Great Bullpens have become the key to MLB championships
Teams with hopes for 95-win need multiple closers
In any ranking of American League bullpen aces, it’s clear that Blue Jays’ righthander, Jordan Romano rates, perhaps not No. 1, but definitely Top 5 of 15 closers. However, is that fact of having a top-third closer, enough of a positive to contend for a championship?
No, the belief here is that championship contenders need more than one reliable arm at the end of the game. You need true depth at closer, including a couple of setup men that may have handled the ninth-inning role somewhere in the past. Make no mistake about it, the final three outs of a game are a different animal for pitchers no matter what anyone might insist about all outs being created equal.
Fact is most teams can’t get by with just one closer any more. Changes in the major-league game, especially given the conservative coddling of guaranteed multi-million dollar pitching arms, means that if your team is hoping to win 95-plus games and compete deep into October, you will need more than just one pitcher with the ability to work the ninth in a close game.
And this real need for multiple pitchers with closing ability at the back-end of your pen is not just a regular season conundrum.
When the playoffs arrive, the MLB reliance on bullpens comes under even greater scrutiny, especially, it seems, over the past 14 years since 2010 with starters’ required pitch counts creeping ever downward. It seems with most organizations that beginning on draft day, young starting pitchers have been groomed to look over their shoulders out to the bullpen after they have five innings, or thrown 80 pitches.
Blue Jays Bullpen
It was an interesting exercise to call up some important breakdowns that have been compiled by Baseball Savant and study a readout of all major-league repertoires and velocities. The first comparison was in terms of MLB four-seam fastballs in 2022, to discover that the highest Blue Jays qualifier in MLB was Jordan Romano, ranking 56th overall, at 96.9 miles-per-hour. In fact, Romano was the only current Jays reliever to crack the Top 182 in four-seam velocity, although Zach Pop, who shuns the four-seamer, ranked 42nd in 2022 with his 96.5 mph sinker.
The Jays are leaving Florida with five starters and eight relievers and more than looking for pure gas, the Jays pen benefits from its variety of repertoire and individual strengths.
That being said, the MLB game has really changed in terms of lively arms coming out of most bullpens in middle innings and in a setup role. I recall a time when Jason Frasor was closing for the Jays and was the hardest thrower at a consistent reading of 94 mph. In fact, manager John Farrell’s philosophy, as late as 2011, with the Jays, was to wear down the opposing starter and elevate his pitch count early in order to bring on the iffy middle relievers. That philosophy, as a consistent strategy, has gone the way of the ivory-billed woodpecker, heading to 2023. Today’s middle relievers are often the hardest throwers with the nastiest, untamed stuff.
Following is a thumbnail on each of those most likely to head north with the Jays’ bullpen.
Jordan Romano (96.9 mph 4-seam; 96.5 sinker; 87.3 slider). As we said, Romano is one of the Top 5 closers in the AL, being tremendously consistent his first two seasons in the role and bumping up his save totals every year. The Markham, Ontario, native can’t do it by himself, especially with a team hoping for 95-plus wins in 2023. Last year he worked two days in a row just 15 times and three straight days only once. In fact, in the three straight-game stretch from May 26-28, the power righthander allowed three hits, two earned runs and two walks in 2.2 innings. Then, after one more relief appearance in May, Jordan was given seven days off.
That’s merely a point of reference to consider in terms of the huge changes that the closer role has seen through the years. Wondering what some of the differences might be?
Consider Expos’ 1973 player-of-the-year. The irascible Expos’ righthander, Mike Marshall, with whom I worked my first year in Montreal, that season was called upon to pitch two days in a row nine times; did three and four games in a row four times; threw in both ends of eight doubleheaders and recorded more than three outs in 62 of his 92 appearances. The most amazing Marshall feat came on Sept. 7, when Iron Mike recorded three innings in Game 1 of a doubleheader, then entered Game 2 in the seventh inning and worked the final 8.1 frames of a 4-2 loss that went 15 innings. All that work and consider his training room was just trainer Joe Liscio armed with a bucket of rubbing mud, bags of ice and smelly, very hot, heat rub.
Yimi Garcia (94.9 mph 4-seam; 93.8 sinker; 89.4 slider; 87.2 change; 82.4 curve). Garcia should be considered the second available closer when Romano is not. Garcia had saved 15 games for the Marlins, by July 24, 2021 when he was traded to the Astros and was thrust into a secondary setup role with zero saves. Last year for the Jays, in 54 of his 61 appearances, he posted a 0.95 ERA with six earned runs over 57 innings. In his other seven games, over four innings he yielded 15 earned runs. At his best he was very, very good and is never afraid of the ninth inning.
Erik Swanson (93.6 mph 4-seam; 84.9 slider; 83.5 splitter). The first-year Blue Jay, obtained at a high price from the Mariners for Teoscar Hernandez, is another option for save opportunities when Romano is unavailable. The acknowledged past master of changing speeds for the Jays that I can remember, over the last 10 years, is Marco Estrada. The soft-tossing Estrada had a 10-mph difference between his 89-mph fastball and his changeup. Changing speeds on pitches that look the same coming out of the hand and thus messing with the comfort and timing of hitters remains the key to pitching. That being said, Kevin Gausman’s splitter in 2022 was 9.9 mph slower than his 4-seamer, while with Swanson it was a 10.1 mph difference. When hitters in the ninth inning are squeezing bats a little tighter and anxious to be a hero, Swanson’s changing of speed is a significant weapon. He can close.
Tim Mayza (94.0 mph 4-seam; 93.7 sinker; 88.6 slider). Mayza’s importance is that he is the only lefthander out of the opening day bullpen. He will be used in situations anywhere from the sixth to the ninth inning, likely with runners on base and when two of the next three hitters are solid lefthanded bats that won’t be pinch-hit for. A healthy Mayza is a bullpen key, because the next level of southpaw reliever down on the farm is questionable.
Anthony Bass (95 mph 4-seam; 95.4 sinker; 86.6 slider; 86.7 splitter). Bass was a key re-acquisition last summer for his second tour of duty with the Jays, but since then his place on the bullpen depth chart has dropped at least one spot with the addition of Swanson. The 35-year-old is another veteran voice in the bullpen, but Jays fans still remember his part in the Game 2 collapse against the Mariners. Leading 8-5 in the eighth, he allowed a double and two singles before being replaced by Romano. He remains a solid asset in middle relief.
Adam Cimber (86.5 mph 4-seam; 86.5 sinker; 77.8 slider). On a team full of fellow, side-arming righthanders, Cimber would not last long, given his pedestrian velocity and a simple three-pitch mix, but coming in as a dramatic visual changeup to a bunch of traditional arm-angle, hard throwers, Cimber is fun to watch. With the depth of this year’s Jays pen, he will not be asked to finish games in a winning situation. He remains useful.
Trevor Richards (93.4 mph 4-seam; 84.1 change; 85.1 curve). Richards and Cimber in mid-season 2021 were key additions to settling down a shallow bullpen, but this current, stronger corps of relievers means that Richards will be more of a middle relief option, perhaps asked, primarily, to keep a deficit where it is until the Jays’ bats can do their thing.
Zach Pop (96.5 mph sinker; 85.0 slider; 89.3 change). The second Canadian in the Jays’ pen will primarily be called upon in middle-inning situations with runners on base when a double-play grounder is required. It seemed, this week, like it would be either Pop or the hard-throwing former top prospect Nate Pearson, who, at 26, seems to have come to grips with the reality of his major-league future as a power-armed reliever. He was so close to earning an opening day spot this year, but his moment will come. The feeling is that when Pearson finally earns a spot in the MLB pen, it will be a permanent promotion. That doesn’t then mean that Pearson will be replacing Pop. The two can coexist in the Jays’ pen, but the number of major-league options available to manager John Schneider from the farm is encouraging for the organization.
On a personal note, the week of Opening Day around major-league baseball forever makes the hearts of true fans of the sport beat faster. This year, whioch is season number 51 for me, is no different. My palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy…Play Ball!
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