After tough '20, Pearson eyes precision

Blue Jays' top prospect 'ready to compete,' attack hitters

February 26th, 2021

Like a long-drive specialist wowing the crowd at the driving range, could always open eyes with his triple-digit fastball.

In golf, the saying goes, “Drive for show, putt for dough.” In baseball, the same principle applies.

With that in mind, Pearson -- the Blue Jays’ top prospect and the No. 10 overall prospect according to MLB Pipeline -- is quickly learning that a big fastball isn’t enough to succeed at the big league level.

"In the Minors, you can definitely get away with being a little erratic because velo can help you out at times,” Pearson said. “I definitely learned up in the big leagues you can't just throw it hard and spray it a lot. You've got to attack the zone and throw strikes and competitive pitches more often than not.”

The 2020 season saw Pearson break into the Majors, but the year was anything but smooth for the 24-year-old. After throwing five shutout innings in his highly anticipated debut, Pearson pitched to a 9.53 ERA over his next three starts before landing on the injured list with a flexor strain in his right elbow.

“It was kind of scary at first, because I really haven't had any elbow issues since my surgery in high school,” Pearson said. “When I started getting some elbow fatigue, I didn't really know exactly what it was. I'd really only experienced one thing with my elbow -- a stress fracture -- and I knew it wasn't that.”

Pearson returned to make a single relief appearance in late September, then struck out five over two scoreless frames in his lone postseason appearance against his hometown Rays.

“Just being able to be healthy and helping the guys compete, obviously it didn't go the way we wanted, but I think we definitely showed a lot in those two games,” Pearson said. “The fact that we made the playoffs was pretty amazing. We're excited for this year, and we're going to make a run at it, for sure.”

If Toronto is to make a return trip to the postseason, Pearson figures to be a big part of that equation. The right-hander is competing for a spot in the rotation behind ace Hyun Jin Ryu. As long as he’s healthy, Pearson figures to open the season as one of the Blue Jays’ five starters.

After being drafted in the first round in 2017, Pearson blazed through the Minors, advancing from Class A Advanced Dunedin to Triple-A Buffalo in ‘19. When he arrived in the Majors last season, his velocity wasn’t enough to dominate hitters the way he had at every level to that point.

“There were a lot of times last year where I would just waste pitches, whether it be just non-competitive fastballs up or whatever,” Pearson said. “So it's all about making those competitive misses as well. Attack the zone, and when you miss, don't miss by a drastic amount. Let that miss serve something. If you're going in on a guy, you want to miss in rather than missing over the plate. If anything, you miss in and you brush them off the plate; it serves a purpose. That's the little stuff that I've been learning as I mature up here.”

Manager Charlie Montoyo believes that the trouble Pearson experienced in 2020 will serve him well as he embarks on his first full year in the Majors.

“You don't want a kid to struggle, but by him struggling, he learned a lot,” Montoyo said. “That was a big lesson. It doesn't matter how hard you throw in the big leagues; if you don't get ahead, if you don't locate your pitches, you're going to pay the price. He did [pitch well] a little bit, which was good. It was a big lesson, he learned from that and he's making the adjustment right now.”

“I felt like early last year I was trying to paint corners too much rather than just fill up the zone with strikes,” Pearson said. “That's exactly what I did when I came back off the IL; just attack hitters and fill up the zone. That's what I plan to do in Spring Training and that's one of my goals; throw competitive pitches and strikes. I think good things will always happen when you're filling up the zone.”

Pearson still has that blazing fastball, but he knows that throwing over 100 mph isn’t going to be worth much if he can’t get hitters out regularly.

“That's always a good thing to be known for, but I want to be known as a great pitcher,” he said. “Right now, what that looks like for me is pounding the zone and throwing strikes. That’s what I'm really focusing on. When I'm attacking the zone, velo is going to be there.”

Pearson threw just 101 2/3 innings in 2019 – the Blue Jays were very careful in managing Pearson’s innings workload – and another 18 in ‘20, so it remains to be seen just how many innings Toronto allows its prized pitcher to throw this upcoming season. Pearson appears ready to do whatever is asked of him, saying he’s “up for everything” that comes his way. His goals for ‘21? Throw as many innings as he can and stay healthy while doing so.

“I'm excited just to pitch in the big leagues this year, whatever role that may be,” Pearson said. “Whether it's starting behind Ryu or coming in after him in a relief appearance, whatever it is -- rotation or bullpen -- I’m excited for whatever it is to come, and I'm ready to compete.”