Trusting your bullpen is a critical facet for any playoff contender, and while that remains true for the Toronto Blue Jays, maintaining that mindset is sometimes easier said than done.
Across the 30-game mark, the Blue Jays are 18-12 this season, good for third in the always-difficult AL East division. It has been a very respectable start on all fronts, but especially for the relief core, which largely hasn’t been overworked thus far.
Toronto’s bullpen entered Wednesday with the fewest innings pitched (96.2) across the majors, posting the second-highest strikeout-to-walk rate difference (19.9 percent) behind the Baltimore Orioles (20.3 percent). But they aren’t without their flaws, as they rank 14th in ERA (3.82) and 19th in FIP (4.36).
Much of that group has struggled during the team’s current three-game losing streak, surrendering the most home runs (6) in the sport since April 30. The sample size is small, although manager John Schneider’s trust level with many relievers has likely changed since Opening Day.
With that in mind, let’s rank each Blue Jays relief pitcher in terms of trustworthiness a month-plus into the 2023 campaign.
1. Jordan Romano: A
Traditional Stats: 12.1 IP - 3.65 ERA, 11.68 K/9, 2.92 BB/9, .229 OPP AVG
There is no other reliever Schneider trusts more than Romano, who remains one of the top closers in baseball. The 30-year-old righty is tied for third in saves (9) and has been dominant as ever at inducing swings and misses.
Romano’s whiff (36.9 percent) and chase rates (39.4 percent) rank in the 94th and 98th percentiles, respectively. He also isn’t allowing much hard contact with his hard-hit rate (21.9 percent) and average exit velocity (81.0 mph) positioned in the 98th and 99th percentiles.
The 2022 All-Star has faltered in a few non-save situations, but upon entering the game with a lead, he has been virtually automatic thus far.
2. Erik Swanson: A
Traditional Stats: 14.2 IP - 1.84 ERA, 12.27 K/9, 3.68 BB/9, .106 OPP AVG
The 29-year-old’s devastating splitter has been as advertised, with opponents hitting just .074 AVG against it and posting a 52.7 percent whiff rate. Thus, he has been striking out batters in high-leverage spots on command, with his 37.7 percent rate leading all Blue Jays relievers.
Toronto’s right-handed hurler has also been the club’s most effective weapon versus lefties, who own a .053 AVG and a 33.3 percent K-BB rate difference against him.
3. Tim Mayza: B
Traditional Stats: 8.2 IP - 1.04 ERA, 8.31 K/9, 0.00 BB/9, .314 OPP AVG
As the sole lefty in Toronto’s bullpen, Mayza’s value to the Blue Jays is obvious, and while his first outing of the season was disappointing, he hasn’t given up a run or walk since then.
Mayza, leading all Blue Jays relievers in fWAR (0.4), has been generating plenty of softly-hit grounders and a decent amount of punchouts. He has gotten lucky a few times, evidenced by his OPP AVG, but his ground-ball percentage (55.6) has afforded him that luxury.
It’s still probably premature to call upon Mayza in late-game situations, but if a string of lefties are due up in the sixth or seventh inning, he will likely be in the game with Swanson waiting on standby.
4. Yimi García: C+
Traditional Stats: 14.2 IP - 5.52 ERA, 11.05 K/9, 2.45 BB/9, .218 OPP AVG
Following a strong start to 2023, where he allowed just two runs and struck out seven batters over his first six appearances, García has struggled to recapture his prior form as a reliable high-leverage arm.
García carries a 7.27 ERA with three home runs surrendered — all coming off his four-seamer — over his last 8.2 innings. The swing-and-miss is still there (31.4 percent strikeout rate), but it has been overshadowed by his barrel rate (18.2 percent) during this rough span.
The Blue Jays are counting on García to correct these woes, but if the veteran righty can’t avoid the long ball, he could be reduced to lower-leverage situations.
5. Trevor Richards: B+
Traditional Stats: 11.1 IP - 3.18 ERA, 14.29 K/9, 3.18 BB/9, .233 OPP AVG
Several Blue Jays fans wondered if Richards would return for a third season north of the border, but as it turns out, holding onto the 29-year-old was an extremely wise decision.
The right-hander has been among the bullpen’s top strikeout hurlers, as his 36.7 percent clip sits second behind only Swanson’s. His whiff (43.0 percent) and chase rates (45.5 percent) also rank in the 98th and 100th percentiles, respectively.
Richards has emerged as a potent weapon against left-handed batters to go along with Swanson and Mayza — mainly because his changeup profiles tremendously well against them, posting outstanding whiff (60.0 percent) and chase rates (63.8 percent).
6. Nate Pearson: B
Traditional Stats: 3.0 IP - 0.00 ERA, 12.00 K/9, 0.00 BB/9, .100 OPP AVG
Pearson may rank sixth on this list, but don’t be fooled by that, as he is rising quickly up Schneider’s bullpen depth chart.
The 26-year-old flamethrower has only made a pair of appearances since being recalled by Toronto last month, although that hasn’t been due to a lack of success. He has punched out four of the 11 batters he’s faced, with Kiké Hernandez’s single as his only blemish.
His high-90s fastball has also looked as dominating as it did in the minors. With the Blue Jays searching for bridge options to Swanson and Romano, additional leverage spots should be coming Pearson’s way moving forward.
7. Zach Pop: B-
Traditional Stats: 13.0 IP - 4.85 ERA, 9.00 K/9, 3.46 BB/9, .196 OPP AVG
The future remains very bright for Pop. These last few weeks, however, have reaffirmed the belief that he still has a few developmental hurdles to climb before gaining complete trust from the Blue Jays.
Pop, allowing six earned runs on six hits and two walks over his last five outings, has cooled off dramatically following his impressive start. His sinker and slider are getting hit hard lately, causing their swing-and-miss outputs to trail off considerably.
The young righty has become less predictable by levelling out his pitch usage. But now the problem is he’s missing in dangerous locations, which will likely force him into a low-leverage role until it’s corrected.
8. Anthony Bass: F
Traditional Stats: 9.0 IP - 7.00 ERA, 7.00 K/9, 4.00 BB/9, .308 OPP AVG
Without question, Bass has been the biggest disappointment within Toronto’s bullpen this season, which saw him open the year as a high-leverage reliever before proving to be a major liability.
Bass, a free agent after 2023, has surrendered alarming amounts of hard contact, with his hard-hit rate (50.0 percent) ranking in the eighth percentile. He has also failed to pile up strikeouts, as his 16.3 percent clip sits in the 14th percentile, the lowest of his career.