The Toronto Blue Jays Bullpen is Taking Shape
(Photo credit to Keith Allison, https://www.flickr.com/photos/keithallison/)
Since last season concluded, many fans have expressed deep concerns with the Toronto Blue Jays bullpen. The team did nothing to address it with proven relievers in the offseason and the bullpen had its ugly moments in April. The Miguel Castro experiment is on hold with his demotion to Buffalo, presumed ace reliever Brett Cecil hasn’t looked like himself, and a flurry of replacement-level arms have recently been cycled through mop up duty. Before Marcus Stroman’s injury, Aaron Sanchez figured to be an important late-inning reliever for the team. Instead, he entered the rotation and has been awful in that role (4.64 xFIP).
The bullpen as a whole has pitched to a 3.76 xFIP that is 15th in the majors, and the meltdowns have come at inopportune times: their Win Probability Added (WPA) sits 27th at -1.28. It hasn’t been a strength for the club. But you’d be remiss to believe that the bullpen’s future outlook remains grim and that there’s nothing the team can do about it at this point. Bullpens are malleable; guys can be swapped in and out of roles all the time and new pitchers can be cycled in from triple-A regularly too. The statistics that relievers are traditionally measured by come with very small samples that lead to evaluations of them being heavily skewed in one direction or the other.
That the Blue Jays bullpen has blown up a few times in high-leverage situations is not substantially predictive. In fact, it’s a good thing going forward that the bullpen’s failures have occurred at such a rate in high leverage, because that cannot continue. Pitchers over a large sample are not expected to pitch any better or worse in high leverage or low leverage. Even if the Blue Jays bullpen continues to pitch exactly as they have been, the team will be better off than they were in April.
There are good signs in their early-season statistics, too. Blue Jays relievers have struck out over a batter per inning in 2015. A quick chart I created demonstrates that a bullpen’s April strikeout rate is a good indicator of what a team’s full-season rate will be.
The Blue Jays bullpen will probably continue to strike batters out at an above-average clip and that is a very good thing.
However, the main point of this article was to point out that the Blue Jays are slowly learning what their optimal bullpen composition is and adjusting accordingly. John Gibbons can alter his late-inning approach and as a manager he has demonstrated the required willingness to be flexible with assigned roles.
The Blue Jays have four pitchers who it appears will be given high-leverage looks going forward and there are reasons to believe in these pitchers.
Brett Cecil has a history of excellent relief performance, and despite velocity concerns at the start of this season, he’s been fine this year. I recently posted an article investigating how Miguel Castro and Roberto Osuna would match up against top relievers from 2013-2014. Cecil posted the 9th best xFIP- of relievers in that span, with a mark of 71. When he’s on, Cecil is an elite reliever who can neutralize both sides of hitters. His velocity this year has been a concern (average fastball is down over 2 mph from 2014, although it was back up last night vs. New York) and he hasn’t gotten swings-and-misses like he has in the past, but I’m confident in Cecil’s ability to provide at least above-average relief innings as closer. The Steamer projection system buys in too, projecting a 3.29 FIP.
Aaron Loup has lost the confidence of some Blue Jays fans due to bouts of wildness this year and last which led to late-inning collapses, but over his three-plus year major league career he’s been an above-average pitcher that is especially effective against lefties. There’s nothing to believe his profile has deviated from that recently. Loup is carrying an 89 xFIP- in 2015, one tick better than his career mark. His velocity, pitch usage and plate discipline stats look good, too. Steamer projects a 3.59 FIP, making him a decent late reliever in innings that contain left-handed batters.
Roberto Osuna has excelled as a reliever this season, looking polished and electric. He’s getting swinging strikes, throwing hard with a three pitch mix, and receiving good results (80 xFIP-). There’s a lot to like about Osuna, whose high minor league strikeout rates led projection systems to be particularly optimistic about his abilities as a present reliever as well as his career starting outlook. Steamer projects a 3.53 FIP going forward. I expect Osuna to stay with the big league club all season in a relief capacity, as a capable set-up man.
Liam Hendriks was the least heralded pitcher in this group entering the season. A formerly decent prospect in the Twins organization, Hendriks was fantastic in Buffalo last year and posted promising peripherals in nine appearances split between the Blue Jays and Royals. He’s proven to have very good control over his career but a lack of big strikeout numbers and a slight fly-ball lean have kept him from becoming established at the major league level. In the last two years, his control has jumped to another level and this year, his first as a full-time reliever, his fastball has consistently reached 95. Hendriks probably won’t continue to strike out a batter per inning (his swinging strike rate hasn’t yet jumped with the velocity) but there’s reason to believe he can sustain a respectable strikeout rate. Steamer buys in, projecting a 3.43 FIP, enough to make Hendriks a capable right-handed set-up man alongside Osuna.
Cecil, Loup, Osuna and Hendriks look like a decent late-inning bullpen core for the Blue Jays. The team is missing quality seventh-inning types, but over time perhaps someone like Preston Guilmet, Steve Delabar or Bo Schultz will emerge. Should Marco Estrada re-enter the bullpen at some point, he is likely a decent long-man or even one-inning option. Other internal long-man options exist. Colt Hynes, Jeff Francis and Rob Rasmussen would be usable LOOGYs if the team chooses to employ one at some point. If one of the top four guys falters or nobody emerges, relievers are always available in July on the trade market.
The bullpen is not of critical concern to the Blue Jays at the moment; it is a work in progress and the talent is there. Blue Jays fans should concern themselves more with the rotation.