Blue Jays starting to see the best of Nate Pearson

The former top prospect is in the midst of his longest MLB stint and seems to be getting stronger and stronger.

After two strong innings in the Toronto Blue Jays' 7-2 win over the Milwaukee Brewers on Tuesday night, Nate Pearson is closing in on some mini milestones.

The 37 consecutive days he's been on the team's MLB active roster are already nearly a week more than his previous longest run with the team in 2021 (32 days), and he's just two innings and two strikeouts away from tying his modest career-high totals.

In other words, Pearson, at long last, is establishing himself at the big-league level. The right-hander is not doing so as the top-of-the-rotation starter the Blue Jays once hoped he could be, but his work out of the bullpen continues to get more and more impressive.

Following Tuesday's outing, he has a 1.69 ERA in 16 innings with a solid 28.1% strikeout rate.

Nate Pearson has been electric out of the Blue Jays bullpen. (Photo by David Berding/Getty Images)
Nate Pearson has been electric out of the Blue Jays bullpen. (Photo by David Berding/Getty Images)

Pearson's appearance on Tuesday was his best of the year as he produced his first six-up, six-down appearance of 2023, and struck out a season-high four hitters.

It wasn't just the results that were pretty; the way Pearson went about his business was noteworthy. The 26-year-old averaged 98.8 mph on his fastball — a full tick above his season average — and his slider was a sharp 88.4 mph, 1.9 mph above his typical average.

He used all three of his pitches to earn strikeouts, and his battle with former teammate Rowdy Tellez was an excellent demonstration of how far he's come this season.

Tellez entered the at-bat seeming to be hunting Pearson's signature heater and he didn't come close to offering at a 90 mph slider that clipped the bottom of the zone.

Via Baseball Savant
Via Baseball Savant

Then, the big right-hander dropped a curveball on the edge of the zone to get a borderline call that put Tellez in an 0-2 hole.

Via Baseball Savant
Via Baseball Savant

After missing with an 0-2 curve, Pearson went back to the pitch for the third time in a row, sending Tellez back to the bench without taking the bat off his shoulder.

Blue Jays fans who watched the lefty slugger's tenure in Toronto will know that's a rare outcome for Tellez.

Via Baseball Savant
Via Baseball Savant

In a vacuum, that's not a good pitch as elevated curveballs like that have a tendency to get smacked. But when you're packing a 100 mph heater and you've just used two straight curves, it's a tough pitch for an opponent to guess right on — and an inspired call from catcher Alejandro Kirk.

The idea of Pearson dispatching a dangerous opponent without using his fastball would've seemed far fetched earlier in the season. When he first came up he threw his heater the vast majority of the time. In his first six outings he went to it at a 68% rate and used his curveball only eight times.

In his last six appearances, his fastball usage has come down to just 52.7% and the curveball has become a much more important part of his arsenal.

Via Baseball Savant
Via Baseball Savant

That pitch is important to Pearson's success for the simple reason that it's a promising offering. His curve has movement that's 8% better than league average vertically, and 38% better horizontally.

This back-foot strikeout pitch against Tampa Bay Rays star Wander Franco is a good example of how the curve's horizontal movement can tie hitters in knots.

Via Baseball Savant
Via Baseball Savant

As long as Pearson can locate this pitch, it's got an excellent chance to be effective. He's hasn't had the confidence to throw it much in his prior big-league stints, never topping a 7.1% usage rate. But if he keeps using the curve it should be a difference maker.

That's particularly true because it gives him a secondary weapon against left-handed hitters. In both 2020 and 2021, Pearson had immense struggles at the MLB level when he didn't have the platoon advantage.

While the sample of left-handed hitters versus Pearson from those years is relatively modest, they hit .296/.433/.596 against him in 67 plate appearances. Conversely, right-handers managed a .167/.282/.289 line.

When Pearson was called up in April it seemed safe to assume that his high-velocity fastball and nasty slider would help him get right-handed hitters out a solid clip. It wasn't clear how he'd fare against lefties, and that meant certain high-leverage opportunities seemed unlikely to come his way.

In the last few weeks, the right-hander has put more and more trust in his breaking balls — particularly his curveball — and the results are earning more trust from his manager.

Pearson's high-velocity fastball isn't going anywhere, but considering he hasn't allowed a single hit off a curveball or slider this year, moving to a more balanced approach appears to be the right move for him.