Washington’s bullpen in 2013 was a major weaknesses, ranking 17th in the major leagues with an ERA of 3.56 (3.50 FIP) despite retaining mainstays Tyler Clippard, Drew Storen, Craig Stammen, and Ryan Mattheus and the addition of veteran closer Rafael Soriano.
The Nationals chose not to retain left-handed pitchers Tom Gorzelanny, Michael Gonzalez, and, most notably, Sean Burnett, who served as a late-inning reliever after coming from the Pittsburgh Pirates via trade in 2009, over concern about the health of his pitching elbow and the cost it would take to keep him. In his place, the Nationals signed Soriano, moving Drew Storen to a setup role, ostensibly reducing Clippard’s workload.
General Manager Mike Rizzo claimed there was no need to add an additional left handed reliever, saying that the relievers they had were more than capable of handling hitters on both sides of the plate. Moving Storen to a set-up role meant less work for Clippard, who dominated left-handed hitters in 2012, saving him to face hitters from both sides of the plate in high leverage situations.
However, the best laid plans of mice and men often go astray. While Clippard was excellent in 2013, holding opposing hitters to a .517 OPS, his groundball rate decreased and his strike out percentage against left-handed hitters was 12.2 percent lower than against right-handers. While shaky defense contributed to some of the bullpen’s struggles, inability was evident as Nationals relievers fell from seventh in 2012 to 17th in ERA against left-handed hitters. Relievers allowed left-handed hitters to put the ball in play too often to be counted on in high-leverage situations.
To fix this problem, Rizzo sought a reliable reliever to augment the 2014 Nationals, acquiring Jerry Blevins from the Oakland Athletics.
Blevins, 30, may break camp as the only left-hander and should help to stabilize the bullpen by coming in games to face tough left-handed hitters. He was actually better against right-handers in 2013, and held all hitters to .171/.230/.325 in the second half of the season, but did not appear in the postseason for the Athletics.
Blevins’ ability to face both left and right-handed hitters should push his name higher up on the bullpen depth chart and is an asset the Nationals have not previously had. In 2012 Burnett threw 56.2 innings despite appearing in 70 games, and posted almost alarming platoon splits. Blevins, who threw 60 innings last year and maintained 7.78 strikeouts per nine innings, should be trusted to do more than only face left-handers. Blevins efficiency against right-handers might seem like an unnecessary commodity, but he should be trusted to retire left-handed hitters more efficiently than Clippard or Storen can and pitch complete innings doing it.
Blevins’ inconsistent platoon split statistics are still reason for some concern, and it remains to be seen how he will transition from being an ancillary part of a bullpen to having an essential role in one. But, he has been on the mound for some of the Athletics memorable moments from the last few years, and appeared in the postseason for Oakland in 2012. Solid left-handed relievers are a limited commodity in baseball, and with the Nationals trading two this past winter, he should be considered an upgrade they sorely needed and should help the bullpen return to be one of the better in baseball.