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Rays Playoff Preview: How to beat the Blue Jays bullpen

Beards and babies — the Blue Jays bounce between newbies and vets

Toronto Blue Jays v Miami Marlins
Robbie Ray
Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

Yesterday afternoon the Toronto Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo announced they were going to lean heavily on their bullpen in games one and three against the Tampa Bay Rays.

With their available options it seems like a natural choice when the Blue Jays have no clear option after Hyun-jin Ryu. Matt Shoemaker who is scheduled to start game one is working his way back from injury where he’s made one three-inning start last week. Taijuan Walker who is scheduled to start game three is part of a group of starting pitchers including Ross Stripling, Robbie Ray, and Chase Anderson who are fine Major League pitchers, but none standout as the clearly superior option.

So how will Montoyo look to play this out? Due to limited workload I expect Shoemaker to be limited to one time through the lineup before handing the ball to one of their left handed options such as Robbie Ray which will give Kevin Cash the option to go to the bench to try to take an early lead.

So what options will Montoyo have at his disposal to get through a three game series?

One time through options

Blue Jays Long Men

Chase Anderson 33.2 24.7% 6.5% 36.5% 28.9% 7.22 6.16 4.09
Robbie Ray 51.2 27.1% 17.9% 24.3% 18.6% 6.62 6.50 5.84
Ross Stripling 49.1 18.2% 8.2% 39.9% 22.8% 5.84 6.15 4.95
Total 134.2 23.4% 11.7% 33.7% 22.4% 6.48 6.29 5.08

All three pitchers have had rough years by almost every metric. Limiting them to one to three innings and one time through the lineup should help some, but these pitchers have track records of MLB success.

These will likely be the first options to provide some length looking to combine with the starter for 4-5 total innings in games one and three.

Chase Anderson

Anderson has been the best of these options this year. He’s gotten a lot of strikeouts and limited walks. The problem has been a propensity to see the ball leave the ballpark. In only 33.2 innings he’s allowed 11 homers. xFIP is confident in solid production if he can limit homers to an average rate.

Anderson has a four pitch mix that he distributes fairly equally. His fastball sometimes gets some sink that he throws roughly 40% of the time coming in the low 90s with a 92.85 mph average. His 12.50% whiff rate on his four-seamer is pretty impressive for a pitch that doesn’t have big velocity.

His splits his cutter, curveball, and changeup usage roughly equal right around 20% per pitch. All have gotten low to mid teen whiff rates. None is a real standout pitch, but as a group are generally effective.

New York Yankees v Toronto Blue Jays
Chase Anderson
Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images

Robbie Ray

Throughout his career Ray has gotten strikeouts with a career rate over 28%. This year he’s gotten his strikeouts, but he’s only as good as his command. For his career he’s walked more than his fair share at 11.0%, but this year that has ballooned to 17.9%. This seems like it could be a nightmare matchup against the Rays who are patient and will accept their walks.

It’s very hard to survive in this league no matter how good your stuff is if you’re walking close to 20% of the batters you face. His upside is by far the highest of this group, but he’s also the most likely to have a complete dud where he can’t throw a strike.

Ray feels like the stereotypical Rays pitcher. His primary pitch is a four seam fastball that averages 93.95 mph and touch as high as 98. His secondary pitches are split between a mid 80s slider and a low 80s curveball.

If the Rays stack lefties against either Matt Shoemaker or Taijuan Walker it feels like Ray will get a shot and either force Cash to bring in the righties off the bench very early or give the Rays batters some tough lefty versus lefty matchups.

Ross Stripling

Ross Stripling has had an unheralded but very solid career as a Los Angeles Dodger bouncing between starter and reliever. For his career he owns a 3.77 ERA/3.89 FIP/3.65 xFIP, but this year has gone off the rails and saw him traded to the Blue Jays.

In 2020 he’s thrown 49.1 innings with a 5.84 ERA/6.15 FIP/4.95 xFIP. His strikeouts have dropped around 5% and his walk rate have gone up around 3%. His homer rate has also doubled to 2.37 HR/9.

MLB: Game Two-Boston Red Sox at Toronto Blue Jays
Ross Stripling
Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

Stripling’s fastball sits in the low 90s averaging 91.97 mph this year. It’s a pitch he throw more than any other but only comes in around 45% usage. The changeup is his real weapon of his secondary pitches. He throws it around 20% and has a whiff rate approaching 20%. He throws a curve around 25% and a slider around 15%. They don’t get that many whiffs. Stripling isn’t a strikeout pitcher, but does get his fair share.

This year his fastball has been victimized the most with a .453 ISO allowed. Rays batters should be hunting fastballs and look to take advantage of any in the zone.

Traditional Relievers - B Bullpen

Plan B Bullpen

Thomas Hatch 26.1 21.1% 11.9% 44.3% 7.7% 2.73 4.14 5.06
AJ Cole 23.1 21.5% 9.5% 32.3% 9.7% 3.09 4.31 5.20
Anthony Kay 21 22.4% 14.3% 37.1% 11.5% 5.14 4.95 5.48
Total 70.2 21.5% 11.9% 38.1% 9.6% 3.57 4.44 5.23

This is the group that will probably get asked to pick up more innings than they prefer if the Rays can take advantage of the opportunities given to them and force Hyun-jin Ryu out of the game early in game two like they have both times they have faced him this year.

If the Blue Jays are successful in pulling this off these pitchers likely see little work as the rest of the pitching staff did enough to win this series. These pitches are not terrible by any means. As a group their ERA is pretty good, but it’s really the walks that can cause major problems.

Thomas Hatch

Thomas Hatch’s season is a bit all over the place. He’s struck out a decent number of batters (21.1%) while allowing very few base hits (.191 batting average allowed), but his 11.9% walk rate has been a major problem. However because of limiting hits his 1.18 WHIP is pretty good.

Hatch has a big fastball that averages 95.91 and has topped out at 98 mph. He throws the pitch roughly half the time and has induced a whiff 11% of the time. He’s had trouble finding the zone with his fastball this year.

His secondary pitches are an upper 80s slider and mid 80s changeup. Both pitches get fair amount of whiffs. The changeup has been the more effective pitch of the two.

MLB: New York Mets at Toronto Blue Jays
Hatch exits
Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

AJ Cole

AJ Cole has bounced around the league with average results. This year he’s ran good by ERA, but his FIP and xFIP is closer to what he has posted in years past. His 21.1% strikeout rate is down 4-5% from his rates in 2018 and 2019.

Last year he was successful by finding the zone with an above average 6.8% walk rate, but this year that has moved back to a below average 9.5% rate that is in line with his career rates.

Cole is mostly a two pitch pitcher leaning on a four seam fastball that averages around 94 mph and a low-to-mid 80s slider. He will sprinkle in an occasional changeup that is in the upper 80s.

Anthony Kay

Anthony Kay is a coverted starter that has moved to the bullpen in a 1-2 inning role. His problems this year mostly surround an elevated 14.3% walk rate.

Kay relies heavily on a mid 90s fastball that he throws over 60% of the time. His secondary pitches are evenly split between a mid 80s changeup and high 70s curveball.

Traditional Relievers - A Bullpen

These are the pitchers who are going to throw important innings late in the game if it is close. They might be needed for all three games. Due to the structure of this round that is something these pitchers have done and a role they are capable of filling.

This is where injuries really hurt the Blue Jays. Ken Giles went down to Tommy John surgery after missing most of the year. Two of their big breakout bullpen pieces have been missing time recently and were left off their playoff roster in Jordan Romano and Julian Merryweather.

With them this bullpen would be a lot scarier and these A bullpen options would likely get pushed to their B bullpen options and the idea of facing two bullpen days would be far more worrisome as a Rays fan.

Plan A Bullpen

Rafael Dolis 24.0 31.0% 14.0% 50.0% 5.3% 1.50 3.02 4.01
Anthony Bass 25.2 21.0% 9.0% 62.3% 8.7% 3.51 3.62 4.33
Ryan Borucki 16.2 28.8% 16.4% 35.0% 5.6% 2.70 3.61 4.91
Nate Pearson 18.0 19.8% 16.0% 38.5% 21.7% 6.00 7.19 6.04
Total 84.1 25.1% 13.6% 48.3% 10.8% 3.31 4.21 4.72

Rafael Dolis

Rafael Dolis has had a great season and stepped into the closer role picking up five saves over the last couple of weeks.

As with all their top options walks have been a problem. He’s struck out 31.0% of batters, but he’s also walked 14.0% of batters. This feels like the Rays will pose problems for Dolis.

Dolis’s primary pitch is a sinker that sits around 95 mph and hit 98. His secondary weapons are a slider and splitter that sit in the mid 80s. His sinker doesn’t get very many whiffs (5.63% this year), but both of his slider and splitter sit at 24.71% and 23.75% respectively.

Anthony Bass

Anthony Bass has been a journeyman reliever making his Major League debut in 2011. He’s played for six teams. For his career he’s been a fine reliever with a 4.32 ERA/4.12 FIP/4.20 xFIP, but not one of the teams top options. His 3.51 ERA and 3.62 FIP are solid, but the injuries have forced him into a bigger role.

His sinker sits in the mid 90s. He throws the pitch nearly 55% of the time but has a whiff rate of less than 4%. He’s primarily a two pitch pitcher with a mid 80s slider being his primary weapon with a whiff rate near 25%. He will occasionally throw a splitter that comes in around 3% pitch usage.

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Washington Nationals
Ryan Borucki
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Ryan Borucki

Ryan Borucki’s job will be to get the Rays big left handed bats out. This year he’s posted a 28.8% strikeout rate but also walked 14.0% of batters faced.

This year Borucki’s velocity has spiked as he’s moved from the rotation to the bullpen. After his average fourseam fastball was thrown at 92.37 mph in 2019 that has gone up to 94.93 mph in 2020. Even with the increase in velocity it hasn’t really caused any additional swing and misses as the whiff rate went from 2.47% to 2.79%.

His secondary pitches are where he gets his whiffs. His mid 80s sliider has generated a 37.27% whiff rate and his mid 80s changeup has gotten a 14.7% whiff rate.

Borucki has limited damage to left handed hitters allowing a .125/.275/.156 line and .219 wOBA. While he has allowed a very low batting average and ISO the problem is a 17.5% walk rate that has allowed left handed batters to get on base.

Nate Pearson

The numbers for Nate Pearson don’t look like they belong here, but I placed him in this group due to upside. Coming into the season he was ranked a top ten overall prospect in the game by most sites that cover MLB prospects.

Pearson fourseamer averaged 96.37 mph this year and maxed out at 101.50 mph. Despite the velocity it hasn’t gotten that many whiffs with a 7.5%whiff rate. His primary secondary pitch is a mid 80s slider that he throws nearly 35% of the time. His 15.27% whiff rate isn’t great, but it’s not terrible. His third pitch relies mostly on batter handedness whether it’s a mid 80s changeup or a upper 70s curveball.

Pearson is the x factor for this bullpen that has seen major injuries down the stretch.

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Baltimore Orioles
Nate Pearson (24) reacts after giving up a home run in the first inning against the Baltimore Orioles at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

The Rays should get plenty of opportunities to put crooked numbers on the board mostly do to a staff that walks too many batters facing off a team that walks more than most teams.