How Blue Jays can address their fifth-starter dilemma

Mitch White has been a disappointment since the Blue Jays acquired him at the trade deadline. (Photo by Mark Blinch/Getty Images)
Mitch White has been a disappointment since the Blue Jays acquired him at the trade deadline. (Photo by Mark Blinch/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

Amid a tight wild-card race, the Toronto Blue Jays feature plenty of uncertainty surrounding the fifth spot in their starting rotation. Unfortunately for the team, there aren’t any obvious solutions to this situation.

Yusei Kikuchi, who signed a three-year, $36-million contract last off-season, opened this season as the team’s fifth starter. And while the 31-year-old was effective early on, performing to a 2.36 ERA over five starts in May, those quality starts were tough to find afterwards as he struggled mightily with his command.

Kikuchi quickly became a liability for the Blue Jays in the months that followed, as his season ERA fell to 5.25 on Aug. 15. The team demoted the left-hander to the bullpen at that point, where he’s remained ever since.

Toronto acquired Mitch White from the Los Angeles Dodgers at the trade deadline to help fill the hole but that didn’t prove to be a long-term solution, either.

White pitched well in his first three starts with his new team, posting a 3.38 ERA and 2.52 FIP across 13.1 innings. The 27-year-old faltered to a 13.50 ERA and 5.28 FIP over his next three outings, though, leading to his demotion to the minors on Sept. 7.

Unable to rely on Kikuchi or White, the Blue Jays took advantage of some well-timed off days and opted for a pair of bullpen games during their most recent road trip in Pittsburgh and Texas, which were pretty successful.

Once they returned home for five games in four days versus the Tampa Bay Rays — a team they’re competing against in the wild-card race — a new strategy was needed. As a result, White was recalled from triple-A Buffalo and worked the bulk of Game 1 in Tuesday’s doubleheader.

After Julian Merryweather opened the contest, allowing one run on two hits, White entered in the second inning and was trusted to preserve the bullpen for the nightcap. And the 6-foot-3 hurler did just that.

Granted, the former Dodger experienced unfortunate luck in the third inning, where a pair of defensive mistakes ultimately led to three earned runs. He didn’t allow one poor sequence to derail his performance, though, tossing four shutout innings to conclude his outing.

Thanks to White’s efforts, the Blue Jays only had to use one other arm (David Phelps) through the rest of the contest, saving their high-leverage relievers for Game 2. In turn, Adam Cimber, Anthony Bass and Jordan Romano all played a factor in the club’s 7-2 victory.

Manager John Schneider and his staff were impressed by White’s showing, and rightly so. But should that result in another big-league start?

That’s a question the Blue Jays are probably debating right now, but there aren’t many alternatives other than having White return to the starting rotation. Beyond that, the only viable option would be to continue rolling with bullpen days, which wouldn’t be ideal.

With several meaningful games ahead, it wouldn’t be wise to overuse the bullpen every fifth turn, especially considering it’s already logged a taxing workload thus far. You also don’t want your top arms overworked during the most crucial part of the schedule. That would surely be a recipe for disaster in late September/early October.

In all likelihood, however, the No. 5 spot probably won’t be needed all that much moving forward. Thanks to a pair of scheduled days off, there should be just three days (Sept. 16, 24, Oct. 4) where someone other than José Berríos, Alek Manoah, Kevin Gausman and Ross Stripling will have to start.

Can the Blue Jays afford to have White make three more starts this season or a combination of Kikuchi and a string of fellow relievers? Well, they don’t have much of a choice. But based on recent performances, White likely has the edge in that regard.

For the second-round pick from 2016 to be effective, though, he’ll need to throw strikes with his mid-90s fastball. And prior to Tuesday’s outing, that’s an area where he’s struggled of late.

White’s fastball is at its peak when it’s located in the upper half of the strike zone and around the edges of the plate. There, it avoids barrels while enticing the opposition to chase outside the zone.

The overall results haven’t always been favourable in these instances, but the underlying metrics usually have been, just as they were on Aug. 26. In that start, the inexperienced hurler allowed seven runs on eight hits and three walks, but his four-seamer’s in-zone and chase percentages were both very encouraging.

Overall, White’s fastball produced a 61.9 percent in-zone percentage and 37.5 percent chase percentage, both of which were season-highs with the Blue Jays. If not for some poor luck and a 96.8-mph home run from Andrew Velazquez, the young righty would’ve fared much better versus the Los Angeles Angels.

Another area where White has struggled is creating swings and misses, particularly during two-strike counts. His 19.0 percent whiff rate currently ranks in the 10th percentile of the majors, according to Baseball Savant. That could change with an improved slider, though.

The San Jose, Calif., native registered six whiffs on 22 swings with his breaking ball on Tuesday, a percentage of 27.3. That’s an increase of 10.6 percent from his previous outing on Sept. 6.

White can generate swinging strikes with his slider, but there needs to be a much larger emphasis on when he induces them. Only one of those six whiffs from Tuesday’s performance came on two-strike counts, limiting his strikeout ability.

The good news, though, is that White utilized his slider over 50 percent of the time with two strikes. He had only done that in one other start (Aug. 20) with the Blue Jays — an approach that must continue through the rest of 2022.

Toronto’s coaching staff has also encouraged him to increase the usage of his changeup, which features the second-highest whiff rate (21.7 percent) of his five-pitch arsenal. It should help generate more swinging strikes as it continues to develop, as well.

Of course, White likely won’t serve as a difference-maker until next season and beyond, but performing well down the stretch could earn him a roster spot in the playoffs. It would also help lead him into 2023 on a positive note.

That way, assuming he serves as a multi-inning reliever this fall, he could return to the rotation and compete for a starting job next season.

There are likely brighter days ahead for White, and if he’s able to build on Tuesday’s outing, that sentiment should also apply to the Blue Jays’ fifth starter spot, too.

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