the hard way last season, as erratic fastball command led to 12 walks over four outings before he hit the injured list with a flexor strain.
But walks were never an issue prior to his major-league debut, as Pearson issued only 32 over 123.1 minor-league innings. And when he returned from the flexor strain in late September, he lived in the zone much more consistently, throwing 17 of 24 pitches for strikes in one final regular-season outing, before striking out five of the six batters he faced in an utterly dominant post-season relief appearance.
That would seem to indicate that when Pearson’s feeling healthy and strong on the mound, he can find the zone plenty. Which is what makes dialling in his new mechanics and avoiding any future issues arising from his delivery so crucial.
At his best, Pearson’s doting the edges of the strike zone with high-90’s fastballs, tunneling those heaters with sliders that move in one direction and curveballs that move in another. And if he’s not getting the swings he’s looking for, he might just drop in a changeup at the same speed as Hyun Jin Ryu’s fastball. When it’s all working, it’s a nightmare of a plate appearance for a hitter. That’s why Pearson’s so highly regarded — why he’s one of the top pitching prospects in the game. Guys with his stuff and ability don’t come around often.
But it all starts with that fastball command. Without it, nothing else works. And that reliable strike-throwing is likely what the Blue Jays want to see before promoting Pearson back to the majors, which is where his pure stuff suggests he should be. That’ll be his focus Tuesday with the Bisons — and for however long it takes him to prove to his organization that he’s ready to return to the next level.
“I like to always say I'm a good strike thrower for how hard I throw,” Pearson says. “The velo's not the question. It's just everything else that goes with it. Just controlling everything. Four pitches for strikes, command the fastball. The velo's going to be there without a doubt.
“I have four really good pitches and I think I just need to focus on whatever is working that day in the game. Just compete with whatever I’ve got. And not worry so much on what pitch is there and what pitch is not. It's going out there, and whatever I have that day, just competing and getting outs.”
Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo has indicated that the club views Pearson’s rehabilitation process as complete, and that the 24-year-old is now competing for an MLB opportunity alongside fellow depth starters such as T.J. Zeuch and Anthony Kay, who will fill a hole in the Blue Jays rotation in Oakland Tuesday night.
If — big if — Pearson can grasp his new mechanics, command his fastball, and continue upping his pitch count, he could be an option in the major-league rotation as soon as next week. The Blue Jays are currently playing a stretch of 29 games in 31 days, and with Hyun Jin Ryu scheduled to return Thursday after a brief absence due to a glute strain, it stands to reason the club will endeavour to get its ace the extra day’s rest he typically prefers between starts.
That could create an opportunity for Pearson right there. An injury could, too. A COVID scare; a rainout; a double-header. A million things can happen. But all Pearson can do is pitch where he’s asked to for now. And wait for the day his name’s called again.
“I think they want me to be able to go six or seven strong innings when I get called back up. So, obviously, we're going to have to see how the rehab and starts go here in triple-A. I'm kind of just down here until they call me up. So, I'll just be where my feet are at,” Pearson says. “You know, obviously, it's not something that an athlete wants to go through — injuries and stuff. But it is part of the game. And I have gone through injuries before. And just knowing how to handle them mentally and just knowing that, 'Yeah, it stinks right now. But it's all about the big picture.'
“I'm just now starting my young career out and I'll look back on this in 10 years and be thankful for what I went through. Being back down at triple-A — obviously, not where I want to be. I want to be in the big leagues. But this is where I'm at right now. So, I'm going to focus on pitching here and enjoying it with my teammates. We got a lot of great guys here. It's going to be a lot of fun.”