Toronto zags in the 9th

Alessandro Zilio
8 min readMay 8, 2021

Canadians, rejoice! The Toronto Blue Jays are a good team again, after years along the line of basement dwellers.

Driving the maple leaf force is a lineup anchored by a trio of certified “Big Leaguers’ Sons” in Bo Bichette, premium bat and questionable defense, Cavan Biggio, cold start and…horrible defense at third, and Vladimir Guerrero Jr, with an MVP-worthy April fueled by “best shape of his life” conditions.

Alejandro Kirk seems like the catcher of the future, Semien has been a good get and his return in Oakland flicked his switch, so there’s only to wait for offseason reward George Springer to come back from the IL and here you have a top 5 lineup in the American League.

If there’s anything to be worried about is the rotation: after Mr.Steady Hyun Jin Ryu there’s a lot of question marks. Robbie Ray has plus stuff and scattershot control, Ross Stripling seems more a 5 than a 3 and Steven Matz is an upside bet, but far away from a sure one.

With Tanner Roark gone, depth is an issue as Thornton, Kay and co. are not what you dream about, yet a closer look at the Minors will dispel a lot of doubts: Nate Pearson still has ace ceiling when healthy, Alek Manoah could probably be the Jays’ n°2 starter tomorrow and Simeon Woods-Richardson has elite potential.

The strongest point of this Blue Jays resurgence has somehow been the bullpen: since last year it’s one of the best in the business, without a big name, rather mixing up veterans, young guns and interesting stories.

David Phelps is back hitting 95 mph and dealing, Jordan Romano is confirming a brilliant 2020 and Julian Merryweather, now injured, showed late inning filth. What about ex starters? Tyler Chatwood and Ryan Borucki always had, and still have, command issues but on a single inning their stuff plays up, with the lefty firing up to 98 mph.

My favorite piece of the Blue Jays puzzle is, as you may have guessed, an NPB import, a quiet one to be fair, a reliever who mustered up an acclaimed career as a closer with the Hanshin Tigers before coming back where it all started, not with the same team and, most notably, not with the same stuff.

Take a bow, Rafael Dolis!

Having started as a full-time baseball follower late into the 2010s I didn’t remember Dolis before his NPB tenure, although a quick look at his Baseball Reference page tells you pretty much everything: 3 years, although only a full one, in the Cubs bullpen from 2011 to 2013, and a couple of seasons in Triple A, 2014-2015, before embarking to Japan.

Numbers and stuff-wise, nothing more than your basic “flamethrowing righty” starter pack: elite fastball, sharp slider, no control and WHIPs in the 1.5 region that a boatload of Ks couldn’t help too much.

Still, premium velo is an asset in a league such as the NPB, where baseball is a lot like in the 2000s rather than 2020s, so that throwing 95+ is a rarity: Dolis came to Japan bringing flames, signed by the Hanshin Tigers to first be the setup man to Marcos Mateo and then, after his departure, clinching the closer role for 3 remarkable years:

Rafael Dolis, NPB career statline
Rafael Dolis, NPB career rates

Dolis wasn’t your typical lockdown closer: his clockwork 2.5 ERA was more a product of hits coming in strings, aided by the customary walk here and there, than single big swings.

He was able to suppress the home run ball (career 0.26 HR/9) while bringing his walk rate down year after year to less than 2 BB/9 in 2019, somehow elite for such a pitcher. More control meant also less Ks, down from a sky-high 12 K/9 in 2017 to a “normal” 8 K/9 in 2019. That tells you something, right?

Before going into more detail, let’s close the book on Dolis’ circouitous route: he was signed by the Blue Jays to a 1-year deal plus club option in 2020 and then retained by the team after a solid season where he and Romano teamed up, after Ken Giles’ injury, in the back of the bullpen.

Rafael Dolis, 2020–2021 Statcast rates

More of the same Rafael we got to see in the NPB: a decent amount of Ks and walks while registering one of the lowest avgEV and HardHit% against among MLB relievers, and so far in 2021 it’s even better, as he’s avoiding Barrels and allowing even softer contact and worse expected slashlines to opposing hitters.

Rafael Dolis, 2021 percentile rankings

Looking at his percentile rankings you might see something unusual: he has a plethora of amazing results as far as contact is concerned, 97th percentile in xBA, xSLG and 95th percentile in Barrel%, but he’s only in the middle of the strikeout ranks, just a tad above in Whiffs and further back in chases and walks.

What happened to Rafael Dolis, flamethrower? Why he’s striking out just 26% of the batters with his 97 mph gas?

Wait, is it the same gas though?

There are a couple of reasons why this is not the Dolis you were used to back in his Cubs days: he completely changed his pitching approach and added a new weapon to his arsenal.

From the latter, there’s something you might already know about Japan’s pitching tradition: everyone and his mother throws either a splitter or a forkball. Shohei Ohtani’s split is the most unhittable pitch in the Majors, Hirokazu Sawamura’s split/two-seam is the hardest ever and prodigal son Masahiro Tanaka’s splitter was his most reliable offering in his Yankees tenure.

No surprise that Dolis picked it up in his 3 japanese years: it’s actually more of a forkball, diving down straight on a line and (not) spinning. At an avg rpm of 1300, as low as 1100, Dolis’ fork is one of the lowest spinning pitches in all of MLB, and that partially explains why he’s getting so much weak contact as low rpm pitches are usually troublesome to hit hard.

That’s not as straightforwad though: Dolis’ forkball is his third offering, a pitch he threw 20% of the time in 2020 and a couple of points lower in 2021. The real deal for the ex-Tiger has been about doing what Billy Beane preached since the Moneyball days: when they zig, you zag.

Rafael Dolis, career arsenal as per Pitch%

Rafael Dolis zagged all the way: in a baseball environment where 4-seamers high in the zone are all the rage, he dialed the time machine back to the Maddux/Glavine days, ditched the straight heater and relied on a sinker. How much? More than 60% of his pitches since he’s back in US soil are of the sinking variety!

Paired up with his new gas, still up to 97 mph but with much more movement, is his old slider, although its shape has changed from a dropping one in 2020 to a more sweeping one in 2021, cutting 5 inches of drop and adding a bit of fade.

Now it’s all clear! Dolis is a sinker/slider/fork guy who aimes low and gets a ton of groundballs, that is why he’s tough to hit, right? Yes….and no! While he keeps it on the ground, more than 50% GB rate in his Blue Jays adventure, he does it different:

Rafael Dolis, 2021 pitch location

Have a look at his sinker’s location: it’s not as much down rather in on RHB and on the upper part of the strike zone against LHB. Dolis has a plan: throw a sinking 96 mph dart in on the hands, see what batters can do with it and occasionaly finish them off with either a slider down or a forkball.

Rafael Dolis, 2021 statline per pitch type

That’s a hell of a choice: the shape and pace of Dolis’ sinker make for a nasty offering against right handers, and in this first month of the season they’re getting beaten. Dolis is getting an astounding Pull%, almost 50%, but miserable exit velocities: RHBs are trying to power the up and in stuff to no avail, as a 55 GB% and a 14% popup rate attest.

When batters can’t be bothered by the hard stuff, Dolis resorts to the breakers: both slider and fork have high Whiff% and abysmal xStats, not to mention avg EV under 80 mph, a lot of slow choppers and lazy pops.

There’s also a last quirk about Dolis:

Rafael Dolis, 2021 release point

The Blue Jay reliever comes at you with a big overhanded release, and as the cluster of points shows, there’s no visible difference in release height between either one of his pitches. A sinker coming at 96 mph from almost 7 feet up and a fork coming out the same slot but dropping 13 inches more look almost the same as they leave Dolis’ hand, and that adds deception to above average stuff.

Oh, he also works really slow, not as “Human Rain Delay” Pedro Baez but close, and has a little “look at the sky” in his windup, a la Fernando Valenzuela:

As I was writing this entry, Dolis got injured in his last outing against the Astros, also giving up a run…ain’t a thing like jinxing! Now the Blue Jays pen is on the shoulders of Romano and Borucki, as Dolis, Merryweather, Phelps and newcomer Kirby Yates are all on the IL for the time being.

Bad luck aside, I’m really happy about Dolis’ effective return to MLB. It’s always interesting when someone goes his way about things rather than conforming to the trend, and when it goes well it’s double the fun.

Dolis found a home in Japan, a place where he could hone his craft, change his mindset about pitching and become a reliable arm in late innings. By improving a bit his control issues, learning the art of the forkball and mastering the weak contact prowess Dolis is back with a vengeance.

His sinker/slider/splitter combo is a lot late 90s stuff but it’s giving hitters the fizzles and has secured him a spot as either the closer or the firemen in Toronto, not bad for a guy who was once just an up and down arm in the Cubs system.

Until the next forkball, zag your way in, Rafael!

GIF is from Pitcher List, graphs, diagrams, heatmaps and rankings are thanks to Baseball Savant, stats as of May 6th.



Alessandro Zilio

Italian baseball stathead. I’ll write about MLB, NPB and Korean dramas. A lot of Astros related content and obscure references.