With the All Star break only a few days off now, we notice that the only representative of the Jays there for the actual game will be pitcher Marcus Stroman. Fitting perhaps, as while the Jays have long been classed as a “hitting machine”, historically they’re more respected for their pitching (4 Cy Youngs) than their hitting (one batting championship, two MVPs both of whom were position players.) So, carrying on, back to our ongoing look at the best Blue Jays ever. Today, more pitchers.
LEFT-HANDED STARTING PITCHER:
First, let me say I never quite understood separating southpaws from righties. After all, a good pitcher will have to face hitters on both sides of the plate and get them out, and they are doing the same thing, albeit looking at a different side of the crowd doing so. But I’ll divide the starters into left and right, because it’s customary… and gives us a chance to talk about a few more greats that way.
Watching Key in the ’80s or ’90s would bring to mind the word “unassuming.” He was quiet off the mound and didn’t blow batters away on it. As his pitching coach Al Widmar said at the height of Key’s success, he had an “average fastball.” But also “a good sinker and curveball, and he knows how to change speeds…his control is outstanding.” Key was a finesse pitcher, one who could thread a needle with his pitches and outthink hitters.
He came up as a bullpen arm in 1984, and joined the rotation the next year, being a regular up until sipping champagne after winning the ’92 World Series. He then went on to some good years with New York and Baltimore, but he logged more innings for the Canucks than the other teams combined. Through the 9 years, 8 in the starting rote, he went 116-81 with a 3.42 ERA over 1696 innings and 317 games. He also nabbed 10 saves in the ’84 rookie year.
Evidence of his finesse rather than raw power is that he only struck out 944- about 5 per 9 innings. He got the ground ball outs and relied on great infielders to let him win, and win regularly. As well as his aforementioned control. He walked a mere 404, not much more than one an outing. He was a two-time All Star, in 1985, and 1991, but surprisingly not in 1987. That year he balloted behind only Roger Clemens in Cy Young voting, going 17-8, with a league-leading 2.76 ERA through 261 innings. His WAR that year was a remarkable 7.4! On his Toronto career, it was 30. He only had one losing season here and logged 200+ innings 6 times.
He left Toronto on a high note, with the World Series, during which he won one game he started and the clinching Game 6, in which he got 4 outs from the bullpen as the game dragged to 11 innings. He had a 3.03 ERA in 7 post-season games for the Jays.
RIGHT-HANDED STARTING PITCHER
Trying to pick the best Blue Jays starting pitcher is always a great invitation to a lively debate over Molsons’ at the hot stove in Canada. Roger Clemens name usually comes up at some point, and with good reason. He easily won Cy Youngs both years he pitched for Toronto with some of the most dominant stretches we’ve ever witnessed. In all he went 21-7, 2.05 and 20-6, 2.65 in ’97-98, and led the league in wins and ERA both times as well as setting a club record with 292 strikeouts in ’97 when his WAR was a mind-boggling 11.9! Since the team struggled to win 76 that year, it suggests they would have played sub-.400 baseball had he not signed with them. But- two years does not a career make. And there’s that cloud of steroid suspicion hanging over his head not to mention the rather cold way he all but forced his way out of Canada and onto the Yankees roster for 1999 (demanding a trade while dangling a loophole in his contract that would let him walk.) Clemens may go down as the player whose popularity lagged furthest behind his talent in Blue Jays history.
Which leaves us with two options. Dave Stieb or the one I pick, “Doc.” Both were intense, both were always up for Big Games and both may have been the best pitchers of their decade.
Stieb didn’t overpower like Halladay would, being smaller (an average 6′, 180 guy) who Sporting News noted as having a good sinker, a high fastball and an “awesome slider, a curveball and a changeup and (he) isn’t afraid to throw any of them for strikes.” He was hard on himself and hard on teammates who made mistakes (Lord knows what he would have done if he had pitched in the age of social media!) … but he was outstanding.
A consummate Blue Jay, he was a cornerstone of the rotation from 1979 through an injury-shortened 1992, pitching just 4 games after that in White Sox black-and-white before retiring. Many Toronto fans will remember the post-script. Invited to the spring training in ’98 to give some pointers to young pitchers, he looked better than some of the kids when he was showing them how, and at age 40 came back and pitched out of the Jays bullpen that year!
Stieb was a 7-time All Star, and after a crazy number of no-nos lost in the 9th inning, finally authored the first (and only to this point) Jays no-hitter in 1990. That year he won 18, a career high. Many of his career numbers are best for Toronto: 175 wins (134 losses for the record), a WAR of 57, 103 complete games. From 1982 through ’85, he hurled 260+ innings a season and in that latter season, his 2.48 ERA not only led the league, it was 71% ahead of the average.
As great as all that is, I give the nod to Halladay for several reasons. While Stieb’s overall numbers in some areas are better, he pitched in an era when 250 innings wasn’t unusual for a starter, and he never quite found ways to win as effectively as Roy did. Not to mention that, while fans admired Dave and liked him, he never quite “owned” the city in the way Halladay would two decades later.
The late, great Roy Halladay was a player that could have walked out of a Hollywood script. Highs, lows, and perseverence all in one handsome package that ended in a tragedy. After debuting in 1998 to great fanfare (and a close-to no hitter in his second game), he came back down to the ground with a so-so ’99 rookie campaign followed by a 2000 that was one for the history books, it was so bad. Suffice to say a 4-digit ERA is never a good thing. Demoted to the lowest levels of the minors the following spring, he was given an ultimatum: work with us, listen to the coaches, and you’ll be a star, or else just walk away. We know which he did. By mid-summer he was back in Toronto and finished 5-3 with a 3.16 ERA. He pitched with Toronto through 2009, after which (as every Toronto fan remembers) he was traded to the Phillies where he threw a perfect game in summer, then a no-hitter in his first ever playoff game.
Through the years in Toronto, he pitched 313 games, 287 of them starts, going 148-76 with an ERA at 3.43. Subtract that infamous 2000 season and you get 144-69, 3.20, which would rank him clearly tops among starters who’d been around here for more than two years. 2047 innnings, 1495 strikeouts and a miniscule 455 walks, as well as 49 complete games helped him be a 6-time All Star with the Jays and win 20 games twice. He won the 2003 Cy Young, when he was 22-7 with a 3.25 ERA, leading the league in wins and with 266 innings. He was second in Cy balloting in 2008. Through his time in Toronto, he had 4 years with an ERA under 3.00, three 200 K years. He seemed a throwback to a different era as well. At a time when bullpens were expanding and 6 innings was denoted as the mark of a “quality” start, Doc wanted to go out and finish what he started, most times appearing aggravated if he was pulled from the game. He led the league in complete games 5 times and there were years when he single-handedly pitched more CGs than the entire staffs of half the teams in the league.
His 2.41 ERA in ’05 was 85% better than the AL average and through his years with the team, his ERA was 33% better, another reason that gave him the slight edge of Stieb who posted approximately the same ERA but did so in a lower-scoring decade. Likewise, Halladay’s innings logged stood out in the 2000s; Stieb pitched a ton as well but then every pitcher worth his salt did so! There were years Stieb was behind teammate Jim Clancy in IP, although he almost always outshone Jim.
Put it all together and statheads rate Roy’s WAR as 48.4 for Toronto, including 8.1 in 2003 alone… a year when the team won 86 total. On the team leaderboard, Halladay is second in strikeouts, wins and shutouts, third in starts and innings and second to only Roger Clemens in winning percentage. His “adjusted ERA” (comparison to average) is best among starters with 500 or more innings… and he’s first in the hearts of Toronto fans. While steely and irritable on the mound, off the field he was pleasant, great with fans and a proud resident of the city. Although there are a few who are miffed his family decided not to have him in a specific cap on his Cooperstown plaque, most recognize it as a tip of the cap to the class act that he was. He’d want to give credit to all those who helped him get where he was both in Toronto and Philly and wouldn’t want anyone to feel snubbed.
Next time out, we’ll wrap up this “best of” feature.