Injuries ended up “solving” the Blue Jays’ starting pitching logjam

A once deep cast of starters has become rather sparse as injuries pile up for the Toronto Blue Jays

 

 

 

 

 

“Over the last couple of seasons, a primary aim for the Blue Jays front office has been to build the team’s starting pitching depth. Countless near-ready pitching prospects have been acquired via trade (Thomas Pannone, Jacob Waguespack, David Paulino, Hector Perez, Julian Merryweather, Trent Thornton and Andrew Sopko), while veterans like Matt Shoemaker and Clayton Richard have been signed this off-season as short-term measures. These additions have complemented pitchers who were drafted and developed internally and are expected to pitch in the majors or upper-minors in 2019 (Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, Ryan Borucki, Sean Reid-Foley, T.J. Zeuch, Jon Harris, Patrick Murphy, Yennsy Diaz and Zach Logue).”

-Me, Examining the Blue Jays’ pitching logjam (January 16, 2019)

 

The 2019 Blue Jays season was expected to be non-competitive. It has somehow fallen short of expectations, with the team owning a 23-42 (.354) record. With the fourth-toughest schedule going forward in the majors, it’s distinctly possible that the team will end up cracking the 100 loss mark.

 

The team has performed poorly in basically every respect, with both the position players and the pitching staff struggling. The bats have been quiet enough to produce a 76 wRC+ (28th in the majors), while production on the base paths (-3.9 BsR, 24th) and in the field has been below-average (-8 DRS, 23rd). While the bullpen has produced above-average results (4.12 ERA, 10th), that seems down to luck, given their below-average underlying stats (4.65 FIP and .324 xwOBA, both 21st).

 

The struggles of the starting rotation—4.87 ERA (22nd), 4.84 FIP (22nd) and .343 xwOBA (23rd)—have been particularly notable, underlined by the season-long battle to fill the fourth and fifth spots. The current #5, Edwin Jackson, has been…extremely unproductive, owning the highest ERA (11.90) and FIP (8.43) among MLB pitchers with at least five starts this season. As such, it should come as no surprise that the news that Jackson will start on Wednesday brought shivers down the spine of Jays fans everywhere.

 

Charlie Montoyo‘s explanation for giving Jackson another start (“we don’t have anybody else”) brought my mind back to the off-season. Back then, Jays fans were enjoying the team’s perfect 0-0 record and improved starting pitching depth. 2017 and 2018 saw a lot of random pitchers make starts for the team. In contrast, the 2019 team would have access to a number of intriguing pitching prospects in the upper-minors who could be called up for a spot start. There was even a chance one (or more) of them would get an opportunity to start at some point and run with it.

 

That relative depth led me to write a post thinking out loud about the apparent pitching logjam—the five MLB rotation spots appeared spoken for, another seven pitchers would’ve been expected to be in the Triple-A rotation and another five pitchers would’ve been expected to be in the Double-A rotation. Plus, Julian Merryweather was going to return from Tommy John rehab at some point (in the not-too-distant future, it appears). Reading that post again and thinking about the seasons each pitcher has had helped me better understand why the Jays starting rotation is so threadbare: injuries, as well as underperformance by the Triple-A guys. Not particularly revelatory explanations, nor are they unique to the Blue Jays.

 

Back in January, most assumed the Jays would have a rotation of Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, Ryan Borucki, Matt Shoemaker and Clayton Richard. Elbow inflammation for Borucki, knee issues for Richard and a torn ACL for Shoemaker collectively blew a hole in that plan by mid-April. Then, Clay Buchholz, signed in March to further bolster the team’s rotation depth, went down in May with a shoulder injury. Four of six major-league starting pitchers out of action within the first six weeks of the season.

 

The team’s three main starters have had mixed success, but have generally been solid. Stroman (3.31 ERA/3.75 FIP) might be the most consistent pitcher in the majors, posting yet another FIP in the mid-to-high threes. His mix of quality and quantity has driven him to produce the 36th-most fWAR (1.5) among MLB starters. Sanchez (4.25 ERA/4.85 FIP) is having another rough season, filled with walks and finger issues, showing his own kind of unfortunate consistency.

 

Trent Thornton, thrust into a big-league role from the start of the season, has performed adequately. While he’s posted below-average FIP (4.71) and ERA (4.73) marks, he’s provided enough length in his starts (5 IP per game) to produce the seventh-most fWAR (0.7) among rookie starting pitchers.

 

The two most obvious internal options for the fourth and fifth spots would be Thomas Pannone and Sean Reid-Foley, each of whom had positive and negative appearances in their first MLB season. They’ve both made big-league starts this season, but none have gone well: Reid-Foley only lasted two innings in an April 1st start (3 ER, 4 H, 1 HR, 2 BB, 3 K), while Pannone was chased from an unlucky April 5th start (2.2 IP, 4 ER, 5 H, 2 BB, 6 K) and a poor May 4th start (2.1 IP, 7 ER, 5 H, 1 HR, 3 BB, 1 K).

 

Pannone has also pitched in relief to mixed results, posting a 4.95 FIP overall (33.1 IP), but only a 2.60 mark in a small sample of high- or medium-leverage situations (7.1 IP). He seems likely to get some number of starts through the rest of the season, so he’ll have opportunities to show he can start in the majors.

 

Reid-Foley (5.72 ERA/5.61 FIP) leads an unfortunate band of underperformers down at AAA Buffalo, with his serious walk problem (16.3% BB rate) a particular sore point. Jacob Waguespack has struggled of late, with his new-found home run problem (1.67 HR/9) driving him to a 5.58 FIP (5.86 ERA). He was recently called up to Toronto and pitched on May 27th, striking out seven against one walk and no homers over four innings. He’s since been put on the injured list with a shoulder injury. Andrew Sopko, finally producing well at Double-A (2.34 ERA/3.50 FIP) after 189 innings pitched for the Dodgers’ Texas League affiliate, has struggled over six starts (6.82 ERA/7.76 FIP) since his promotion to Triple-A.

 

Injuries have been an issue at the upper-minors as well. David Paulino hasn’t pitched since April 30th. T.J. Zeuch would have been pitching in Buffalo if he hadn’t suffered a lat injury back in February. Jon Harris likely would be pitching for AA New Hampshire, but has missed the entire season with an unspecified injury.

 

Then there is the starting rotation at AA New Hampshire: Patrick Murphy, Hector Perez, Zach Logue, Yennsy Diaz and (since May 7th) Nate Pearson. With all but Perez making their Double-A debuts this season, early season struggles were to be expected. Fortunately, each has stepped it up, posting very strong numbers since May 1st.

 

Murphy has dominated over his last seven starts (3.60 ERA/2.46 FIP), limiting homers (0.45 HR/9) and walks (5.5% BB rate), while striking out more than a quarter of the batters he’s faced (26.7% K rate). Pearson has performed similarly well (3.66 ERA/2.21 FIP), though he’s posted a superior 31.7% K rate. Logue (3.13 ERA/3.34 FIP), Diaz (3.40 ERA/3.68 FIP) and Perez (3.18 ERA/4.16 FIP) have each been solid contributors as well over the last five weeks.

 

Injuries have clearly been a huge problem for the Jays pitching staff. My January post highlighted twelve pitchers who I’d have expected to see in either the MLB or Triple-A starting rotations to start the season and five of those are currently out with injury, while Clayton Richard has only just made his season debut. Plus, Clay Buchholz, a post-January signing, is also out injured right now. Unfortunately, most of the other seven pitchers have been below-average for their level, with the exception of Marcus Stroman.

 

This combination of injury and underperformance has caused the current strain on the Blue Jays organizational starting pitching depth, so only some improved health and production can resolve it. An eventual return of Ryan Borucki, perhaps in early July, would help on both accounts. We might soon get to see Julian Merryweather in action too, with reports of him throwing 100 mph in Extended Spring Training.

 

Ultimately, in the (hopefully) most rebuildiest season of the current rebuild, it’s important to have low expectations regarding the on-field product. So far, those low expectations would have been accurate. Going forward, improvements from both the pitchers and the position players—the most important of whom are still trying to get a handle on hitting in the majors—will hopefully lead to a better on-field product and a fun summer.

 

 

 

 

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Jeff Quattrociocchi

I'm an economics professor in the GTA whose lifelong love for the Jays was reignited by that magical August of 2015 and the amazing moments since.