Relievers are fickle by nature. There are two main reasons for this. The first is that the better pitchers are most often starters and the second is that because relievers pitch fewer innings, they’re more susceptible to small sample size issues. When Jacob deGrom has a lousy eight inning stretch, he’s going to have 190 innings to make up for it. A reliever does not have that luxury.
Jerry Blevins has been very effective this year and then with the rest of the team’s relievers being hurt or disappointing, Blevins was asked to take on a bigger role. He was asked to go from being a guy who primarily faced lefty batters in key situations to being asked to be the team’s primary setup man and face whoever was coming to bat. Close to the same time this happened, Blevins started getting knocked around.
It’s a crucial question if Blevins was getting lit up because he was being asked to go longer outings and face more righties or if this was more of a case of a normal down cycle that all relievers go through.
Since the 2011 season the Mets have had 30 seasons where a reliever has pitched at least 40 innings. This is a decent sample size and includes good pitchers and bad ones, lefties and righties, high-leverage relievers and low-leverage guys. Here is a chart that shows what they did overall and what they did in their worst stretch of the season. Most of these are spans of 6-12 games, with a couple longer and one shorter.
With our wide range of relievers, we see that 28 of them had stretches where their ERA in their bad span was more than double their season-long rate, with a handful of them posting bad stretches of triple their season ERA. The only two that didn’t double their ERA were 2011 Carrasco, who posted 10.13 ERA in his bad stretch and 2012 Ramirez, who had a 7.59 rate.
The best relievers are not immune to this. Familia in 2015 put up a 7.56 ERA despite a 1.88 season mark. Reed in 2016 had ERAs of 7.94 and 1.97, respectively. Parnell in 2012 had a 2.49 ERA overall and a 7.27 mark in his bad stretch.
We focus so much on the streakiness of hitters that the idea that relievers are the exact same way gets lost. Just like good hitters don’t hit within a few points of their OPS all season long, relievers don’t match their metrics, either. They tend to bunch their bad outings together, regardless if they’re good, bad or average pitchers.
Blevins here in 2017 did not make the above chart because he hasn’t thrown 40 innings yet. However, in his first 30 games of the season, Blevins had a 1.42 ERA, as he allowed just 3 ER in 19 IP. Then in his next 14 games, his ERA ballooned to 8.00, as he allowed 8 ER in 9 IP. However, in his last five games, he hasn’t allowed a run and has a 6.0 K/BB ratio. And that’s with three of his outings being an inning or more.
As a whole, LHP perform better against lefty batters than they do righties. Blevins is no exception. This year his splits are significantly worse against righties, who have a 1.075 OPS against him in 50 PA. Last year in 65 PA, RHB posted a .611 mark against him. For his career, righties have a .738 OPS against him in 876 PA.
In his first 30 games, RHB had a 1.072 OPS against him but he thrived because he faced just 27 of them. In his next 14 games, he faced 18 righties and they had a 1.346 OPS. He still faced more LHB in this stretch, with 27 PA against lefties. They did not post the slugging mark that righties did, but lefties hit .308 against him, compared to .087 against him the first 30 games of the year.
The first 30 games of the year, Blevins had the platoon advantage 50 times in 77 PA or 65% of the time. When asked to take on a bigger role, his percentage with the platoon advantage dropped to 60%. He was still facing a much higher than normal rate of lefties. Lefties typically get around 41% of PA. No denying the righties tattooed him in this stretch. But the lefties hit him better, too.
In his last five games he’s faced five righties, and they are 0-4 with a walk.
Ideally, you would not ask Blevins to pitch an inning with the first three hitters due up being righties. Let’s see how he was utilized in his bad stretch:
6/7 – Two of the first three batters were lefties. He retired the first two, gave up a single to the lefty and then a homer to a righty.
6/9 – Two lefties and a switch hitter. He retired the side in order.
6/10 – Brought on to get one batter and he retired the lefty.
6/11 – Two of the first three batters were lefty. Retired the side in order.
6/14 – Two of the first three batters were lefty. He retired all four batters he faced, including two righties.
6/17 – Faced two lefties. Retired one and allowed a hit to the other, who scored after he left the game.
6/22 – First three up were a lefty, a righty and the pitcher. He retired the lefty, walked the righty and walked the pitcher. Next batter also a righty who he walked. Removed and reliever bailed him out.
6/23 – First three were all lefties. He retired two of them, as well as the fourth batter, also a lefty.
6/25 – First three were all lefties. He gave up hits to two of them and was replaced with runners on 2nd and 3rd. Reliever allowed one run to score.
6/27 – Two of the first three were lefties. Lefty led off with a single and lefty grounded out, sending runner to second. Intentionally walked the righty and replaced after allowing RBI to lefty. Reliever stranded two runners.
6/29 – Two of the first three were lefties. Retired both lefties but gave up hit to righty. Pinch hit with righty who he struck out.
6/30 – Two switch-hitters and the pitcher. Struck out a switch, surrendered a double to righty pinch-hitter. Retired the switch. Reliever stranded the runner at second.
7/3 – Two of the first three lefties. Retired the lefty, walked a righty pinch-hitter, surrendered HR to righty. Walked lefty. Reliever stranded him.
7/7 – Faced one batter. Gave up hit to lefty, who later scored.
Not once was he brought in where all the hitters he was scheduled to face were righties. The outing on 6/30, it was easy to predict a PH appearance to make it so but he did not allow a run in that outing. His 7/3 outing was the only one where righties did all the damage.
It’s hard to look at these 14 outings and lay all of the blame at the feet of being asked to go longer outings and face more righties. Yes, he gave up a double and two homers in 18 PA against righties. If he hadn’t given up a two-out hit to a lefty, the first homer wouldn’t have happened and the double didn’t hurt him.
In my opinion, it’s hard to criticize the usage pattern of Blevins over the 14 appearances where he allowed eight earned runs. Only once was he brought into the game where he did not have favorable matchups. Righties did major damage against him during this stretch but lefties contributed, too, and he still faced 60% LHB.
It seems likely that a poor-timed stretch of bad pitching was mostly to blame here. It shouldn’t be used as justification not to look to use him for more than a batter or two going forward. Blevins has had 16 outings this year where he’s pitched an inning or more and he’s only given up runs in one of those.