Hatch set up for big step forward in 2021

March 1st, 2021

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Take a glance at on the mound, and you won’t know if the Blue Jays right-hander is getting knocked around or dominating.

That’s by design. We can measure every inch of Hatch’s game, from velocities to spin rates and pitch movements, but there’s no number to quantify a pitcher’s mound presence. When you speak with members of the Blue Jays’ coaching staff and front office, though, that’s the part of Hatch’s game that comes up most often.

It’s difficult for a pitcher to develop this. There are times when a hotheaded pitcher might try to reel in their emotions on the mound, but that’s never been an issue for Hatch. This is his normal, and so far, that normal is working.

“I think I've always been pretty stoic, but I think it's sort of a front,” Hatch said Monday. “I feel zoned in, so I don't really show emotion too much, and I kind of block out all the noise, which was pretty easy without fans. Hopefully, as we get going throughout the year, we can get some fans and that'll bring a new obstacle. but I've always kind of had that mindset and the ‘no emotion showing’ type of attitude.”

This was evident when Hatch debuted as a rookie in 2020 out of the bullpen, pitching to a 2.73 ERA. This came after pitching coach Pete Walker, who’s not one for empty praise, highlighted Hatch as the “sleeper of the group” in Summer Camp. That shifted a bit more attention to the right-hander at the time, but still, he wasn’t widely expected to be a legitimate piece of the club’s bullpen for a postseason run.

“I think a poker face can kind of play into your hand a little bit because hitters can smell blood in the water sometimes,” Hatch explained. “So even when it's not going good if you can keep the same demeanor, you know it doesn't give them as much confidence as, as if you weren't showing that emotion.”

Hatch has thrown one session of live batting practice and expects to throw one more before getting into live game action this Spring Training.

From there, Hatch embodies the creative pitching approach that the Blue Jays will need in 2021. Just like Julian Merryweather, Trent Thornton, Anthony Kay and several other young arms, Hatch is being stretched out as a starter, but he has the ability to pitch out of the bullpen. Bouncing back from a 60-game season to a full 162 games will test the pitching depth of staffs across baseball, so hybrid roles and piggyback strategies will be used by many clubs to keep their best arms fresh.

“He’s certainly a guy that has the ability to be an outstanding Major League starter with his mound presence, his arsenal; his pitches are all Major League caliber," Walker said earlier in camp, "so I'm really excited about this guy.”

Hatch’s fastball averaged 95.5 mph in 2020 and while that could dip a bit if he’s not maxing out in a bullpen role, it’s still a plus weapon with an above-average spin rate. He leaned heavily on his changeup, too, which the Blue Jays encouraged, and that pitch gave hitters fits last season.

The next step for Hatch is the development of his curveball, which he’ll continue to tinker with through camp. This is a pitch that the Cubs pushed him to work on prior to his trade to Toronto, and the Blue Jays have done the same, so he understands the importance of that pitch to his long-term development.

Hatch’s role will matter here when it comes to pitch selection, but for now, he’s saying all the right things.

“We’re building up, and then if my role ends up being in the 'pen, I’m perfectly happy that way as well,” Hatch said.

This pitching staff needs upside, and given how they’re expected to spread innings across arms this season, the Blue Jays will take it wherever they can get it. Hatch will have every opportunity to exceed expectations for the second straight season, and he has plenty of support from within the organization. Much has been asked of the young right-hander, but he hasn’t flinched yet.