Blue Jays: Taking a look at some of the pitching staff’s best offerings

Apr 20, 2021; Boston, Massachusetts, USA; Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Hyun Jin Ryu (99) pitches during the first inning against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 20, 2021; Boston, Massachusetts, USA; Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Hyun Jin Ryu (99) pitches during the first inning against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports /

Although it is early into the 2021 season, some Blue Jays pitchers have had fantastic starts and given fans a reason to be optimistic about a staff that had many concerned coming into the year.

Through the team’s first 21 games, they have the fourth-lowest ERA in MLB (3.04), and have only allowed opponents to hit .225. They also have the seventh-lowest hard-hit percentage (37.2%) and the second-lowest average exit velocity against (87.6 mph).

Hyun-Jin Ryu, Steven Matz, Trent Thornton and David Phelps have been a huge part of the Blue Jays early pitching success. Although unexpected for pitchers like Matz and Phelps, who had rough 2020 seasons, their resurgence could play a big role in the team’s success this summer.

To find out how these four have been keeping hitters down so far, we are going to look at some pitches in each of their repertoires that have helped them find early success.

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Hyun-Jin Ryu – Changeup/Fastball

Now we all know about Ryu’s changeup and just how effective of a pitch it is, but so far in 2021, he’s been throwing it more than he ever has.

He’s using the pitch 31.1% of the time, up just less than four per cent from last season. Ryu has been holding hitters to a .235 average and only a .294 slugging percentage on the changeup.

Although both of these numbers are up from last year, the increased use of the changeup and the abandonment of his sinker has helped his fastball become more effective.

Hitters are swinging and missing at his changeup significantly less than they have in the past. But this has increased the effectiveness of Ryu’s slower than average fastball. Last year his fastball got rocked to the tune of a .340 average against and hitters only swung and missed at his fastball 19.2% of the time.

But this year — despite getting hit harder when hitters do make contact — hitters are only hitting .211 and have a swing and miss rate of 28.6% on the fastball. For context, Gerrit Cole’s fastball generates swings and misses 26.6% of the time.

The increased use of his best pitch has hitters sitting on the changeup now, which may explain why hitters are putting it in play more. But this leaves them more vulnerable to the fastball and Ryu has been using that to his advantage so far in 2021.

Steven Matz – Sinker

One of the biggest turnarounds in all of baseball to start 2021, Matz has been lights-out through his first four starts.

After many questioned the trade that brought Matz to the Blue Jays in January, the former Met has put up a 2.31 era through his first 23 innings of work. He’s also holding hitters to a .169 average against and has limited his hard-hit rate to 36.2%, down 13% from 2020.

Matz loves to throw his sinker. He has not had a year where he hasn’t thrown it more than 50 per cent of the time until this season. To start 2021, 48% of his pitches have been sinkers, and they’ve been more effective than ever. Hitters are only hitting .128 off Matz’s sinker with only two extra-base hits. 13 of his 25 strikeouts have also come on his sinker.

After the pitch was maybe one of the worst in all of baseball in 2020, somehow Matz has found a way to throw it consistently at the bottom of the zone after leaving it way too high in the past few years.

Although he’s not getting a lot of swings and misses with his sinker — the pitch has a 13.6 per cent whiff rate — his improved command of the pitch has helped him generate softer contact. This has resulted in a ground ball rate which has jumped to 46.6% in 2021 after a career-low 34.4 per cent in 2020.

Trent Thornton – Cutter

After leading the team in starts in 2019, Thornton was forced to miss most of 2020 after undergoing elbow surgery.

Since his return this year, Thornton has only given up two earned runs in nine innings. He has all but eliminated his slider and sinker from his repertoire, instead opting for a fastball, curveball and cutter mix, throwing those three pitches just less than 90 per cent of the time. All three have been extremely effective, each holding hitters to sub .200 averages. Thornton is also generating ground balls at a career-high rate of 44.8 per cent, thanks to the amount of soft contact he generates.

As another guy that relies on movement and deception instead of power and velocity to get hitters out, Thornton’s cutter has arguably been his best pitch in 2021. He’s throwing it 30% of the time, a huge increase after only 15% of his pitches were cutters in 2019. The pitch is only being hit hard 20% of the time and has yet to be hit for extra bases.

Why is his cutter so hard to square up? Well, Thornton throws his cutter with both above-average vertical and horizontal movement. Since he throws it significantly more than any other pitch to righties, and hitters have a difficult time keeping their barrel on plane with something dropping and moving away from them.

David Phelps – Curveball

After a great start in 2020 in Milwaukee, Phelps was moved to Philadelphia to join the Phillies tire fire of a bullpen. Unfortunately for Phelps, he didn’t make things any better upon joining the Phillies as he posted a 12.91 era in 10 appearances.

Turn the page to 2021, and Phelps has looked as good as ever through his first seven innings. He has only given up one earned run and six hits while striking out eight. He looks to be one of Charlie Montoyo’s favourite options in high leverage innings.

Phelps’ curveball has far and away been his best pitch in 2021. Hitters are hitting .111 against the curveball and are swinging and missing at the pitch 36.4 per cent of the time. It has also been Phelps’ most relied on pitch so far, making up 30.6 per cent of his pitch selection. This is a career-high as he has slowly been increasing his curveball usage since 2015.

When hitters are hitting the curveball, they are hitting it fairly hard — an average exit velocity of 92.3 mph — the problem? They’re hitting it straight into the ground. This has helped Phelps generate groundballs 44.4% of the time.

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Not only is Phelps getting hitters to get themselves out, but he hasn’t given up a single barrel so far in 2021. He’s fitting in perfectly with the Blue Jays  staff in limiting hard-hit balls and keeping balls on the ground.

All stats courtesy of Baseball Savant