Blue Jays' Roberto Osuna looks like a different pitcher in 2017

Nick Ashbourne

For a guy who strolls out of the bullpen to French Montana’s “Don’t Panic”, Roberto Osuna has inspired plenty of panic lately.

The 22-year-old closer has blown three saves in six appearances and has locked down just one game for the Toronto Blue Jays – a club that can really ill afford to squander opportunities at the moment.

As a result, he has been added to the mounting list of troubles swirling around the Blue Jays’ ill-fated start to the season. Osuna’s struggles so far are confusing as the right-hander has been as reliable as they come since debuting in 2015.

In situations like this, the first – and most commonly correct – instinct is to call what we’ve seen so far a fluke. Osuna has a track record, and he’s certainly not looking at age-related decline. Although he missed the beginning of the season with a cervical spasm, by all accounts that injury was far less severe than it sounds.

Also, we are talking about a total of six innings here. An ERA of 7.50 looks scary, but it’s really five runs allowed in six innings. Osuna had two similar stretches last season. Between August 19th and August 31st he gave up five earned runs in 5.1 innings and he allowed six in 6.2 innings from September 19th to September 28th. He emerged from both slumps unscathed and pitched flawlessly in the playoffs.

Toronto Blue Jays closer Roberto Osuna is off to a nightmare start to his 2017 season. (Fred Thornhill/CP)

Beyond there being a precedent for this, the underlying numbers are fine. His FIP of 3.14 is better than last year’s mark. His xFIP of 3.12 would be a career best. He’s struck out a batter per inning without walking anyone. His BABIP allowed of .421 is patently absurd and will recede.

There are plenty of logical reasons to determine that Osuna’s rough start is a meaningless blip soon to be forgotten. Unfortunately for the Blue Jays, there are also a few hints that suggest something is going on here. The reality is that Osuna looks like a very different pitcher in 2017 than the 2016 or 2015 version.

It starts with his fastball velocity, which was oft-questioned during the spring and is undoubtedly down:

Osuna’s disrupted preparation for the season could be playing a factor and maybe this will tick back up, but until it does it’ll be a legitimate worry. Although the young closer hasn’t woken up with Mark Buehrle’s arm attached to his shoulder, it’s unfair to expect the same level of effectiveness from a power pitcher if he loses gas.

Another main difference with Osuna this year has been his radically-altered pitch mix. He came into 2017 featuring a four-seam fastball and slider combo, with an underrated changeup thrown in from time to time. This year his approach is more complicated, and he’s used far more sinkers and cutters:

It’s too early to judge the efficacy of this evolving attack plan, but for now it’s hard to give Osuna the benefit of the doubt. If he’d come out of the gate mowing down hitters he’d be getting credit for cleverly diversifying his repertoire – and those accolades may still come if this approach yields a turnaround.

However, as it stands, it looks like Osuna has taken a recipe that works and added unnecessary ingredients. For what it’s worth, batters are hitting a combined .400 off the cutter and sinker so far. Once again, it’s too early to dismiss the strategy outright, but it warrants skepticism based on the early returns.

Another peculiar aspect of Osuna’s pitch usage has been how he’s deployed his changeup. He didn’t throw it once during his first four appearances, leading one to wonder if he’d axed the pitch. In his fifth he threw a single changeup. Then, in his last outing he used six.

It’s hard to say what’s going on with the pitch, but when it’s on it’s nasty – as Carlos Beltran found out during last year’s ALDS:

Osuna’s change is foremost among the reasons why he was long considered starter material. It’s certainly a weapon worth keeping, and using consistently. Perhaps his last outing is an indicator that he’s coming back to it, but if not it would be concerning for the Blue Jays to see their closer sideline such a strong offering.

At this point it’s impossible to confidently state that Osuna will be a worse pitcher this year than he’s been in the past. It is reasonable, however, to say he’s a different pitcher.

Osuna’s changing approach may yet benefit him as the season rolls on – but it certainly hasn’t looked that way yet.