The first thing you notice about Nate Pearson when he's on the mound is his size. At 6'6"/245, he looks more like a Tight End than a Pitcher. When hitters come to the plate to face him, they know that triple digit heat is on its way.
Pearson faced the Rockies' Northwest League affiliate Boise Hawks in Vancouver's last home game of the regular season on August 30th. Coming into the game, NWL hitters had been entirely at Pearson's mercy over his previous six starts since coming north in late July. In 16 innings, the righthander had allowed only 5 baserunners, with none advancing past 2nd Base.
Pearson was not highly scouted as a high school senior, with his fastball sitting in the 92-93 range. He enrolled at Florida International, and pitched 30 innings as a freshman. Pearson weighed 225 entering college, but it was at FIU that he became serious about adding some bulk to his frame. He transferred to Central Florida JC in order to be closer to home, but he continued to commit to getting stronger. He used a long toss program, weighted balls, and the teachings of Kyle Boddy of Driveline Baseball, a Washington-based training program to add velocity. While at Central Florida, he also worked on his secondaries.
Things began to come together in a big way for Pearson last fall, when he hit 100 in a Florida college showcase. Scouts began to follow him closely this past spring, and he didn't disappoint. While he seldom approached triple digits, he did consistently sit 93-94, touching 97. The biggest difference was the quality of his secondary pitches: his changeup began to grade as a plus pitch, and he showed a slurvy slider with good shape. His fastball itself was noted for its late run, as well as his command of it. As the spring progressed, his change and slider developed from "show me" pitches to legitimate strike-inducing complements to his heat. Pearson had a screw inserted into his pitching elbow in high school, but all reports the Blue Jays had received said that he was healthy, and after taking North Carolina SS Logan Warmoth with the first of their two 1st round selections, the Blue Jays selected Pearson with their second, 28th overall.
There were suggestions among some scouts that Pearson could move quickly through the minors as a reliever. In short stints, he certainly can dial his fastball up. But the Blue Jays felt he had the build, mindset, and repertoire to turn a lineup over, and sent him to Vancouver after one start in the GCL. His pitch count and innings have been closely monitored since then. Against Boise on a hot late August afternoon at charming Nat Bailey stadium in the shadow of the Coast Mountains, the shackles were likely going to be loosened a bit more on Pearson after throwing 60 pitches in his last start.
In his first inning, Pearson came out firing, hitting 100 with his third pitch. In a sign of things to come, however, he walked that first batter on 7 pitches. Pearson was squeezed a bit, but he also struggled to command his fastball to both sides of the plate. He settled down after that leadoff walk, getting the next hitter on a called 97 third strike fastball, and getting the third hitter on a weak flyball to CF. On his next pitch, a 97 called strike to Boise's clean up hitter, C Riley Adams fired a cannon to 2nd to cut down an attempted steal, ending the inning.
Pearson's 2nd inning was his longest of the afternoon. A 9-pitch AB by the leadoff hitter resulted in a weak groundout to 1B Kacy Clemens, but it was a sign of things to come. Pearson was still sitting 96-98, and tried to get swings off of a pair of off-the-plate curves, but Boise hitters didn't bite. With two out and ahead in the count to the third batter of the inning, Pearson tried to sneak a change up past the Boise hitter, who drove it down the 3rd Base line for a double. The next hitter grounded a single up the middle, and CF Reggie Pruitt charged hard and came up throwing. His throw appeared to arrive in plenty of time to C Riley Adams at the plate, but Adams bobbled it, and Pearson had given up his first run in pro ball. He struck out the next batter looking to end the inning after having thrown 28 pitches.
Pearson was back to his more dominant former self in the 3rd inning, striking out the side swinging, using his change and curve more effectively. He was touched 98 with several pitches, and topped out at 99.
By the fourth, though, Pearson's velo and command started to flag. He was now sitting 94-96, and while his offspeed pitches were sharper, his overall command wasn't. Pearson loaded the bases on a base hit sandwiched by a pair of walks, and his afternoon was over. Great relief work by local product Brayden Bouchey limited the damage to a single run on the inning.
For the game, Pearson threw 73 pitches, 40 for strikes. He fanned 5 and walked three, and had a pair of ground ball outs. Truth be told, Pearson was probably the least effective Vancouver pitched on the day; Bouchey pitched a pair of scoreless innings, while lefty Travis Bergen, making his way back from over a year of inactivity due to injury, tossed three scoreless frames, striking out 6. Just the same, there was much to take away that was positive from Pearson's outing. His fastball was no match for Boise hitters, but his secondaries were not effective offerings on this occasion. He consistently repeats his drop-and-drive delivery, and throws his offspeed pitches from the same arm slot as his fastball. Standing in a modifed stretch on the rubber, there are not a lot of moving parts to his mechanics. And while Adams has been the Canadians' best player, and comes to pro ball with a reputation as a solid defensive Catcher, he has some work to do in terms of framing pitches. On some of the borderline pitches, Adams appeared to reach rather than coax the ball into the strike zone, and this may be an area he works on at Instructional League.
There is a great deal about Pearson that can lead one to profile him as a top of the rotation starter. The fastball velocity gives him a greater margin for error on his secondaries, which by many reports have come a long way over the past year. Baseball wisdom suggests that a true measure of a Pitcher is how he performs when he doesn't have his best stuff. If that is true, at 20, Pearson still has some maturing to do. Perhaps knowing that his outings would be limited to 3-4 innings, and given the huge home crowd, Pearson may have been a little too pumped up, and we're willing to give him plenty of further opportunities to prove himself. The Blue Jays prefer to let their new draftees play, and worry about making refinements after their first pro season. Pearson will likely be headed to Florida to continue to develop his fastball command, as well as the consistency of his secondary pitches. It's still early in his career, but there's every reason to believe that the Blue Jays have a front end starter in the making.
According to our good friend Charlie Caskey (@CharlieCaskey on Twitter), who we sat with in the Vancouver press box for Pearson's start, C's Pitching Coach Jim Czajkowski, who has served in that capacity with team for 6 of their 7 seasons as a Blue Jays affiliate, Pearson is the best arm he's ever had. That would put Pearson ahead of such major leaguers as Roberto Osuna, Aaron Sanchez, Marcus Stroman, and Noah Syndergaard. After fanning 10 hitters over 4 innings in Vancouver's first playoff game, Pearson appears to have backed that claim up.