For the Toronto Blue Jays, relief pitching continues to be an Achilles' heel

Toronto Blue Jays v Texas Rangers
Toronto Blue Jays v Texas Rangers / Ron Jenkins/GettyImages

Since the start of the 2021 season, one constant has plagued the Toronto Blue Jays. No, it’s not their batting average with runners in scoring position (RISP), although that has been dismal at times, like to start the 2022 season through late May, and again this year at .235 through games on Monday.

The hitting has generally been very good, as evidenced by a run differential of +283 since 2021, 545 home runs to rank 4th overall, and an MLB league leading weighted runs created plus (wRC+) of 114 since then, 14% above the league average. The starting pitchers have added an fWAR of 37.0, good for 7th in the American League. And the team defensive runs saved (DRS) of +95 ranks Toronto 5th overall in MLB over that period.

In fact, it is relief pitching that has consistently been the Achilles’ heel of this team. Blue Jays relievers have only added an fWAR of 5.9 since the start of the 2021 season, which ranks them 24th overall in MLB. That’s thanks to a cumulative fielding independent pitching (FIP) number of 4.19, which ranks 21st. Toronto relievers have allowed 199 home runs over that stretch, the fifth most in baseball.

The 2021 season, when the Jays finished in 4th place in the AL East and out of the playoffs, could have been lost thanks to just awful relief pitching in May of June of that year. The bullpen lost 14 games over those two months with nine blown saves, an ERA of 4.51, FIP of 4.39 and fWAR of 0.5.

The Blue Jays 2022 postseason hopes went up in smoke when Anthony Bass, acquired at the trade deadline, allowed three runs on only 13 pitches without getting an out in game two of the AL Wild Card series against Seattle.

With an fWAR of only 1.4 this season and a 4.16 FIP, Jays relief pitching ranks bottom third again in MLB. The 38 home runs they’ve allowed is the third most in the league. Relief pitching threatens to be the Achilles’ heel of this team yet again, so Ross Atkins and his analytics group better change up the algorithms they look at to value such arms.

That’s not to say that the team doesn’t feature some excellent relievers. Closer Jordan Romano was a 2022 All-Star, and has the fourth most saves in baseball at 79 since the start of the 2021 season. Let’s just say it was a good thing Texas returned him to the Blue Jays ahead of the 2019 season. Tim Mayza and Erik Swanson have also been excellent this year, and Nate Pearson and Trevor Richards both have ‘swing-and-miss’ stuff.

But the relief pitching depth is dismal. Reserve infielder Ernie Clement closed out the 11-0 blowout loss in Miami on Monday. A group including Jay Jackson, Thomas Hatch, Bowden Francis and Mitch White have tried to fill-in when injuries have struck. Adam Cimber has a 7.40 ERA and has given up 6 home runs in only 20.2 innings. The injured Zach Pop, who is a sinkerball pitcher, has given up 4 HRs in only 13.2 innings which has led to a 6.59 ERA. Anthony Bass was released despite better numbers.

Yimi García has a 5.64 ERA, and the front office will have to make a decision on him shortly as his club option for 2024 converts to a $6 million guaranteed contract if he pitches in just 17 more games or tosses 18.2 more innings this season. He’s given up four home runs off his fastball in only 46 plate appearances this season versus only two HRs off his fastball in 127 PAs in 2022, and that’s despite better velocity and spin.

So what can be done? Chad Green, who is recovering from Tommy John surgery, has started throwing off a mound and has been throwing bullpen sessions against live hitters. Could he be back in August?

The August 1st trade deadline is also fast approaching. Could General Manager Ross Atkins trade more prospects from the farm system to add a potential playoff difference-maker in relief like Aroldis Chapman from Kansas City or Jordan Hicks from St. Louis? The Jays brass is going to have to do something soon in relief of this beleaguered bullpen.