According to the twitter machine, the Nats just picked up a lefty reliever
— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) August 5, 2014
So who is he, and what does he do? Matt Thornton, being of sound mind and body, is defined by both is job and his handedness, hence the title of “lefty reliever.” He is, in fact, both of these. So is Jerry Blevins. Does one need two? If not, is one better.
Alright, enough of that, let’s take a look at Thornton
Thornton is 37 years old, spent the bulk of his career with the White Sox, and has a career ERA of 3.49, for an ERA+ of 128. He has 23 saves in 652 appearances, so closing is not what he does. His career K/9 rate of 9.1 looks pretty nice, but it’s been on the decline for a few years, and from 2012-2014, it’s only been 7.0. His BB/9 rate, though, has also decreased – only 2.0 over the same time period versus 3.5 for his career.
However, as a lefty, what we really want to see are his splits. In his career, LHH have managed a .234/.297/.345 against him. Not bad at all. But RHH haven’t been too good either, only hitting .241/.324/.361. More recently the splits have been more pronounced. His OPS against LHH in 2012, 2013 and 2014 were .660, .638, and .556, respectively. But RHH have managed to hit him better, with OPS’s of .709, .807, and .704.
And On to Blevins
Blevins, who the Nats acquired this offseason, has a career ERA of 3.54, for an ERA+ of 113. His career K/9 of 8.2 and BB/9 of 3.2 are pretty indicative of what he’s still doing, and at only 30 years old that’s to be expected. His 2014 ERA of 5.09 is horrible, but before we write him off, let’s take a look at his splits.
For his career, he has been dominant against LHH, and they’ve only managed to hit .211/.266/.336 off of him. Righties fare far better, hitting .250/.336/.393. That’s not horrible, but it isn’t good against RHH. This year the split is extreme. Lefties simply can’t touch him, hitting a measly .137/.190/.205 against him, while righties have mashed, piling up a .321/.400/.449 line.
So What’s the Difference
These stats shine a pretty good light on what the difference between these two guys really is. Assuming 2013 was more of an aberration, Thornton is essentially a solid middle reliever moving towards the end of his career that probably should be used as such. He is good against lefties and pretty effective against righties. He still has strikeout stuff against LHH, and the RHH aren’t killing him, so using him in an inning that features both shouldn’t be considered a bad idea. However, putting him in solely to pitch to a couple of righties is probably not a go to move. But keep this in mind – whatever decision they make, they picked up an effective reliever, figuring out what to do with the roster is a secondary decision.
Blevins, on the other hand, looks like a prototypical LOOGY right now. Over his career he has shown enough vs RHH that you wouldn’t think he would be lost against them, and that may come back. But this year he is awful against them, and he simply shouldn’t be used vs RHH in a high leverage situation. If Matt Williams wants to work out the kinks against some righties when the Nats are up by 10, ok, but in a close game, it’s pretty unwise. That being said, he has always been, and continues to be, better than Thornton against lefties.
You might think the Nats picked up Thornton because their bullpen isn’t pitching great. Except it has the 6th best ERA in baseball. It has had a very bad July, though, with the 6th worst ERA in MLB. So call it a bad month, or call it something that needs to be fixed.
And “tired” or “fatigued” or something of the sort is a term you might see in regards to their bullpen, but it’s pitched the 9th fewest innings in MLB this year. Craig Stammen is the only reliever in the top 40 (in MLB) in terms of IP with 55 1/3 (11th), next on the list is Tyler Clippard at 47 (49th), then Ross Detwiler at 45 (65th) and Rafael Soriano at 43 1/3 (78th). So, this bullpen should not be tired.
If there’s only room for one lefty in the pen, the easy decision oh who should be with the team and who shouldn’t in not necessarily an easy one. It would be a shame to lose Blevins because he has been woefully misused to this point. The way he has pitched, 90 PAs against RHH to 81 PAs against LHH seems like criminal mishandling. I’d rather have Blevins than literally any other Nats pitcher to face Freddie Freeman, Adrian Gonzalez or Matt Adams.
But I’m not Matt Williams, and neither is Mike Rizzo. The two of us get the opportunity to signal for a reliever the same amount of times during the season – zero. If Rizzo doesn’t trust Williams to use Blevins properly, then he might have to substitute him for a LHP who is less effective vs lefty hitters but more effective overall. If Blevins falls off the roster after this move, it might give us a hint into Rizzo’s mindset. Of course, it might show that Rizzo favors a more universally effective LHP than a LOOGY. But if Blevins and Thornton both stay, and Williams uses them both properly, that is probably the best thing for the team.