By Kevin Glew
Cooperstowners in Canada
Who is the most underrated player in Toronto Blue Jays’ history?
If you asked a seasoned Canadian baseball fan this question, Jimmy Key would be one of the most common answers.
Just how underappreciated is the longtime Blue Jays lefty?
Put it this way: For the 10 seasons spanning from 1985 to 1994, Key had 147 wins – that’s more than any other left-hander in the majors during that period and second only to Roger Clemens (163) among all big leaguers.
And if you start looking at where he ranks in Blue Jays’ all-time statistical categories, you might wonder why his No. 22 isn’t already on the club’s Level of Excellence.
Here are a few highlights:
-His 116 wins as a Blue Jay are 32 more than any other left-hander in franchise history.
-His 3.42 ERA as a Blue Jay is tied with Dave Stieb for the lowest career ERA by a starter who has thrown at least 500 innings with the club. Roy Halladay’s Blue Jays’ ERA was 3.43.
-He won between 12 and 17 games for the Blue Jays for eight straight seasons from 1985 to 1992.
-In 1987, he led the American League in ERA (2.76), WHIP (1.057) and lowest hits per nine innings (7.2) by a starting pitcher.
-In seven post-season appearances for the Blue Jays, he was 3-1 with a 3.03 ERA. He was also the winning pitcher in the Blue Jays’ 1992 World Series-clinching Game 6 against the Atlanta Braves.
So yes, Key, who turns 60 today, has an impressive resume.
But how has he flown so much under the radar in Blue Jays’ lore?
The main reason is because he was quiet, steady and unassuming. There was always a higher profile pitcher above him in the Blue Jays’ rotation whether it be Dave Stieb or Jack Morris or David Cone or even Juan Guzman.
Also, Key never courted the spotlight and he wasn’t flashy. He was a fundamentally sound pitcher with near perfect mechanics and an excellent pickoff move. He won more with guile than with a jaw-dropping arsenal of pitches. And if you do a Google search on “crafty left-handers”, Key’s name is bound to pop up.
“He’s (Jimmy Key) a pitcher, not a thrower. He has an average fastball, a good sinker and curve, and knows how to change speed on his pitches,” Blue Jays pitching coach Al Widmar told Baseball Digest in 1988. “He also throws a cut fastball with good movement on it. And, his control is outstanding.”
With all of this said, it wasn’t as if Blue Jays fans didn’t appreciate Key.
The SkyDome faithful reserved one of their loudest ovations for Key in Game 4 of the 1992 World Series when the veteran lefty, in his ninth season with the club and heading for free agency, started and allowed just one run to the Braves in 7-2/3 innings before manager Cito Gaston walked to the mound and took him out of the game. Knowing this might be the final time they would see Key in a Blue Jays’ uniform, the fans rose to their feet and cheered loudly. On the way to the dugout, Key doffed his cap (a scene captured on the Donruss McDonald’s baseball card below). Duane Ward came in from the bullpen and the Blue Jays won the game 2-1 to take a 3-1 lead in the series.
As noted earlier, Key was also the winning pitcher in series-clinching Game 6 when he hurled 1-1/3 innings in relief before handing the ball to Mike Timlin to record the final out.
Less than two months later, however, Key signed a four-year, $17-million contract with the New York Yankees. The Blue Jays had tried to re-sign him, but general manager Pat Gillick had a strict policy of not offering more than a three-year contract to pitchers. The Blue Jays had offered Key a three-year, $12-million deal.
Key was an all-star twice in his four seasons with the Bronx Bombers before completing his career with two campaigns with the Baltimore Orioles. The five-time all-star retired after the 1998 season with 186 wins and a 3.51 ERA in 470 games – including 389 starts.
If you’re a hardcore Blue Jays fan, you might already be aware of some of these stats, so here are nine things you might not know about Key:
-He was originally selected in the 10th round of the 1979 MLB draft by the Chicago White Sox out of S.R. Butler High School in Huntsville, Ala. He opted not to sign and attended Clemson University on a baseball scholarship.
-We all think of Key as a left-handed pitcher, but he was an excellent right-handed hitter during his college career. In his final year at Clemson when he wasn’t pitching, he regularly served as the team’s DH. In 55 games, he batted .359, scored 50 runs and set a then school record with 21 doubles. He also had four home runs, 49 RBIs and eight stolen bases.
-The Blue Jays selected Key in the third round (56th overall) of the 1982 MLB draft. He was the ninth left-handed pitcher taken in that draft. The southpaws selected ahead of him were Bryan Oelkers (fourth overall, Twins), Bob Kipper (eighth overall, Angels), Scott Jones (22nd overall, Reds), David Wells (30th overall, Blue Jays), Allan Anderson (32nd overall, Twins), Tim Birtsas (36th overall, Yankees), Dave Otto (52nd overall, Orioles) and Bryan Duquette (53rd overall, Brewers). It’s also interesting to note that two shortstops were taken just ahead of Key in the draft. The Yankees selected a 19-year-old shortstop named Bo Jackson (yes, that Bo Jackson!) 50th overall, while the Reds took Barry Larkin 51st overall.
-Toronto wasn’t Key’s first professional baseball stop in Canada. After being selected in the 1982 MLB draft by the Blue Jays, Key was assigned to their Pioneer Rookie League affiliate in Medicine, Alta. He went 2-1 with a 2.30 ERA in five starts with the Alberta club before being promoted to class-A Florence.
-Key was used exclusively as a reliever in his first season with the Blue Jays in 1984 and he retired the first 17 major league batters he faced. In his major league debut on April 6, 1984, he came in in relief and retired all 10 California Angels he faced in a Blue Jays’ 11-5 win at Anaheim Stadium. The first two major league batters Key faced were Hall of Famers Rod Carew and Reggie Jackson. He got them both to hit ground balls to shortstop.
-Key joined the Blue Jays’ starting rotation in 1985 and on May 1, 1985, he became the first left-handed starter to register a win for the Blue Jays since Paul Mirabella defeated the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park on October 4, 1980 (a span of 614 games). In that contest in 1985, Key held the Angels to one run in 7-2/3 innings to record the win.
-After he posted a 17-8 record and a league-leading 2.76 ERA in 261 innings in 36 starts in 1987, Key finished second to Roger Clemens in the American League Cy Young Award voting. To that point, no Blue Jays pitcher had ever finished that high in the Cy Young voting. Believe it or not, the highest Stieb finished was fourth in 1982. It should be noted that Key was also the runner-up to David Cone for the American League Cy Young Award in 1994 when he went 17-4 with a 3.27 ERA in 25 starts with the Yankees in the strike-shortened campaign.
-Fittingly, Key was the winning pitcher of the 1991 MLB All-Star Game played at SkyDome. It’s the only Midsummer Classic ever played in Toronto. The American League beat the National League 4-2 in the contest which took place on July 9, 1991. Key pitched a scoreless third inning for the AL, while in the bottom of that frame, Montreal Expos right-hander Dennis Martinez surrendered a three-run home run to Cal Ripken Jr.
-As noted earlier, Key was the winning pitcher in the 1992 World Series-clinching Game 6 for the Blue Jays. Four years later with the Yankees, he was again the winning pitcher in a Fall Classic-clinching Game 6 when he allowed just one run in 5-1/3 innings in the Yankees’ 3-2 win over the Atlanta Braves.