It’s been a topsy-turvy season for the Blue Jays, to say the least. Injuries have hammered both the rotation and the left side of the infield. Toronto got off to a 6-17 start and looked cooked before April was even over. Since then, the Blue Jays have been one of the hottest teams in baseball, going 22-12 and starting to fulfill some of the promise that you might expect from a team coming off two straight ALCS appearances.
A surprising source of consistent excellence throughout all that turmoil, though, has been the work of two previously lightly-regarded relievers.
Toronto got veteran righthander Joe Smith on a dirt-cheap deal—one-year, $3 million—over the winter for good reason: He wasn’t particularly good last season, regressing in the strikeout, walk and home-run departments and posting fielding-independent numbers equivalent to a 4.99 ERA. This year, he’s given the Jays' bullpen a huge lift, filling the void created by Jason Grilli’s season-long meltdown to chalk up 42 strikeouts (with just two homers allowed) in 27 ⅔ innings. His slider has been especially devastating, with opponents slugging below .200 against it.
Another righty, Ryan Tepera (pictured above), has also been quietly effective. Joe Biagini sliding into the rotation created a need for more high-leverage relief work, and Tepera has jumped into that role. He's punched out a career-high 26.4% of the batters he’s faced, and although he’s stumbled a bit lately by allowing runs in two of his past three outings, his previous 13 appearances were incredible: 19 innings, 22 strikeouts, six hits, five walks and nary a single run. The secret to Tepera’s success has been simple. Last year he threw a first-pitch strike just 44.7% of the time; this year, he’s up to 58.4%. That’s made Tepera more unpredictable later in the count: He’s generated a string 19.7% whiff rate with his cutter and 15.4% with his slider.
If the Blue Jays can get Aaron Sanchez back and healthy soon, they could move Biagini back to the 'pen, creating a trio of dependable righthanders to set up Roberto Osuna—even if Grilli never gets his cheese back. That development could be a subtle source of strength for Toronto, as it tries to claw its way back into the AL East race.