Blue Jays fans who think lefthanded starter J.A. Happ will be coming back to Toronto next season ought to lay off the happy juice.
The Yankees are reportedly already in discussions to bring Happ back in 2019. And, really, why would Happ — even though he has professed his love for T.O. — want to return to a club that is still on the front half of a rebuild?
The good news, a second lefthander for the Jays rotation in 2019 is emerging. There’s Ryan Borucki, who has all but cemented a spot in the rotation next season, and there’s Thomas Pannone, who is breaking the door down to become the Jays’ second starting lefty next year.
Following his performance against the Tampa Bay Rays on Saturday — picking up his fourth win after throwing 6.2 innings and allowing just two runs — Pannone improved his record to 4-1 with a 3.58 ERA. At a starter at the Rogers Centre, the rookie lefty is 3-0, 1.80 ERA.
“He’s certainly doing everything he can to be in that mix,” said Jays pitching coach Pete Walker. “He’s been great aside from the one blip in Baltimore (Aug.28) on that extremely hot day — I think the heat index was about 104F.
“He throws strikes, he works fast, he has a lot of deception with his delivery and he draws some (awkward) swings from hitters – they seem not to recognize his fastball very well, it gets on them quick for 88 (MPH) and definitely plays up. There’s certainly swing and miss with it and some weak contact. So early indications, watching him pitch, he’s certainly been a pleasant surprise. And I got to be honest, he’s probably doing a lot better than I expected.”
Pannone was suspended for 80 games to start the season after testing positive for a PED (he denies knowingly taking a banned drug) and the Jays recalled the native of Cranston, R.I. from Triple A Buffalo on Aug. 9 and he has appeared in 11 games, including five starts. The key to his success has been his sweeping curve ball, which Walker said has been even better than reports out of Buffalo indicated. What it does, said Walker, is make his fastball that much more effective.
“He’s kept hitters off balance with it, it’s got great shape to it and it’s not just getting left-handers out, it’s gotten right-handers out as well,” said Walker. “We’re trying to keep it a little tighter, where it carries over the strike zone a little bit more and I think that’s important to draw swings. If it’s kind of loopy and gets a little big, it’s easier to read and to lay off. But when it’s in the strike zone it kind of forces those hitters to react and to swing at it, and he’s been able to do that.”
Walker said left-handed starters can certainly have solid MLB careers without an over-powering fastball and from what he’s seen from Pannone, the 24-year-old pitcher is capable of becoming a solid everyday starter. Pannone throws his change (Ave. 83 MPH) and curve (70.8) to work off his four seam fastball (88-89 MPH), and it’s been a winning formula this September.
Next season, Pannone hopes to add a cutter to the mix, giving him another weapon.
“I went into spring training this past year with a good feel for the cutter and kind of lost it and I want to get that back,” said Pannone.
“I’d be able to use that to go in on righties and then change up away to righties, go away to lefties, just utilize both sides of the plate with that and it will open my other pitches for more avenues to go down.”
Pannone said the best part of pitching for the Jays late this season is the confidence it’s given him heading into next year.
“I just want to finish off strong and go into the off season and continue to grow as a pitcher and come into spring training in a great spot and compete for a job on this team,” he said.
“Obviously hitters will make adjustments (with Pannone) as they get to see him more often, so it will be a little bit tougher without having that over-powering fastball,” said Walker.
“But you know there is such a thing as pitch-ability and he seems to have that. He locates his fastball well, he changes speeds well, he keeps the hitters off balance and again he has some deception in the delivery. So there are left-handers who survive and pitch a long time — quality, left-handed control pitchers — though he’s a little bit different because that fastball plays up.”
Pannone has defied the odds once already, successfully switching from being an outfielder to an every day pitcher in junior college. And now he’s determined to establish himself as quality MLB starter.