Fireballer Roberto Osuna Is Intent on Changing Things Up

The 21-year-old closer with a starter's arsenal has new and improved weapons to throw at the opposition.

Apr 11 2016, 6:35pm

Photo by Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

With two strikes, Travis Shaw knew what to expect. He had taken a slider for a strike at 85 mph and fouled off a fastball at 94. Roberto Osuna has built a reputation as a fastball-slider pitcher. So Shaw had to gear up for the heat and adjust for the slider.

Instead, Osuna threw a changeup at 83. Shaw started his swing about a day too soon. When he finished it, the ball was still riding a slow train. It was an ugly swing, an embarrassment, and it will no doubt be featured in video scouting reports on Osuna, the Blue Jays' closer.

A year ago, said catcher Russ Martin, Osuna might have tipped that pitch by slowing down his arm speed. And as Osuna gradually learned to tighten the break on his slider, he relied less on the changeup. It's early still, but batters might start seeing a few more changeups from the 21-year-old terminator.

"It's crazy," Martin said after the Jays beat the Red Sox 3-0. "He's getting better, man. You can see the progression, and it's a fast progression."

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Throughout spring training, the Jays refused to declare that Osuna had earned the right to keep the job he won as baseball's youngest player last season. They had traded for another closer, Drew Storen, and said that one would have to demonstrate that he was the worthier candidate. But the criteria for the selection process were never clearly enunciated and management waited until the very end of camp to re-anoint Osuna. The decision by the management types was not unanimous, but skipper John Gibbons prevailed.

So far, so has Osuna.

"I'm happy with the job I did today," he said after the Jays salvaged one win in the weekend series.

And why not? He struck out the side, using three different pitches. He has logged a save in each of the Jays' three wins. He has allowed no runs and two hits over four innings, and struck out six without a walk. The bullpen has been a plague in the team's four losses, but Osuna has remained rock solid.

Can't touch this. –Photo by Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

After the game, someone asked Gibbons whether he sees a difference between the 2015 and 2016 versions of Osuna.

"Same guy," Gibbons said. "He's probably a little more confident than he was. He's always been a confident kid."

Not the same guy, says Martin. Here's how the veteran catcher charts the path of the kid who was pitching in the pros at 16 in his native Mexico: "I was really impressed with his changeup in spring training last year," Martin said. "But he would slow his arm speed down just a hair, and that was the thing, so we kind of got away from it because everything else was so good. We didn't really have to go there.

"But guys with big leg kicks, the changeup kind of throws their timing off a little bit, and he's got a good one. I like the changeup—it's a swing-and-miss pitch when you use it with that exploding fastball. It used to be fastball-changeup were his best pitches and now the slider has gotten much better, and his fastball jumps. So yeah, he's definitely getting better."

Overall, Osuna threw his slider and changeup each 14 percent of the time last season, according to FanGraphs. But by October, his percentage of sliders had jumped to roughly 25 percent and he was getting swings and misses on it more than half the time.

In fact, by playoff time, he was getting more whiffs on his slider and changeup than he was on his fastball, which averaged 96 mph. Part of the reason was that his fastball command had begun to slip, and part of the reason for that—which he readily admits now—is that fatigue started to set in late in the season.

Wrapping up on Sunday, Osuna also struck out David Ortiz on a slider and Pablo Sandoval on a fastball to end the game. He fell behind Sandoval 2-0, then got him swinging at heaters—95, 96 and 97, respectively, the last a foul tip that Martin snared.

That strikeout pitch to Shaw was a little experiment, just to test out the changeup. Osuna said he threw it "just to see what happened." With Hanley Ramirez on base, even if Shaw happened to hit it over the fence, the Jays still had the lead.

"I'm feeling pretty comfortable with the changeup right now, so I think I'm going to use it a little bit more than what I did last year," Osuna said.

Sunday's game saw the team built around power win with pitching and defence. Marco Estrada, late to make his season debut because of back problems early in spring training, worked seven innings of five-hit ball. A splendid relay from right-fielder Jose Bautista to second baseman Ryan Goins to Martin, who reached back and made a lightning-quick tag, cut down Dustin Pedroia to end the third inning. Josh Donaldson added a late homer, his fourth. In the setup role, Storen worked the eighth, which ended when third baseman Darwin Barney knocked down a hard shot by Xander Bogaerts and turned it into a double play.

Then came Osuna. It took him 19 pitches—12 fastballs, five sliders and two changeups—to finish up. Afterward, he said he and his bullpen mates are still finding their footing, but not to worry.

"We're going to be fine," he said. "I don't think anybody's ready yet. We are getting ready. We're close.

"And we're going to win a lot of games. There's no doubt about it."