Nate Pearson ready to work, but Blue Jays must decide how much is too much

Blue Jays starter Nate Pearson says his focus has changed now that he's in the majors, says he wants to be known more as a great pitcher, than just a guy that can fill up the radar gun.

TORONTO – Charlie Montoyo isn’t ready to confirm that Nate Pearson has a spot in the Toronto Blue Jays rotation.

“He’s competing for a spot,” the manager said Friday.

Unofficially, though?

A spot on the starting staff is pretty much a given, barring an injury or some unforeseeable turn of events, especially with Montoyo making it clear some sort of creative relief role isn’t on the table.

“I don’t see him coming out of the bullpen,” he said.

Hence, the real question around the lightning-armed, 24-year-old now that the Blue Jays have manipulated his service time to delay his free agency by a year, is how many innings will he be capable of safely logging this year?

It’s a question that’s stuck to Pearson since a comebacker fractured his right ulna, a long bone in the forearm, and limited him to 22 innings in 2018. He worked up to 101.2 frames the next year but managed just 18 in the regular season plus two more in the playoffs during a 2020 interrupted by a flexor strain, an injury he described as “kind of scary at first.”

Back healthy and strong this spring, the right-hander insists he’s “up for everything” the Blue Jays may ask of him but concedes, “we've got to be smart about it, obviously coming off of a shortened year. … The goal this year is to get as many innings as I can, and to stay healthy all year. Those are really the only two goals I have. The rest will take care of itself.”

Understandably so, but the path to those innings is the tricky part.

Back in 2019, the Blue Jays controlled his workload at double-A New Hampshire by alternating outings of five innings and two innings for the first half of the season before releasing the reins.

Doing something similar in the majors is far more challenging, especially in the midst of a win-now window. Simply allowing him to let it rip isn’t necessarily the answer, either, especially if he starts realizing his vast potential and shoves every fifth day.

“We haven’t really dived into the actual game-plan,” Pearson said. “I know in 2019 I started out doing the five-two-five thing. They haven't said anything about that. I don't think that's going to be the case. I think they're just going to let me go out there and compete and just pitch. I'm at the big-league level now. It's all about just getting that experience and going deep in the games.”

Pearson certainly has all the tools to do precisely that, but if he’s too successful and works too much too fast, the Blue Jays may be forced to reel him back. Essentially, he could inadvertently be punished for being too good. Even if the problem isn’t unique to him, his injury history and capacity for a trajectory-altering contribution could very well make the concerns more acute.

“They’re all going to be just about the same, honestly,” said manager Charlie Montoyo. “Again, it was a weird season last year, not that many games, so we’re going to work with them, look at the numbers, see what they tell us and then ask questions. That’s how we’re going to do it. We’re going to monitor everybody. The good thing about the technology right now is it’s going to let us know a lot of stuff, but it’s also asking the guy how he feels.”

Without doubt the Blue Jays want to get him back feeling the way he did during a jaw-dropping performance against the Tampa Bay Rays in the playoffs. Pearson struck out five of the six batters he faced in the 8-2 Game 2 loss, generating 12 (yes, 12!) swinging strikes and a groundball out.

Along with a clean 1.2 frames a few days prior against the Baltimore Orioles, it made for a nice rebound from the three-homer, five-run, four-inning start on Aug. 18 that preceded his placement on the injured list. That game marked the end of a four-start roller-coaster ride, featuring a sharp climb through a brilliant debut against Washington and solid follow versus Atlanta before a stomach-losing drop through a Miami blitz and Orioles grind.

The downtime allowed Pearson to better understand how he needs to communicate with training staff about everything he’s feeling, and to reconsider how he was using his repertoire.

“In the minors you can definitely get away with being a little erratic because velo can help you out at times,” he said, “but I learned up in the big-leagues, you can't just throw it hard and spray it a lot.”

To that end, the 13 walks in 18 innings stuck out for someone who had a 2.3 walks-per-nine rate in the minors. Of his 324 pitches, 197 were strikes, prompting him to say he’s “got to attack the zone and throw strikes and competitive pitches more often than not.”

“There were a lot of times last year where I would just waste pitches, whether it be just non-competitive fastballs up or whatever,” Pearson added. “It's all about making those competitive misses, as well. Attack the zone and when you miss, don't miss by a drastic amount. Let that miss serve something. If you're going in on a guy, you want to miss in rather than missing over the plate. If anything, you miss in and you brush them off the plate serves a purpose. That's the little stuff that I've been learning.”

Similarly, more strikes will help him get to his secondary pitches more often, shaking up a usage pattern that had him at 50.6 per cent fastball, 36.1 per cent slider, 6.8 per cent changeup and 6.5 per cent curveball. Over the winter he focused on keeping his slider in the 86-88 m.p.h. range, feeling that when it dips below 85 the offering becomes “too slurvy.” He also made gains on his curveball, which he hopes to use more regularly.

“Definitely got to be aggressive with the secondary,” he said. “I only made four starts so it's a small sample size to really take from. But I felt like, especially in my last two starts, I struggled a little bit. I couldn't really get to those favourable counts where I could throw my good off-speed or whatever. I feel like I was always battling back with my fastball or my slider, which are my top two pitches. So I put myself in a corner where I had to throw those two to be competitive. And this off-season I really worked on throwing all four for strikes. I've definitely seen some increase in the consistency of throwing strikes with those pitches. It really only gets me excited for this year.”

BULLPEN BORUCKI

The intensity of life in leverage hit home for Ryan Borucki in the ninth inning of a 6-2, 10-inning win at the Boston Red Sox last Sept. 3. He came in with the winning run aboard, struck out Jairo Munoz, got Alex Verdugo on a pop-up and walked Rafael Devers before handing the ball over to Rafael Dolis, who got Xander Bogaerts to end the frame with the game still 2-2.

“It’s make or break time when you come into those games and it really tests you,” Borucki said. “I’d never been in a situation where I'm coming in with a game on the line. … It's a different feeling because one mistake costs you the whole game. As a starter, if you make a bad pitch in the first inning, they hit a home [run], OK, you've got eight more innings left and you got your boys that are going to be able to get runs for you. It definitely tests you as a competitor. But I really enjoy those moments, when the game really matters. And it was a role that I really felt comfortable in from the start.”

To that end, Borucki arrived at Blue Jays camp with his eyes on the bullpen for the first time.

As recently as summer camp last July, the 26-year-old was determined to remain a starter, but after a successful transition to a leverage role, with a 2.70 ERA in 16.2 innings over 21 outings, he changed everything up to be ready for his new role.

“This was the first off-season I was basically training to be in the bullpen, so my throwing program was completely different,” Borucki said. “My lifting schedule was completely different and I started much earlier playing catch this year. Threw a lot of pens. Normally I only come to spring training throwing about four or five pens, but this year I had about 10 to 12 under my belt. Lifting was a lot more explosion work and quick movements rather than longevity, long lifts, heavier lifts. It was just real fast moving because as a reliever, you're more of a sprinter than a long-distance runner.”

SHORT HOPS

• The Blue Jays will play seven innings on Sunday in their Grapefruit League opener against the New York Yankees, a length of game Montoyo said will be a regular occurrence out of the gate.

• Under MLB’s 2021 operations manual, spring games through March 13 are to be scheduled for seven innings, but can be shortened to five innings or stretched to nine if both managers agree. From March 14 onward, games are to be scheduled for nine innings, but teams can shorten them to seven.

• In games through March 13, managers can end an inning before three outs have been made as long as the pitcher has reached 20 pitches. All spring long, pitchers can re-enter the game once they’ve been removed, although the three-batter minimum rule is also in place.

• The Blue Jays have three night games scheduled for TD Ballpark during the final week of camp but may schedule additional workouts under the lights so players can acclimate ahead of the regular season, Montoyo said.

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