Revamped Blue Jays Bullpen Playoff-Ready

You’ve probably heard about the Troy Tulowitzki trade. The one that turned the Toronto Blue Jays’ already mighty offense into a juggernaut incapable of losing. The trade for David Price made some news, too. A team with a few mid-rotation starters but lacking an ace at the top and depth at the bottom was reinvigorated with the acquisition of one of the best pitchers in Major League Baseball, simultaneously providing that much-needed ace and allowing the rest of the rotation to fill out the remaining spots nicely. Those were the major moves — the earth-shattering, capture-the-attention-of-two-nations moves. The Blue Jays made other moves, too, though, and getting LaTroy Hawkins in the Tulowitzki trade, adding Mark Lowe, moving Aaron Sanchez to the bullpen, and officially naming Roberto Osuna as closer has strengthened what was once a weakness. For months, the Blue Jays struggled to close out games, but the bullpen has been lights out in the second half and looks ready to compete in October.

The last time I looked at the Blue Jays’ pitching issues, it was late June, the team was fourth in the division but had a solid 50/50 shot at making the playoffs. In the six intervening weeks, the Blue Jays have moved from wild-card hopeful to near playoff lock with more than a 90% chance of making the playoffs and 57% chance of winning the division. In late June, the rotation had at least one hole, and the bullpen was still struggling. Brett Cecil was experiencing difficulties as a closer, and the team had recorded just one more Shutdown (40) than Meltdown (39) on the year. As the first half drew to a close, the team had as many saves (14) as blown saves (14). Beginning with the change in closer six weeks ago, however, the Blue Jays have transformed their bullpen.

Just before the start of the season, Karl de Vries examined the Blue Jays bullpen for Rotographs and put each pitcher in their possible roles. This is how his reasonable analysis turned out:

Preseason Role Pitcher
Closer Brett Cecil
Setup Man Steve Delabar
LH Setup Man Aaron Loup
Middle Relief Marco Estrada
Middle Relief Todd Redmond
Young Gun Miguel Castro
Young Gun Roberto Osuna

There was considerable uncertainty, as Marco Estrada quickly moved to the rotation, Miguel Castro was given a shot at closer before Brett Cecil took back his spot, and Castro eventually went to the minors before his inclusion in the Troy Tulowitzki trade. The Blue Jays bullpen maneuvering had multiple steps, but the first one saw a change in the Blue Jays closer.

Step 1: Replace Brett Cecil at Closer with Roberto Osuna

Osuna, the other pitcher who had never pitched above A-ball but made the Opening Day bullpen, was great through June 20, with a 2.25 ERA and a nearly identical 2.25 FIP, having recorded 35 strikeouts in 32 innings. During the same time period, Brett Cecil was struggling, culminating in a four-run outing on June 21 against the Baltimore Orioles. Cecil had gained and lost the closer role at different times during the season, but as of June 21, holding loosely to the title of closer, he had a 5.96 ERA and a 4.56 FIP on the season.

The change in roles has coincided with success for both pitchers. Osuna has continued to pitch well, going 12 for 12 in save chances while striking out 21 and walking just three batters in 20.2 innings. While it can be difficult to separate small-size variations with relievers due to limited innings, Cecil has also pitched very well since his change in role. Cecil has made 15 consecutive scoreless appearances, striking out 15 and walking just three in 14 innings, providing the Blue Jays with a reliable, late-inning, left-handed option.

Step 2: Put Aaron Sanchez in the Bullpen

After Marcus Stroman went down before the season, Sanchez was given a spot in the rotation to start the season. He had a solid ERA, but his high walk totals provided some concern over his ability to perform as a starter at his current stage of development. The 23-year-old Sanchez pitched well out of the bullpen last season with a 1.09 ERA and 2.80 FIP, and a stint on the disabled list provided the Blue Jays with a reason to put him back in the bullpen on his return. Sanchez has made ten appearances out of the bullpen since his return on July 25, and he has allowed just one run with a 1.86 FIP serving as setup man.

Step 3: Trade for LaTroy Hawkins and Mark Lowe

As the second half began, the Blue Jays bullpen was already looking much better than it did in the first half, but seeing an opportunity to make a run at a playoff spot, and now the division, the Blue Jays chose to bring in added reinforcements. Hawkins, the non-Tulowitzki part of the trade with the Rockies, is now 42 years old and playing for his 10th team in his last 11 seasons, but he still has the stuff to get opposing hitters out. He has pitched six scoreless outings thus far, giving up no walks and no runs.

Mark Lowe was the least attention-getting move of the trade deadline for the Blue Jays, but he has had an outstanding season, striking out more than 30% of the batters he has faced and giving up just two home runs in 38 appearances. He got off to a tough start in his first game for the Blue Jays, giving up a home run to Ben Zobrist among three runs to the Royals, but he has pitched three scoreless outings since then and should be a very good addition for the Blue Jays down the stretch and into the playoffs.

Step 4: ????PROFIT!!!!

Since the beginning of the season, not only have many Blue Jays relievers changed roles, the roles available to Toronto relievers have changed. The team has rid itself of the typical inning-eating middle relievers in favor of impact pitchers, and the uncertain young-gun role has been replaced with higher-certainty impact pitchers.

Adding current relievers and their roles to the chart above, we now see the following:

Preseason Role Pitcher Current Role Pitcher
Closer Brett Cecil Closer Roberto Osuna
Setup Man Steve Delabar Setup Man Aaron Sanchez
LH Setup Man Aaron Loup LH Setup Man Brett Cecil
Middle Relief Marco Estrada High Leverage RH LaTroy Hawkins
Middle Relief Todd Redmond High Leverage RH Mark Lowe
Young Gun Miguel Castro Middle Relief Liam Hendriks
Young Gun Roberto Osuna Middle Relief Bo Schultz
Role Change Added to Pen Emergency Man Aaron Loup

Since the All-Star break, the Blue Jays have 26 Shutdowns against just seven Meltdowns, and in the American League, only the Royals have a wider gap between the two numbers. The Blue Jays bullpen is walking less than five percent of batters in the second half; they have an excellent 2.87 FIP while their 1.53 ERA leads the majors during that time.

Four of the original seven bullpen pitchers are not on the active roster, and Aaron Loup, once expected to fill a setup role is now used in extra innings only if absolutely necessary. Liam Hendriks and Bo Schultz have pitched well. They have multiplied the number of high-leverage pitchers they have available to them in late innings and can shorten a game if a starter shows signs of trouble. The Blue Jays needed a major move to fix their rotation, but that major move as well as some minor fixes that did not involve paying for a proven closer has helped the Blue Jays significantly. Their offense and David Price might be getting a lot of attention, but the bullpen has played a major role in their recent run of success.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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8 years ago

One thing, Craig. Hawkins is a RHP.

Darren Oliver
8 years ago
Reply to  Eric

Don’t worry I get us confused too.