For a little while, Toronto was showing the makings of a playoff contender. An excellent offense built around Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion and a surprisingly solid starting rotation built around Brandon Morrow kept the Blue Jays in games for the first half of the season. But the injuries piled up, particularly on the pitching end, prompting inquiries into record-setting injury paces.
And so it’s no surprise the Blue Jays own one of the league’s worst starting rotations with respect to WAR (+4.5, 26th) and ERA (4.81, 25th). From beneath this heap of pain and misery, however, one bright spot has emerged. Rotation replacement Carlos Villanueva continued to groove as a starter Thursday against the Rays, tossing six shutout innings with seven strikeouts and just six baserunners allowed.
Perhaps taking part in a shutout of the Rays isn’t terribly impressive any more — the Jays’ effort Thursday marks the ninth time Tampa Bay has gone scoreless this season. But this is a lineup reinvigorated by the presence of Evan Longoria, with a sharp 108 wRC+ in August largely thanks to the power of their centerpiece.
Villanueva did it with a fastball that didn’t tip 91 all night. But for Villanueva, it isn’t about the fastball, and it never has been. He threw just 26 four-seamers out of his 93 pitches, sprinkling in 16 sinkers, 21 changeups, 15 sliders and 12 curveballs; on the season, he’s gone to the fastball just 33% of the time (43% if you include the sinker), sprinkling the slider and changeup just over 20% and the curveball 10%.
Villanueva’s reliance on the breaking stuff is nothing new. “He loves his changeup,” Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis said after a July 15 loss to the Jays’ righty. “If he thinks you’re aggressive or trying to jump on a ball, you’re going to get a changeup or a back-foot curveball.”
The Rays didn’t have many opportunities to be aggressive Wednesday night — Villanueva threw 63 strikes in 93 pitches, making just 12 pitches in hitters’ counts. But when he got behind, Villanueva stuck with his typical plan — as Kipnis suggested, the changeup was popular in these few hitters’ counts:
Villanueva went to the changeup six out of 12 times, and although it did give up one of his five hits, he also earned a swinging strike, two called strikes and a foul tip, all coming on pitches within the strike zone. Overall, Villanueva’s changeup was excellent at keeping hitters off balance and allowing him to progress further into (or towards) pitchers’ counts — of his 21 changeups, 17 were strikes, and of those 17 just two were put in play.
Villanueva has his ERA down to 3.10 on the season and although his 4.01 FIP is just average, his fielding independent numbers have been significantly better out of the rotation — a 3.82 K/BB and a 3.53 FIP. Villanueva’s arsenal is well suited to a starting role — his changeup allows him to keep hitters of both sides at bay, and his ability to mix in other pitches to go with his fastball allows him to get outs without lighting up the radar gun.
For a summer that saw Jays pitcher after Jays pitcher falter on the mound or fall to an injury, it’s refreshing for those north of the border to see a bright spot in the rotation. Villanueva looks like he can more than help Toronto patch together its starting rotation as they head into 2013.