Who: Jesse Litsch, No. 51. Starting pitcher? Relief Pitcher? (You tell us!) 6’1, 225 LBS. 26 years old.
Tao-Approved Nicknames: Ginger Kitty. Don’t let your eyes deceive you, friend. He may not look like a varsity athlete, but he’s as nimble and spritely as a cat when pouncing on a ball hit in his direction.
History: Five MLB seasons and 88 games, including 67 starts, all with Toronto.
Contract Status: Signed one-year, $975,000 contract this past offseason to avoid arbitration. Has minor league options remaining.
Career Stats: 4.16 ERA in 417.2 innings pitched. 239 strikeouts, 119 walks.
2011 Stats: 4.44 ERA in 75 innings pitched, including eight starts. 66 strikeouts, 28 walks. 6.64 ERA in nine starts across three minor-league levels.
Splitting the Season into Meaningless Portions: In 46.1 innings as a starter, Litsch posted a 4.66 ERA with a 6.99 K/9 rate and a 3.50 BB/9. In 28.2 innings as a reliever, he was marginally better with a 4.08 ERA. Notably, he raised his strikeout rate to 9.42 per nine when coming in from the bullpen.
Looking Back: Since his surprise call up in 2007, Jesse Litsch has hung around the periphery of the Jays’ pitching staff for the past five seasons, though never really as an integral part. He’s never been a player for whom there have been high expectations, given that his fastball at best just ekes over 90 mph. He’s also never been – and we’re measuring our words here – a physical specimen that you could dream on or project. Still, with all of that middling prologue, it’s easy to forget that he’ll only turn 27 next month.
Litsch has improved his game in some key areas from his early days, learning how to put players away rather than depending on the good graces of his fielders. In his rookie season, Litsch posted a respectable 3.81 ERA, but also managed to strike out just 4.05 batters per nine. By last season, he’s increased that mark to a very serviceable 7.92, which will be especially important if he’s asked to pitch out of the bullpen this year.
His 2011 campaign is a hard one to judge, mostly because of how he was squeezed out of his spot on the roster by players with better stuff and lesser results (R.I.P., Summer of Jo-Jo). In his eight starts before relegation, Litsch pitched okayish (4.66 ERA, 36 Ks/18 BBs), though he only reached the seventh inning twice, and never pitched more than 6.1 innings in any start. Litsch threw a lot of pitches, averaging 100 per start, and 3.94 pitches per plate appearance.
Oddly enough, Litsch’s “best start” in that span is also the one that most frustrated us. In his April 11th start at Seattle, Litsch battled and got plenty of enthusiastic glove taps for keeping the Mariners off the scoreboard while the Jays’ bats were busy pounding Felix Hernandez to the turn of seven runs. The problem was that it took him 111 pitches to get through five innings, leaving the final 12 outs to the bullpen. The bullpen’s inability to keep the Mariners off the scoreboard in what turned into an 8-7 walkoff loss wasn’t Litsch’s fault. But a meandering, pick-and-nibble approach to each at bat left a lot of work on the table by the time Litsch was hitting the showers. That’s not what you hope for from your starting pitcher.
Looking Forward: In 2009 and 2010, injuries conspired to keep him off the major league roster, while last season, a combination of injuries and a full roster pushed him off the 25-man squad and down to Las Vegas, New Hampshire and Lansing. This year, the pile-up of pitchers might even be worse, so Litsch will be hard-pressed to wedge his way into an airplane seat headed north come the end of March.
Litsch’s best opportunity to stick with the Jays will be as a reliable and efficient reliever who might be able to pitch multiple innings. Otherwise, he’ll be cooling his heels in the Pacific Coast League, waiting for disaster to beset the starting rotation.
2012 Expectations: Litsch has a five pitch repertoire (fastball, slider, cutter, changeup and the occasional curveball), and when healthy, he’s demonstrated decent command of those pitches. We wouldn’t be surprised to see Litsch make the team out of spring training in a relief role, but we wouldn’t count on him sticking around for long. The battle for innings will be fierce this year, and Litsch has yet to show that he’s grasped the skill of good health, so we’d place the over/under on his MLB innings at about 50 this year.
(Photo? That's from the Daylife. There's a ton of pics there. Pretty cool, eh?)