By Kevin Glew
Cooperstowners in Canada
Who has been the Toronto Blue Jays’ best starting pitcher in the postseason?
It’s not Dave Stieb or Jimmy Key, or even Jack Morris, who was signed specifically for his superlative postseason track record.
And younger Blue Jays fans might say it’s Marco Estrada.
But the correct answer would be Juan Guzman.
In five American League Championship Series starts for the Blue Jays from 1991 to 1993, he went 5-0 with a 2.27 ERA. He also posted a 2.70 ERA in three World Series starts.
“I’ve never seen Guzman unnerved,” Pat Borders told the Toronto Star in October 1991. “The guy’s a rock that way.”
It was 34 years ago today that the Blue Jays acquired Guzman from the Los Angeles Dodgers for infielder Mike Sharperson. At the time, Guzman was a borderline 20-year-old pitching prospect prone to wildness. It would be easy to write that this was another genius transaction by Blue Jays Hall of Fame general manager Pat Gillick, but the fact is Gillick didn’t even really want Guzman.
“We wanted (Jose) Offerman and thought we had a choice,” Gillick told Ross Newhan of the Los Angeles Times in October 1991 of the transaction. “In the end, (Dodgers GM) Fred (Claire) insisted it was his choice and gave us Guzman. I wasn’t happy.”
At the time, Gillick was likely preoccupied with his big league club trying to fend off the Detroit Tigers for the American League East title, so this exchange of minor leaguers barely registered on his – or anyone’s – radar.
Guzman was assigned to the double-A Knoxville Blue Jays in 1988, where he was to be groomed to be a relief pitcher. By this time, he had already toed the rubber for parts of three seasons in the Dodgers’ organization.
Born in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic in 1966, Guzman, according to his SABR bio, grew up as part of a family of five children. In his youth, he often pitched on the same team as future Dodgers ace Ramon Martinez.
By his teens, Guzman had developed into a decent pitching prospect, but he was often overshadowed by Martinez. Both, however, were eventually signed by Dodgers scout Ralph Avila. Guzman officially signed with the Dodgers on March 16, 1985.
The Dodgers employed Guzman as a reliever in his first season, but then transformed him into a starter in the next two campaigns. He had exhibited a lively arm, racking up 113 strikeouts in 110 innings for class-A Bakersfield in 1987, but he also walked 84 batters.
His arm was intriguing enough, however, for the Blue Jays to take a chance on him. In his first season in the Blue Jays’ organization, all but two of his 46 appearances with double-A Knoxville came in relief and he finished the year with a 2.36 ERA and six saves.
He was employed in a similar fashion in 1989, but the young righty would walk 90 batters in 68 innings between double-A and triple-A and following the season, he was left off the club’s 40-man roster.
When no team claimed him in the Rule 5 draft, Guzman returned to double-A Knoxville in 1990 and was used more frequently as a starter. He went 11-9 with a 4.24 ERA in 37 appearances (21 starts), spanning 157 innings, and lowered his walk total to 80. But despite his improvement, the then 23-year-old was again left off the club’s 40-man roster.
One of the keys to Guzman’s improvement in 1990 had been the development of his late-breaking slider. It was a pitch that he’d continue to perfect and in 1991, after posting a 4.03 ERA in 12 appearances (11 starts) in triple-A, he was called up by the Blue Jays when Dave Stieb was sidelined with a back injury.
After losing his first two big league starts, Guzman reeled off wins in 10 consecutive decisions. Most importantly, he notched five wins in September and early October to help the Blue Jays capture their third division title. For his efforts, he finished second in the American League Rookie of the Year voting.
In the American League Championship Series against the Minnesota Twins that year, he allowed just two earned runs on four hits in 5 2/3 innings in Game 2 to lead the Blue Jays to their only victory in the series.
A confident Guzman would return to the Blue Jays’ rotation in 1992 and enjoy his most successful big league season, finishing with a 16-5 record and a 2.64 ERA. His performance earned him his first and only All-Star Game selection.
He also secured two wins for the Blue Jays’ in the ALCS against the A’s, including in Game 6 when the Blue Jays clinched their first American League pennant. His postseason success continued in the Fall Classic when he permitted just one run in eight innings in Game 3 in a contest the Blue Jays eventually won 3-2 over the Atlanta Braves.
Guzman was again a key member of the Blue Jays’ rotation in 1993, completing the campaign 14-3. Manager Cito Gaston gave him the nod to start Game 1 of the ALCS against the Chicago White Sox and he responded by hurling six strong innings to earn the win. He picked up another victory in Game 5 of the series and then registered a 3.75 ERA in two World Series starts to help the Blue Jays to their second consecutive championship.
In 1994, Guzman was the Blue Jays’ Opening Day starter but he struggled to a 5.68 ERA in 25 starts. The ensuing campaign was even worse. He finished with a 4-14 record and a 6.32 ERA. Determined to rebound, he pitched in winter ball following that season and came back in 1996 to register an American League-leading 2.93 ERA in 27 starts.
But the injury bug would bite him in 1997. A broken thumb and a shoulder strain limited him to just 13 starts. Guzman then had a poor start to the 1998 season, but was rediscovering his form when the Blue Jays dealt him to the Baltimore Orioles at the July 31 trade deadline. He went 4-4 with a 4.23 ERA in 11 starts down the stretch for the O’s.
Guzman began 1999 with the O’s before he was dealt to the Cincinnati Reds on July 31. The then 32-year-old right-hander was excellent with the Reds, going 6-2 with a 3.03 ERA in 12 starts to help them to 96 wins and into a one-game playoff with the Mets (that they lost 5-0).
Following that season, Guzman inked a two-year, $12-million contract with the Tampa Bay Rays, but he was rocked for eight runs in 1 2/3 innings in his only start with them before being sidelined by a tendinitis and eventually undergoing season-ending rotator cuff surgery.
The veteran hurler attempted a comeback in the Rays’ minors in 2001, but after 12 starts, he opted to retire.
In all, in parts of 10 major league seasons, he finished his career with a 91-79 record in 240 starts and a 4.08 ERA. Among Blue Jays pitchers, Guzman can be found in the top 10 in several all-time statistical categories, including fourth in strikeouts (1,030), sixth in WAR (21) and innings pitched (1,215 2/3) and seventh in wins (76).
In 1999, Guzman become a Christian minister and he maintains a foundation in his name that supports impoverished youth in his native Dominican Republic and other Latin American countries.
Here are five things you might not know about Juan Guzman:
- He played in the 1984 World Youth Baseball Championships in Kindersley, Sask., for the Dominican Republic. That’s the same tournament that Larry Walker (Maple Ridge, B.C.) was signed by the Montreal Expos after.
- Guzman’s 40-11 regular season record from 1991 to 1993 made him the only pitcher in major league history to have a winning percentage of .750 or better in his first three MLB seasons.
- He finished in the top 10 in strikeouts in the American League four times (1992 to 1994, 1998).
- When he was traded to the Reds by the Orioles on July 31, 1999, one of the prospects the O’s acquired in return was left-hander B.J. Ryan, who would later serve as the Blue Jays’ closer.
- He is married to Pedro Martinez’s sister, Ana Delia Martinez.