TORONTO -- Ask Joe Biagini to explain his success in 2019, and you’ll be taken on a journey. There are musings on the meaning of life mixed with hair care tips, captivating explanations of pitch mechanics mixed with references to Taylor Swift song titles. The eccentric Blue Jays reliever is unpredictable in conversation, but he’s becoming the opposite on the mound.
The 29-year-old enters the weekend with a 3.42 ERA, some generous praise from his manager and a value to the club that could soon be made even more clear by the departure of one or more back-end relievers before Wednesday's Trade Deadline.
It starts, for Biagini, with the certainty of his role after two years spent shuttling between the bullpen and rotation. That draws out his introspective side.
“I would like to say that I have learned and grown through that experience. It has taught me a lot about what things are important and what things aren’t, what things you have to manage, things you shouldn’t care about,” Biagini said. “It’s also helped me a lot mentally in terms of coming to grips with the proper perspective I should have about this whole Major League experience.”
The Blue Jays have asked a lot of their bullpen in 2019, and it hasn’t often been the same ask day to day. Biagini typically lives around the seventh inning, but his ability to wear multiple hats -- which Biagini would surely take literally, leading to another act of prop comedy -- has deepened his impact on the bullpen as a whole.
“He’s a horse, man. He’ll pitch every day,” manager Charlie Montoyo said. “He’ll pitch two innings, one inning, face one guy. He’s that guy. He’s really important in our bullpen.”
The biggest change that Biagini has made is an increase in his cutter usage. He has thrown that pitch 32.7 percent of the time in 2019, up from 15.2 percent in 2018, according to Statcast. Opposing hitters own just a .179 average with a .284 slugging percentage against Biagini’s cutter, the name of which is open to interpretation.
“I call it a slider. You can call it a cutter. I would say, technically, it’s probably in between a slider and a cutter,” Biagini said, later adding that “you can call it what you want to, I think there’s a song by that title.”
To start, Biagini took his cutter grip, which he described as a four-seam fastball grip with his wrist supinated a few degrees. As he explained it, Biagini held his right hand straight out and rotated it clockwise, repeating “supinated” as he confirmed the anatomical term to himself, to make his palm face more upward, like a thumbs-up motion.
That was the origin story of the pitch. His next step, which came late in 2018 and carried into the offseason, is what made it good.
“Then Pete [Walker, pitching coach] came to me last year and said that he wanted me to get a little more depth on it because sometimes it would stay flat,” Biagini said. “Hitters could kind of stay on it. So I basically just combined that thing that I was doing with my wrist with a curveball grip, which helped me get on the seam a little more and get a little more downward movement.”
Paired with his curve, which ranks among the best in baseball when it comes to Statcast’s vertical movement vs. average at +8.5 inches, Biagini now has two useful breaking pitches to pair with his sinker and changeup.
There are still strides for Biagini to take, as with any reliever. His home run rate is above where it was in 2016, and left-handed hitters still own an .875 OPS against him this season, which has limited him. Knowing where he stands when he gets to the ballpark each day is an important start, though.
“You can take a deep breath and be like, ‘OK, this is my thing,’” Biagini said. “I’m trying to perfect that.”
Catcher Luke Maile strained his left oblique and was placed on the 10-day injured list, retroactive to July 24. Prior to Saturday’s game, he left the cage in batting practice noticeably uncomfortable and favoring his side. The Blue Jays recalled Reese McGuire from Triple-A Buffalo. He flew in from North Carolina and arrived in time to catch the final inning of Saturday's 10-9 12-inning win over the Rays.