Blue Jays should be more aggressive with back end of bullpen
Maximum of two days in a row for Romano and Swanson needs change
In order to win the AL East, there will be times when the back end of the Blue Jays bullpen, specifically Erik Swanson and Jordan Romano, need to be available more than two days in a row if this team is going to meet its great expectations.
A prime example of the need for increased flexibility in terms of bullpen usage was Sunday. With a chance to complete a sweep of the Mariners, it turned out Swanson and Romano were, pre-game, highlighted in red on manager John Schneider’s availability document. With his hands tied in terms of his two best relievers, an 8-4 Jays’ lead after five, became a 10-8 loss in 10 innings. The Jays are now 1-3 this year when given the chance for a sweep in a series of three or more games and 7-13 over the past two seasons.
Granted, sometimes there are physical circumstances that prevent going to certain relievers, of which the media is unaware, but assuming on Sunday that was not the case, the game was teed up for the taking. Yes, the two high-leverage guys had worked the first two wins of the series, but Swanson, the primary eighth-inning man, had thrown 29 pitches and Romano, the closer, 28 on Friday and Saturday, combined, the previous 42 hours.
Thus, the job of protecting Sunday’s 8-4 lead, heading to the sixth inning, fell to others. With a chance to run the win streak to seven games, it became Trevor Richards, Anthony Bass, Yimi Garcia and Zach Pop, each of whom surrendered runs on the way to a 10-8 defeat. Now, after dropping the first two at Fenway Park, the streak of losses is at three.
Schneider moving forward should adjust slightly and perhaps be freed up to rethink his bullpen use and become more aggressive with his top performers if this team wants to reach its potential. At appropriate times, in concert and in consult with the pitchers themselves, the manager needs to be able to consider his closer, Romano, and No. 1 setup man, Swanson, in winnable games in late innings… even if it is a third day in a row.
Consider on Sunday, on the other side of the field, in the 10th inning, Kingston (ON) native Matt Brash worked his third consecutive game for the M’s, picking up his first career save as Seattle came back to salvage a game.
Sure, the Jays’ streak that ended at home of a half-dozen wins in a row is nice, but if Swanson and Romano had been available late in Sunday’s game, it possibly could have been seven and if, as a contender, you intend to win 90-plus, you will need multiple streaks of six-plus – which is more than once through the rotation. In close games that are winnable, you need your best.
Logic dictates that if the opportunity is there for a championship contender to win 10 in a row but your policy is your best relievers aren’t available for more than two straight, you won’t have very many 10-game winning streaks, no matter how much you trust other members of the bullpen. Setup men set up and closers close.
What’s the history of streaks? The Blue Jays over their 47-year history, have won 90 or more games eight times. In those seasons of 90+ wins, the Jays have totalled 16 win streaks of between 6-11 games. In 2023, given the depth of the five-man starters and eight-man bullpen, it will likely be possible for Schneider as the summer wears on, for streaks of that length to present themselves, equipped as he is with a group of starters that is strong, healthy and likely to log close to 100 pitches and six innings per outing.
That being said, to be October winners, the Jays need to know that when the rotation hands off a lead to the ‘pen, there will be a way to close in the eighth and ninth innings with your best -- even if there are times that those relievers are working a third day in a row.
We have seen good things this bullpen can accomplish at its best
Over the course of the six-game win streak that began in New York on April 23 and ended with the blown 8-4 lead in extra innings on April 30, the Jays bullpen combined to go 2-0, with two saves and a 0.52 ERA. At one point, beginning with a hit batter by Nate Pearson in Game 1 of the homestand, relievers retired 36 hitters in a row, the equivalent of 12 perfect innings. That is a lock-down performance over five games.
The Jays’ pen over the seven days of the streak, combined for 17 innings, allowing one run on three hits, two walks and 27 strikeouts. It was a balanced workload. All eight Jays relievers contributed between 1.0 and 4.1 innings and between 16 and 56 pitches. A strong rotation and a couple of routs kept individual workloads at a reasonable level. So, on the eighth day, when they blew that 8-4 lead over the final five innings, nobody was overworked.
It’s funny how it works. Never have major-league teams had a better understanding of the pitching arm and how to keep an athlete’s body happy, healthy and wise. There is nutrition, stretching, massage, weight training and post-pitching maintenance supervised by more high-performance experts than you can imagine. Yet, the 100-inning MLB reliever is a dinosaur.
Once upon a time in a bullpen far, far away
I know the game has changed and this may sound like the reminiscences of a dinosaur, but back in 1973, my first year with the Expos, on a mediocre team, there was one trainer, Joe Liscio, who used bags full of ice, a bucket of mud and squeezed out tubes of heat rub to keep pitchers on the field. A reliever named Mike Marshall made 92 appearances, throwing 179 relief innings, with 31 saves. Marshall in ’73 worked back-to-back days 10 times, three days in a row four times, four straight days four times and both ends of a doubleheader on eight occasions. The next year, he logged even more relief innings for the Dodgers, winning the Cy Young.
Meanwhile, the Jays’ impressive duo of Romano and Swanson, in their brief careers, have been used for three games in a row just one time, each -- in 2022. The Jays late-inning aces in ’23 have pitched back-to-back games three times each, April 4-5, April 14-15 and April 28-29 and have not allowed a run in the second game of those back-to-backs. The Jays when they are not available in the third game after the back-to-backs, are 1-2 and that’s a trend that might keep them from a division crown. What do they say about the value of a loss in April and a loss in September. Release the hounds.