Blue Jays will need creativity with pitchers as workload jump looms

Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Tanner Roark throws to a New York Yankees batter during the first inning of a baseball game in Buffalo, N.Y., Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020. (Adrian Kraus/AP)

TORONTO – Even without the strain of jumping from a shortened 60-game season back into the full 162-game grind, constructing a pitching staff along traditional lines has for years become increasingly difficult for major-league clubs.

Consider that from 1977 through 1994, the Toronto Blue Jays used less than 20 pitchers in all but one season, requiring only 13 arms for both the 1982 and 1984 seasons. From 1995 through 2010, they typically needed between 20 and 24 total pitchers, the 18 in 2005 and 19 in 2008 the sole anomalies. In the decade since 2011, they’ve averaged 31.7 pitchers a season, never using less than 27 and needing 29 to survive last year’s pandemic-shortened campaign.

The trajectories are similar across the majors.

Ben Nicholson-Smith is Sportsnet’s baseball editor. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer. Together, they bring you the most in-depth Blue Jays podcast in the league, covering off all the latest news with opinion and analysis, as well as interviews with other insiders and team members.

There are a multitude of reasons for the spike – from increasing attrition to a diluted talent pool as the number of clubs increased to 30 – but there’s a fairly obvious observation to be drawn: Pitchers are no longer capable of covering innings the way they once did.

Despite that, and forgive the generalization, the discourse around pitching still tends to revolve around the customary five-man rotation, seven-man bullpen framework. Teams that carry eight or – gasp – nine relievers tend to draw disapproving glances, while the Tampa Bay Rays were often portrayed as heathens when they first employed an opener in 2018.

Rather than being asked about the trend lines and asking why someone hadn’t tried a different approach earlier, manager Kevin Cash and the club’s ever-creative front office instead drew scorn for their break from baseball orthodoxy.

This year, big-league clubs will need to be more creative than ever to cover the near tripling of year-over-year workload they all face.

Last season, a surge of pitching injuries was described as “MLB’s other pandemic problem” in this thoughtful piece by Ben Lindbergh on The Ringer, and the need to maintain health is certainly a prime reason for that. But there are strategic reasons to consider openers, piggy-back relievers, bulk arms, twice-through-the-order limits and situational leverage, as well.

Much as the circumstances of 2020 opened up space for creativity, 2021 may very well force some innovation.

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As renowned organizational psychologist Adam Grant wrote in his new book Think Again: “Most of us take pride in our knowledge and expertise, and in staying true to our beliefs and opinions. That makes sense in a stable world, where we get rewarded for having convictions in our ideas. The problem is that we live in a rapidly changing world, where we need to spend as much time rethinking as we do thinking.”

To that end, it makes sense to consider the Blue Jays’ pitching staff not solely through the lens of a traditional rotation and bullpen, but more holistically in terms of out-getting groups.

Ideally, they establish a steady five-man starting staff fronted by ace Hyun-Jin Ryu and four of Robbie Ray, Nate Pearson, Steven Matz, Tanner Roark and Ross Stripling and roll them out in steady rotation. That would make life much easier on manager Charlie Montoyo, pitching coach Pete Walker and bullpen coach Matt Buschmann.

It’s also highly unlikely.

Since 2013 and 2014, his first two seasons in the majors, Ryu hasn’t posted consecutive years with triple-digit innings pitched, although he certainly may have last season had it been a normal one. Still, the drop from 182.2 innings in 2019 to 67 in 2020 makes counting on him for 180 precarious, even as he said through interpreter Jun Sung Park, “If I don’t have any issue with my body, I know I can maintain and play a full season without any problem, especially since I’ve never felt any tiredness, any kind of weakness when I’m healthy.”

The Blue Jays are banking on it.

Pearson has cracked 100 innings just once as a professional and after logging only 18 major-league frames last season, his workload will clearly need to be managed. Ray and Matz are both big-stuff projects whose consistency varies and might be better utilized in shorter bursts. Roark didn’t live up to his innings-eating track record last year and needs to regain the mile-and-a-half he lost on his fastball. Stripling pitched well as a starter in 2018 and ’19 but hit a bump last year with the Los Angeles Dodgers before he was traded.

Depending on performance and matchups, the best setup for the Blue Jays might be to pair Ray and Matz with Stripling and Tyler Chatwood, another swingman expected to open in the bullpen. More evenly distributing the work should, in theory, keep everyone in better health.

Expect them to be open to anything.

While in the past, judging health was largely done through asking a pitcher how his arm felt, teams now use an array of tools “that are evidence based and that are based on science to determine fatigue levels,” said general manager Ross Atkins. “If you really want to think about it in a simple way, the radar gun was one of the first versions of that.

“Now … you have technology with motion capture for photography that is attached to spin rates and velocity, where you can take some of your historic beliefs and philosophies and study them to determine, are we seeing and arm angle lower? Are we seeing a decreased effectiveness of a fastball? And there’s a subjective portion of that which is just as important as the objective portion, but it’s taking those two and matching them together to hopefully help you make better decisions.”

Atkins declined to get more specific, citing the risk of surrendering a competitive advantage, but the effective application of that information is essential.

In Think Again, Grant describes how in 1950, it took 50 years for medical knowledge to double, but by 1980 that was down to seven years, and in 2010, it was half that. Similarly, in 2011, people consumed five times as much information per day than they did 25 years earlier. “The accelerating pace of change means that we need to question our beliefs more readily than before,” he argues.

Baseball’s evolution over the past decade is similarly dizzying, and those who aren’t able to effectively leverage data in every realm of the game, from sports science to business modelling, are getting left behind.

Catcher Danny Jansen showed the kind of open-mindedness necessary in this day and age when asked if he expected the club’s pitching plans this summer to more resemble 2020 or a typical season.

“I think a little bit of both,” he replied. “Last year with the 60-game season, it’s like every game was a playoff game almost, such a high-leverage season that if you’re getting to like the fourth inning, you give it to your dogs in the ‘pen and they’re going to go to work for you.

“It’s a full season now, it changes a little bit with stretching pitchers out a little bit more. But still, the bullpen that we have, the ability to pass them the ball and to let them go to work, it’s always going to be there. So, if we’re in a tight spot, you’re able to do that because of the bullpen and the depth we have.”

Stripling (or whoever ends up outside the rotation) and Chatwood offer some options for length, as do Trent Thornton (good to go after elbow surgery last summer) and Julian Merryweather, who will be stretched out to start the spring but may very well find himself relieving again. Mid-to-late game leverage options include Ryan Borucki, David Phelps, Jordan Romano, Rafael Dolis, Kirby Yates and non-roster invitees A.J. Cole, Tim Mayza and Francisco Liriano.

Beyond them, are starters like Anthony Kay, Thomas Hatch, T.J. Zeuch and Jacob Waguespack, who could be employed in a variety of roles. Beyond them is an emerging group of arms like Alek Manoah, Simeon Woods Richardson and Eric Pardinho, who is set for regular work after recovering from Tommy John surgery.

While the Blue Jays did try to land Kevin Gausman with a multi-year deal before he accepted the qualifying offer from the San Francisco Giants, every pitcher they signed took a one-year deal.

In part, that was because “we feel very good about having opportunities for” that group of young arms, said Atkins, but it’s also because they believe in their depth, too.

The Blue Jays could have re-signed Taijuan Walker for something along the lines of the $20-million, two-year deal with a player option for a third season he agreed to with the New York Mets. They’d likely need to go further for Jake Odorizzi, who is interested in Toronto, but there appears to be no traction at the moment, the club content to bet on its group.

While putting Odorizzi or someone else in place behind Ryu and Pearson for beyond this season seems to make sense, the Blue Jays are looking at their off-season pitching adds another way.

“Ultimately,” said Atkins, “it’s a combination of this being one point in time for us to improve our organization and feeling good about the progress that we’ve made to date, knowing that we will have other opportunities (to acquire pitching) moving forward, in addition to being really excited about the group that’s here and the group of young pitchers that’s coming behind the already relatively established group of starting pitchers.”

That’s not a very customary way to look at a pitching staff, and the Blue Jays are counting on a handful of arms to emerge and play important roles from their group. They could have tried to buy more certainty over the winter but instead chose a different approach, showing an adaptability they’ll need more than ever in the months ahead.

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