Blue Jays Flashback: Jimmy Key

There’s just about time for one more edition of our Blue Jays Flashback, and this time Jimmy Key is the man under Kevin Glew’s microscope.

Blue Jays Flashback: Jimmy Key

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 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 and he never courted the spotlight.

“He was pretty low key,” said previous Flashback subject Ernie Whitt, who caught 151 games Key pitched in. “He wasn’t a guy with a big voice who would command the clubhouse. His personality was calm and quiet most of the time, very seldom did you ever see him get angry.”

Former Blue Jays catcher Jeff DeWillis has similar recollections.

“Jimmy did not talk a whole lot,” said DeWillis. “But he was always very nice, very kind. I probably never heard him really get upset about anything. He was just so even keel. When the game was over, Jimmy was going to go about his business. He probably didn’t want a lot of people around.”

Key also wasn’t flashy on the mound. 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.

“He got the ball and he wanted to finish the game,” recalled Whitt.  “He was a strike-thrower. He was not an overpowering pitcher, but one that had command of his pitches and he was able to execute his pitches to the hitters’ weaknesses.”

DeWillis concurs.

“He had good command and control over his pitches, which were mainly fastball, curveball, change-up,” said DeWillis. “I know when I was catching him, where I put my glove, if he missed it, I didn’t have to move it much. He was a marvel to catch.”

Though Key has become underrated in Blue Jays’ lore, it wasn’t as if the club’s fans didn’t appreciate him at the time. 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. 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.

Less than two months later, 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.

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.

Since his retirement, Key has kept a low profile and does a lot of golfing in Florida. He has rarely returned to Toronto, even though some longtime fans insist his No. 22 belongs on the Blue Jays’ Level of Excellence.

“Jimmy was probably one of the most underrated pitchers in Blue Jays’ history and he could probably care less,” said Whitt. “He just went out and did his job and did what he had to do.”