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Inside the mind and numbers of Blue Jays pitcher Chad Jenkins

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Chad Jenkins speaks with Bluebird Banter about what makes him tick as a pitcher.

David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

In a lot of ways Chad Jenkins is an easy guy to overlook.

He doesn't have the blazing fastball or knee-buckling breaking pitch that makes scouts salivate or the peripherals to get the sabermetric types enthralled. However, what he does have is a sinker that Aaron Hill once famously described as a "bowling ball".

Using this sinker and solid command, the Blue Jays righty forces opponents to put the ball in play against him, and so far the results have been pretty good. Although his fielding-independent numbers have not been stellar, he has posted a 3.25 ERA in his first 97 innings in the major leagues, including a 3.03 mark as a reliever.

Those ERA totals are the statistics he pays attention to the most.

"The number I look at is ERA," Jenkins said via a phone conversation with Bluebird Banter, "I’m pretty aware what my ERA sits around for the most part."

The 27-year-old also looks at one other stat very closely.

"Another thing is when I come into a game with runners on base I don't want them to score," he said. "I know if I leave a game with runners on base I hope my teammates pick me up.

"So for me the big number I care about is keeping my inherited runners from scoring."

In his career so far, Jenkins has done an excellent job of preventing those runners from coming in, allowing a measly 22% to score. One of the reasons why he is a good candidate for situations with runners on base is his ability to get ground balls.

Last season his ground ball percentage reached a career-high 57.3%, something he attributes to increased sinker usage.

"The biggest part for me was my pitch selection," he explained. "Last year I just threw a lot more sinkers than I ever have before in the big leagues."

Jenkins self-evaluation is right on the money as his sinker rate absolutely exploded in 2014.

Along with his increasing in ground ball rate, Jenkins did a fantastic job making batters chase at pitches outside the zone. Last season hitters swung for 39.8% of his pitches outside the strike zone, the seventh-best rate in baseball among relievers with at least 30 innings pitched.

Jenkins puts this phenomenon down to the movement on his pitches.

"If I can start my sinker in the zone and run out that helps me a lot. I get in trouble when I start it out of the zone and it runs back in. As long as I can start it in have it go out that’ll help my numbers in that category."

Beyond feel alone, the sinkerballer likes to examine the ball while it's in flight.
"I like to see just one seam spinning through the air. I know it sounds weird, I want to see just one seam spinning in a circle."

When hitters go chasing the right hander's pitches what they normally end up with is weak contact rather than strike outs. In Chad Jenkins's career he has allowed a batting average of .187 on pitches outside the strike zone. When hitters go chasing his sinker they play right into his hands and often wind up as yet another ground out victim, something that gives him immense satisfaction.

"I love the ground out, because [if I get one] I know that I did my job right."

Even though he lives and dies by the ground ball, Jenkins admits that he's not immune to the allure of the strikeout.

"I also know that the stat people love the strikeout," he said. "So when I do string together a couple I get pretty excited."

While statistics are useful for making evaluations after the fact, during the game Jenkins relies on different indicators to judge how well he's pitching.

"For me it's a feel thing. I know if the ball is coming out good. If it's coming out good I know where it's going and that's when I feel like I'm at my best."

Beyond feel alone, the sinkerballer likes to examine the ball while it's in flight.

"I like to see just one seam spinning through the air. I know it sounds weird, I want to see just one seam spinning in a circle... unfortunately sometimes I cut it and the ball is rotating sideways."

Looking ahead to to next season Jenkins has his sights set on something far simpler than statistics or the rotation on his pitches.

"A good 2015 would just be to stay healthy," he said. "Last year I was on a good track and then September came and now I have three screws in my hand."

Jenkins heads into the season as an important cog in a relief core with some question marks, even after the signing of Ronald Belisario on Thursday. While he has faith in his fellow relievers, he understands why fans have been clamouring for offseason additions.

"It's been a good offseason for us, but one thing we haven't really touched on is the bullpen. There hasn't really been a lot done in the bullpen as a whole. It doesn't really bother me. We have some young guys down there. I'm one of them. I've been in the big leagues for parts of three seasons but I've never had a full season. There's reasons for people to be skeptical I'm sure."

Jenkins could have a role in erasing some of that scepticism if he can build on a solid 2014. Not only did he have a strong season overall, but he also catapulted himself into the hearts of Jays fans with six innings of extra-inning shutout ball against the Tigers on August 10. Bluebird Banter readers deemed that performance the team's best pitching appearance of the year.

The Chattanooga native still considers "The Catch" his claim to fame as far is the public is concerned...

...but he thinks of the six-inning relief performance as the highlight of his young career.

"It's weird, the game started off kind of slow then it started steamrolling all of the sudden really quickly.

"Everything happened so fast. I was sitting in the bullpen and the phone kept ringing and it wasn't my name. Since [Todd] Redmond went early I knew that I was going to be last.... It was weird because I don't think I've ever been a part of that situation before."

That outing may be tough to top for Jenkins in 2015, but it seems likely he'll have his fair share of chances to do so.