Julian Merryweather Had an Exciting Opening Weekend

Just a few weeks ago, Julian Merryweather was fighting for a spot on the Blue Jays Opening Day roster. A back injury suffered early in spring training pushed his Grapefruit League debut back to mid-March and he struggled to get up to speed in such a compressed timeframe. But then Kirby Yates went down with an elbow injury that would require Tommy John, a couple of other pitchers were sidelined to start the season, and Merryweather just barely snuck onto Toronto’s 26-man roster on March 31.

The very next day, he was pitching in the 10th inning in Yankee Stadium, trying to hold a one-run lead on Opening Day. He came one pitch away from throwing an immaculate inning and ended up striking out the side to secure the win. Three days later, he was thrown into the fire again, this time being asked to protect a two-run lead in the bottom of the ninth. He recorded two more strikeouts in that outing and earned the second save of his career.

When I wrote about what the Blue Jays bullpen might look like without Yates a few weeks ago, Merryweather wasn’t even on my radar. Jordan Romano and Rafael Dolis have definitely been in the mix for high-leverage work — they threw in the eighth and ninth of that Opening Day victory paving the way for Merryweather’s appearance in the 10th. The quality of Merryweather’s stuff has been a revelation and has helped him emphatically declare his spot in the bullpen pecking order.

Merryweather was acquired by the Blue Jays in August of 2018 when Toronto traded Josh Donaldson to Cleveland right before the waiver trade deadline. It was viewed as a light return at the time since Merryweather had blown out his arm during the previous season and was in the middle of rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. He got back on the mound in 2019 but another arm injury limited him to just six minor league innings. Last season, he made his major league debut in September, showing impressive velocity and a starter’s repertoire out of the bullpen, but another elbow issue cut his season short after just 13 innings.

On this year’s list of Toronto’s top prospects, Merryweather ranked 12th even though he was entering his age-29 season (he was also a 2022 Pick to Click). The huge uptick in raw stuff in his brief relief appearances over the last few years helped him secure that prospect ranking despite his spotty health history and advanced age. In his short cup of coffee in 2020, he showed some promise with a mid-90s fastball and three solid secondary pitches leading to a 27.3% strikeout rate.

This year, his stuff is even more impressive. He’s added two ticks to his fastball velocity, which is now touching triple digits. With that added velocity has come an increase in his overall spin rate and a new movement profile. Last year, his fastball averaged 12.1 inches of ride, a mark that sat in the 89th percentile among all four-seam fastballs thrown at least 100 times. This year, he’s cut nearly two and half inches of vertical movement off his heater, down to 9.6 inches on average, the fifth lowest mark in baseball among four-seamers thrown at least 10 times this season. With all that ultra-efficient backspin and an above average amount of horizontal movement as well, his fastball’s movement profile now compares favorably to the fastballs thrown by Gerrit Cole, Michael Kopech, and Jacob deGrom. That’s some good company to keep.

Four-seam fastball comps, 2021
Player Count Velocity Spin Rate Vertical Movement Horizontal Movement
Julian Merryweather 14 98.8 2466 9.6 9.8
Gerrit Cole 84 96.8 2560 9.5 12
Michael Kopech 45 96.9 2560 9.9 10
Jacob deGrom 59 99.1 2482 10.3 10.5

While it’s far too early to glean much from how the pitch has performed, pitch characteristics stabilize rather quickly. The raw velocity and shape of Merryweather’s fastball looks much more lethal this year and the results should follow.

Indeed, when paired with his diving slider and fantastic changeup, Merryweather has the arsenal to thrive in a high-leverage role for the Blue Jays. With his fastball now coming in in the upper 90s, the velocity differential between it and his changeup is even greater. Just watch how he uses these two pitches and pinpoint location to earn his first strikeout of the year against Aaron Hicks on April 1.

A 97 mph fastball dotted on the outside corner sets up two straight changeups located down and away and Hicks just watches them go by.

Giancarlo Stanton was the next batter and Merryweather broke out his improved slider. He’s added 2 mph to his slider while maintaining most of it’s above average vertical break.

Stanton watches two sliders perfectly located at the bottom of the zone go by and then swings through a 99 mph heater up and in.

After his outing on Opening Day, Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo gave Merryweather a strong vote of confidence: “We knew if he was healthy he could pitch for us anywhere in a game and anytime. He has the stuff to do what he did today.” Montoyo’s comment encapsulates Merryweather’s path forward; if he’s healthy, it looks like he can be a key pitcher in Toronto’s bullpen. But with plenty of arm issues in the past, and now even more velocity straining his pitching arm, Merryweather will have to be used carefully to help him stay off the injured list.

With Yates out for the year and Romano and Dolis likely the only other candidates for high-leverage work, Merryweather gives the Blue Jays another flexible option to use out of the ‘pen. It’s unclear if Montoyo has defined roles for the back end of his bullpen at this point. On Sunday, Merryweather was called on in the ninth because Romano had pitched to the Yankees 2-3-4 hitters in the eighth and Dolis had thrown 24 pitches the night before. That trio hasn’t been used in the two games since but each of them has earned the trust of their manager when the game is on the line.

For Merryweather, that’s an unexpected turn of events based on his career trajectory up to this point; simply being on the mound in the majors is a victory. The fact that he’s now making an impact as a key member of the Blue Jays bullpen is a testament to his determination to get healthy and his drive to continue improving his arsenal. Now he, and the Blue Jays, just have to hope it lasts.

Jake Mailhot is a contributor to FanGraphs. A long-suffering Mariners fan, he also writes about them for Lookout Landing. Follow him on Twitter @jakemailhot.

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22 pitches, 5K over 2 IP is a nice start to a season.