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As the 2021 season has worn on, the biggest issue facing the Toronto Blue Jays has been a moving target.
Initially, the club’s defence was consistently letting it down, then the bats went cold — causing them to hit just .233/.307/.398 in April — and more recently the bullpen has authored a constant stream of implosions.
Some of those speed bumps have been more predictable than others. The top-notch offence the Blue Jays possess — even minus George Springer — stumbling out of the gate was a surprise, but the bullpen scuffles in the absence of Kirby Yates, Julian Merryweather, Ryan Borucki, and David Phelps were easier to foresee.
Through the various fires that the team has had to put out, the rotation has been a constant source of existential dread. Nate Pearson has yet to make an impact, Hyun-Jin Ryu hasn’t quite been himself, the team has leaned heavily on veterans coming off shaky years, and all things being equal health-wise, the rotation has been perceived as this team’s greatest weakness.
Until Steven Matz hit the COVID-IL on Monday, though, that talk had quieted significantly. The most obvious reason confidence in this group is on the rise is rookie Alek Manoah.
Manoah has posted a 2.66 ERA in four starts with a 3.11 xERA. His fielding-independent numbers aren’t as impressive, but he’s missing bats and creating soft contact. The primary weakness in his game so far has been a tendency to lose his command and dole out free passes, but just 55.1 innings into his pro career, there’s plenty of room for optimism that he can iron that out. While a sub-3.00 ERA might be too much to ask, the 23-year-old is looking plenty capable of plugging a hole.
In fact, since he came up the Blue Jays haven’t resorted to a single bullpen day — an early-season staple that may rear its ugly head again depending on Matz’s status and T.J. Zeuch’s performance as a spot starter — and the rotation has produced far more impressive numbers across the board.
Prior to the Manoah call-up, the Blue Jays starters' run prevention wasn’t awful on a per-inning basis, but the group was providing approximately 14 outs per start — or just under five innings. Since that time the unit has provided better quality and more quantity (16.3 outs per start), leading to far more value.
Manoah is the face of that change, but he isn’t the only one responsible for the turnaround. Robbie Ray has been the Blue Jays’ most impressive pitcher during this time, posting a 3.52 ERA in 23 innings with a gaudy 14.48 K/9. While it’s not unusual to see him go on torrid stretches missing bats, this one seems to be driven by a new level he’s found with his slider, both in terms of velocity and strikeout ability.
Ray has made 169 starts in his MLB career and here’s how his last four rank in slider velocity and K's.
Ray has thrown every single one of the 12 hardest sliders of his career during this span, and has been able to consistently get right-handers to swing through it down-and-in — like he did on this 92-mph beauty to Starling Marte:
Prior to this string of starts, Ray had already made velocity gains and cut his walk rate down to size after years of struggling with wildness. This improvement on his slider makes it even more likely the lefty can provide quality innings from here on out.
Ross Stripling has also played a significant role in the rotation’s turnaround. Since making a mechanical adjustment on May 24, the veteran right-hander has pitched 29.1 innings of 2.45 ERA ball that coincides with a jump in fastball usage and velocity.
Considering the righty’s rough 2020 and start to 2021, a little skepticism is warranted here, but the bar to clear as a fifth starter is awfully low and he doesn’t look like such a bad bet anymore.
While all these changes were happening, the pitcher at the top of the rotation, Ryu, scuffled through a rough stretch (5.56 ERA, 6.21 FIP, and -0.3 WAR) that he’s a lock to improve on — even if there are legitimate concerns about his stuff falling off. The last piece of the picture, the steady Matz, has been solid and the only major question about him going forward is his health. Meanwhile, Pearson and Thomas Hatch are getting ready in Triple-A.
As July approaches and the Blue Jays front office contemplates how it wants to upgrade the team, the rotation is not foremost among their concerns — at least for a fleeting moment. That may say more about the club’s ailing relief corps than anything else, but the supposed Achilles heel of this team is looking more stable than expected.
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