Blue Jays: Fitting Bo Schultz into the bullpen picture

With the Blue Jays patrolling free agency for low-cost power arms with some level of remaining upside, Bo Schultz represents the in-house equivalent

The deeper Toronto wades into free agency without signing an impact-level relief arm, the more likely it becomes that a widespread competition will determine approximately two bullpen spots. This can produce fine results under the right circumstances, of course, depending on who the Blue Jays choose to fill their remaining 40-man roster spots with.

While trawling for low-level MLB signings, MiLB contracts and waiver claims, expect the Blue Jays to target affordable upside with back-end potential. Looking at the current roster, they do have an arm that fits that description in Bo Schultz.

Schultz was an unexpected breakthrough in 2015 at age 29, pitching 43.0 innings at the Major League level to a 3.56 ERA. He also managed a 1.69 ERA over 21.1 excellent innings with AAA Buffalo, buzzing a fastball that reaches well into the high-90s. He and Ryan Tepera cooperated and/or overlapped to fill one of the bullpen’s final righty spots, which is the position they’d be competing for this coming March.

Like the majority of Toronto’s relief targets over the coming months, Schultz’s power arm buoys him well but he remains one step away from being an impactful and consistent fixture in a big league ‘pen. For many free agents that step is health, salvaging a tumbling velocity or control issues. For Schultz, it’s fastball effectiveness and pitch usage. (OK, two steps).

Schultz’s fastball graded out negatively (-1.5) in PITCHf/x value last season, which hinders his other offerings from the outset. According to Brooks Baseball data, opponents hit .266 against his fastball with an ugly .215 ISO. Even worse, right-handed hitters hit .333 against the pitch.

Those lefty/righty splits doomed Schultz in 2015, as he was significantly better against left-handed bats. His slash line against those hitters was an impressive .148 / .274 / .262 (.536 OPS), but his line against right-handed hitters ended the season at .242 / .270 / .432 (.702).

It also got worse for Schultz as the season went on and hitters got the book on his very hittable fastball. His 1st Half ERA of 2.01 shot up to 5.23 in the 2nd half, ballooned by six earned runs he allowed over his final 3.0 innings. If we wipe those from the books, he finishes the season with a 2.30 ERA instead of 3.56 and is a far more prominent name in this bullpen conversation.

Getting back to his fastball, though, that pitch kept Schultz grounded with a 6.5 K/9. Paired with a 1.5 HR/9, that limits his potential at the back end of Toronto’s bullpen. In looking at his pitch location data throughout the year, it appears that Schultz began spotting his four-seamer higher in the zone as the season went on. By addressing his mechanics, this should be something that Schultz can manage. At the end of the day, it’s simply got to get better than a 6.56 WHIFF% on his fastball.

There’s reason to wonder, however, if Schultz should begin to back off the fastball somewhat. His cutter, which PITCHf/x data shows him throwing 15.6% of the time in 2015, was far more successful than his fastball with an average velocity of 91.7 and PITCHf/x value of 1.5. Brooks Baseball also shows that opposing hitters managed just a .167 average against the pitch. Regardless of how he does it, Schultz’s primary offerings need to do a better job of setting up his slider.

This high-80s slider was thrown slightly more than the cutter in 2015 with a strong PITCHf/x value of 5.7. Schultz was able to produce some quality vertical movement on the pitch and held opponents to a .121 average against the pitch with a fantastic .030 ISO. Small sample size, of course, but this pitch is his ticket to Major League success.

Past the mechanical decisions with Schultz, there’s a strategic one to be made. His plus fastball velocity cannot be abandoned altogether, but there’s value in spreading some of his fastball usage to the more effective cutter and slider. Perhaps in doing so, the softened emphasis on his four-seamer allows him to find better situational results with the pitch.

Schultz won’t get much buzz entering March because he’s no longer “new”, but really, there won’t be much at all separating him from the other handful of shot-in-the-dark relievers Toronto takes a swing at. If one or two arms can emerge from a group of six or seven, that’s a success. An affordable success, too. Don’t hold your breath on Schultz, but he’s only one (or two) adjustments away from keeping it together over a full season.