Toronto Blue Jays: The rise and fall of the bullpen this season

May 18, 2021; Dunedin, Florida, CAN; Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Rafael Dolis (41) throws a pitch during the ninth inning against the Boston Red Sox at TD Ballpark. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
May 18, 2021; Dunedin, Florida, CAN; Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Rafael Dolis (41) throws a pitch during the ninth inning against the Boston Red Sox at TD Ballpark. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

The other shoe was always going to drop for the Toronto Blue Jays’ bullpen. The group banded together to excel in the month of April, but in May, things came back to earth … and this weekend, down some more.

In a four-game sweep at the hands of the truly merciless Tampa Bay Rays, the bullpen went 0-3, with an 8.03 ERA. They blew two saves, walked 13 (five more than hits allowed!!) and gave up 11 earned runs in 12.1 innings pitched. It spun the Blue Jays into a six-game losing streak and slamming back down to .500.

Let’s take a look at the positives first: the Blue Jays are at .500 on May 24, despite being without Julian Merryweather for all but four games of the year, without the closer Kirby Yates or any closer, and with Jordan Romano, Anthony Castro and Rafael Dolis missing time. Somehow the bullpen survived and even thrived for the first six weeks. To give some perspective, here are some splits for April and May.

April 1-30: 2.52 ERA (3rd in MLB), 100 IP (8th), 6/7 saves, 9.2 BB %, 15.5 K-BB

May 1-24: 4.62 ERA (18th) , 85.2 IP (5th) 12.7 BB % (3rd) , 3/8 saves

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Charlie Montoyo has maintained his belief in a closer-by-committee plan, which has worked for some teams. However, it’s simply not as ideal as being able to count on the same guy you know will close the door. Aroldis Chapman, Craig Kimbrel and Kenley Jansen come to mind. Chapman just  gave up his first run of 2021 on Sunday. Of course, the Blue Jays did sign Yates to be that exact guy for them, but he is out until next year after undergoing Tommy John surgery.

Instead, Montoyo has leaned on any of Jordan Romano, Rafael Dolis, and Julian Merryweather (somehow second on the team in saves in just four games pitched) to shut the door in the ninth inning. In all, six different pitchers have recorded a save this year. On Sunday, Montoyo went with Tyler Chatwood, who actually leads the bullpen with a 0.7 WAR and had been great this year. However, he quickly came back to earth. When Montoyo went back to the bullpen, he bafflingly went to Travis Bergen, who promptly walked three straight batters. Blue Jays Twitter erupted of course — where was Jordan Romano? He apparently had been warming up earlier in the game, but was not used. Instead of going with the Canadian who had a day of rest in between outings and is really the go-to closer, Montoyo went with Chatwood and then Bergen. Baffling.

The general acceptance is that the Blue Jays bullpen is overworked. It’s true to some extent, considering the Jays have barely had a fourth starter all year. Chatwood is among the major league leaders in innings pitched in the month of May, much like Dolis was in April. However, the relievers in general have been pretty evenly used, so it’s not as though the guys are overwhelmingly overworked.  Joel Payamps, of all guys, leads the team with 20.2 innings pitched in relief and that’s not even in the top 30 of all relievers in the majors. Behind him, Trent Thornton, Chatwood, Romano, Dolis, Ryan Borucki and Tim Mayza have all been used anywhere from 12.2 to 19 innings. If you take a look at the previous seven days, virtually every reliever has been used 2-3 innings. No one is overused or really underused either.

Losing Merryweather has been a challenge to the real fabric of the bullpen as well. We can look on paper and say we aren’t surprised now that the bullpen is faltering, but add in Yates and fireballer Merryweather and suddenly it looks a whole lot stronger. Merryweather shone in just four games this year, two of which were saves. Sadly, he is on the 60 day injured list with an oblique sprain. It’s safe to say things would likely look a lot different with him in the mix.

What’s the answer here? If the guys aren’t necessarily overworked, who are the culprits? First, let’s just admit that this bullpen was pitching so well in the month of April and definitely saved some wins, but that was never sustainable. Two guys that come to mind are Dolis and Mayza. Dolis has always been unstable to me — his walk numbers are too difficult to truly rely on him. He’s actually only pitched 4.2 innings in May, but has giving up five walks and five earned runs in those innings. He was just reinstated off the injured list on May 18. Mayza was a wild card coming into this year, and his April/May splits are fascinating:

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Interestingly, he gave up just one more hit in May in the same amount of innings, but add in the walks and the two home runs, and he’s hit a real rough spot. Suddenly, Montoyo doesn’t know where to turn for reliable help. I mean, it was the Rays who really made the Jays look bad and they have now won 11 games in a row, so some credit there. But also, this was never a formidable bullpen. It was due for some regression and add that to various injuries, we are where we are — desperately in need of pitching, whether starting or otherwise.