Nate Pearson Didn’t Need His Full Arsenal to Silence the Defending Champs

The nerves were easy to see in the eyes of Nate Pearson during the third batter of Wednesday’s game between the Toronto Blue Jays and Washington Nationals. It was the 23-year-old right-hander’s major league debut, and he had just allowed the first baserunner of his career on a four-pitch walk to Adam Eaton. With the camera aimed at first base, viewers saw Eaton get a big lead, then take another step, then another. Pearson never looked his way. His eyes were straight ahead, beads of sweat already forming under his cap, as he concentrated like the only thing he could think about was making sure his next offering was a strike. It didn’t work. He bounced a slider in the dirt, then turned to see Eaton standing on second base without a throw.

By the time he finished his first career outing, those nerves appeared to be gone. Pearson showed there was no need for nervousness. He ended up throwing five shutout innings, allowing just two hits and two walks while striking out five. The Nationals ultimately won the game anyway, 4-0, thanks to stellar pitching by their own starter — some guy named Max Scherzer — but even in a shortened season in which every game is crucial to a Toronto team on the fringes of a playoff hunt, it’s difficult to think of a reason for a Blue Jays fan to feel anything other than pure excitement over Wednesday’s game.

Pearson’s journey to a big-league mound was a bumpy one. He had a screw put in his throwing elbow in high school, and he was used mainly as a reliever at Central Florida Junior College, albeit an extremely good one. Toronto drafted him 28th overall in 2017 with the intention of stretching him out to be a starter, and he started at Advanced-A in 2018. A couple of injuries, however — an intercostal strain and a fractured arm caused by a line drive back to the mound — limited him to just 1.2 innings for the whole season.

When he finally returned in 2019, the Blue Jays challenged him, asking him to pitch across three levels of the minors. And despite only throwing 21.2 pro innings in the 22 months since he’d been drafted, he responded well, totaling 101.2 frames and allowing just 26 runs on 63 hits with 27 walks and 109 strikeouts. As he began throwing in Blue Jays camp this spring, it was obvious he had the stuff to make the Opening Day rotation, but there were quickly rumblings of the team keeping him in the minors to start the season for just long enough to delay his free agency by a year. Wednesday, as it happens, was the first day the Blue Jays could add Pearson to the roster without him getting a full year of service time in 2020.

Pearson is not only the top prospect in the Blue Jays’ system, but he’s the top-ranked right-handed pitching prospect in the entire sport according to our own Eric Longenhagen. From his preseason Top 100:

… Pearson’s repertoire is very deep. Yes, he’ll chuck 101 past you, but he’ll also pull the string on a good changeup that runs away from lefty hitters, dump a curveball in for strikes to get ahead of you before gassing you with two strikes, and tilt in one of the harder sliders on the planet, a pitch I’ve personally seen him throw at 95 mph and that regularly sits in the low-90s.

That wasn’t the Pearson we saw on Wednesday. His hardest fastball of the day didn’t quite reach 99 mph, according to Statcast, and sat mostly in the 94-97 range. His slider, similarly, was never thrown harder than 87 mph and usually was 83-85. With the Blue Jays trying to safely build him back up to strength, he was limited to only 75 pitches, just five of which were either a curveball or changeup, as the righty focused mainly on his fastball and slider. Pearson didn’t show us the full arsenal that we’ve heard about him unleashing on minor leaguers in the past, which makes it even more impressive that he was still so good. Just those 75 pitches still allowed him to produce 14 whiffs, an 18.7% swinging strike rate.

Eight of those whiffs were against the slider, which troubled Nationals hitters throughout Pearson’s appearance. We got our first look at it in the initial at-bat of the game, when after Pearson threw a pair of fastballs to get the count to 1-1, he threw back-to-back sliders to Trea Turner, who swung through both of them.

Pearson was able to rebound from the aforementioned walk and return to throwing strikes, stranding Eaton and getting ahead of each of the first two batters of the second inning before inducing groundouts. His next strikeout came against Carter Kieboom, a fastball at the top of the zone finishing a 1-2-3 second.

After getting two quick outs in the third, Pearson allowed the first hit of his career on a grounder that just barely eluded the grasp of shortstop Santiago Espinal, followed by another walk to Eaton. He got out of that inning unscathed, then navigated his way out of trouble again in the fourth, working around a leadoff double by Eric Thames to pitch another scoreless inning that he finished with his best pitch of the day.

Kieboom’s expression says it all. I imagine that hitters generally like to feel like they got something out of a plate appearance — maybe it’s a base hit or walk that looks good in the box score, maybe it’s a poor result that gives them something to learn from the next time they go to the plate. There are no lessons to be learned from 99 mph on the outside corner at the knees. It is a fair pitch only in the sense that it is not technically illegal to throw the ball that hard to that location. Watch the pitch again and tell me there’s anything you can do except stand there and hope the umpire makes a stupid mistake.

The fifth inning was Pearson’s last of the evening, and it was also his best. It started with a strikeout, in which Andrew Stevenson was victimized by one of three changeups Pearson threw all day before whiffing at a slider.

Then Victor Robles battled for nine pitches, but was defeated by three sliders he couldn’t touch.

Then he started Turner with this slow curveball in an at-bat that ultimately ended on a flyout to right.

Pitching debuts can be nerve-wracking experiences for those watching. Broadly speaking, we cheer extra hard for guys making their first career appearance because we have an understanding of how much pressure is sitting on their shoulders as they walk onto a major league field for the first time. The pitching mound is a lonely place to be shouldering that burden, seemingly magnifying every moment, good or bad. We remember the debuts that become legendary, like Stephen Strasburg’s 14-strikeout performance in 2010. We also remember the ones that made us hurt for the guy pitching, knowing his first memory of being on a major league mound would be soured forever.

Most debuts don’t fit into the category of famous or infamous, though. They simply provide us a very small-sample glimpse at what lies ahead for a budding MLB career. Pearson was excellent on Wednesday, pounding the zone with high-velocity heaters and throwing secondary stuff that darted away from Nationals bats in every direction. And all of that was still just a sneak peek at what Pearson’s arsenal might look like once he’s fully settled into Toronto’s rotation. Just wait ’til Carter Kieboom finds out.

Tony is a contributor for FanGraphs. He began writing for Red Reporter in 2016, and has also covered prep sports for the Times West Virginian and college sports for Ohio University's The Post. He can be found on Twitter at @_TonyWolfe_.

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Hey David, this is the way to do video. No waiting. No clicking. Have Tony do more of these.