It has been famously said that at its peak, the sun never set on the British Empire. In a sense, the same could be said yesterday of the Blue Jays' pitching empire yesterday. With the exception of a couple hours in the mid-to-late afternoon, from noon to midnight eastern, a significant pitching prospect was on the mound somewhere across the North American continent for each of four minor league affiliates in action yesterday.
In total, the four -- Daniel Norris, Jairo Labourt, Chase De Jong, and Clinton Hollon -- didn't disappoint, combining for 25 innings, allowing just 6 runs on 14 hits, striking out 27 against 10 walks. On an individual level, the outings ranged from the sublime to more mediocre, so without further ado let's dive into each of them.
Chase De Jong
For the second time this year, De Jong accomplished the rare feat in low-A ball of taking the mound in the 9th and attempting to go the distance. Unlike the first time when he departed with 2 outs, this time he finished the deal, turning in his perhaps his best start of the year. While the stat line was excellent -- one run on four hits (all singles), three walks against 10 strikeouts -- in my view it actually understates how good the outing was.
To start with, Bowling Green not only featured a strong line-up with five recent top three round draft picks, but one with four lefties and two switch hitters, matching up favourably against the righty De Jong. Of the 35 batters he faced, only four saw more than four pitches. Two of those were back-to-back walks in the 4th innings when De Jong lost the zone briefly, and which resulted in only run allowed. That's especially remarkable considering he struck out 10, requiring a minimum of three pitches.
There was one batter who had De Jong's number, as 2013 first rounder Nick Ciuffo went 3/4. In fact, no other Bowling Green hitter had a hit after the first inning. As the game went on, De Jong only got stronger, and from the 5th inning onwards he struck out six while inducing six groundouts and two popups (only three other balls in air) the third and fourth times through the order.
On the evening, I counted 98 pitches, so but for the run allowed De Jong would have had a Maddux. De Jong filled up the strike zone with 71 strikes. Most of the strikeouts came on his fastball, with a few on change-ups, a total of 12 whiffs working out to a contact rate just over 70%. I have been very happy to see the Jays let their minor league prospects go deeper into games and throw more pitches, and this start is a good example why. Having to turn over a lineup three and four times is important developmentally, versus facing them once or maybe twice with a 50 or 65 pitch limit as some prospects have been limited to in recent seasons past.
With the win, Lansing clinched a playoff spot as the first half wraps up this weekend. After a tough 2014, De Jong has been stellar repeating the Midwest League in 2015, outside of a couple rough starts in early May. He's especially turned it on the last three starts, allowing three runs on 13 hits in 23 innings, striking out 27 against six walks. It would seem to me that a promotion to Dunedin is in order, and it wouldn't surprise me if this was his last start with Lansing. If so, what a way to go out: certainly a bang and not a whimper
Hollon took the mound in Vancouver's season opener in against Salem-Keizer, and the 2013 second rounder was apparently determined not to be outdone by his 2012 second round counterpart De Jong. Coming back from Tommy John surgery that wiped out his 2014 season, Hollon was electric, throwing five shutout innings, allowing two hits while striking out seven and walking just one. He threw 67 pitches on the night, 10 of which were swings-and misses.
In the first inning, Hollon struck out three, but a passed ball on one extended the inning. He threw 26 pitches, with each of the last three batters seeing six or more pitches after Hollon struck out the first two in seven pitches. In no other inning did he throw more than 11 pitches. His fastball registered at 92 on the stadium gun, and his curveball seemed particularly sharp as he wracked up over half of his whiffs on the breaking ball. His second last batter of the outing was Francisco Pujadas, who swung over three straight curveballs. He was also able to drop in the curve for some called strikes as well.
Overall, it was a great debut and most importantly, both the stuff and command seemed to have come back after the surgery, even if the Salem-Keizer lineup wasn't exactly replete with quality prospects.
Norris posted a status quo start, with his premium raw stuff making up for command and control wobbles. He pitched into the 6th, departing after allowing back-to-back-to-back singles with 1 out that plated a second run. His fastball was mostly in the low-90s, touching 95 once. He allowed 2 runs on 6 hits, with 2 walks against 7 strikeouts.
He got plenty of swinging strikes, but also frequently missed his spots, which ran up his pitch count when he missed the zone, and resulted in hard hit balls when he missed in-zone. Only 58 of his 101 pitches were strikes, and that only got him through 23 batters. This continues a pattern for Norris since he sent to Buffalo, and unfortunately he doesn't seem to have made the adjustments to get him back to the bigs.
On the other side, former Jays draftee Aaron Nola made his AAA debut, going 5 shutout and striking out 7 of his own. He looked very polished, and while he wasn't able to always put the ball right on the corners, he missed in good spots. Unless Philly keeps him down for service time reasons, I doubt he'll be in AAA for long. Adam Loewen followed him and pitched 2 innings, all outs via the K. Hopefully he can carry that over to the Pan-Am Games.
Labourt had easily the worst outing of the four. The stat line doesn't look too bad, three runs allowed in 5.2 innings, just two hits (one a home run) but four walks against three strikeouts. However, all three strikeouts were looking (hitters on both sides were not too happy with strike zone), and I only counted one swing and miss among Labourt's 96 pitches.
Labourt's velocity was down, as he topped out on the stadium gun around 90 MPH, multiple readings passed along in the high-80s. Of course, stadium guns need to be taken with a big grain of salt, but it's consistent with the struggles yesterday. Control was obviously a problem, as Labourt only threw about 55% strikes and fell behind twice as many batters as he got ahead.
The results could have been a lot worse, but for Labourt's ability to generally prevent hard contact, and some lucky breaks when he did (a hard hit line drive double play with the bases loaded). Unfortunately, this type of outing has been too typical of Labourt's season this far, as he alternates between being untouchable and not being able to find the plate. Of course, he's still only just turned 21, so there's plenty of time for him to figure things out.