If you go back to less than two months ago, a lot of the discourse surrounding the Blue Jays was about the bullpen, and not in a positive way. Outside of Jordan Romano (who himself had some issues pitching on the road), the Jays pen was wildly inconsistent and had a lot of people wondering if it would be good enough to get the team to the postseason. Looking at the relief corps now, the bullpen may be one of the main reasons the Blue Jays could be playing meaningful baseball in October.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that a bullpen can make or break a team. The teams with the 1st, 2nd, and 5th best records in baseball (Dodgers, Astros, Yankees) have the three best bullpen ERAs, and the Braves and Mets, who have the 3rd and 4th best records, have the 5th and 10th best bullpen ERA’s.
The Blue Jays, on the other hand, had a bullpen that consistently struggled to begin the season. Their top relievers in Romano, Yimi Garcia, and Adam Cimber were all inconsistent for stretches to start the year, paired with injuries to guys like Tim Mayza and Julian Merryweather, as well as a brutal start from the usually consistent Trevor Richards, the bullpen was far from reliable. In the past couple of months though, we’ve seen things change completely.
Starting with the anchor of the bullpen, Romano has been one of baseball’s best closers in 2022. Since June 21st, when the Canadian blew his third save of the season and inflated his ERA to 3.12, he’s allowed just three earned runs in 28.1 innings pitched, giving him a 0.95 ERA, and has converted on 15 of his last 16 save attempts, and is second in MLB with 32 total saves.
After being a serious concern as recently as a few months ago, the Blue Jays bullpen has done a complete 180 and has become a huge strength.
Over the past two seasons, Romano has established himself as one of the best shutdown closers in the game, and his ability to get the Jays out of tough situations, including a bases-loaded, no outs situation in a tie game against Boston, and getting the save in Pittsburgh despite runners being on second and third with no outs. His stuff has improved as the season has gone on, with his fastball now routinely approaching triple digits, making him almost unhittable at times. It’s impossible to overstate how important Romano is to the Blue Jays, especially being from the GTA makes it even better.
To get saves though, the team needs to maintain leads, and the Blue Jays now have three excellent setup men who have helped hold these leads.
Yimi Garcia was an offseason free agent signing for the Blue Jays and has so far put together a career year in Toronto. Prior to 2022, Garcia pitched to a 3.60 ERA over 232.1 innings pitched throughout his career, with a single season best of 3.34 (not including the Covid-shortened 2020 season). This season he has surpassed that number, posting a 2.45 ERA over 51.1 innings thus far, to go along with 19 holds, which is 14th in all of baseball. He’s been especially dominant as of late, as he posted ten consecutive scoreless outings (over 11.1 innings) prior to allowing a run in his last appearance against the Rangers. He’s struggled when thrust into the closer role this season, only converting on one of his five save attempts, but as a setup man, Garcia is about as good as they come.
Relievers with ties to the Miami Marlins
The Blue Jays second setup man is the recently acquired, Anthony Bass. Bass came over from Miami at the trade deadline for a second stint with the Blue Jays, having spent 2020 in Buffalo with the team.
With the Marlins, Bass had been outstanding, putting up a 1.41 ERA in 44.2 innings with 16 holds. He’s only gotten better in his brief time with the Blue Jays, posting a 1.17 ERA in 15.1 innings, with 6 holds. The team seems to really trust him against righties, as he’s held them to a 20 OPS+ this season, but he’s also solid against lefties, who he’s held to a 99 OPD+. From a surface level, Bass seems like a fairly standard and uninteresting reliever, but he’s a rock-solid setup man and will be huge for the Jays in high-leverage situations down the stretch.
The Blue Jays third setup reliever, Adam Cimber, like Anthony Bass, came over at the deadline from Miami, albeit in 2021, and since then has been outstanding for Toronto. In 2022, Cimber has amassed a 3.20 ERA in 59 innings pitched and leads MLB with 64 appearances.
Since the acquisition of Bass, Cimber has seen fewer high-leverage situations but still has 15 holds over the year. Despite owning one of baseball’s slowest average fastballs, Cimber has been integral to the Blue Jays’ success since coming to Toronto and his unorthodox approach has lent some variety to the Jay bullpen. One final note on Cimber; this stat is completely random and is in no way a reflection of the pitcher Cimber is, but he somehow has 15 decisions in 2022, 10 of which are wins. Those 10 wins are good enough to place him 30th in MLB and 15th in the AL. That’s higher than stars like Shane Bieber, Joe Musgrove, Aaron Nola, Max Scherzer, and plenty of others, and it also leads all MLB relievers. This is a completely arbitrary stat, but it’s interesting nonetheless.
Outside of the Jays’ high-leverage righties in Garcia, Bass, and Cimber, there are still a few other pitchers who have helped turn around the bullpen. Trevor Richards received a lot of criticism for his less-than-stellar start to the 2022 season, but since returning from the IL on July 3rd, he’s quietly been one of the Blue Jays best bullpen arms.
His last outing was a tough one, as he allowed three earned runs in just two-thirds of an inning against the Orioles, but prior to that, he had posted a 1.73 ERA over 26 innings since his return. Even with that last outing, his ERA is just 2.70 since July 3rd and he has looked like the pitcher he was in 2021 with the Blue Jays, if not better. His season numbers don’t look great thanks to a bad start, but at this point in the season, Richards has reestablished himself as a reliable reliever who can pitch in almost any situation.
Tim Mayza has essentially been the Blue Jays only full-time left-handed reliever in 2022, and he has been outstanding as a lefty on lefty specialist. This season, Mayza has a 2.97 ERA over 39.1 innings pitched and has done a great job dealing with opponents’ top left-handed bats, who he’s held to a combined 73 OPS+. Despite a career-low K/9 of 7.6, his ability to induce ground has made him a very effective piece of the Jays bullpen. The eye test can tell you everything you need to know about Mayza, so if you’ve seen him pitch this year, I think you know what he does well.
David Phelps has without a doubt been the Blue Jays’ most underrated reliever this season, and I say that so confidently because I almost forgot to talk about him. In 54.1 innings this season, Phelps has amassed a 2.82 ERA, yet you rarely hear his name brought up.
This is likely because he generally isn’t the go-to guy in high-leverage situations, but that doesn’t make his numbers less impressive. He’s done this all while having a well above-average WHIP of 1.344 and a 4.5 BB/9. This may be offset by the fact that he’s only allowed one home run all season, but the fact is that David Phelps just gets outs and there really isn’t that much more to it.
As of writing this, the Blue Jays have the 11th-best bullpen ERA in MLB at 3.70, but they’re lowering that almost every game. The team has gotten hot lately, and that is in so small part thanks to the bullpen helping them win close games. It’s hard to overstate how important a good bullpen is to a championship contender, and come October, the Jays may have one of the best.