Perhaps it’s just some kind of Stockholm syndrome, maybe it’s a love of the underdog and love of a great redemption, maybe just because it’s all we get to talk about when being a Guardians-focused website, but the signings the team made last week were, if nothing else, intriguing to me.
For years now the Guards have made incredible hay in plucking pitchers off the scrap heap and turning them into, perhaps not gold, but at least some good hearty iron or tin that helps build the greater structure of the team and season. In this case, among the Guys and randos that got minor-league deals with Cleveland was Touki Toussaint, one of the most alliteratively pleasing and Braves fans-maddening pitchers of the last decade.
For a few years, he was an intriguing arm for Atlanta, throwing pretty hard, decent secondary stuff, and one had to assume that he was going to figure it out there because, like Cleveland, that’s just what Atlanta is supposed to help pitchers do. Touki isn’t a star, and he might never even throw an inning for the big club, but the moment the signing happened you could see where their hopes lay.
The results out of Toussaint have never been all that good. While being a former first-round pick, he’s a career -0.4 bWAR pitcher, his lowest ERA is 4.03 in his brief cup of coffee in 2018, he once started 10 games and pitched only 50 innings in a season somehow, and he got punted off the Angels of all teams in 2022 — perhaps the most pitching-bereft team in baseball. He regularly was victimized by home runs — between 2020 and 2021 he had a 5.4% home run rate, and aside from his attempt in 2022 to become a sinkerballer he’s never had much better than a league-average ground ball rate. He’s been slightly above average in his career at striking out guys — 23.7% against a 22.8% league average — and he suppresses hits to some degree with a career .234 batting average against him as well as a .285 BABIP. It’s always been the walks that kill him, his 13.6% walk rate is dreadful compared to the 8.5% league average, and combining that with his problems with the dinger means lots of pain, quick.
So that’s the bad news. Oh, also his fastball isn’t all that fast, ranking in the 29th percentile in velocity, and I think more than anything he’s just been trying to find a way to fit in. Like, his pitch mix chart alone speaks to a guy looking for answers and a place to stick:
All this tells a story of a guy who, at his very best, would be a miracle of a reclamation project. But there’s something else to Toussaint that is truly intriguing. Specifically, he is in the 95th percentile in pitch extension. Meaning, the one thing he’s great at is simply his ability to release the ball closer to the plate than almost anyone in baseball. Velocity is great. But what really matters in baseball is that perceived velocity, and fooling the hitter into thinking a ball is something it’s not. Whether a mediocre fastball that seems faster or a splitter that snaps harder because it’s getting to you sooner, this is what I like about Toussaint.
Again, this is a guy looking for a way to fit, a solution to the question of how he will stick in the game. Walks can shorten a start pretty quickly. Where they’re less damaging though, is in that bullpen. That’s where Toussaint might find his place in Cleveland.
Naturally, we’re leaning on the magic of one of the best pitching development and reclamation organizations in baseball to do something special here. Toussaint has a four-pitch arsenal with a fastball, a sinker he tried to rely on more recently, a splitter, and a curve. Cleveland is known for loving curveballs — its best pitchers in the last decade or so have had or have developed excellent ones. But I wonder if it’s that splitter they’re looking at and thinking he can be a fastball/split guy, like Eli Morgan. The difference is twofold — Toussaint throws harder than Morgan does already, and instead of a 41st percentile extension he’s up at the aforementioned 95th. Already he’s profiled to be more effective and can be a solid arm to bolster a strong ‘pen. We saw Morgan increase his velocity throughout the season as well, from 91.2 to 92.4 between April and September, so one has to hope that’s possible for Toussaint, as well.
These signings, and my stupid personal excitement about them, end up being utterly nothing more often than not. That said, Cleveland has made a lot out of the raw materials in the cast-offs of other teams, and there’s a good chance that Toussaint could be that, as well. He had a choice to sign with likely a handful of teams simply because pitching is just that hard to come by in baseball, and choosing Cleveland, just as they chose him, does send a message that he’s trying to do what it takes to stick.
Being shipped out of the team that drafted him in the first round, then getting dumped by the Angels, has to be a big ego check for him, and hopefully, it lets him fully dive into taking advantage of what Cleveland can do for him. We’ll see, and likely won’t see him until June if he does make it back to the Show, but there’s certainly something here beyond just a warm body.
Also, I just want that damn Guardians Touki jersey, especially with some weird number on it.