Nate Pearson in the closer role is a reminder of what could've been

Stepping up when they needed him most, Pearson locked down the save in a close game on Monday.
Kansas City Royals v Toronto Blue Jays
Kansas City Royals v Toronto Blue Jays / Cole Burston/GettyImages

Nate Pearson's recent success in the back end of the Toronto Blue Jays' bullpen bears a bittersweet feeling as to what could have been of the potential for the right-hander. The former first-round pick shut down the Kansas City Royals on Monday to earn his second career save and cement a 6-5 victory for the Jays, and so far this season he's shown why his moniker of "Nasty Nate" is more than an appropriate description.

Pearson topped out at 100.6mph on his fastball against the Royals but has even sniffed as high as 102mph in recent outings. As one of the most highly-touted prospects league-wide before making his MLB debut, Pearson was ranked among the top 10 of MLB's official prospect rankings in both 2019 and 2020. Prior to his entrance into the league shortly after in 2020, he was looking to prove his projections to be right, but he found the top level a bit challenging to say the least. Across his first two seasons, Pearson pitched to a 5.18 ERA and struck out a hair over one batter per inning. The jump to the big leagues from the minors is certainly a tried and true difficult step to take, and his first few steps were rocky out of the gate.

Pearson's injury history caught up to him in 2022, as he suffered from mononucleosis from spring training onward, delaying his ability to get on a mound for quite some time. In addition to receiving surgery for a sports hernia in the previous offseason, Pearson was riddled with injuries that just weren't helping his case for making the big-league roster. While his injury situation might have been one to forget for Jays fans, it was certainly an important one for the young right-hander. Pearson would find himself in a new role in 2023 and it shone light on what may have been his true calling in the MLB.

Despite coming up as a starter, Pearson would find a spot on the Jays' 2023 roster as a bullpen arm where his limited pitch mix and high velocity would hopefully play better over a shortened average appearance length. The majority of his appearances that year resulted in a goose egg for the opponent, certainly a welcome sight and a step in the right direction; but his ERA once again loomed at an unsightly 4.85. However, a deeper glance at his game logs from last season suggests that a few "blowup" outings inflated Pearson's surface-level numbers to these untoward levels. Four of his 35 appearances in the 2023 season featured earned run totals of 3 or more, accounting for 16 of his 23 earned runs on the season. Omitting these four appearances from his stat line plummets his season ERA to a mind-boggling 1.56, which indicates when he's on his top game, he's one of the best.

Coming into 2024, Pearson's status in the bullpen was fairly positive as his massive fastball presence and resurgence in the Blue Jays' arm barn brought more assurance in his abilities on the mound. Through 11 appearances in the 2024 season, Pearson has pitched to a stellar 1.80 ERA and the only real hiccup in his performance thus far is a 13.3% walk rate which contributes healthily to an inflated 1.41 WHIP. Although his command has dwindled at times in his still-young Major League career to this point, his fastball command was impressive in Monday's outing, as he peppered the strike zone with 10 fastballs of his 16 pitches, all at least in the shadow of the strike zone. It's easy to think pessimistically about a young pitcher, especially one with as much expectations as Pearson, but it's clear to see that he's figuring out how to pitch to Major League hitters effectively.

As a valuable part of Toronto's pitching staff, it speaks numbers that John Schneider felt comfortable to insert Pearson into Jordan Romano's closing job when a replacement was needed. Toronto could easily also rely on Yimi García to close games, as he has had a phenomenal start to the new year as well, adding to the back-end depth in the team's bullpen. Especially considering the recent struggles of Erik Swanson, who gave up a solo home run in the 8th inning to Royals backstop Freddy Fermín on Monday night, Pearson finding success is exactly what the team needs from him.

Whether this role really is Nate Pearson's true calling remains to be seen, but it goes without saying that the right-hander is finding more success in the back-end of the Toronto Blue Jays' bullpen than ever before at the MLB level. If he can cement himself as one of the top bullpen arms in a stacked Toronto pen, Pearson may hopefully soon find himself among the league's best.