As Wednesday’s ballgame began, the Toronto Blue Jays starting rotation clung together near the dugout railing.
José Berríos, Kevin Gausman, and Alek Manoah hammed it up while their teammate Ross Stripling took the hill, ready to carve through the Tampa Bay Rays.
"I get more nervous watching these guys pitch than the days I pitch because I want them to do so well," Gausman said. "I’m invested in their career. I watch what they do in between their starts and their side [sessions] and working out. I’m really a fan of all four of these guys."
Unity is a big theme in Toronto’s starting rotation. The pitchers are a close group; they walk out together before games, they observe each other’s bullpens, and they communicate well. When Yusei Kikuchi was down on his luck earlier this season, his teammates hyped him up to try and revive his confidence.
Above all, though, the Blue Jays starters are a successful unit, fifth-starter fiasco aside. The squad is top-10 in wins above replacement from starting pitching (11.8), and Stripling, who began in the bullpen, has been a massive part of that, on and off the diamond.
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"[Stripling] is great," Manoah said, smiling. "He kind of gels with everybody, the Spanish guys, the American guys. He’s pretty fun to be around. He's very randomly funny as well, like won't say much and then randomly just bring something up."
Stripling’s sense of humour and "no complaints" attitude make him popular in the Blue Jays clubhouse, as does his wickedly deceptive changeup, which has been his No. 1 weapon this season.
"It’s very underrated, but his changeup is probably one of the best in the league," Manoah said.
In 2021, Stripling threw his changeup 15 percent of the time. This year, he’s upped the usage to 27 per cent and seen staggering results. The pitch isn’t particularly beloved by Statcast’s run value metric (minus-3) or especially wild in terms of horizontal movement, but opponents are batting just .190 against the change and chasing it 48.5 percent of the time, a new career high.
"The feedback that I got is that [the changeup] spins like my fastball," Stripling said after tossing 6.1 innings of one-run ball on Wednesday. "And I think my arm angle has natural depth to it and deception because it does look like a four-seam fastball. And I am fairly consistent at getting it where I want it."
The kicker this year for Stripling has been how often — and how effectively — he’s used the changeup versus right-handed hitters. The 32-year-old has reverse splits in his career, meaning right-handed hitters (.773 OPS) do better against him than lefties (.650 OPS). Stripling hasn’t completely bucked the trend, but, thanks to the changeup, he’s done a better job attacking righties this season.
"I think if you go back with my career and look at right-handed hitters," Stripling said, "I think they could really eliminate the inside part of the plate against me just because I was very four-seam-, slider-, curveball-dominant to my glove side. So I think you could see them leaning out over and even doing damage on good pitches away.
"And I think the changeup has been an equalizer, and the sinkers I’m throwing, where they have to respect both sides of the plate. And I think that's opened up some of the stuff that I usually do on the outside part."
With the right-hander now more comfortable busting righties inside, his five-pitch arsenal feels even deeper. And, since joining the rotation full time in June, his 2.47 ERA in 87.1 innings (73-12 K-BB ratio) has thrust him into the conversation for a playoff start.
The Blue Jays are on track for a three-game wild-card series in the second week of October. Toronto’s opponent and location remain to be determined, but Stripling could easily slot in as the club’s winner-take-all Game 3 starter if the series gets that far.
Gausman sees Stripling carrying his success into the postseason.
"Just a guy who knows how to pitch," Gausman said. "He came from [a Los Angeles Dodgers] organization that preaches pitching. And I think the fundamental things of pitching he does really well. His mechanics are always the same. He holds runners well. Just consistency."
And as Stripling’s excellent season has chugged on, he’s begun to view the last few months in an extra special light.
"I'm proud of the way that I've competed and taken an opportunity and ran with it," Stripling said. "I've done that in my career before, but this one feels a little bit more special. It’s the AL East; we're in a playoff run; the team really needed me; we lost Hyun-Jin [Ryu].
"So just happy that the coaching staff and the front office gave me the runway to take off."
Stripling’s contract is up at the end of 2022, and kudos to him for putting up one heck of a walk year — he’s now potentially in the qualifying offer conversation. Once the Blue Jays’ season concludes, however, his fellow starting pitchers are hoping he’ll hang around a little bit longer.
"He doesn't get the love that he should," said Manoah. "And I think he's just as valuable as anyone in this clubhouse, so hopefully we can keep him here for a while."
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