Much-maligned Blue Jays bullpen playing critical role in recent success

Editor's note: All stats accurate as of Sept. 7

Giving credit to a team’s bullpen sometimes isn’t the most popular choice, although the Toronto Blue Jays’ relievers deserve a ton of love for how they’ve performed as of late.

And that’s been a pleasant surprise to the fan base, which criticized the front office for not doing enough to address one of its biggest weaknesses at the trade deadline. Now, over a month removed Aug. 2 deadline, things have worked out quite well.

Toronto’s bullpen has registered a 3.16 ERA since Aug. 1, good for seventh in the majors among all 30 MLB franchises, according to FanGraphs. They’ve also posted a 3.71 FIP and have been worth 1.0 fWAR during this span.

Not too shabby for a group that almost all Blue Jays fans wanted to alter drastically at the trade deadline. Of course, the team didn’t stand pat, adding right-handers Anthony Bass and Zach Pop in a deal with the Miami Marlins. But most experts didn’t believe that wasn’t enough.

At the very least, nearly everyone would’ve liked for this team to add one more high-leverage arm to the mix, preferably one that featured swing-and-miss stuff. General manager Ross Atkins probably would’ve been on board with that, too, but that’s not how things worked out.

Some may view that as a failure, but it’s been the opposite for Atkins and his staff thus far, as Toronto’s bullpen has been among the best in the sport recently. It’s played a key role in the team’s 13-6 record since Aug. 18, which ranks fourth-best in the majors.

Since then, the club’s relievers have produced the eighth-best ERA (3.19) and the 12th-best FIP (3.67) among all 30 teams. They’re also tied for the fifth-highest fWAR (0.8).

If not for these impressive results, the Blue Jays almost certainly wouldn’t have strung together a five-game winning streak — including a three-game sweep of the Pittsburgh Pirates — prior to losing to the Baltimore Orioles on Tuesday. That loss wasn’t because of a poor showing from the bullpen, though.

Interim manager John Schneider hasn’t received consistent performances from his offence and starting rotation this season, which isn’t ideal. His bullpen, however, has been much more reliable in the second half, especially since the middle of August.

As any manager will tell you, that’s an incredibly comforting feeling.

One of the most notable changes that has transpired since the trade deadline has been the bullpen’s ability to generate more swings and misses. Ironically, that was a trait the group desperately lacked heading into August.

From Opening Day through July 31, Toronto’s relievers ranked 15th in the majors in strikeout-to-walk percentage difference (14.5 percent), 16th in strikeout rate (23.1 percent), tied for 16th in chase rate (32.0 percent) and tied for 20th in called-plus-swinging-strike rate (27.7 percent).

But since Aug. 18, the team has improved significantly in every swing-and-miss category. As a result, they own the highest strikeout rate (29.8 percent), the second-highest CSW rate (32.1 percent) and K-BB percentage (22.1 percent), and are tied for the fifth-highest chase rate (35.7 percent).

Any time you can increase your bullpen’s strikeout total mid-season, it’s usually very beneficial. And the Blue Jays have made sure to capitalize on this recent development.

Someone that’s had a major impact on improving the club’s relief corps is Bass, who’s currently enjoying the top statistical performance of his career. The 34-year-old has provided much-needed support for a talented group headlined by closer Jordan Romano.

Bass — who also pitched for Toronto in 2020 — has performed to a 1.17 ERA and a 3.64 FIP over 15.1 innings since being acquired. He’s also recorded a 25.4 percent strikeout rate, an 18.6 percent K-BB rate and has been worth 0.2 fWAR.

Overall, the 6-foot-2 righty has logged 61.1 innings between Miami and Toronto this season, posting career-highs in ERA (1.35), xERA (2.70), FIP (2.46), K-BB percentage (19.8 percent) and fWAR (1.5).

Rapidly, Bass has already proven his worth and more to the Blue Jays, solidifying his spot at the back end of their bullpen. While plenty of season remains, it’s probably safe to assume his 2023 $3-million club option will be exercised this winter.

The Blue Jays have also been treated to a brilliant showing from Yimi Garcia, who signed a two-year, $11-million contract last offseason. His inaugural campaign in blue and white has been extremely valuable, resulting in the top performance of his career.

In 50 appearances, the 32-year-old has registered a 2.31 ERA, 2.60 xERA and 3.27 FIP through 50.2 innings. He’s been worth a career-best 0.9 fWAR and has effectively induced swings and misses, resulting in a 23.1 percent strikeout rate.

Garcia has been particularly dominant over his last 10 outings, throwing 11.1 scoreless innings while allowing four hits and striking out eight batters. The right-hander also filled in as the closer versus the New York Yankees on Aug. 20, picking up his first save of the season.

And of course, where would the Blue Jays be without Romano? They certainly wouldn’t be fighting for the top spot in the wild-card race.

The 29-year-old, who’s tied for the third-most saves (30) in the majors, has been sensational all season. His underlying metrics suggest he hasn’t been as lethal as last season, although the difference isn’t substantial.

Last season, Romano finished with a 2.14 ERA, 2.62 xERA, 3.15 FIP and a 23.7 percent K-BB percentage. He was also worth 1.2 fWAR, tied for a career-best.

In 2022, however, the 6-foot-5 righty carries an improved 2.06 ERA and 3.00 FIP but a slightly worse 3.47 xERA and 19.9 percent K-BB percentage. Still, he’s remained a shutdown hurler during critical situations.

Blue Jays closer Jordan Romano has been one of the most effective in MLB this season. (Photo by Cole Burston/Getty Images)
Blue Jays closer Jordan Romano has been one of the most effective in MLB this season. (Photo by Cole Burston/Getty Images)

With a lockdown trio of Romano, Garcia and Bass, Toronto has constructed its own three-headed horse in the bullpen — a trend that’s become very popular across baseball. The Jays also feature plenty of depth beyond them, as well.

Tim Mayza, Adam Cimber, Trevor Richards and David Phelps have all performed well over the last month-plus, providing an extra layer of protection in low-scoring affairs. If everyone stays relatively healthy, this combination should prove beneficial in the playoffs.

Another wave of arms could also contribute down the stretch: Zach Pop, Julian Merryweather, Matt Gage and potentially Nate Pearson. If any perform well this month, they could earn a roster spot in October.

For the most part, though, the Blue Jays' bullpen is fairly set heading into the final four weeks of the regular season. Not everyone can say that, as other teams are battling injuries and attempting to finalize who’s pitching when and in which spots.

Meanwhile, Toronto can continue to utilize its relief corps as a strength, helping it compete against the Orioles, Tampa Bay Rays and Seattle Mariners in the wild-card case.

In the end, it could mean the difference between hosting a playoff series at the Rogers Centre or opening the first round on the road.

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