That question has followed the Surprise Saguaro southpaw as far back as his college career at Illinois, as well as through his three years in the Minnesota Twins minor league system.
Tyler Jay was the Fighting Illini's closer for most of his three-year career on the Urbana campus, finishing with a first team All-American season in 2015 when he posted a 1.08 ERA, 14 saves, and an outstanding 76-7 strikeout-to-walk rate. While working primarily in short stints out of the bullpen, Jay showed an ability to hold his stuff in two starts and a six-inning relief outing. It was enough of a look to convince scouts that Jay could handle a starting job, and the Twins made him the sixth overall pick in the 2015 draft.
Assigned to high Class A Fort Myers to start his pro career, Jay worked strictly out of the bullpen for his Twins system debut. Back at Fort Myers to start 2016, he made 13 starts there before moving up to Double-A Chattanooga for two more starts and thee relief appearances. Jay's season ended in late July when he was shut down with neck inflammation.
The injury bug continued to bite Jay in 2017 with ongoing left shoulder troubles limiting him to just eight games across three levels. Reports that he had gone under the knife for thoracic outlet syndrome were inaccurate.
Avoiding surgery was a huge relief for Jay, but he believes the time off not only gave his shoulder time to heal but also gave him a different perspective on the game.
"The biggest thing was learning to take things a day at a time," Jay said. "I feel that when you get hurt and you have high expectations for yourself, you want to get back out there as fast as you can. But in terms of recovering from something, you want to really slow things down … I really learned to appreciate just how much I missed being out there."
Jay is now in the Arizona Fall League looking to build strength and make up for time lost in the last two years. He's pitching out of the bullpen in one-inning stints for now, and that may be his role moving forward.
Ask Jay which role he prefers — starting or relieving — and he gives a more diplomatic answer that sees the advantages of both roles.
"In terms of preference, I really don't have one," Jay said. "I was able to find a love for both of them …. Ultimately I look at starting as a way to develop a few more pitches and ways to work the zone that maybe I didn't really know how to do coming out of college."
But ask Jay what's really in his heart, and he gives a slightly different answer.
"In college I really developed that 'shutdown' mentality," Jay said about his role as the Illinois closer, "coming out there a little bit aggressive but under control …. In late innings you kind of feel that buzz from the crowd …. It's something special to me that I really enjoy."
Surprise pitching coach Mitch Stetter, Kansas City's low Class A coach with the South Atlantic League Lexington Legends, believes that Jay could thrive in either role.
"It's 'either-or' for me," Stetter said. "He's got the curveball, slider and the changeup and locates his fastball well …. He's got a good four-pitch mix, an idea of what he's doing out there and a lot of pitchability …. One thing about him is that he's really good about using his fastball inside, especially to right-handed hitters. He's got a curveball and a slider that are very distinguishable pitches. A lot of times guys have them running together, but he's got a sharp little slider and a really good curveball. For him it's finding out of the bullpen how to combo those pitchers — use the curveball for strikes and the slider for a put-away pitch, then maybe using the slider for strikes and using the curveball for put-away, and using the fastball inside, knowing when to go in. He gets a lot of outs going in with his fastball."
Jay has thrown shutout innings of five of his six AFL outings to date, with his latest performance on the road at Scottsdale Stadium on Friday perhaps being his best. He hasn't yet bounced back to the mid-90s velocity from his college career as he's building back strength from his time on the sidelines, but the fastball had more zip in his last game and the stuff looked crisper. One observer, himself a former major league pitcher, said that he was especially impressed with Jay's slider, stating that it's a big league pitch with late break.
Using a whippy, quick-armed delivery with deception, Jay gets good velocity from a smaller six-foot frame, although he says he's now up 10 pounds from his listed weight of 185. He always could throw hard for his size, dating back to his early high school days when he was touching 90 with only a 150-pound body.
His dad used to point out former big league southpaw Billy Wagner, who got premium velocity out of slender frame, as someone for Jay to emulate. But in reality, his favorite pitcher growing up was someone with a completely different body type.
"I grew up about 30 minutes outside of Chicago and was a Cubs fan," Jay said. "It's funny, but one of my favorite pitchers to watch was (Carlos) Zambrano … you never knew what you were going to get out of him. He was very entertaining."
The annual Fall Stars Game will take place on Saturday, November 4 at 5:08 pm MST at Salt River Fields in Scottsdale. The game will be televised live on MLB Network. Rosters for the game will be announced this week.
Washington Nationals ace pitcher Max Scherzer will be inducted into the AFL Hall of Fame prior to the game at Scottsdale Stadium on Thursday, November 2. Scherzer appeared in the AFL in both the 2007 and 2008 seasons while a member of the Arizona Diamondbacks organization.