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Over the weekend, the Blue Jays clinched their first trip to the postseason since 1993, and in the process positioned themselves to claim the division title in the coming days. Both feats appeared to be beyond the Jays’ wingspan in mid-July, when their playoffs odds were closer to slim than certain. In some ways, though, Toronto was always the team most likely to go on a torrid run because this squad, more than any other, is a study in improbability.

Think about all the unlikely developments that had to occur over the years for Toronto to reach this point: Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion had to turn into middle-of-the-order threats at ages 28 and 29; Josh Donaldson, Troy Tulowitzki, and David Price had to be made available through trades, each at prices that didn’t prohibit the Jays from getting involved; Marcus Stroman had to heal from a spring knee injury at a superhuman pace; and so on, until R.A. Dickey, Russell Martin, Marco Estrada, Chris Colabello, and the half-dozen other key figures in this implausible season have their far-fetched background stories told and marveled at.

Of course, every successful team has players who exceeded expectations or took unpromising paths to the promised land; these Blue Jays just seem to have more of them. In addition to sheer quantity, the Jays possess a special quality of players who swished their one-in-a-thousand shots at their present-day circumstances. Consider Roberto Osuna, the 20-year-old closer who has defied the odds on multiple occasions to become Toronto’s answer to their once-difficult ninth-inning question.

Osuna entered spring training a year and a half removed from Tommy John surgery. He was around, in Andrew Stoeten’s words, “to soak up the major league atmosphere, to better understand what it takes to be a big leaguer, and partly, no doubt, to make an impression,” i.e. to be seen and appreciated, but not heard and carried north. Yet Osuna’s performance foiled those plans. He cracked the Opening Day roster, and threw his first big-league pitch before ever appearing in a Double- or Triple-A game.

Even then, Osuna wasn’t satisfied. He outlasted and outperformed the Jays’ other choices at closer, taking over the role on a permanent basis in late June. (His first save, it should be noted, was of the ultra rare six-out variety.) All along, Osuna has compiled one of the best age-20 seasons the game has seen from a relief pitcher in close to 40 years:

Lowest DRA- Among 20-Year-Old Relievers (30 IP; max 5 GS), 1950-2015


Pitcher

Season

IP

DRA-

Victor Cruz

1978

47.3

29

Roberto Osuna

2015

68

65

Manny Sarmiento

1976

43.7

74

Terry Forster

1972

100

75

Dan Schneider

1963

43.7

87


The difference in eras illustrates how unusual Osuna’s presence in the majors is these days. Teams seldom rush 20-year-olds for obvious reasons: Few pitchers are mature enough physically, mentally, spiritually, or technically to enjoy success. Besides, the truly precocious arms are more likely to be developed as starters. It isn’t surprising, then, that Osuna has become the youngest pitcher to record more than 15 saves in a season since 21-year-old Huston Street did it back in 2005. (Street, by the way, had closed for a storied collegiate program, making his quick ascent easier to fathom.) Additionally, Osuna has recorded the most saves for a 20-year-old since Terry Forster notched 29 in 1972. All this to say Osuna passes the test whether the grader is using the new- or old-school rubric. So how does he do it?

Predictably, Osuna makes up for his inexperience with talent. At his best, he has three average-or-better offerings working for him, remnants of his brief career as a minor-league starter. The best and most reliable of the trio is a mid-to-upper-90s fastball that marries near-elite velocity with well-above-average backspin. According to our database, Osuna throws a fastball that ranks 21st among relievers in “rise.” What’s more is his fastball comes in hotter than all but one of those pitchers, the exception being a lad named Aroldis Chapman. The result of that combination is a heater that hops over more wood than a bunny in a lumberyard:

Osuna doesn’t have elite fastball command, and there are times where he overthrows it, leading to some uncomfortably close calls against right-handed batters. Nonetheless, he’s hit only one batter all season, and his control is impressive, as evidenced by his above-average walk and strike percentages. Those figures are aided by the pitch’s bat-missing tendencies: His 27 percent swinging-strike rate is higher than those posted by Wade Davis, Trevor Rosenthal, and myriad others of more repute than Osuna has garnered.

When Osuna wants to speed up bats, he has two choices: an upper-80s slider and a changeup that sits a few ticks slower. The former is the more consistent of the duo, and Osuna has shown signs of being able to locate it to both sides of the plate, a nifty trick, given its possible utility against lefties. Batters can neither lay off of nor connect with Osuna’s slider, with the pitch’s swing and whiff rates each topping 50 percent. The cambio, meanwhile, remains a work in progress. The occasions where it tumbles out of the strike zone are outnumbered by those where its placement makes the decision for the opposition:

Add it all together and you have a young strike-thrower with two pretty good pitches and another that in time could develop into one. As such, Osuna’s success is guaranteed to spark debates about his future role, especially with 60 percent of the Toronto rotation scheduled to hit the open market at season’s end. Will the Jays mess with a good thing and move Osuna back to starting, or will they say, “If it ain’t broke, we don’t intend to break it,” and leave him be? (For whatever it’s worth, a poll of seven Prospectus staffers returned estimates that Osuna would start one game or fewer over the next three seasons.)

But there will be plenty of time to worry about that later; right now, the focus in and around Toronto should be on the next few weeks. And while painting the Blue Jays—a team complete with an elite lineup and oodles of star power—as underdogs is a premise so absurd that the brush won’t accept the liquid, they are testament to the unpredictability of baseball; you needn’t look further than Osuna for evidence of that.

Thank you for reading

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bhacking
9/28
"Think about all the unlikely developments that had to occur over the years for Toronto to reach this point: Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion had to turn into middle-of-the-order threats at ages 28 and 29..."

I don't get this sentence at all. First of all Bautisa and Encarnacion are 34 and 32, but still this didn't have to turn into middle of the order bats they already were. They just needed to stay healthy and keep it up as they got a bit older. Bautista is a 3 time silver slugger.
RJAnderson
9/28
I realize now that sentence might be confusing. To be clear: I'm not referring to only this season (hence the Dickey mention later on as well)—I'm referring to them turning into middle-of-the-order bats in the first place. You know the stories by now: Bautista had bounced around the league; Encarnacion's stock was such that he was claimed off waivers by the A's, then subsequently non-tendered (after which the Blue Jays signed him again, and he then turned into the force he is today).

Sorry for the confusion.
bhacking
9/28
Ahhh, yes, I get it now.
backwardgalaxy
9/28
If I can get talent to work in a starting role, I always choose that over a relief role. Of course, I'm also a Yankees fan and spoiled by having solid to all-time greatness in the closer role for the last two decades. So, what do I know?
RJAnderson
9/28
I agree with your premise. That said, I'm more open to the idea of leaving someone like Osuna—who has already had TJS—in that role than the normal young pitcher.
hotstatrat
9/28
Where is the link to explain what DRA- ?
RJAnderson
9/28
Right here: http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=26613

I should've included that in the piece. Sorry.