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Blue Jays Pitching Isn't All That Different From 2013

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Last year's pitching was considered a disaster, while this year's has been considered encouraging. But what's the difference?

Jim McIsaac

Right now Blue Jays fans are in an awkward place where the season is essentially over, but it is difficult to reflect on it all because it's technically incomplete.

Even though the games to come mean nothing, the fact games and still being played indicates that analysts and fans can't distance themselves from the 2014 enough to contemplate it objectively just yet.

That being said, what we can do is take bits and pieces and put them under the microscope.

The piece I intend to evaluate today is this team's pitching. This season the pitching has been thought to have improved significantly. Mark Buehrle has exceeded expectations, Marcus Stroman has emerged as a future core player and Drew Hutchison has been healthy and flashed major potential coming off Tommy John surgery.

Adding in promising bullpen cameos by Aaron Sanchez and Daniel Norris, it's easy to see why the Blue Jays look like a team that could be built on pitching down the line. With core of position players all at ages that suggest we've seen the best of them already, they are going to need to be.

It's far too early to say whether Blue Jays fans will treated to the young rotation that appears so appealing on paper. Norris and Sanchez still haven't started at the major league level, and Hutchison hasn't proven himself as anything more than an average starter just yet. The threat of injuries always lurks, and the reality is that we are not nearly as good at projecting baseball as we think we are.

What we can do is examine how the pitching has been in 2014, a year where the Jays have begun to transition towards a more youthful and exciting staff. Compared to last year's train wreck that included 20 starts from Esmil Rogers, 16 starts from zombie Josh Johnson, and even a few innings from Ramon Ortiz, this season should look a lot better.

The thing is that it doesn't.

Year

K/9

BB/9

HR/9

BABIP

LOB%

GB%

ERA

FIP

xFIP

2013

7.49

3.10

1.21

.293

72.3%

44.0%

4.26

4.20

4.04

2014

7.46

3.08

0.95

.296

72.4%

42.9%

4.07

3.99

4.02

Since last year almost nothing has changed in terms of strikeouts, walks, men left on base, or hits on balls in play. The only significant difference is the decrease in home runs allowed. It explains why there are gaps in ERA and FIP while the xFIP is the same.

This season Jays pitchers have allowed home runs on 9.3% of fly balls compared to 12.3% last year. That's the only thing separating these lines. If we considering HR/FB a largely luck-driven stat, as xFIP does, it means there has been no improvement in this teams' pitching in 2014.

That's probably taking things too far, but it is interesting that everything else is so similar. A lot goes into whether fly balls are home runs and there is definitely skill involved, but HR/FB is not a very stable statistic and it can be prone to fluctuation. When it comes to balls leaving the yard, the Jays were probably a bit unlucky in 2013, and they have likely been a bit lucky this season.

The numbers are surprising because they seem to contrast the common perception that Toronto took a real step forward with its pitching. That perception is tantalizingly close to the truth, but it's not quite there.

In reality, the Jays did make significant strides this season, but only with their starting pitching.

Year

K/9

BB/9

HR/9

BABIP

LOB%

GB%

ERA

FIP

xFIP

2013

6.99

3.02

1.36

.302

70.5%

42.6%

4.81

4.59

4.23

2014

7.17

2.75

0.97

.298

72.7%

42.3%

4.03

3.95

4.00

While home runs once again play a big factor, there is encouraging improvement across the board here. The problem is that growth has been nullified by the steep decline of the bullpen.

Year

K/9

BB/9

HR/9

BABIP

LOB%

GB%

ERA

FIP

xFIP

2013

8.31

3.22

0.96

.278

75.5%

46.5%

3.37

3.82

3.74

2014

8.02

3.75

0.91

.293

71.8%

44.1%

4.15

4.05

4.05

It's easy to forgot how good the Jays bullpen was in 2013 considering how awful the season was. Last year's group benefited from some luck on balls in play, but still completely outclassed this season's unit.

Given that this season no longer matters in any kind of competitive sense, these numbers are a curiosity more than anything else. The progression of this rotation is more meaningful to this team's future than the regression of its bullpen.

Relievers are volatile and fungible assets and the fact this bullpen did not maintain its 2013 performance level in not altogether surprising. This offseason Alex Anthopoulos will have some tinkering to do with his relief core, but ultimately it will be a footnote compared to the work that needs doing with the lineup.

Much more important is the emergence of Stroman and Hutchison's year. Jays fans are also right to be excited about the fact Sanchez and Norris are on the horizon. While a dominant young rotation in the near future is far from a certainty, the fact the chance for it exists is pretty amazing.

But it hasn't happened yet. In fact, it's a long way from happening. This year's pitching staff is closer to the garbage fire of 2013 than the utopian unit of the future.

A lot closer.