Back on August 10, the Braves had one of their worst meltdowns in recent memory against a much weaker foe in the Miami Marlins. It was a game many felt would be remembered for a while, whether it be because of the meltdown itself or the fire extinguisher frenzy that followed (IT GOT NEWKED!). Regardless of how it was viewed, everyone knew that the bullpen’s response in the days that followed had the potential to substantially impact the Braves’ positioning in the playoff picture.
Thankfully, the Braves bullpen righted the ship, and did it quickly. Easily the worst bullpen in the majors since the All-Star Break even before the Meltdown in Miami, the Braves’ relievers have bounced back with a vengeance. Atlanta is 8-2 since that unfortunate game. In 34 1⁄3 innings since August 10th, the bullpen has produced a 4.19 ERA, 3.41 FIP, and 3.38 xFIP. Atlanta relievers are ninth in ERA, fifth in FIP, and second in xFIP. When evaluated based on what they can control, the bullpen has been among the best in the majors since the catastrophe.
The sources of the success should come as no surprise. Deadline additions Chris Martin, Mark Melancon, and Shane Greene have all settled into their roles and have become reliable once again, at least for the time being. While still an adventure when they pitch, Luke Jackson and Anthony Swarzak are beginning to experience less bad luck when they are on the mound. Overall, any time the starter comes out, Braves fans probably can’t help but feel nervous. However, over the past two weeks, the bullpen has shown on multiple occasions what Atlanta’s Front Office envisioned it could be when it shipped off a series of players in exchange for three reliever additions.
However, the aforementioned options have not been the only contributors to Atlanta’s success. Obviously, the names above are the first options Brian Snitker will turn to, and for good reason. However, just because a reliever is not frequently used does not mean he lacks substance. This is definitely the case when it comes to Jerry Blevins.
If you find yourself immediately thinking, “How in the heck has Blevins stayed around despite all the roster moves this year?” you are not alone. Any baseball fan, whether casual or die-hard, that has seen Blevins pitch knows he has his limitations, perhaps to a level that makes it surprising he is in a postseason contender’s bullpen. Picked up in an April trade as the first response to staunching the bullpen’s early-season bloodletting, Blevins has only thrown 25 1⁄3 innings in over four months with Atlanta. (For comparison, both Chad Sobotka and A.J. Minter have thrown more frames, despite being part of the taxi squad between Atlanta and Gwinnett.) However, more often than not, he has gotten the job done when called upon.
A big reason for his success is his well-known ability to limit the production of left-handed batters. Blevins has faced 52 left-handers this year, and has allowed seven hits, seven walks, and two earned runs. In terms of single-season marks, Blevins has produced the third-lowest ERA, third-lowest batting average against, and third-lowest wOBA-against measures of his career against left-handers in 2019. While some luck has been involved, Blevins has been exceptionally effective at doing the one job he is meant to do consistently.
As mentioned above, Blevins’ success should come as no surprise. While no one has ever considered him to be dominant in terms of pure “stuff,” Blevins has been one of the most lethal weapons against left-handers in the majors during his career. Blevins has thrown 246 2⁄3 innings versus left-handed hitters since 2007, his rookie season. Of the 268 pitchers who have thrown more than 240 innings against left-handed hitters in that time frame. Blevins is 15th in batting average allowed and 10th in wOBA allowed. To show it has not all been luck, Blevins is 23rd with a 3.25 xFIP.
Back on August 12th, with the horrific outcome in Miami still fresh on the minds of many, the Braves welcomed the New York Mets to Atlanta, the hottest team in the majors since the trade deadline. Atlanta shot out to an early lead in the first two games of the series, but the bullpen ran into trouble late in each game. In both games, Michael Conforto stepped to the plate with a chance to tie the game or put the Mets ahead. Both times, the Braves used Blevins to pitch to him. The results were an RBI ground out in the first game and a strikeout to end the second game in a win. Both times, Blevins was able to limit the damage to help secure a Braves victory.
The trend of Blevins’ infrequent but important utilization could continue into September. Atlanta has several games left with the Mets, Nationals and Phillies, including a 14-game stretch against Washington and Philadelphia that likely will decide the playoff hopes of each contender. That means that over the final 33 games in 2019, Atlanta will have to see some familiar faces in Matt Adams, Juan Soto, Bryce Harper, Jeff McNeil, and Conforto. In 10 plate appearances, these five hitters have produced one hit, two walks, and two RBI versus Blevins in 2019. Though Harper has a career OPS above 1.000 versus Blevins in 26 career plate appearances, he has struck out both times he has faced Blevins this year.
The Braves will face some tough roster decisions over the next few weeks as players return from injury, even with the rosters expanding. That means more options will be available for Brian Snitker to use in different situations during many important September games. While the bullpen has certainly been less than reliable far too often this season, Jerry Blevins has done enough to be trusted in (some) important situations. Snitker has trusted his gut using Blevins before, and it has worked out in the Braves’ favor nearly every time. (Blevins has yet to post negative WPA in a game where his average leverage index exceeded 2.00; you have to go all the way down to middling leverages of 1.25 and 1.11 to find outings where Blevins either failed to add any WPA or cost the team WPA.) That type of reliability will need to be present more than ever in September. As a result, the Braves and their fans may once again be thanking the heavens they have Jerry Blevins on multiple occasions before this special season ends.