Jimmy Key made his living lurking in the shadows of higher-profile names like Dave Stieb and others during his nine-year career with the Toronto Blue Jays.
Former Blue Jays southpaw Jimmy Key turns 59 today and his birthday got me thinking about just how important he was to the Blue Jays in the late ’80s and early ’90s, it also reminded me just how under-appreciated Key really was. He may arguably be the most underrated pitcher in franchise history.
Key was drafted by the Blue Jays in the 3rd round of the 1982 amateur draft out of Clemson University. The lefty was previously drafted in the 10th round by the Chicago White Sox in 1979 but opted for collegiate ball at that time.
The Jays actually had the second overall selection in the draft that year and swung and missed on their pick taking shortstop Augie Schmidt, he would never make it the majors.
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In the 2nd round, the Jays drafted pitcher David Wells 30th overall, however, an outfielder named Barry Bonds went 39th overall in that round to the San Francisco Giants although he ended up not signing. The Blue Jays would make good on their third-round selection by drafting Key.
Key would make his MLB debut in 1984 making 63 appearances out of the bullpen for the Blue Jays. The 23-year old would go 4-5 with a 4.65 earned run average and 10 saves in his first taste of the majors.
In 1985, the soft tosser would join the Blue Jays rotation and finish second on the staff in wins, ERA and WAR going 14-6 with a 3.00 earned run average and a 5.0 WAR in 32 starts. Key would also start a pair of games in the ALCS versus the Kansas City Royals although he did not fare well going 0-1 with a 5.19 ERA in 8.2 innings of work.
Key was also named to the American League All-Star team in 1985, an honour he would experience five times throughout his career but only twice as a Blue Jay.
In 1986, Key would go 14-7 with a team-leading 3.57 earned run average in 35 starts. He led the rotation in wins ERA, innings pitched and was second in complete games and shutouts. Dave Stieb went 7-12 with an inflated 4.74 ERA that season.
Key would have the best year of his career in 1987 finishing second in AL Cy Young voting to Roger Clemens. The lefty went 17-8 with an impressive 2.76 ERA and a 7.4 WAR in 36 starts that season. He was atop the leaderboard in every statistical category among starters in the Toronto rotation that season.
In 1991, Key made his second All-Star team going 16-12 with a 3.05 ERA and a 4.3 WAR. Aside from his rookie campaign, Key only had one season with an ERA north of 4.00 during his Blue Jays tenure. Even during the championship season in 1992, he still had a 3.53 ERA, however, he was overshadowed by the bigger names who garnered more of the headlines.
Key left the organization following the 1992 season after signing with the New York Yankees as a free agent. He would finish his career north of the border with a 116-81 record as well as a very respectable 3.42 ERA and a 29.7 WAR in 317 games that included 250 starts. Key would also eclipse the 200 inning plateau six times while making two All-Star teams.
An interesting statistic is Dave Stieb also accumulated a career 3.42 ERA during his time with the Blue Jays while Hall of Famer Roy Halladay sports a 3.43 ERA as a Blue Jay.
When all is said and done, the southpaw was the key to success for many seasons during his time in Toronto and rightly deserves to be enshrined on the Level of Excellence at the Rogers Centre.