Toronto Blue Jays Bullpen: Changing of the Guard


Is it time to make a permanent switch to the roles of the men in the Toronto Blue Jays’ bullpen? Clearly, the brass thinks so and I would wholeheartedly agree.


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For a couple years now the Toronto Blue Jays bullpen has been anchored by savvy veteran hurlers and a young closing stud to finish games and close out big moments. All except the latter is changing. A mainstay in the bullpen since 2016, Jason Grilli would soon become the face of the pen and be the Jays leading candidate for setting up the young closing sensation Roberto Osuna. Grilli became a beloved fan favorite in Toronto due to his great personality, his heart warming connection to Toronto, his love for grilled cheese sandwiches and the intensity/passion he brings to the diamond.


In 2016 Grilli would pitch 42 innings, post an ERA of 3.64 and whiffing 58 batters while only taking the mound against 170 batters. That averages to about 4 batters per inning Grilli was on the mound. He made it hard for teams to score runs on the Blue Jays late due to the fact he was facing close to the minimum number of batters per appearance.


Unfortunately, the resurgence of the aging Grilli had to come to an end at some point. This point has seemed to come earlier than expected as the calendar changes from 2016 to 2017. Grilli’s numbers through two months of the 2017 season are deflating and leave little hope for the return of our fist pumping friend. Grilli currently sports an inflated 6.75 ERA, 1.625 WHIP, 19/9 K/BB ratio while only receiving 16 innings of work. He has been passed over for hold opportunities and relegated to low-leverage outs during blowout win or blowout losses. Throughout Grilli’s career, he has been a plus WAR player but this season he has contributed a negative WAR to the Blue Jays which leads to the thinking it may be time to move on from Grilli and let our young chuckers take the reigns.


As we have seen, taking over the holds job is the “Sub-Man” Joe Smith. Smith’s unique style of pitching compliments, and in no fashion represents any similarities to, closer Roberto Osuna. The vast difference in pitching style these late inning arms brings to the rotation has made the duo a deadly combination. Batters must contend with the unique style and movement brought by Smith’s Mid-level Submarine style and when he leaves they need to catch up to the power and accuracy of Osuna’s arm.


Smith’s unique ability to throw the ball is unmatched in the major leagues. He doesn’t quite throw a low leveled submarine pitch nor does he throw a straight side armed pitch his arm slot comes more from an in-between point. This allows him to get great movement on his fastball/sinker pitch. Smith averages 89 mph on his sinker and spins it at around 1969 rpm. These totals are both lower than league average but the difference in his arm angle leaves batters to believe the ball is actually rising when it tends to do the opposite and have the bottom drop out. Smith is pitching to a 3.42 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, through 23.2 innings and striking out 36. Smith has a stranglehold on the setup job which will benefit the Blue Jays bullpen moving forward.


Coming into the season the Jays believed they had found their left-handed specialist to help out in high-leverage situations against right-handed batters. J.P. Howell was the Jays offseason left-handed acquisition that was going to give the coaching staff a left handed relieving option. Howell is a proven veteran that has made his way around the league gaining experience in Los Angeles, Tampa Bay, and Kansas City. His experience had dubbed him the Mark Buerhle of the pen.


Howell’s arsenal was comprised of pinpoint accuracy and ability to slow batters to death. His addition to the team was believed to be the arm they needed so that Fransisco Liriano could return to the rotation. However, the idea Howell would add value has been more of a pipe dream than a reality. Howell has only received 6.7 innings of work in his time as a Jay, and we know he had injury issues but it is clear that his 6.75 ERA, 2.40 WHIP and -0.1 WAR cannot sit well with the coaching staff of his new team.


The Blue Jays’ pen has been excellent despite its floundering veterans. They have received excellent pitching from their organizational depth.  Ryan Tepera and Danny Barnes have been nothing short of excellent so far this season and have really delivered in key situations. Ryan Tepera took some time to develop but the Blue Jays never gave up on the kid and, as a result, are reaping the rewards. Tepera is a mainstay now in the majors and his stats back up his promotion. He is tossing the ball to an ERA of 2.76 and WHIP of 0.89 through 29.1 innings of work. Tepera is currently a strikeout per inning pitcher and has been able to raise his K/9 to 9.2 and lower his BB/9 to 3.07.  Tepera’s previous downfall was his inability to keep the ball in the park.


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In previous years up with the club he had an HR/9 rate of 2.18 and an HR/FB rate of 21.6% through 33 innings of work. This season Tepera has lowered those numbers drastically through a comparable number of innings. He currently has a 0.31 HR/9 and 3.3% HR/FB rate which has allowed him to mow batters down and get some well needed outs in high leverage situations.


Danny Barnes, or “Ginger Mantis” as referred to as here on the Couch, currently has an ERA of 2.33 a WHIP of 1.03 through 19.1 innings of work. Barnes has really solidified himself as a high leverage reliever with the ability to work for outs and give quality innings. Barnes has achieved success with the big league club because of his ability to get strikeouts, strand runners and induce batters into ground ball outs. Barnes has surprised Blue Jays nation by providing the bullpen some impressive high leverage numbers sporting a groundball percentage of 38% and a left-on-base percentage of 87.2%.


The Jays are currently looking for a good left-handed reliever that has the ability to pitch inning(s) and get out right-handed batters. I believe the Jays already have the man for the position on the roster, but he is playing the wrong role. Francisco Liriano is the left-handed reliever the Jays bullpen needs. As a member of the Jays last season, Liriano saw most of his opportunities out of the bullpen. During this time Liriano proved he was a valuable bullpen pitcher. I know it’s tough to justify putting a former All Star in the pen but consider the numbers and the injuries that he has been dealing with this season.


Liriano has a 6.35 ERA in his 7 starts this season accumulating only 28.1 innings pitched. That is just over 4 innings per start. Liriano is not going deep into games and his slider, even though it is filthy, is extremely volatile and batters have a tendency to lay off it the second time through the order. Having Liriano pitch later in the game out of the pen in situations or long relief will cut down on his injury tendency and prolong the effectiveness of his slider. As a reliever for the Jays in 2016 Liriano 49.1 innings, spot started in 8 games and lowered his ERA to 2.92. With the Pirates, that same season Liriano had posted an ERA of 5.46 as a starter.


If we are to convert Liriano back to a bullpen arm who takes his spot? The answer to that question, for now, is big bad Joe Biagini. Biagini has done an admirable job since being stretched out from his role in the pen. His winning percentage is not that impressive but that category is run dependent and he has not received the greatest run support. Biagini does, however, own a 3.64 ERA and 1.07 WHIP through his 42 innings this season. Biagini has an excellent arsenal that is anchored by his above league average four-seam fastball. Biagini averages 93.98 mph on his fastball and does an excellent job locating the pitch low and away to opposing batters. Biagini tends to see the lowest success when he leaves pitches up in the zone. This trait is something the big righty will continue to work on as the season progresses.


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What do the changes look like for the Jays:

Possible Starters:

Marco Estrada

Marcus Stroman

Aaron Sanchez

J.A. Happ

Joe Biagini

LH Relievers:

J.P. Howell

Aaron Loup

Francisco Liriano

RH Relievers:

Jason Grilli (Possible Trade Bait)

Danny Barnes

Ryan Tepera

Joe Smith

Roberto Osuna


With the demotion of Dominic Leone, with the return of our players from the DL, and the shuffling of players roles we have a more balanced bullpen and a more reliable rotation. This also allows you to pad the stats of Grilli by putting him in the favorable situation thus boosting his possible trade value, should it come to that. The way our rotation and bullpen are shaping up will make for some very exciting baseball heading into the second quarter of the season. Strap yourself in Blue Jays fan, it is rally time.




*Featured Image Credit: Keith Allison UNDER CC BY-SA 2.0