Blue Jays Pitching Future In Good Hands
In a game that should be locked in a time capsule for future generations, the Toronto Blue Jays relied on a trio of prized young arms to lead them to victory in the deciding game of their Best of Five American League Division Series against the Texas Rangers.
Marcus Stroman started the game, and while he wasn’t as brilliant as he was in Game 2, gave the team a quality start. Stroman gave way to Aaron Sanchez, who pitched the seventh, and was replaced with one out in the 8th by Roberto Osuna, who closed the game by striking out 4 of the 5 hitters he faced.
Stroman is the oldest of the group at the tender age of 24.
With the Blue Jays rotation uncertain next year with the impending free agency of David Price and Marco Estrada, and R.A. Dickey‘s option for 2016 yet to be picked up by the club (although it’s highly likely it will be), and with 14 pitching prospects having been traded in the past year (led by potential front-of-the-rotation starters Daniel Norris and Jeff Hoffman) to bolster the club’s major league roster, one might think that despite the heady times in Blue Jays land right now, dark skies loom on the horizon next year.
With the three young pitchers under team control until 2019 at the earliest, there’s no need for panic.
Stroman is probably the highest profile of the three at the moment. Undrafted out of Long Island high school because of concerns about his height, he headed off to the college ranks at Duke, where he became a mainstay in the Blue Devils’ rotation by the middle of his sophomore season. The Blue Jays took Stroman with the 22nd pick of the 2012 draft, his stature again causing his stock to drop. Toronto scouts values upside, and were able to look past his height to find a superior competitor with a 94 mph fastball and wipeout slider. Players who were drafted ahead of Stroman included Carlos Correa, Mike Zunino, Kevin Gausman, Andrew Heaney, Addison Russell, Corey Seager, and Michael Wacha, but it’s arguable that only Correa has had more of an impact than Stroman at the major league level. Interestingly enough, the undersized pitcher is not all that rare, and there have been some decent ones in recent history.
His MLB debut was delayed until May of 2014, partially because of a 50 game PED suspension Stroman received at the end of his first pro season in 2012. Pitching out of the bullpen, he scuffled in his first go at major league ball, and after a return to the minors came back better than ever last June, walking only 28 in 131 innings. He tore up his ACL in spring training, but dedicated himself to his rehab, and made a stunning return to competition to the Blue Jays rotation in mid-September.
How does Stroman get hitters out? Through a combination of location, command, and his secondary pitches, as well as a bit of deception in his delivery. If anything, Stroman has increased the turn of his back as he starts his delivery since he was a minor leaguer. Because hitters’ eyes tend to focus on his back, it can be hard to pick up the ball from his hand.
Stroman’s bread and butter is his two-seam fastball, which induces considerable weak and groundball contact – Stroman’s 64.1% GB rate would be second in all of baseball this season if he had pitched enough innings to qualify. The knock against Stroman has always been that lack of height, which leads to an inability to create a downward plane on his pitches (which in theory makes a pitch harder to hit, because a hitter may not be able to focus on a pitch that changes planes). With that movement on his sinker, however, Stroman obviously can change a hitter’s view of his pitches.
Complementing Stroman’s fastball is his slider, which hitters swung and missed on 13.6% of the time in September. Interestingly, his curve has replaced the slider as a swing and miss pitch in the post-season:
Stroman is an elite athlete who fields his position very well. His comeback from major surgery is nothing short of incredible. There are few who thought he would come back this season, let alone make a significant contribution to the team, but Stroman has made a habit of proving his doubters wrong since high school.
When they’re not thinking outside of the box, the Blue Jays organization covets tall, lean, athletic pitchers like Sanchez. The height creates that change of plane, while being lithe makes players less susceptible to injury. Athleticism allows them to repeat their delivery, creating consistency with their command from pitch to pitch.
Taken in the supplemental round of the 2010 draft, the California high schooler was viewed as raw, and something of a project. One of the aspects of writing a blog about baseball I enjoy the most is the comments I get from readers. Here’s one I received about Sanchez two years ago, when he was pitching reasonably well in the Florida State League, but was not dominating like many thought a first rounder should:
Funny how tendencies have a habit of sticking around. I saw Sanchez pitch as a high school prospect in the 2009 Tournament of Stars in Cary, NC. While he had that easy delivery and good velo that earned him more than his share of excitement from the scouting community, I came away with a ‘what the hell am I missing here’ impression. His lack of command and inability to repeat pitches stood out like a sore thumb. His results weren’t bad, given the unrefined tendencies of high school batters to swing at high-velo or high-movement pitches that aren’t strikes. But still, I thought he was a project, and it raised my eyebrows when he went in the first round with an almost-$800K bonus. You never know when a player can blow up, but following my own son’s progress to pro ball made it glaringly obvious that for a group of professionals whose sole job it is to evaluate talent, scouts just get it wrong with their projectability assessments way more often than they get it right (in both directions!). To me at the time, Sanchez should have been more like a 3rd-to-5th round sign. His lingering tendencies have produced results that have proven that so far. I do hope for his sake that he has a serendipitous encounter with some pitching coach who is able to spot that as-yet unknown little fault in his delivery and turn his fortunes around.
The Blue Jays decided the quickest route for Sanchez to make the major leagues was via the bullpen, and they converted him to a reliever part way through last season at AAA. He made his MLB debut in July, and was lights out in relief. Gone were his curve and change, and Sanchez focused on his sinker to get ahead in the count, and an elevated four seam fastball to get swings and misses.
The Blue Jays gave Sanchez an opportunity to vie for a spot in the starting rotation this spring training, and while he pitched well, Stroman’s injury likely helped him land the fourth spot. Sanchez struggled in April, but improved with each outing in May, the highlight of which was an 8-inning, 2-run gem against the Astros on June 5th. That start spelled the end of Sanchez the starter, however, as a strained lat landed him in on the Disabled List. When he returned, it was as a bullpen arm once again.
When he is on, Sanchez is a ground ball-inducing machine. His lanky frame and loose, easy windup give his fastball what hitters call “late life,” an optical illusion caused by the extension he gets on his delivery. Hitters have a fraction of a second less to pick up the fastball from his hand because he lands closer to home plate than most pitchers. His two-seamer pounds the bottom half of the strike zone, and when he has his command, hitters just can not barrel him up. When he gets ahead of hitters, Sanchez throws that four-seamer up in the zone, and batters have a tough time catching up to it.
Sanchez was hard-pressed to duplicate his success of 2014 this summer. Walks, which plagued him as a minor leaguer, were a problem down the stretch. Despite the apparent ease of his delivery, there are a lot of moving parts to it, and when he struggles, Sanchez gets out of sync, his front hip flies open, and his pitches tend to have more movement than normal – so much so that they move right out of the strike zone. Like a lot of right handers who throw from a 3/4 arm slot, Sanchez sometimes is unable to stay on top of his four seamer with his hand, and his pitches tend to miss up and in to right handed hitters. He still has yet to learn how to correct these flaws during the course of a game. When he has command, though, Sanchez can be downright nasty:
Despite his occasional struggles this year, Sanchez has a frame that should stand up to the workload of a starter as he matures. He should come to spring training next year with another shot to win a rotation spot.
A year ago, it was hard to believe that Osuna would find himself becoming the youngest pitcher ever to earn a save in a deciding game of a playoff series.
Osuna was in the Arizona Fall League, trying to re-discover his command. It wasn’t so much that he was having trouble finding the strike zone with his premium stuff – it was that he was catching too much of it, and hitters were making him pay.
Osuna was part of the Blue Jays greatest international free agent class ever in 2011. The then-sixteen year old had already pitched against men in the Mexican League (a loop that is between AA and AAA in terms of calibre of competition). That experience at a young age gave the young fireballer what scouts like to call an advanced feel for pitching – a knowledge of how to sequence hitters with fastballs and secondaries, as well as where to locate them. Despite his youth Osuna came into pro ball with a change up that graded as above average – it generally takes young pitchers two to three years minimum to learn how to throw one.
Osuna advanced quickly through the Blue Jays system, and by late 2012 found himself pitching for Vancouver in the Northwest League, facing hitters four and five years older than himself. His NWL debut, a 5-inning, one-hit, shutout, 13 strikeout performance (think about that – only two of his outs were not K’s) is still talked about by Left Coasters.
Making his full season debut with Lansing in 2013, Osuna’s ascendancy was derailed by a torn UCL in May. The club medical staff prescribed a regimen of rehab and rest, but a month after his late June return (in front of much of the Blue Jays’ senior executive staff) he was pounded for 10 hits and 7 runs in an inning and two thirds. Osuna was shut down once again, and underwent Tommy John surgery in late July.
Osuna made his return to competition a year later, and while his former 95 mph fastball velocity had returned, his command had not. Sent to Arizona to make up for lost innings, Osuna still found himself getting hit hard when he found too much of the strike zone, but was starting to find the edges of it with greater consistency.
Invited to major league training camp this spring, Osuna pitched well for the big league club in relief, but the thinking was that when hitters started to get their timing down, and rosters began to be pared, Osuna would come back to earth. Of course, he didn’t, and earned a job with the big league club, becoming the youngest player in MLB (and the first in club history to be born after the back-to-back World Series years). Osuna was the most consistent reliever on the Blue Jays staff in the first half of the season, and was anointed closer in July. He was 20 for 23 in save opportunities, and struck out better than a batter an inning.
Osuna’s fastball has averaged 95.5 this year, and he has hit 98 with it – his first fastball in the series clincher was clocked at 97. His first pitch to Texas’ Josh Hamilton, however, was a slider, which has depth and late break, looking very much like a fastball as it leaves his hand. Osuna has a wrist wrap at the back of his delivery which the organization reportedly tried to eliminate, but it gives his fastball movement, and makes it tough for hitters to pick up. Osuna walked only 16 hitters in 69 innings, and his 14.7% whiff rate was about 5% better than the MLB average.
When he was signed as a teenager, much was made of Osuna’s “high maintenance” body. After his surgery, he took his diet and conditioning much more seriously. You can judge for yourself:
While it might be tempting for the Blue Jays to keep him in a closer role, Osuna has a true starter’s four-pitch repertoire. Unlike many relievers, Osuna was not a wash out as a starting pitcher, and he should get an opportunity to compete for a rotation spot next spring.
Only Stroman is in the starting rotation at the moment, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility that all three will be rotation anchors for at least the next half decade.