TORONTO -- In his rookie season, the Blue Jays saw the true Nate Pearson twice.
The first came in his Major League debut, when Toronto’s No. 1 prospect threw five scoreless innings with five strikeouts against the Nationals on July 26 in Washington. Then, fast forward to Pearson's final outing of the season, when he returned from injury and struck out five Rays batters over two perfect innings in Game 2 of the American League Wild Card Series.
In between those two bright spots, Pearson hit some turbulence -- which was relatively new for one of baseball’s most dominant young arms -- and hit the injured list with right elbow tightness in late August. Regardless of what the Blue Jays do between now and Opening Day 2021, though, the 24-year-old might be the single biggest variable on this roster when it comes to the club’s overall success.
The main lesson Pearson will take from Year 1 into Year 2? Well, it’s simple.
“I learned that, obviously, you can’t just throw it right down the middle,” Pearson said during a recent appearance on MLB Tonight.
Pearson, who recently took part in the MLB/MLBPA Rookie Program, already knew this, of course, but Major League hitters are a different challenge than who he faced in Double-A and Triple-A. In the Minor Leagues, Pearson could have his "B" game and miss spots but still blow his 100-plus mph heat by opponents. In The Show, those get hit. Hard.
“Last year, I tried to be a little too fine and paint corners too much rather than attacking the zone,” Pearson said. “After I came back from my injury, I really took that to heart and tried to attack guys. It really worked out.”
Pearson’s game plans did seem rigid at times in his rookie year, often leaning heavily on a certain pitch combination out of the gates before making a scheduled adjustment the second time through the order. He’s at his best when he’s attacking, though. When Pearson is aggressive, he’s the towering, hard-throwing bulldog that front offices dream of.
The club is expecting Pearson to take his rotation spot and run with it this spring, and even though he’s coming off 101 2/3 innings in 2019 and just 18 in the regular season in '20, he’s been able to build his workload outside of game action, and the Blue Jays trust his work. The question, then, becomes whether Pearson can dominate immediately, or if there will be growing pains along the way.
Having Pearson at his best behind Hyun Jin Ryu and the potential of another offseason addition is one way the Blue Jays can jump from fringe contender to a legitimate postseason threat. Plenty more needs to happen, too, but year after year it’s clear that clubs need multiple pitchers capable of taking over a game in the playoffs, not just one. Pearson can be that pitcher.
The Blue Jays are young, but they’re no longer rebuilding. The time to win is today.
“We’re only going to get better each year,” Pearson said. “We got a taste of the postseason and we’ve got young guys with Bo, Vlad and Cavan. We’re going to get better each year with more experience. It’s going to be a lot of fun the next couple of years.”
Pearson listed command and strike-throwing as his top priorities for this offseason, and while walks rarely hurt him in the Minor Leagues, 2020 taught the big right-hander that he needs to pinpoint his spots, not just hit the zone. If Pearson can do that, pitching like a legitimate No. 2 instead of an ultra-talented rookie learning as he goes, the Blue Jays will win several more games because of it.