The Toronto Blue Jays passed the mid-point of the 2021 season. How has the pitching staff performed compared to their American League opponents? What are some issues to watch for in the second half of the 2021 campaign?
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The Blue Jays find themselves in the hunt for a 2021 playoff spot. One can characterize elements of their pitching staff as surprising, disappointing, consistent, or inconsistent. In some cases, more than one of these descriptions applies to the same pitcher. Let’s take a look.
As of July 2, the Blue Jay pitchers have generated a 4.01 ERA, 4.36 FIP and a 3.93 SIERA. Among American League pitching staffs, those metrics rank sixth, tenth and fourth, respectively. However, injuries have been a relative detriment to the performance level of Toronto pitchers.
Table 1 illustrates the injury effect upon Toronto’s pitchers and the relative consequences among some American League foes. Since the start of the 2021 season, the Blue Jays placed 18 pitchers on the Injured list. Those players have missed 611 days to date. The Blue Jays have the most compared to their American League foes regarding the number of pitchers and days lost due to injury.
Spotrac was the source for the injury data. I adjusted the Spotrac information to exclude players who teams knew had significant injuries before Spring Training. For example, I excluded Chris Sale, but I left James Paxton and Kirby Yates on the list. The adjusted data reflects injuries that were not known when teams constructed their pitching staffs.
Table 2 is a summary of key FanGraphs pitching metrics. Please note that mPDI is the Maddux Plate Discipline Index. This metric measures two aspects of pitching: getting batters to swing at pitches out of the strike zone and having hitters not swing at pitches in the zone. Concerning mPDI, the Jays pitching staff is middle-of-the-pack.
Table 3 presents some Statcast metrics. The data demonstrates that the New York and Tampa pitching staffs have excelled this season. Although the Jays pitchers trail the Yankees and Rays overall, Toronto has been slightly better than Boston.
What to look for going forward
On June 3, MLB announced that there would be a crackdown on pitchers’ use of sticky substances. Enforcement of MLB’s new policy began on June 21, but there was a noticeable decline in spin rates starting on June 3. The pitch tied most directly with sticky substances is the four-seam fastball. The fastball is a power pitch, and experts believe that the most likely cause of the increase in the spin rates of four-seam fastballs is sticky substances. The same experts believe that the spin rates of all fastballs, which account for 57% of all pitches thrown by American League pitchers, benefit from the application of sticky materials.
Table 4 contains fastball data for Boston, New York, Tampa and Toronto. Since MLB’s June 3 proclamation, the data shows that Toronto’s pitchers have recorded the lowest drop in Bauer Units compared to their American League East playoff rivals. Also, the xBA and xSLG of Blue Jay pitchers remain pretty well unchanged since the sticky substance crackdown announcement. With the usual sample size caveat, it will be interesting to see if Toronto pitchers continue to perform relatively well under MLB’s new sticky substance policy.
Table 5 highlights some starting pitching metrics. There are two data points to highlight. First, Toronto starters have generated the third-lowest fWAR in the American League. Second, the Blue Jays starters have averaged the fifth-fewest innings per start. The relatively low start length is essentially a function of two factors. One, Toronto received poor performances from Tanner Roark (a single start of three innings; a 15.00 ERA). Also, Ross Stripling (six starts covering 25 innings; a 7.20 ERA) and T.J. Zeuch (11.1 innings spread between two starts and one bulk appearance; a 5.56 ERA) underperformed. Toronto initially relegated all three to the bullpen. Eventually, Management released Roark and demoted Zeuch. The Jays tried Nate Pearson (2.1 innings; 11.57 ERA) and Tommy Milone (2.1 innings; 7.71 ERA) in the rotation, but injuries and lacklustre performance sidelined those two starters. Also, Thomas Hatch was not available to slot into the rotation because of injury.
Two, partly due to injuries and the noted meagre outings, the Jays used an Opener three times. All of these developments contributed to the relatively low innings per start figure. Please note that the average start length for Hyun Jin Ryu, Robbie Ray and Steven Matz is 5.6 innings per start, higher than the American League 5.05 average. Table 6 summarizes the injuries for American League starters for a selection of teams.
The Manoah Miracle and the Resurgence of Ross
On May 27, Alek Manoah made his MLB debut. After some tinkering with his pitching mechanics, Stripling was welcomed back into the starter fraternity on May 30. Manoah has posted a 2.70 ERA and a 4.44 FIP in 36.2 innings. Stripling’s post-May 26 contributions include a 2.77 ERA and a 4.18 FIP. Both Manoah and Stripling have stabilized the Jays starting rotation. For example, during the May 27-July 2 period, the Jays starters rank fourth in average start length (5.31 innings compared to their overall season mark of 4.90). This 5.31 innings-per-start is higher than that of Boston (5.09), New York (4.94) and Tampa (4.71). Other highlights during the Manoah-Stripling era include the following:
- Toronto starters have produced a 3.75 ERA, which is better than Boston (4.87), New York (5.24) and Tampa (4.38). The rankings of the four teams are fourth, ninth, eleventh and seventh, respectively.
- Concerning FIP, Toronto is seventh (4.41), Boston ninth (4.60), New York eleventh (4.91) and Tampa fourth (4.04).
Performances of Note
- Ray has had a bounce-back in 2021. Last season, he posted a 6.62 ERA, 6.49 xERA, 6.50 FIP and a negative 0.4 fWAR. In 2021, Ray has generated a 3.36 ERA, 4.16 xERA, 4.19 FIP and 1.1 fWAR. These marks are that of a top-tier #2 starter. Another achievement for Ray is reducing his BB/9 from 2020’s 7.84 to a 2.31 in 2021.
- Ryu has also produced at the level of a #2, a slight deterioration from 2020. His metrics of note include ERA, FIP and fWAR percentile rankings of 70th, 59th and 72nd among 2021 American League starters. His 3.65 ERA is higher than 2020’s 2.69; his 2020 FIP was 3.01, which is better than this year’s 4.19.
- The months of April and May were excellent periods for Ryu and very similar. However, June was unkind to him. In May, his K%, BB% and OPS against was 26.4%, 4.1% and 0.624, respectively. The comparable June figures are 10.9%, 8.6% and 0.754.
- Matz has been a solid #3 starter. His 4.60 ERA, 3.88 FIP and 1.0 fWAR are in the 52nd, 67th and 74th percentiles, respectively, among American League starters.
What to look for going forward
The Ryu-Ray-Matz-Stripling-Manoah rotation is solid. Assuming Ryu can correct his recent pitching woes, this rotation can be better-than-average for the balance of the season. Another #2 starter (Jose Berrios, Luis Castillo or German Marquez) would make the rotation even better for a run to the playoffs and the basis of a formidable group in the postseason.
Toronto’s bullpen began the 2021 season very strongly. In the first month of the season, Blue Jays relievers recorded a 2.30 WPA, which was the best in the American League. However, the bullpen was poor in May and June. May’s negative 1.34 WPA placed Toronto’s relievers 13th among American League bullpens, and June’s WPA mark was negative 0.54, which was suitable for 11th best.
The reasons for the relatively poor standing of the bullpen are two-fold: performance and injuries. It may be surprising that excess workload does not appear to be a source of Toronto’s underperformance. Concerning innings pitched up to and including games of July 2, Toronto’s total innings ranks as seventh most (298) in the American League, which is similar to Boston (293) and New York (294). Tampa’s bullpen has logged the most innings (347) and pitches (5,515). Toronto’s bullpen arms have thrown 5,099 pitches, more than Boston’s 5,066 and New York’s 4,719. May was the month that Toronto had their highest bullpen usage in terms of innings and pitches: they ranked fifth and sixth, respectively. In my opinion, excessive bullpen use has not been a significant issue in 2021.
Table 7 is a presentation of key bullpen metrics. Of Toronto’s Eastern Division playoff rivals, the New York and Tampa bullpens have excelled. Those two pens rank either first or second in terms of ERA, FIP, and fWAR. Boston’s relievers have been solid with Top-Five rankings in ERA, FIP, SIERA and WPA. Toronto’s bullpen arms have been middle-of-the-pack in most categories.
Concerning save conversions, Toronto ranks 9th best in the American League at 60%. Boston is fourth (67%), New York pulls in at second-best (69%), and Tampa slides in at number three (68%). The best bullpen in terms of the highest save percentage is Cleveland at 81%.
Injuries have hit the Blue Jays bullpen relatively hard in 2021. Table 8 outlines the injury impact upon Toronto’s staff compared to their Eastern Division playoff rivals. Toronto’s bullpen has lost 11 relievers to injury and 449 days on the IL. The notable absences are Kirby Yates (96 days), Julian Merryweather (83 days), David Phelps (61 days) and Ryan Borucki (58 days). The WPA contributions of Rafael Dolis (-0.74), Anthony Castro (-0.81), Zeuch (-0.64), Jeremy Beasley (-0.54) and others have not helped the cause. Hence, the Blue Jays have not had enough quality depth to cope with the bullpen injuries.
Performances of Note
- Jordan Romano leads the Blue Jays in WPA at 1.41, which is eleventh among American League relievers.
- Merryweather, in his 4.1 innings, posted a 1.05 WPA and a 50.0 K%!
- In less than ten innings, Phelps posted a 0.62 WPA
- Borucki produced a 0.89 WPA in fewer than 15 innings of work.
- Tim Mayza had a rough start to his 2021 campaign. However, in June, he produced a 0.64 WPA on the backs of a 1.80 FIP, 22.5 K% and 2.5 BB%.
- Tyler Chatwood was a stud in March/April. He recorded a 0.35 WPA, 36.0 K% and a 8.0 BB%. May was awful: his K% dropped to 25.9, but his BB% ballooned to 20.7. Chatwood performed a little better in June given his .06 WPA, 16.7 K% and 11.1 BB%.
What to look for going forward
The oft-injured Merryweather and Borucki could return to the Blue Jays sometime in July. Their return will be a tremendous boost to the firepower of Toronto’s bullpen. Also, the recent addition of Adam Cimber strengthened the pen. Toronto’s bullpen would be top-tier if Management added a high-end reliever such as Richard Rodriguez and another quality arm.
The Last Word
Based upon fWAR, the pitching staff of the Toronto Blue Jays has underperformed relative to their American League East playoff rivals. Poor performances and injuries have contributed to their disappointing results. However, the addition of Manoah and a reinvigorated Striping has stabilized the starting rotation. On the bullpen front, injuries thinned out the quality of the staff. Still, the return of Merryweather and Borucki should boost the performance level of the reliever corps. If Toronto’s Front Office added a few quality arms to the pitching staff, the Blue Jays could make a serious push for a 2021 playoff slot.
*Featured Image Courtesy Of DaveMe Images. Prints Available For Purchase.
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Bob was a St. Louis Cardinals fan until the Blue Jays arrived on the baseball scene, although he still has a soft spot for the Cards. Similar to straddling the Greenwich Meridian, as depicted in the avatar, Bob applies sabermetrics when applicable, but his heart tells him that Lou Brock belongs in the Hall of Fame.