There are bad seasons, and there are Tanner Roark's 2020. The Jays, of course, signed Roark last offseason to a 2-year deal worth $24MM, and it certainly appeared at the time that they were the only team to have offered that second year to make that happen. It seemed like a not-entirely-unreasonable decision at the time, as he had been worth 2.0 fWAR or more in each of the previous 4 seasons, averaging 32 starts and 180+ innings each year over that span, and the Jays were pretty light on pitching. Even if the results to that point were uninspiring (ERA/FIP/XFIP all in the low-to-mid 4's, save for a 2.89 ERA in 2016 that did not align with the peripherals), there wasn't any real reason to expect that he'd be anything other than the walking talking pitching cliche of the 90's: every fifth day, try and keep the ball on the ground, don't walk too many guys, go 6 innings and give the bullpen a bit of a rest.
That obviously went to shit this past year, to the tune of a 6.80 ERA, a 6.86 FIP and a 5.84 xFIP over 11 starts and 47.2 innings pitched. All the obvious caveats apply here, whether it's Covid-19 stopping and starting spring training, or pitching in some bandboxes, or the juiced ball, or small sample or whatever other things people are pointing to as reasons for anybody having poor seasons last year. I'd imagine the boost in lineup quality from the move from the NL to the AL didn't help either, as his trade from Cincinnati to Oakland in 2019 didn't exactly turn out too well.
I can't imagine I'm alone in kind of just wishing he were gone at various points this offseason, dreaming up scenarios where he or Randal Grichuk could be moved elsewhere as a way to offset salary coming back in a Kyle Hendricks/Kris Bryant or Castillo/whomever deal, but it's become increasingly clear that such a thing ain't happening as we've gotten deeper in to the offseason and in to spring training, especially now that Taijuan Walker has signed with the Mets and James Paxton has signed with the Mariners and Castillo, Hendricks, Marquez and whoever else remain not on the Blue Jays. Nope, Tanner Roark is staying, and he's going to start, at least for now.
Given the short season last year, the league leader in innings pitched was Lance Lynn, at a whopping 84! It seems kind of hard to imagine, then, that there's going to be any significant number of guys going out there and throwing 200+ innings this year, especially considering the way teams are beginning to use their bullpens for multi-inning relief and not letting starters see the top of the order three times. Teams have 1458 innings (162*9, give or take extras, 7-inning double headers, home team leading after the top of the 9th, position players pitching, etc.) of pitching to cover in a given season, so guys who have the ability to take the ball every fifth day and throw 6 innings have a little more value in a 162 game season than they would in a 60-gamer, and doubly so when everyone is working on a reduced workload.
As Andrew Stoeten mentioned in his last mailbag, there are a solid dozen or more guys in the organization right now that we can expect to see start games (or provide bulk after an opener) behind the obvious Hyun-Jin Ryu. Ryu himself isn't a model of health, never having thrown 200 innings in a year, and having missed all of 2015 and most of 2016. Groin, arm, and neck issues have troubled him in the past, even if he's stayed injury-free and wildly effective these past couple years. Still, I think we can only earmark him for somewhere around 150 innings max this year after throwing 67 in 2020, which leaves 1300 innings to spread out across the rest of the pitching staff. Nate Pearson's workload will need to be managed too, given his youth and last year's injury. Aside from Ryu and Pearson, there's really not all that much high-upside to be had. It seems, rather, than this Jays rotation is going to be built more on depth than on octane, and the more I think about it, that may not be such a bad thing? Or at least I'm trying to put a positive shine on this. A few bullet points, in no particular order, in regards to the general state of pitching for 2021:
- I'm expecting offence to be up league-wide this year; if, as we assume, pitchers are throwing fewer innings on an individual level, the innings that they would have otherwise thrown still need to be thrown by someone, and thus the overall quality of pitching is likely to go down. If we were able to project a top-of-the-rotation arm to throw 200 innings in previous years, but only 175 this year, those 25 innings in lieu won't just go to the 2nd best pitcher in the rotation, they'd go to the 6th or 7th or 8th option, since the 2nd-5th options are all seeing reduced workloads too. It seems as though the Jays will use Merryweather, Waguespack, Kay, Hatch, Murphy, Stripling, Zeuch, etc., at least at the start of the year to carry that extra bit of weight via options and taxi squad, spot starts and piggybacks, openers and bulk guys. If so, they're likely to at least try to rely on Roark and Ray as guys who can throw 5 or 6 innings with a single roster spot, instead of using two players to do the same amount of work. A mid-to-high 4's FIP over 150+ innings will carry a lot more value this year than it would in others as teams shuffle through more and more (and therefore worse) pitchers as the season goes on. The value of a guy like Roark (pre-2020 version) is a lot lower in a 60 game season with less wear and tear to the rest of the staff, fewer appearances, and thus fewer opportunities for injury, especially if we're going through the season with 26-man rosters (as opposed to starting 2020 with 30 guys, and dropping to 28 after 2 weeks).
- MLB has deadened the ball, which would reduce homeruns if it weren't for the above. Roark's issues in 2020 were largely HR-related (not to say his entire body of work didn't suck), giving up HR's in 20.3% of flyballs, vs. an 11% rate for his career (xFIP essentially regresses HR/FB to league average and is best used over small samples; whereas Roark saw a big increase in HR/FB relative to his career numbers in 2020 over a 47 inning sample...). Per Statcast, it doesn't appear that he was horribly unlucky in that regard by any stretch, and it's hard to say what effect a deadened ball will have on that. Per this thread on twitter, the KBO ball change in 2019 resulted in approximately -9 feet per fly ball, for whatever that's worth. That's not going to do much for a 438 foot bomb, but at least shallow homers can turn in to deep fly outs or doubles. Looking at this past year, I really only count one ball that might not have otherwise been a HR, and that was a Yankee Stadium special, so the revisionist Roark version of this point is probably moot anyway. Still, I think a decrease in HR's (that is to say, a baseline decrease before accounting for the lowered quality in pitching) will likely be met with an increase in doubles and triples, as opposed to all those balls becoming fly outs. I don't think these two bullets are in contradiction of each other, and I do believe that the reduced workloads per pitcher is why the league chose to try and deaden the ball a bit.
- With reduced workloads and the 3-batter minimum, I think we're going to see relief appearances get longer, whether that's measured in terms of pitches thrown, batters faced, or innings pitched. If a team is down 8 runs after 4, I think it's more likely we see someone take one for the team and throw 3 innings out of the bullpen, then get demoted in favor of a fresh arm, whether it's mid-year or in the first week. A derivative of this, I believe, is a guy like Roark having a longer outing than he otherwise would have in order to try and save the bullpen from a length standpoint where Montoyo might typically have a quicker hook in regular situations.
- I'm going to assume that the Jays go with 14 pitchers to start the year (and probably throughout the bulk of it), of whom Ryu, Ray, Roark, Yates, Matz, Dolis, Phelps, and Chatwood can't be optioned. That leaves 6 flexible roster spots (unless one of the above is DFA) to spread across the remaining pitchers on the club. If Jordan Romano pitches anywhere near how he did last year, there's one fewer. The 40-man roster is at 39 after Payamps was claimed by Boston, so adding another pitcher (Odorizzi?) or any two of Francisco Liriano, AJ Cole or Tim Mayza to the equation would require either a DFA or a 60-day DL placement. The DL stint is less of a thing that can be controlled, but a DFA, especially of a player who can reject an outright assignment seems like something that would ideally be avoided in a year where pitching depth is going to come at a premium unless it's a clear upgrade.
- If Roark does stink to begin the year, I'd expect him to go to the bullpen for a little while for mop-up innings, rather than be DFA'ed immediately. Innings are important this year, and even in-season upgrades are going to have the same innings concerns.