Roberto Osuna has avoided the sophomore slump as the Blue Jays closer, saving 18 games prior to the All-Star break
There are two conversations that look rather bizarre in hindsight: The Blue Jays deciding between Aaron Sanchez or Gavin Floyd for the fifth starter’s role, and Roberto Osuna competing with Drew Storen for the closer’s role.
Osuna was the blindsiding story of 2015, emerging as a 20-year-old bullpen force that was assumed to be 2-to-3 years away from making any real MLB-level impact. After earning the closer’s role mid-season and racking up 20 saves with a 2.58 ERA, he’s managed to avoid any second-year dip through the first 91 games.
With just 39 appearances and 39.2 innings under his belt – compared to 68 appearances and 69.2 innings last season – Osuna has already matched his value of 1.3 fWAR. This ties him for 7th in baseball among qualified relievers, just 0.2 WAR behind Andrew Miller who ranks third (Dellin Betances and Kenley Jansen rank one and two).
The 21-year-old has produced a slight bump in his strikeout totals, from 9.7 per nine innings to 10.9, and cut his walks-per-nine from 2.1 to 1.8. He’s also managed to lower his ERA despite having his opponent’s BABIP jump from .238 to .281.
Sample sizes with relief pitchers are extremely difficult to work with, as single-season totals of 60-to-70 innings can easily capture significant outliers. That could be the case with Osuna’s greatest weapon this season: pop-ups. He’s forced infield fly balls at a rate of 23.3%, nearly triple his 8.5% rate from his rookie season.
Perhaps it’s not all luck, though, when considering the slight changes that Osuna has made to his pitching arsenal.
The introduction of a cutter has aided Osuna, though it is still be used very rarely. His fastball has maintained a similar velocity to 2016, but he is locating it just slightly higher in the zone. This slight change has worked well with his slider, however, which he is throwing lower in the zone thanks to a lower velocity.
FanGraphs lists Osuna’s 2015 average slider velocity as 88 MPH, a number that’s dropped to 85.5 MPH this season which has added depth and value to the pitch.
With this, Osuna has increased the rate at which opposing hitters are swinging at pitches outside of the strike zone (31.1% in 2015 jumping to 37.9% this season). The hitters have also made less contact on those pitches than they did last year (55.4% to 52.6 %). Combined with a small increase in the amount of swinging strikes that Osuna is forcing overall, and the Blue Jays are seeing their young closer not just hold the line in year two, but take some very real strides forward.