The Blue Jays Bullpen Should Be Okay Without Kirby Yates

On Monday, the Blue Jays announced that Kirby Yates had been diagnosed with a strained flexor in his throwing elbow. A day later, that injury turned into something far more serious, as the righty will need Tommy John surgery (the second of his career) to repair a torn ulnar collateral ligament. Signed to a one-year, $5.5 million deal earlier this offseason, it’s likely he’ll never pitch an inning in a Blue Jays jersey.

Elbow issues have derailed a promising late-career upswing for Yates. Between 2018 and ’19, he was arguably the best reliever in baseball, worth a league-leading 5.2 WAR and with 53 saves to his name as the Padres’ closer. But bone chips in his elbow limited him to just 4 1/3 innings in 2020, and his age — he turns 34 in just a few days — combined with the uncertainty surrounding his health likely led to the below-market deal he signed with Toronto. That elbow reportedly sunk a potential deal with the Braves earlier in the offseason, and his physical with the Jays showed more damage than expected, costing him more money.

Yates’ potential ability to anchor the bullpen was enticing enough for Toronto to take the risk that his elbow could hold up for the whole season. Instead, he didn’t last through spring training, and now the Blue Jays have to figure out how to organize the back end of their bullpen. They already had a number of strong options for high-leverage work; the trick will be determining the best way to cover up the gaping hole in the ninth inning.

The Favorite – RHP Jordan Romano

Romano enjoyed a breakout season last year, posting a 1.23 ERA backed by a 3.12 FIP in 14 2/3 innings, before it was cut short at the end of August after he strained the middle finger on his throwing hand. Two significant changes drove his improvement: a big jump in velocity, and a change in his pitch mix. When he debuted in 2019, Romano threw his slider 36% of the time at around 84.7 mph. His fastball, meanwhile, averaged 94.6 mph — a jump from what he was posting in the minors, though he was used as a starter until 2019. Those two pitches earned him a 28.0% strikeout rate in his debut, but that was the lone bright spot in an otherwise rough start to his career.

In 2020, Romano adjusted his throwing motion a bit to try to squeeze more velocity out of his pitches. Here’s a look at his mechanics from 2019:

And here’s what they looked like in 2020:

The differences are subtle. Here’s are a pair of frames from those gifs taken at roughly the same moment in his throwing motion.

As you can see, Romano’s throwing motion became much more closed off before coming toward the plate. The change helped him generate more torque with his upper body and also resulted in a release point that was a few inches higher than where it was in 2019.

The results speak for themselves. Last season, Romano’s fastball velocity jumped up to 96.5 mph, and his slider shot up to 89.1 mph as his strikeout rate increased to 36.8%. All that added velocity didn’t hamper his ability to command his pitches. Even though his slider saw the bigger velocity jump, the underlying results with the pitch were essentially unchanged from 2019; its whiff rate increased by four points to 38.6%, and batters continued to pound it into the ground. What did change was its usage, which went from 36.3% to 59.9% and helped him bolster his strikeout and ground-ball rate.

The true difference maker was the fastball. That little spike in velocity came with some additional ride imparted by the increased spin rate. It was a pretty good pitch already, but with those adjustments, it became one of the best four-seam fastballs in baseball. When batters swung at the pitch, they missed more than half the time; its 52.4% whiff rate would have ranked first among all four-seamers thrown last year if Romano had enough innings to qualify. And when batters did make contact, they managed just a single hit and a .275 xwOBA.

Romano was already ticketed for high-leverage work in 2021. Now he’ll likely step into the ninth inning role where he left off last year. Based on his comments after his spring outing on Monday, he’s up for the challenge:

“If they need me in the ninth I’ll be ready for it. I really like going in when the game is on the line. It’s that nervous energy, the anxiety but confident you are going to get the job done. That’s what I like about it.”

Even if Romano isn’t the ninth-inning guy, that doesn’t mean he won’t be a high-leverage stopper. Earlier this spring, manager Charlie Montoyo indicated that he was thinking about using Romano in a fireman role that has become so popular in modern bullpens. His history as a starter could give him the length to shut down an opposing lineup earlier in the game before handing off to another reliever in the ninth.

The Dark Horse – RHP Rafael Dolis

The Blue Jays signed Rafael Dolis out of Japan last year not really knowing what to expect. He had made his major league debut way back in 2011 and pitched for a few years with the Cubs, but he struggled in his first stint in the majors and left for Japan in 2016. There, he spent four years pitching for the Hanshin Tigers, appearing in over 200 games with a 2.49 ERA and 96 saves.

In his return to the majors, he was a solid option for the Blue Jays, posting a 1.50 ERA backed by a 3.02 FIP. His strikeout rate was a fantastic 31.0%, but he also struggled with a high walk rate. An above-average ground-ball rate, though, helped him erase all those extra base runners and avoid any major damage during his outings. After Romano went down with his finger injury, Dolis stepped in as the closer in September and converted five saves down the stretch.

As a prospect in Chicago’s organization, Dolis peaked at No. 15 on the team’s top prospect list — from 2011! — and was pegged as a high-leverage bullpen option with a strong fastball and slider. In Japan, he picked up a nasty splitter to pair with his sinker and slider. Both of his secondary offerings had swing-and-miss rates over 50% in 2020, which more than made up for the mediocre whiff rate on his sinker.

With plenty of experience in the ninth inning in Japan, Dolis could be an option for the Blue Jays if they wanted to maintain the flexibility of using Romano as a fireman, though the high walk rate is a concern. If Romano ends up taking the ninth inning role, Dolis would likely step in as the first man out of the bullpen in high-leverage situations.

The Veterans – RHP David Phelps & RHP Tyler Chatwood

Montoyo mentioned both Phelps and Chatwood when asked about who might step in as closer after Yates went down with his injury on Monday. They’re clearly a step behind both Romano and Dolis, but they both have interesting storylines.

Phelps signed a one-year deal with the Brewers in 2020 and pitched well for them through the end of August. But after being traded to Philadelphia at the trade deadline, he caught whatever bug plagued the Phillies’ bullpen last year and fell apart in September, allowing 11 runs and four homers in 12.1 innings.

One thing that did carry over from Milwaukee to Philadelphia was his resurgent fastball velocity. After undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2018, Phelps’ velocity went from 94.3 mph in 2017 to 92.7 the year after the procedure. Last year, though, his fastball snuck back above 94, and it made all the difference; its whiff rate skyrocketed from 6.6% in ’19 to 22.5 in 2020. If he’s able to maintain that velocity into this year, he could be a nice pick up for the Blue Jays.

Tony Wolfe already covered Chatwood’s journey to Toronto back when he signed with the club in January. In short, injuries interrupted a promising 2020 in which he started using an excellent cutter instead of his four-seamer. That change to his repertoire seemed to mitigate some of the control issues that had plagued him for the last few seasons and resulted in a jump in strikeout rate. Chatwood is likely best suited for a swing-man role, but if the adjustments he made last year carry over to 2021, he could have some untapped potential as a high-leverage reliever.

However the Blue Jays decide to deploy their bullpen, the loss of Yates hurts their overall depth. Moving everyone back one inning means that at some point a pitcher will get exposed to a high-leverage inning when they shouldn’t be. Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins indicated he would consider outside additions to cover for the loss of Yates, and there are a handful of options both available on the free-agent market — Shane Greene should be expecting a call soon — and soon to hit the waiver wire as teams cut their rosters down in preparation for Opening Day. But even if they don’t bring in another reliever, the Jays have plenty of intriguing options to handle high-leverage innings already in house.

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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3 years ago

Just a note — the subhead on the site front page says “Kirby Yates is done for 2020.” No biggie: I have trouble remembering what year it is too, or day or month for that matter. We’re all stuck in second gear.

3 years ago
Reply to  Joser

Fixed now. Glad to be there for you.