Odds are, as FanGraphs readers, you aren’t Oakland A’s fans, but you are at least somewhat familiar with Jerry Blevins. You know something about who he is and what he does for a living. You might have an idea of how good he is at it. To you, this isn’t weird; Blevins is a baseball player, and you know a lot about a lot of baseball players. To other people outside the baseball-fandom bubble, you know a lot about a lot of guys you’ve never met. Speaking generally, it is profoundly unusual to be familiar with Jerry Blevins. Tuesday night, though, Blevins got himself in headlines, so it’s very slightly less unusual to be familiar with him than it was before.
As you might’ve seen or read about already, Blevins came through with a clutch ninth-inning relief appearance that allowed the A’s to beat the Angels, 6-5. According to Cool Standings, the win boosted Oakland’s playoff odds from 85 percent to 90 percent, and the loss dropped LA’s playoff odds from 32 percent to 26 percent. Recall that the Angels were supposed to be one of the best teams in recent baseball history. There is now a three-in-four chance they don’t even reach the one-game playoff. I don’t know how these odds would’ve swung had the Angels rallied and won, but suffice to say things would look very different indeed.
Blevins pitched in the ninth inning last night, but he did not begin the ninth inning. Grant Balfour began the ninth inning with the A’s up 6-3. Two walks and two singles later, it was 6-5 with nobody out and runners on the corners. That’s when Blevins came in to attempt to save the day, and that’s when Blevins started saving the day.
It was Albert Pujols who drilled the second single off of Balfour. Following the single, the Angels were still behind, but their win expectancy was about 64 percent. This is one of those things that’s been revealed since win expectancy was developed — it is possible for a team to be both trailing and heavily favored. Watching on TV, you think, okay, the team with the lead is always ahead. Technically that’s true, but consider the Angels’ situation. They had the tying run 90 feet away, with nobody out. They had the winning run 270 feet away, with nobody out. Beginning with that situation, about two out of every three times, the Angels end up winning.
The Angels lost, and they lost after just two more batters. The first batter Blevins faced was Kendrys Morales, and the lefty Blevins got Morales swinging from the right side. On the one hand, Morales is a good deal less effective from the right side. On the other hand, Morales has a lower strikeout rate from the right side, and Blevins has shown considerable platoon splits. This looked good for the Angels right up to when Morales struck out swinging.
In a 1-and-1 count, Blevins just blew a fastball in the zone right by Morales’ bat, which couldn’t catch up.
That put Blevins in front, and it enabled him to try a low-away changeup out of the zone. Morales had just swung through an outside fastball. A low-away changeup would look a lot like an outside fastball, and Morales would know that he had to protect.
The strikeout dropped the Angels’ win expectancy to about 44 percent. That brought up Howie Kendrick, who I could’ve sworn was for a time going by Howard Kendrick, which never felt right. The Oakland infield had been conceding a run; now it shifted into double-play formation. Kendrick is a groundball hitter like few others, and for his career he’s hit into more double plays than the average. Oakland had a chance. But then, Blevins is not a groundball pitcher, and especially not against right-handed batters. There was no taking anything for granted.
There was especially no taking pick-off attempts for granted. The Angels had pinch-run Peter Bourjos at first base, and Bourjos almost got to run for a while.
The narrative at the end of the game was about how Blevins and the A’s just have ice in their veins, and they’re unafraid of anything, even as underdogs. The narrative was very nearly the complete opposite of that, which I suppose would be Blevins and the A’s having fire in their veins. Blevins would slam the door. Blevins almost threw a ball away that would’ve put the Angels in position to complete a massive last-minute rally.
Anyhow, Kendrick, and Blevins. There was a ball, and then there was a foul, and then there was another foul. Ahead in the count, Blevins came low and inside with a sinker. He got exactly the result I assume he was looking for.
I didn’t .gif the whole thing, but that’s a grounder to third base. Josh Donaldson threw to Cliff Pennington, retiring the fast Bourjos, and Pennington threw to Brandon Moss, retiring the fast Kendrick. Earlier in the game, Donaldson had committed a throwing error. One year ago, Donaldson was a catcher. One month ago, Pennington was a shortstop. One year ago, Moss was an outfielder. Go back to a year ago and describe to yourself this future sequence of events. The old you will probably shake his head and punch you in the face.
Blevins was given credit for a save — just the second save of his career — but that seems to understate things. Blevins did basically save the baseball game, but based on win expectancy this seems like a save/win hybrid. Blevins protected Oakland’s lead, but he also entered with the Angels as two-to-one favorites. Blevins was given one thing in the box score, when it feels like he should’ve been given multiple things. Blevins entered last night with his team having a 36-percent chance of winning, and he was given a save. Hisashi Iwakuma entered on May 30 with his team having a ~100-percent chance of winning, and he was given a save. All right.
Now, finally, for what the headline is referring to. Blevins finished yesterday with a Win Probability Added of 63.7 percent. Here are the top five 2012 relief appearance WPAs:
- Luis Perez, 75%, 4/5
- Jerry Blevins, 64%, 9/11
- Joe Kelly, 63%, 8/19
- Fernando Rodney, 54%, 9/1
- Javier Lopez, 53%, 5/8
Perez comes out on top, but in Perez’s relief appearance, he threw four innings, facing 14 batters. Blevins threw one inning, facing two batters. Blevins just had the most valuable short-relief appearance of the entire 2012 season, which probably doesn’t come as a real surprise. That doesn’t even take into consideration the significance of the game itself in the playoff race.
Additionally, throughout baseball history, Blevins had the seventh-most valuable two-batter relief appearance. On April 17, 2000, Todd Erdos inherited a one-run lead with the bases loaded and nobody out, and he slammed the door. Just over a month later, Kerry Ligtenberg did the same thing. Blevins’ appearance doesn’t quite match up to those. But it nearly does, and more importantly, this isn’t what’s important. Jerry Blevins doesn’t care where his appearance ranks all-time; Jerry Blevins just cares that it’s over, and that it ended with a smile.