Heading into the 2020 season, Nate Pearson was primed to be the Blue Jays’ No. 2 starter behind Hyun-Jin Ryu. Pearson made his big league debut on July 29, 2020 against the Washington Nationals, striking out five batters over five innings of work.
It was his best start all season; he only made three more starts the rest of the year. An elbow injury sidelined him for a month until he returned in late September, when he appeared in one regular season game and the Blue Jays’ final game of the season in the postseason.
After the 24-year-old’s latest shoulder injury, it seems like 2021 is playing out similarly as 2020 for the right-handed fireballer.
Heading into last season, Pearson was the consensus No. 1 right-handed pitching prospect in baseball. His 100+ mile per hour arm dazzled in spring training games and fans salivated at the potential of his power arm in the Blue Jays’ starting rotation.
Pearson’s struggles with injuries and back-and-forth between the minors and the big leagues is a sobering reminder that development is rarely a linear process for young starting pitchers. Hardly ever do they make their MLB debut and hit the ground running.
Compared to their position player counterparts, as evidenced by Pearson, pitchers are far more susceptible to injuries on their road to the show. Not only is making it to the big leagues as a starting pitcher very difficult, it’s even harder to stick around.
Pearson’s to-and-fro mimics the path of many former Blue Jays pitchers. Roy Halladay was famously sent back down to Single-A to rebuild his delivery after he struggled mightily at the big league level. Doc was the same age that year (24) as Pearson is this year.
Halladay didn’t truly arrive in the big leagues until his age-25 season when he was named an All-Star and then won his first Cy Young Award the following season. The only other Cy Young winner in franchise history was Pat Hentgen, named the best pitcher in the American League during his age-27 season.
Greatness takes time, especially for starting pitchers. Whether it’s injuries or simply finding one’s self at the Major League level, pitchers have an uphill battle from the moment they take the mound under the bright lights of the show.
Pearson has been on people’s radars for quite some time, as far back as 2018 when he hit 104 miles per hour on the radar gun in the Arizona Fall League. From that moment forward, the 24-year-old shouldered tremendous expectations.
Despite his small body of work in the MLB, Pearson already finds himself in some fairly exclusive company with the Blue Jays. In franchise history, only 53 pitchers made five or four starts by their age 24 season.
Pearson among them, as well as franchise figureheads like Halladay and Dave Stieb. Among that list of notable starting pitchers from recent memory include Ryan Borucki, Sean Reid-Foley, Aaron Sanchez, Daniel Norris, Brett Cecil and Casey Janssen.
Here’s a look at the top 10 most starts by Blue Jays pitchers by the time they turned 24-years-old.
Most starts by Blue Jays pitchers before age 25
Many decorated pitchers litter that list, but there’s only one Cy Young winner among them (Chris Carpenter, who won the award with the Cardinals), but most on that list either dealt with injuries or eventually transitioned into the bullpen.
The Blue Jays converted Borucki into a full-time reliever last season. After bouncing back-and-forth between the rotation and bullpen, the Jays shipped out Reid-Foley in a trade this past offseason.
Aaron Sanchez — who Pearson has drawn some comparables to — infamously was sidelined for most of the 2017 campaign and then traded to the Houston Astros in 2019.
Norris made a handful of starts for the Blue Jays, but also battled injuries and finds himself as a member of the Detroit Tigers’ bullpen. Cecil and Janssen had mixed results as starting pitchers, but then blossomed later in their careers as clutch relievers in the Blue Jays bullpen.
Coincidentally, Pearson threw gas out of the bullpen for the Blue Jays in Game 2 of Toronto’s Wild Card series, striking out five of six batters he faced against the Tampa Bay Rays.
It might tempt the Blue Jays to pull the plug on the “Pearson as a starter” experiment and turn him into a Josh Hader-type reliever who could pitch multiple innings out of the bullpen.
Pearson has the stuff to be a high-impact reliever, but the million dollar question is: does he have the stuff to be a legitimate big league starter? It’s still far too early to tell, and to halt his development as a starter would be a disservice to him.
Halladay didn’t have it figured out by age 24. Hentgen didn’t have it figured out by 24. Ricky Romero didn’t have it figured out by 24. Very few starting pitchers establish themselves before the age of 25.
Although position players like Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette have proven themselves to be legitimate everyday players, it’s going to take a little longer for someone like Pearson to do the same.
Although he’s dealing with his second injury this season, despite the fact he had a disastrous outing last weekend against the Astros, it’s presumptuous to write Pearson off this early in his career when other Blue Jays legends walked the same path as him.