With the acquisitions of John Axford and Tyler Clippard, the bridge to Roberto Osuna is stronger than ever
The Blue Jays bullpen was good in 2017. Even after losing Dominic Leone to the Cardinals in the Randal Grichuk trade, it was still shaking out to be good in 2018, as well. Still, the Blue Jays saw a market inefficiency this offseason in veteran, late-inning relievers sitting out until late February and early March, and pounced on their opportunity to snag some quality arms at a low price. First came Al Alburquerque and Craig Breslow. Later, the Blue Jays added Tyler Clippard and John Axford. None of them signed major-league, guaranteed deals, prompting a tight bullpen competition in Spring Training, with Seung-hwan Oh receiving a major league deal and a more or less guaranteed spot in the bullpen.
Lefty Craig Breslow has been mediocre at best, and Al Alburquerque has been, let’s say…present. That leaves John Axford and Tyler Clippard, and they’ve made quite the mark in their first spring innings. Clippard, the latest signee, has struck out four in just two scoreless innings. Axford has K’d seven in 4.2 IP and allowing just one run. Few runs and a lot of strikeouts. If you’re building a bullpen, that’s exactly what you want. But how do these two 30-somethings still get outs?
Axford is a unique case. Breaking into the major leagues with the Milwaukee Brewers in 2009, he was throwing 95 MPH. Unlike most pitchers, though, Axford hasn’t lost velocity in his career. He’s gained velocity. Having admittedly not been a student of Axford’s career, aside from moonlighting as mustache aficionado, and at first critical of the move crowded an already decent bullpen, this wasn’t something I considered this offseason. That is until Jon Paul Morosi’s post on MLB.com on Monday, stating that Axford and Tyler Clippard were the most likely to fill out the bullpen. We’ll get to Clippard later, so let’s start with Blue Jays Manager John Gibbons‘ comments on Axford:
“I’ve seen, to this point, everything I need to see,” Gibbons said. “He kind of reinvented himself throwing the two-seam fastball. He was primarily a four-seam guy [in the past]. [He’s] throwing a little cutter in there, instead of just his breaking ball.
“What’s jumped out at me is he’s keeping that thing in the zone. What little I’ve known in the past, at times he could scatter, but really that hasn’t happened at all this spring. That’s encouraging. And he still throws really, really hard. He should be pitching in the big leagues, no doubt.”
Axford has thrown the cutter for awhile, but towards the end of 2016 and into 2017, he started clicking up the velocity. That velocity increase over the past few seasons, while negligible to a State Trooper writing a speeding ticket, that change matters. Especially when applied to a four-seem fastball and a cut fastball. When a batter is trying to differentiate a pitch, say between a cutter and a four-seam fastball, like Axford showcases, bringing the velocity closer together can cause that split-second shift in the batter’s approach to that pitch. When geared up for a 97-MPH four-seamer. Axford did start to lose some velocity in 2017, but he can still shove at 96 MPH when needed.
Also in the Morosi post, he mentioned that fellow veteran reliever Tyler Clippard is also very likely to make the team. Clippard makes a ton of sense for this team, with his reverse splits causing fits to left-handed batters. Aaron Loup will probably get most of those ABs, but having a strong second option, especially one you can trust late in games, that certainly helps.
Clippard is really good, and he has been for along time. He struggled the past few seasons, but keep in mind he was traded three times since the 2016 trade deadline, pitching in Arizona, New York and Chicago before eventually landing with the 2017 World Series Champion Houston Astros.
Clippard doesn’t throw hard, and unlike Axford, his effectiveness comes from the separated velocity of his fastball and change-up as well as the horizontal movement of the latter. Clippard has feasted on lefties his whole career, using his change-up to dive low and away to induce both strikeouts and weak contact, producing a career LD% of just 15.9%, with a 32.5% GB rate and 50.6% FB rate. Sound familiar? It should:
|Hit Type||Marco Estrada||Tyler Clippard|
They’re not the same guy, and Marco Estrada will probably pitch a good 100 more innings than Clippard will in 2018, and be worth a whole lot more in the long run. It should not be understated, though, Clippard’s value in producing weak contact at the end of ball games before handing closer Roberto Osuna a clean ninth inning on the regular. In case you haven’t been paying attention, Osuna is really great, too.
In all, the Blue Jays may have quietly build one of the better bullpens in the league – yet somehow not the best in their own division. Yankees aside, this bullpen is extremely dangerous, potentially shortening tight games to five or six innings with Ryan Tepera, Tyler Clippard, Aaron Loup, John Axford and Roberto Osuna at the end. Properly utilized, and of course with players playing up to their potential, the bullpen may be the key to Toronto’s 2018 playoff hopes.
*Featured Image Credit: Michael Tipton UNDER CC BY-SA 2.0
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