TORONTO -- The highest compliment you can pay a big-league bullpen in July is: “We haven’t talked about them much.”
At this time two years ago, the Blue Jays’ bullpen was handing out free wins to whoever wanted them, becoming enough of a weakness to keep MLB’s most dominant lineup out of the postseason. It took over as the story of the season for a stretch, and when the relievers are the big story, that’s never good news.
This 2023 group is drastically different, though. More than just “solid,” which best describes the ‘22 bullpen, Toronto’s relievers have stubbornly held the door open for the offense, a task that’s taken some patience in a season where every game feels close. They did that again in Saturday afternoon’s 5-2 win over the D-backs at Rogers Centre -- long enough for the bats to catch their second wind and secure the club’s seventh win in eight games.
“They feed off one another,” said manager John Schneider. “They’re really aware of what they’re doing and they’re taking pride in what they’re doing. When you have a good team and a good bullpen, it’s a luxury to put those guys out there. We love our starters, too, but we love how they’re picking one another up.”
ERA: 3.58 (5th)
K/9: 10.09 (3rd)
BB/9: 2.87 (1st)
What’s gone right?
All of the above.
The Blue Jays’ bullpen ERA captures just how good this group has been overall, but the walk and strikeout numbers are most impressive. For years, this group lagged behind the rest of MLB when it came to velocity and swings-and-misses, but it has finally closed that gap.
Jordan Romano has put himself in position to take a run at Duane Ward’s franchise record of 45 saves (1993), even with the recent scare of some left lower back discomfort that the Blue Jays are now calling “day-to-day” after he was unavailable in Saturday’s win. The Swanson trade has worked as planned, too, by not only adding a top-end bullpen arm, but stretching that back-end group even further to cover days like this one.
But let’s not forget the most underrated contributor on this roster: Tim Mayza.
Mayza has pitched to a 1.17 ERA with 32 strikeouts and just five walks over 30 2/3 innings this season, operating as the bullpen’s lone lefty. Most of these innings are coming in the seventh and eighth of close games, too, when every out counts.
“I feel like lefty relievers, unless you’re a closer, they often get overlooked,” Schneider said. “There’s a good handful around the league who are really good at that job. Timmy is having an elite year. I know saves get recognized big-time as a reliever or strikeouts, things like that. He just quietly goes about his business and gets outs. You cannot overstate how important he’s been for us.”
Next ... the Trade Deadline
No bullpen is ever “good enough,” especially when the postseason rolls around. Good teams have one closer. World Series teams have a handful of them.
The Blue Jays should get Chad Green back within the month, as he will ease into live game action soon following Tommy John surgery a year ago. But there’s room for more. Toronto could chase upside with a back-end arm or choose balance by looking for another lefty. Both Swanson, with his splitter, and Richards, with his changeup, can neutralize left-handed hitters, but Mayza has been the lone lefty all season.
“A lot of teams are built differently with multiple lefties,” Schneider said. “If that turns out to be the case, that would be a great luxury to have. You could get a guy in for the sixth inning before Tim Mayza in the eighth. We’ll see how it shakes out, but for now we feel comfortable. Obviously, workload catches up at some point like it has with Swanson, but if there’s an add, we’ll be ready for it.”
Any addition would be a luxury addition for a rare Blue Jays bullpen that’s being talked about for the right reasons.