Blue Jays: Glad to see Pete Walker rewarded for his good work
Despite the fact that the Blue Jays have had a rough past couple of seasons, it’s good to see that Pete Walker wasn’t the scapegoat for the pitching staff. He’ll return in 2019, as I believe he deserves to.
Do you remember when the Blue Jays signed Jaime Garcia last winter, and some of us were thinking that they might have one of the best rotations in the division, or maybe the American League? Sportnet’s Mike Wilner tweeted that out at the time of the signing and some people laughed at the notion. Not me. I retweeted it and nodded in agreement.
It obviously didn’t work out that way for the Blue Jays last year. Their starting five of Garcia, Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, J.A. Happ, and Marco Estrada endured a season of injuries, underperformance, and just general disappointment.
Sanchez battled injuries for the second straight year, further leading Blue Jays fans to wonder if he’ll ever be the pitcher again who lead the American League in ERA in 2016. Stroman had a similarly difficult season, starting out with some shoulder issues that were probably rushed in Spring Training a bit in hindsight, and later dealing with some pretty significant blisters of his own on his pitching hand. Those two will return in 2019, and the Jays will hope that each can pitch to their potential, and more importantly, stay on the mound.
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Happ was traded to the Yankees before the July 31st deadline, and is now a free agent. There have been multiple reports of the Blue Jays having interest in bringing him back to Toronto, but it’s hard to say if the 36 year old would prefer a better immediate chance to win now that he’s near the end of his career. Estrada joins Happ on the free agent list as well, and it doesn’t look like there’s much interest in another reunion with him, which is understandable after a tough 2018 season. Garcia was designated for assignment before the year even ended, and wound up in a Cubs jersey for a while before the regular season came to a close.
The whole scenario above made a tough situation for the Blue Jays pitching staff, but they somehow managed to navigate through to the end of the season. It wasn’t pretty at times, but there were encouraging signs from a young group that included Ryan Borucki, Sean Reid-Foley, Thomas Pannone, and even an unexpected contribution from Sam Gaviglio, who most Blue Jay fans had never heard of before last year.
You could look at the group as a whole and reasonably come to the conclusion that a fresh voice might be useful, especially with a change in manager happening this offseason in Toronto as well. However, the Blue Jays have been fortunate to have a pretty good pitching coach in their bullpen for the last number of years, and I’m glad they aren’t placing the blame on him for last season’s troubles.
I think it’s pretty reasonable to come to the conclusion that injuries were the biggest culprit for Stroman, Sanchez, and even Estrada and his wonky back. Happ was quietly excellent in Toronto before his trade, and continued to be an above-average starter once he arrived in New York. The young replacements all pitched better than we expected as well. The anomaly here would be Garcia, and I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know what happened there, but I don’t think I’d blame Walker or the Blue Jays.
If we go back to the 2017 season, the pitching staff ended up being a surprising asset for the club that year too, despite some other issues to navigate. Francisco Liriano never worked out the way the Jays hoped he would, and Sanchez had an even more injury plagued year than he did in 2018. However, lead by rock solid seasons from Stroman and Happ, the Blue Jays managed to finish in the middle of the pack in the American League despite the fact that the had to use a group of starters that included Mat Latos, Cesar Valdez, Brett Anderson, Chris Rowley, and a struggling Joe Biagini.
I really can’t blame Walker for the overall performance of the pitching staff last season, and I’m glad it doesn’t look like the front office does either. I think it’s safe to say that they didn’t pursue premium additions for the bullpen last offseason (with all due respect to John Axford and Tyler Clippard), they and Walker had to navigate the loss of Roberto Osuna early last year, and they had to figure out a way to piece together a lot of games around injuries to their rotation, which was taxing on the bullpen in particular.
At times it was like being asked to build a raft with a pile of sticks and a bottle of Elmer’s glue. Especially when it came to losing key pieces like Sanchez and Stroman to repeated blister issues. There have been many pitchers around the game facing this issue, especially since the change to the baseball a couple of years ago. While that’s incredibly frustrating, I’m not sure the Blue Jays should expect Walker to coach a change in approach because of a new baseball, which is what I believe to be the primary reason for the “epidemic” in the game.
In recent seasons I felt that the Blue Jays needed to make some changes to their coaching staff, in particular with Brook Jacoby and the hitting side of things. With all due respect to Jacoby and the good things he did while he was in Toronto, it just seemed like the same old problems were sticking with the Blue Jays regardless of who they trotted out in the lineup. It’s never felt that way with Walker to me though. On the pitching side, it always felt like he was squeezing the most out of a lot of arms, especially the youngsters.
That last point in particular is also what makes me think he’s the right man for the job going forward. In addition to the good work he did with guys like Borucki, Reid-Foley, etc, last year, the Blue Jays have had good fortune with young arms like Stroman, Sanchez, Osuna, and more under Walker’s watch. He’s been successful in helping each of them transition from the minor leagues into the highest level, and he’ll have several young arms to work with in the coming seasons now that he’s going to be sticking around.
The 2019 season will mark his 7th as the pitching coach, with him being hired one year earlier as the bullpen coach after his playing career came to an end in 2007. There could be some value in having some continuity between the last coaching staff and the current one, and in my humble opinion I believe that Walker was one of the right guys to keep around.