This Week in Blue Jays: Reviewing a solid performance from Toronto’s rotation

Major League Baseball served up a stiff test for the Blue Jays through the first month of the season.

And, so far, the club is passing it. The Blue Jays finished the month of April 14-8. They began May on a similarly positive note, beating the Houston Astros 3-2 on Sunday to give them the weekend series win (2-1) plus the season series win (4-2) over the defending American League champions.

With another series victory, the Blue Jays remain undefeated through seven series to start the season, which ties a franchise record set in 1992 (and we all know what happened at the end of that season).

The Blue Jays are having this success all while trudging through a minefield of a schedule of 20 games in 20 days, the first 16 of which have been against the Boston Red Sox, Astros and, beginning on Monday, the New York Yankees. Of the team’s 15 wins this season, nine have come in one-run games, which leads the majors.

“Just this whole stretch, it’s been a lot of really good teams and not a lot of breaks for us,” said Bo Bichette, who hit a game-tying two-run home run in the sixth inning to break up a no-hit bid by Astros lefty Framber Valdez on Sunday. “So, just to go out there and be winning games, winning close games, and I don’t think we’re playing our best ball yet. Especially (against) that team (the Astros), they’ve done it for a few years now, played at the highest level and won a lot of really big games. So, obviously, this is not the end goal for us, but I think it’s a good measuring stick.”

And yet another measuring-stick series is incoming with the Yankees, who are riding a nine-game win streak, visiting this week.

The Blue Jays rotation in review

As Bichette said, the Blue Jays haven’t yet reached their potential yet, particularly with their offence. Their hitters have still yet to truly break out. Their 92 runs scored ranks only 16th. But, the Blue Jays are still having success this season, and a reason for that has been solid pitching and defence.

In particular, Toronto’s starting rotation has looked like the quiet strength it was projected to be. Through 23 games, Blue Jays starters lead the American League in innings pitched (115 2/3). Their collective ERA of 3.66 ranks seventh, but no staff has more strikeouts than Toronto’s 116.

Now that we’ve seen the rotation a few times through, it seemed like a good time to review what we’ve seen from the starting staff. Below, are some early observations followed by a comment from Blue Jays pitching coach Pete Walker on all six starters they’ve used so far.

RHP José Berríos

2-0, 5 GS, 24 IP, 4.13 ERA, 4.92 FIP, 1.58 WHIP, 17.9 K%, 8.0 BB%

Berríos couldn’t escape the first inning on Opening Day, but since then his performance has only gotten better. The shorter spring did seem to impact him. If there’s been one iffy trend worth monitoring, it’s all the hard contact he’s been allowing. Through five starts, he has a 53.1 percent hard-hit rate and the average exit velocity off him is 93.1 mph. Both those stats put him in the bottom 6 percent in the league, per Statcast. It’s also led him to have a pretty scary 8.11 expected ERA (xERA). Keep in mind, Berríos has a career average 34.8 percent hard-hit rate and he’s never ended the season with a rate higher than 39.7 percent. In all likelihood, Berríos should get back to inducing more groundballs  — he’s generating about 13.5 percent fewer groundballs this year compared to his career norms — and therefore get more weak contact.

Walker’s thoughts: “He’s starting to get on a roll. I think he’s starting to command his fastball better. I think he’s feeling better with his delivery. His breaking stuff seems to be progressing to his normal action. And I think he feels a lot better about that. And I think with him, it’s just continuing to attack the strike zone, getting strike one. And I think over time, the numbers will be what they should be.”

RHP Kevin Gausman

2-1, 5 GS, 31 2/3 IP, 2.27 ERA, 0.46 FIP, 0.98 WHIP, 33.6 K%, 0.00 BB%

Could you script a better start to Gausman’s Blue Jays career? The right-hander has been outstanding. Through his five starts, he has 41 strikeouts and he’s yet to issue a walk or allow a home run after facing 122 batters. Not only has he not issued a walk, but he’s also only gone to six three-ball counts in his 31 2/3 innings. That innings total also leads all starters in the AL. The splitter has come as advertised, generating 58 swings and misses so far this season. Per MLB Stats, Gausman joins Cy Young (1906) as the only pitchers (min. 20 IP) to begin a season with five straight starts of no walks and no homers allowed in the World Series era (since 1903).

Walker’s thoughts: “He knows what he wants to do. He knows who he is as a pitcher. He knows what he needs to do to be successful. And obviously incorporating that split over the last couple of years, especially, has transformed him into an elite pitcher. And he’s definitely a leader on the staff. But obviously, his fastball command is excellent. He pounds the strike zone, he gets ahead of hitters (and) he minimizes his pitch count so he can pitch deep into ballgames. He does all the things that we want our starting guys to do.”

RHP Alek Manoah

4-0, 4 GS, 25 IP, 1.44 ERA, 3.05 FIP, 0.88 WHIP, 25.8 K%, 7.2 BB %

Manoah hasn’t even been in the majors for a calendar yet — but that’s easy to forget with the way he’s pitched. His ERA currently ranks third in the AL among starters, while his 9.00 strikeouts per nine rank 10th. Both his four-seam fastball and slider have been extremely effective, with batters hitting just .118 against those pitches. What also stands out about Manoah so far has been his tendency to lead the Blue Jays to wins. Manoah was the first starter in the AL to reach four wins. He’s personally won his last eight starts and the team has won in his last 12 straight, dating back to last year.

Walker’s thoughts: “He’s made some adjustments from last year. I think he’s throwing more strikes, to be honest. I think he’s in the strike zone more and drawing more swings from the hitters. They have to honour that. And I think that’s made him even more effective. He’s another guy, he’s getting ahead in the count. He’s using his breaking ball effectively, and he’s incorporated kind of a new changeup that he can utilize to control bat speed to lefties and he’s used it to some righties. I think that’s important, too. I think with him, it’s just continuing to refine his stuff. He’s the ultimate competitor. And it rubs off on his teammates, too. And I think the players obviously love to play behind a guy like that, that exudes that confidence. And I think they know when he’s on the mound, we got a great chance to win a game.”

LHP Yusei Kikuchi

0-1, 4 GS, 14 2/3 IP, 5.52 ERA, 6.59 FIP, 1.91 WHIP, 18.1 K%, 18.1 BB%

It’s never a good sign when a pitcher has identical strikeout and walk rates. Manager Charlie Montoyo has said multiple times Kikuchi is a work in progress. The Blue Jays signed him to a three-year, $36 million deal because they think they can unlock his full potential with some adjustments. But with a shorter spring training, they’re still making those tweaks in-season, which is a challenge.

Already, he’s changed his delivery to tone down his leg kick and make it a more fluid motion. In his most recent start, he scrapped his cutter and was throwing what he called a harder slider. The Blue Jays want him using that pitch and his four-seam fastball more often. We’ve seen two sides of Kikuchi so far this year. One is a pitcher who can handle a tough lineup such as his start against Boston (5 IP, 3 H, 1 ER, 3 K). But too often so far, he’s been the one who struggles to command his fastball. That said, Kikuchi believes in what the Blue Jays are preaching. “Working with Pete and continuing to work with him, I think will bring a lot of success,” he said.

Walker’s thoughts: “We’ve made a little adjustment in the delivery. And we’re just trying to get consistency (in) his delivery. His fastball command hasn’t been quite there. It is a little bit of a process. We’re kind of expediting things a little bit because we know it’s the regular season, so it’s not really a great time to be making major adjustments. But with him, it’s really just trusting his fastball, utilizing his fastball more. We’re adjusting his breaking ball to be just one breaking ball. We’re trying to get away from the cutter, kind of curveball combination and just have more of a slider. And that’s our goal. He showed a pretty good split (on Friday), which was encouraging. It really is just a matter of getting used to his new repertoire and making some adjustments with his delivery but once he starts attacking the strike zone and once we minimize those walks, he’s going to be very effective.”

RHP Ross Stripling

0-0, 3 GS, 13 IP, 2.77 ERA, 1.43 FIP, 1.00 WHIP, 23.1 K%, 1.9 BB%

Stripling deserves credit for being a malleable pitcher, able to swing between the bullpen and the rotation depending on what the team needs. He did it last year and after beginning this season in the bullpen, he’s made the quick transition to the rotation to fill in for the injured Hyun Jin Ryu. Beyond stepping up in a pinch, what’s been notable about Stripling’s start to the season has been the increased whiffs he’s gotten on his four-seam fastball (34.3 percent vs. 22.3 percent in 2021) and slider (31.3 percent vs. 22.6 percent in 2021).

Walker’s thoughts: “I’ve said since Day 1, he can be a very effective major-league starter and he obviously showed us that last year through that long stretch of starts when he was one of our better starters. We’re seeing that again right now. He’s stepped back into that role. He’s very selfless when it comes to being a good teammate and wanting to win. But I think he stepped in admirably and he’s been effective in his starts and given us a chance to win and he’ll continue to do that… His fastball velocity has been up a tick. I think he’s really established his slider. He’s getting into the right part of the strike zone. He utilizes his changeup and his curveball well. I think he’s in a good place right now. And I think he’s confident in all of his pitches.”

LHP Hyun Jin Ryu

0-0, 2 GS, 7 1/3 IP, 13.50 ERA, 6.05 FIP, 1.77 WHIP, 14.3 K%, 5.7 BB%

Ryu did not get off to an encouraging start, as evidenced by his line above. By the end of his second outing, the lefty was complaining of forearm soreness and further imaging showed inflammation. He’s been on the IL since April 17. He’s been making steady progress toward coming back, most recently throwing a live batting practice on Saturday (which Walker commented on below). The Blue Jays were encouraged by the session but obviously the real test for Ryu will come when he’s back on the mound in a real game. Only then will we know, were his early-season struggles due to health or just the continuation of a worrying trend that began late last year?

Walker’s thoughts: “I thought he was great, he was better than I expected. As far as velocity, stuff, location, command, utilization of his curveball, cutter, changeup the action on his changeup. So I think he had a very good live BP today with 60 pitches and very encouraging to see that because obviously over a long season, we’re going to need more than five starters and obviously getting him back in the rotation will be really important.”

Probable pitching matchups this week

Vs. New York

Stripling vs. LHP Jordan Montgomery (0-1, 2.70 ERA)
Manoah vs. RHP Jameson Taillon (1-1, 3.26 ERA)
Kikuchi vs. LHP Nestor Cortes Jr. (1-0, 1.31 ERA)

Vs. Cleveland

Berríos vs. RHP Aaron Civale (0-2, 10.67 ERA)
Gausman vs. RHP Shane Bieber (1-1, 2.45 ERA)
Stripling vs. RHP Triston McKenzie (0-2, 3.71 ERA)
Manoah vs. RHP Zach Plesac (1-2, 3.80 ERA)

Recent series history

The Blue Jays visited the Yankees in New York last month and earned a split in a four-game series. Memorably, Vlad Guerrero Jr. hit three home runs in one of their wins with a bloody finger, including two homers off of Yankees ace Gerrit Cole. Manoah will look to continue his dominance against AL East opponents. Through 13 starts against divisional rivals, he has a 1.88 ERA and batters have hit .152/.247/.239 against him.

This will mark the first time the Blue Jays play the rebranded Cleveland Guardians this season. Last year, the Blue Jays went 5-2 against Cleveland. You may recall Toronto almost swept them on the road but they dropped the second game of a doubleheader in spectacular fashion, surrendering a 4-0 lead in the sixth inning. After going ahead 5-4 in the top of the seventh, Tyler Chatwood walked in the tying run then Anthony Castro allowed the winning run to score on a sacrifice fly. Castro is now a member of the Guardians organization after the Blue Jays traded him for Bradley Zimmer.

Around the farm:

Buffalo Bisons (Triple A)

Jordan Groshans joined the Bisons over the weekend. The top infield prospect missed the start of the season while recovering from an oblique injury he suffered toward the end of spring training. In his first three games, he went 4-for-10 with a double, three walks and one strikeout. Meanwhile, veteran Dexter Fowler was also activated this weekend and joined the Bisons. He’s 5-for-12 with two walks and two strikeouts in his first three games and his play will be worth watching since he’s an interesting depth option.

New Hampshire Fisher Cats (Double A)

Tanner Morris, the Blue Jays’ fifth-round pick in 2019, is off to a hot start in his first taste of Double A. Through 19 games, the infielder is slashing .311/.468/.541 with a triple and four home runs. Morris is a bit of an under-rated prospect, who was ranked 29th on MLB Pipeline’s most recent top 30 list. But he’s a quietly interesting lefty bat in the system. He had a solid year in High A last year, too, batting .285/.381/.401 with a league-best 113 hits in 103 games played.

Vancouver Canadians (High A)

Another great outing for Trent Palmer on Sunday. He was perfect through six innings with eight strikeouts. He threw 50 of his 72 pitches for strikes. His ERA is now 1.69 through four starts.

Shout out to starter Adam Kloffenstein, who on Saturday recorded all three outs defensively in an inning against Hillsboro without a strikeout. It was also his best outing of the season so far, allowing just a run on three hits over five innings with six strikeouts to just one walk. He lowered his ERA from 6.75 to 5.29 on the season.

Dunedin Blue Jays (Low A)

Yosver Zulueta made his first start of the season on April 28. The right-hander missed most of last season after tearing his ACL during his first start of the year. It came after he had just recovered from Tommy John surgery the previous year. Zulueta is a flame-thrower who was touching 97-98 mph with his sinker in his first outing with Dunedin. He pitched four innings, allowing just one hit with a walk and seven strikeouts. Command and control will be key to him harnessing his potential.

Minor League schedule:

Buffalo hosts Durham (TBR)
New Hampshire at Somerset (NYY)
Vancouver hosts Everett (SEA)
Dunedin hosts Clearwater (PHI)

Roster moves:

Rosters officially go from 28 to 26 at noon ET on Monday. After Sunday’s game, the Blue Jays announced infielder Gosuke Katoh and right-handed pitcher Bowden Francis had been optioned to Triple A.

Injury report:

As mentioned, Ryu (forearm) threw live batting practice on Saturday and he faced Teoscar Hernández (oblique), Katoh and Vinny Capra. Danny Jansen (oblique) caught the session. Ryu threw three innings in the live BP. The next steps for the left-hander could include a rehab assignment.

Hernández has been taking part in full workouts last week and hitting during batting practice. He’s nearing his return and will head to Dunedin, Fla., to start a rehab assignment beginning on Tuesday. (Initially, he was going to go to Buffalo, but the weather forecast calls for rain, which prompted the Blue Jays to change plans.) There’s a good chance he’s able to meet the team in Cleveland and be activated for their weekend series against the Guardians. Jansen continues to hit off a tee and was running the bases on Saturday, but his return isn’t as imminent as Hernández’s.

Tayler Saucedo (right hip discomfort) was placed on the 10-day IL on April 30, the day after he was removed from the game. Ryan Borucki (blister) has been playing catch this week.

(Photo of Kevin Gausman: Vaughn Ridley / Getty Images)

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