The circle of trust: Which pitchers can Blue Jays rely on in the playoffs?

Nick Ashbourne
·MLB Writer
·6-min read

Now that the Toronto Blue Jays are officially in the playoffs, their first order of business is sorting out their pitching staff.

This team’s rotation beyond Hyun-Jin Ryu has been a problem all year, and the stretch run provided little clarity. Heading into their three-game wild-card series it looks like the Blue Jays are set to use Taijuan Walker as their second starter, and possibly a limited Matt Shoemaker as their third. A bullpen game could also be in the cards, depending on the freshness of their relief corps.

Whatever the case may be, it’s clear the Blue Jays will have to lean hard on their bullpen if they’re going to make anything happen in the playoffs. Whether the group is responsible for full games — or filling five-plus innings behind starters who aren’t going to turn over a lineup three times — they represent the Blue Jays’ best chance to pull an upset, or a couple.

So, on the precipice of the postseason here is a snapshot of this group, categorized by the greatest currency for relievers: trustworthiness. What follows is a look at the guys who could decide Toronto’s fate, broken up into trust tiers.

If the Blue Jays have a playoff run that continues past the first round some of these pitchers could have to rejoin the rotation, one or two could be swapped for position players, and someone may be replaced by a returning Jordan Romano (who would immediately rejoin the inner circle of trust), but this is where we are with the team’s current roster heading into the wild-card round:

Inner Circle

BALTIMORE, MD - AUGUST 19:  Toronto Blue Jays relief pitcher Rafael Dolis (41) is congratulated by catcher Reese McGuire (10) following the game against the Baltimore Orioles on August 19, 2020, at Orioles Park at Camden Yards, in Baltimore, MD.  (Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Toronto Blue Jays reliever Rafael Dolis hasn't given up a run since Aug. 12. (Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Rafael Dolis: Dolis’s exceedingly slow pitching style may be an affront to any Blue Jays fan raised on Roy Halladay, but his effectiveness in 2020 is undeniable. The right-hander carries a 1.50 ERA, hasn’t conceded a run since Aug. 12, and has given up just one home run all season.

Thanks to the combination of a power sinker and devastating splitter, he misses plenty of bats (11.63 K/9), but those pitches often break out of the zone and he is vulnerable to putting runners on via the free pass (5.25 BB/9). Despite that flaw, this is probably the guy you want on the mound in the biggest spots right now — even if the way he works is downright Ent-like.

Anthony Bass: Considering his inability to strike out hitters (7.03 K/9), Bass doesn’t seem like a high-leverage type, but he’s had manager Charlie Montoyo’s trust all season and leads the team in saves. Bass has thrived because he keeps the ball on the ground at an elite rate (62.7 percent), which allows him to minimize Barrels and post outstanding expected stats.

Relying on a guy whose success depends on soft contact can be dicey, but if the Blue Jays need a double play late, they’d be wise to trust Bass.

AJ Cole: Cole has an extremely similar profile to Bass, except he induces soft flies instead of ground balls. He also struggles to rack up Ks (7.22 K/9), but his ERA is a solid 3.27 and his Statcast numbers are even better than the Blue Jays’ saves leader.

Ryan Borucki: Borucki’s season has been a bit of a roller coaster. He came out of the gate extremely hot, struggled in the middle, and found his footing at the end. Hitters have managed a .100/.250/.250 line against him in September and lefties have slashed just .133/.289/.167 against him overall.

Walks have been a significant issue (6.75 BB/9), but if there’s a marquee left-handed bat or two coming up, this is the guy you want in the game.

Outer Circle

Thomas Hatch: Hatch has been excellent for most of the season and was firmly in the inner circle until recently. His stuff is top-notch, but sometimes his command eludes him, and that’s been the case of late as he hasn’t pitched a scoreless outing since Sept. 6.

At some point Montoyo will probably have to count on him — and based on his arsenal and earlier season work he deserves that — but he’s fallen out of the inner circle.

Patrick Murphy: Murphy gets this placement on the strength of his stuff alone. Although he has just two MLB appearances under his belt, the 25-year-old features a 96.9 mph sinker and a curveball with well above-average movement, both vertically and horizontally.

The Blue Jays are a young team that has no choice but to prioritize talent over experience, and Murphy has the talent to be a difference maker.

Nate Pearson: Like Murphy, Pearson’s case is built on talent alone. He has only started as a professional, is coming off injury, and struggled in his first four MLB starts.

Despite all that, his already-elite velocity could play up to unhittable levels in a short stint. We’re talking about the possibility of heat consistently topping 100 mph. He has the ability to dominate in relief like Aaron Sanchez back in 2015.

Robbie Ray: Ray is notoriously unreliable as a starter, but in a bullpen role it seems safer to try him in a medium-leverage spot. Although his command is — and probably always will be — below average, he’s got a fastball that can tick up to 95 or 96 mph in short stints, and two devastating breaking pitches.

The former All-Star is a wild card, but one with a tantalizing enough upside that he’ll be tempting to use.

Break Glass in Case of Emergency

Shun Yamaguchi  (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
Shun Yamaguchi has shown flashes but lacks the consistency to be trusted in big moments. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

Ross Stripling: Stripling has struggled since joining the Blue Jays, but he pitched four scoreless innings in his last outing and has a strong career track record as a reliever (3.15 ERA in 137.1 innings).

The 30-year-old doesn’t have inspiring stuff, and he’s having a negative-WAR season, so it’s hard to imagine him doing anything but low-leverage work.

Chase Anderson: Anderson is much like Stripling in a lot of ways, and similarly he’s in the midst of a rough season. He has a 15.00 ERA in his last four outings, so it’s not like he’s pitched well recently. His stuff should play in shorter stints, but relying on him in a meaningful moment at this point is impossible.

Shun Yamaguchi: Yamaguchi was exceptional in the middle portion of the season after stumbling out of the gate, but he’s struggling again. The right-hander isn’t as bad as his 6.26 ERA suggests. Not only is his FIP a more respectable 4.97, a seven-run disaster on Sept. 15 threw most of his numbers out of whack. He can miss bats and provide length, but hasn’t shown enough consistency to be pitching in close playoff games.

Just No

Tanner Roark: Roark’s performance has been brutal, and his stuff has fallen off a cliff at the age of 33.

T.J. Zeuch: Zeuch lacks experience, but doesn’t have the stuff to compensate. His only value in a bullpen is the ability to provide length, but the Blue Jays have that in spades already. They’d be best served leaving him off the roster in favour of a position player.

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