Blue Jays: Nate Pearson gets another chance to live up to lofty potential

Feb 26, 2023; Dunedin, Florida, USA; Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Nate Pearson (24) throws a pitch in
Feb 26, 2023; Dunedin, Florida, USA; Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Nate Pearson (24) throws a pitch in / Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

He once seemed too good to be true, a 6-foot-6 towering presence with a golden right arm that made hitting triple digits on the radar gun look effortless.

Nate Pearson was destined to be the Blue Jays' pitching star of the future. He was the second-ranked pitching prospect in the league with the most electric fastball; MLB Pipeline gave him a perfect 80/80 rating on his heater. He also featured a slider that could sit in the low 90s. Pearson had a 2.59 ERA in Double-A in 2019, his fastball clocking as high as 104 mph. Josh Bell, an MLB All-Star, called Pearson’s stuff the most unhittable he had seen following one at-bat against him in the spring of 2020, when Pearson was at the height of his potential.

Then fate, or rather the injury bug, attacked Pearson with the same ferocity as he faced opposing batters. He shattered his forearm after being hit by a line drive. He had a flexor strain in 2020. A core muscle injury kept him out for two months in 2021. In 2022, a long bout of mononucleosis limited Pearson to just 13 minor-league games.

Pearson didn’t help himself when he was healthy enough to take the mound. On May 9, 2021, the Blue Jays called him up to make a start against the Astros in Houston. He threw 64 pitches, only 28 for strikes, and walked five in just 2.1 innings. By August, once he returned from the injured list, he was a full-time reliever.

Pearson had enormous expectations hoisted on him. His career, at least at the big-league level, has so far been a disappointment. But he now has another chance to show that the other-worldly potential he once had is still there, that he can dominate like he was expected to.

The Blue Jays recalled Pearson from Triple-A on Monday after eight games in Buffalo intimidating minor leaguers. He faced 35 batters so far this season; he’s struck out 16 of them. His 17.28 strikeouts per nine innings rank third among International League pitchers with at least eight innings. Opponents are hitting just .167 against him. His average exit velocity given up is 74.4 mph; Aroldis Chapman leads Major League pitchers at 78.8 mph this season.

Pearson has changed from the can’t-miss prospect he once was. He’s added a slow, 12-to-6 curveball to go with his still-elite fastball velocity. He’s also embraced his new role as a shutdown reliever.

“I’ve definitely grown mentally. Just more at peace, accepting whatever outcome as long as I’m competing. There’s a lot of peace in that,” he said upon joining the Blue Jays on Monday. “I’m healthy and feel good. Makes me happy just to be able to be here and help the boys out early in the year.”

While Pearson did record his first-ever professional save on Friday in Buffalo, recording the final out with another blazing fastball on the inside corner, he won’t be thrown into high-leverage situations with the Blue Jays right away. The Blue Jays need to see how his stuff plays against big-league pitching. He needs to show that the control issues that dogged him in his last stint in the Majors don’t resurface. And, he has to stay healthy.

If he can do that, Pearson should be a key piece of the Blue Jays bullpen for the rest of the season. But he’s had those expectations before and didn’t live up to them.

This may be his last chance.