By Wesley James
Blue Jays from Away
Now that the season is over, the crew at Blue Jays from Away will take a look at the Blue Jays one by one and review how each player’s season went, whether he met expectations (or not) and look at how he fits into (what we think of) the Blue Jays’ plans going forward.
The 2017 season started early for Roberto Osuna. Chosen to represent his country, Mexico, at the World Baseball Classic, Osuna was excited. He had been named the 2016 Mexican Athlete of the Year and he finally had a chance to show his home country what he could do in person.
In his only WBC appearance against Italy, Osuna fared poorly. Coming in to nail down a four run lead, he quickly gave up four hits, five runs (four earned), and two walks, while striking out only one in 2/3 innings of work before getting pulled and taking the loss. Mexico wouldn’t make it to the next round. Not quite the WBC he had hoped for.
The first two hits he surrendered in his WBC appearance were doubles off his usually impressive four-seam fastball. Whether that pitch was still as effective would be the story in 2017.
The regular season started much as the WBC had for Osuna. In his first six appearances with the Blue Jays in 2017, he blew three saves. Most worrying, however, was that his fastball velocity was down. In previous seasons Osuna’s average fastball velocity hovered at about 96.6 mph, but in April of 2017 it dropped to 95 mph. Many believed that because of the WBC this was to be expected, as Osuna never really had a normal spring training to build up his arm.
Any worries were soon placed in deep hibernation. Between April 27 and July 27, he absolutely dominated. In 38 appearances he walked only four total batters, recorded 25 saves, allowed only four runs, blew only one save, and made the all star team for the first time. If he kept it up he could even make a run at the Blue Jays all time saves record of 45.
That streak finally ended on July 18 when he gave up two hits and three runs to the Los Angeles Angels. Two nights later he gave up three hits and two runs, blowing another save. Two clean appearances followed and then against the Houston Astros on August 6 he had his worst showing of the year, giving up four runs on five hits over 2/3 of an inning before getting pulled.
[Ed. Note: Of course, Osuna's much publicized battle with anxiety occurred last season although his streak of scoreless innings went through this disclosure in late June.]
“What’s wrong with Osuna?” articles began to appear. Now it appeared the Blue Jays’ blown saves record was in danger of falling. Over the next two months he would earn 11 more saves, blow three and finish the year with 39 total saves. Through it all his fastball velocity remained lower than previous years.
It’s important to note that Osuna was better than ever in 2017. Despite the 10 blown saves (third worst in team history), he had better than average stats in most other statistical categories. His WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched) was a career low 0.859. He struck out 83 and walked only nine, both career bests, while giving up only three home runs in 64 innings. Those are outstanding numbers. The only number that didn’t improve was his ERA. In 2015, he finished with a 2.58 ERA and in 2016 he finished with a 2.68 ERA. In 2017 his ERA was 3.38 but even some of that number can be attributed to Toronto’s overall poor defence. [Ed. Note: His career-low FIP and xFIP of 1.74 and 2.57, respectively, seem to support this statement.]
So, is there anything to worry about? Absolutely not. There might, however, be some things to keep an eye on.
Osuna has been with the Blue Jays’ top club now for three seasons. He’s known for having one of the best four-seam fastballs in the game - it generates lots of ground balls and lots of swing and miss relative to other players. In 2015, he threw his fastball 67 percent of the time and in 2016 he threw his fastball 59 percent of the time. That changed in 2017 when he began to rely heavily on a newly developed cutter.
In 2017, he threw his four-seam fastball only 32.7 percent. His second most used pitch was the cutter at 27 percent of the time. In June, July, and August he used his cutter even more than his fastball. There’s switching things up to keep batters off balance and then there’s what Osuna did in 2017 - a reinventing of his entire approach - begging the question: what is causing his drop in velocity and why the increased cutter use?
Work load doesn’t seem to be the cause and even if he was being overused during short periods, it wouldn’t explain why his average velocity was down from the beginning of the year. Perhaps his history with Tommy John surgery is a factor, and he’s simply not selling out the way he used to as a way to save his arm.
But what if the cutter itself is slowing down his fastball velocity? There is a belief in some baseball quarters that the cutter itself leads to decreased fastball speed. Most notably, Dan Duquette has banned the cutter in Baltimore’s minor league system because he believes it limits development of both the curveball and the fastball, leading to bad habits and decreased effectiveness overall. Rick Peterson, the Baltimore Orioles former director of pitching development explained how this might happen to Foxsports.com in 2015 this way: “What happens is you start to get off to the side of the baseball (with your grip) and then you’re no longer consistently behind the baseball.” That was all stated before Statcast wizardry, so it’s been a difficult theory to prove or disprove, even for Fangraphs.
Osuna used his cutter most between June and August. His fastball velocity did bottom out in July and August, getting as low as 90.7 mph in one appearance on August 17 but generally averaging 93.7 mph that month before rebounding in September.
Again, not something to lose sleep over but definitely something to watch.
Osuna is in his first year of arbitration eligibility. He will make $5.3 million this year and is under club control through the 2020 season.
2017 Regular Season Grades
Jay Blue: B
Wesley James: A-
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The 2017 Toronto Blue Jays Minor League Handbook is now available! Visit the Handbook page for more information!