Baseball is a sport steeped in tradition, and one of its most reliable customs is the April overreaction. Every year we find ourselves forming strong opinions based on tiny samples because that’s all we’ve seen. That's especially true when what we see fits with existing spring training narratives.
Sometimes they’re spot on, but more often than not what we see at the beginning of the season isn’t any more meaningful than what happens in the middle of June, it’s just under an electron microscope.
In the case of the Toronto Blue Jays, despite the evidence we’ve seen thus far, this lineup will score runs, Randal Grichuk isn’t ready to show he should’ve been drafted a spot above Mike Trout after all, and Rowdy Tellez isn’t going to go hitless all year.
With those caveats out of the way, one area where very small samples can tell us something is how pitchers’ repertoires look. If a pitcher has added a new pitch, radically altered his mix, or found additional velocity that meaningfully affect his season-long outlook, and those changes often show up early.
For example, last year Tanner Roark pitched five innings of one-run ball in his Blue Jays debut. That wasn’t reflective of the season to come for the veteran — but the fact his fastball and sinker were both more than a tick slower than his 2019 averages was a harbinger of his diminished stuff.
Keeping that in mind, here’s a rundown of what we’ve learned about the Blue Jays’ staff in the early going.
Hyun-Jin Ryu: Throwing 12.1 innings of 2.92 ERA ball in his first two starts is exceedingly on brand for Ryu. The 34-year-old’s stuff looks the same as last year, and he’s as reliable as they come from a performance standpoint. So long as he stays healthy the Blue Jays have an ace.
Ross Stripling: One rough outing against a formidable New York Yankees lineup isn’t particularly telling, and Stripling's repertoire looks similar to what he featured in 2019. His slider in his first start came in a little harder than he threw it last year (+1.5 mph) while his changeup was slower (-1.8 mph), but because his fastball was relatively flat (-0.5 mph) that looks like tinkering as opposed to a change in his capabilities.
T.J. Zeuch: Although Zeuch had a strong first outing, his stuff didn’t look much better than what we’ve seen before, despite glowing reports out of spring training. His sinker came in a touch harder (+0.5 mph) than last year’s average, but not significantly, and he still allowed tons of contact — much of the hard variety considering he finished his day with a xERA of 9.15.
If there was one reason for optimism, it would be that his signature sinker showed more horizontal movement (17 per cent above league average) than in 2019 (6 per cent), and the run on the pitch appeared to give the Yankees issues at times.
Steven Matz: Matz was outstanding during spring training, and he carried his momentum over to the season with a masterful 6.1 inning start that includes nine Ks, one walk and no extra-base hits against.
Not only were the results excellent, they were backed up by extremely promising stuff. Matz averaged 95.3 mph on his fastball, the second-highest total he’s managed in 113 MLB appearances. He also emphasized the changeup, which he threw at the third-highest rate of his career and got three strikeouts with it — a number he’s only topped once. It will be interesting to see if he can continue to keep the velocity up, and whether increased success with his change will be a by-product.
Tanner Roark: Roark’s ERA in his first start was 15.00, his xERA was actually worse at 27.29. While the right-hander’s velocity was slightly better than last year’s average, it’s about in line with what he managed in September 2020 — a month where he posted an 8.10 ERA.
At this point in his career, Roark is short on weapons. With the exception of his high-spin curveball, each of his other four pitches has below-average movement vertically and horizontally. Perhaps recognizing this, he went to the curve at the third-highest rate of his career, and it accounted for both of his strikeouts.
Julian Merryweather: Merryweather flashed outstanding stuff in 2020 when healthy, and it seems like pitching in short stints may have allowed him to take it up a level. His highest single-game average velocity last year was 97.9 mph, so far in 2021 his overall average is 98.8. His fastball-changeup velo gap continues to be mesmerizing, and he’s allowed one batted ball in his two saves.
Merryweather hasn’t thrown enough pitches to tell us too much about how his offerings are moving, but he hasn’t had to.
Jordan Romano: Entering Thursday’s action, hitters have swung at Romano’s pitches 13 times. In nine of those instances they’ve missed. The other four hacks have resulted in three groundouts and a foul ball. That’s a ridiculous level of dominance.
Romano hasn’t seen his velocity skyrocket, but his spins rates have shot up as he’s gained 221 RPMs on his slider and 330 on his fastball. If those gains hold up, they’ll make his already-electric stuff even more effective, and should improve his results on fastballs up in the zone.
Rafael Dolis: Not much has changed with Dolis. He still has a power sinker and two secondary pitches that he can miss more than his share of bats with. Because his pitches have such outstanding horizontal movement on them, throwing strikes can be an issue. It certainly has been so far.
The right-hander is best summed up by the relationship between his ability to rack up whiffs, and inability to throw strikes — which has remained the same this year.
Ryan Borucki: From a pure results standpoint, it’s hard to argue with this.
In terms of approach, the story with Borucki so far is his reliance on the fastball. He’s thrown 71.9 per cent heaters after settling in just under 50 in his first year as a reliever in 2020. That’s dramatic enough to bear monitoring, as is the 1.1 mph boost he’s seeing on that pitch. He’s already thrown half as many fastballs 96 mph or harder (11) in three outings as he did in 21 appearances last season.
Tyler Chatwood: Despite Chatwood’s history as a starter, the buzz around the team prior to the season was that he would work in short outings in 2021 in order to let his stuff play up. That’s been the case so far as he’s already logged two appearances of less than one inning, something he’d done just four times in 56 out of the bullpen prior to this year.
Chatwood’s pitch mix also appears to have changed as he’s throwing 50 per cent cutters (up from 30 per cent last year) and his first two games of the season were the second- and third-highest cutter rates of his career. If he continues to emphasize the pitch, it could make him particularly nasty against right-handed hitters thanks to its nasty gloveside run.
David Phelps: Phelps was brought in to be a relatively low-leverage middle reliever and that’s what he’s looked like so far. His velocity is down just over 1 mph from a 2020 spike, which means he almost certainly won’t repeat his 13.50 K/9 from that shortened campaign. Even so, it’s approximately the same as what he featured when he gave the Blue Jays 17.1 solid innings in 2019.
Tim Mayza: It was hard to know what to expect from Mayza coming into the season, and the two innings he’s pitched so far don’t tell us too much. His velocity is approximately equal to what he threw two years ago, and he’s been exceedingly sinker-reliant (72.4 per cent compared to 45.2 in 2019).
More intriguing than that usage (he’s had games as high as 80 per cent before), is the additional drop on it:
Mayza misses his spot here, but watch how the pitch that looks like it’s going high clips the top of the strike zone to fool Clint Frazier:
That action — if deployed at the bottom of the zone — could lead to a healthy groundball rate in 2021.
Trent Thornton: Thornton scuffled in his first action since last August, but nothing he threw was a surprise. His fastball came in at 92 mph, just like we saw in 2020, though that could be considered a mild disappointment considering he’s working out of the bullpen now.
The right-hander continues to entice thanks to his extremely high-spin breaking ball, and a cutter with strong horizontal movement and nothing in his first appearance looked particularly out of place.
Joel Payamps: In his one outing, Payamps pumped in a high-spin fastball with respectable velocity and loopy slider but didn’t flash anything that made him look like a crucial piece of this bullpen.
Tommy Milone: Milone is a journeyman with the raw power of late-career Mark Buehrle on a good day. That paradigm did not shift in his Blue Jays debut. In fact, his velocity was actually down 2 mph from 2020, but it’s hard to say whether the difference between 86 and 84 mph makes much of a difference to what he’s able to accomplish.