This morning, the Oakland A's traded their longest-tenured player, Kurt Suzuki, to the Washington Nationals. It's always sad to lose a long-time fan favorite, even when you have become hardened to the realities of constant roster turnover. To lighten the mood, let's play a little game. Really, it's a pop quiz, but calling it a "game" makes it sound more fun.
Quick: With Suzuki gone, who is the longest-tenured player on the A's current 25-man roster? By "longest-tenured," I mean the guy with the earliest Oakland debut without leaving the organization (even if they've spent time in AAA since their debut). My first thought was Cliff Pennington. That is not the correct answer. (Pennington debuted in August of 2008.)
Before I tell you who it is, let me clear up a couple of technicalities. Dallas Braden made his Oakland debut on April 24, 2007 (which precedes even Suzuki), but he's on the 60-day DL, so he's out of the running for now. Daric Barton made his debut on September 10, 2007, but he's in Sacramento and seems unlikely to don an Oakland uniform again. That brings us to the next player on the list: On September 16, 2007, Jerry Blevins made his MLB debut, throwing a scoreless inning against the Texas Rangers. That means that, until Braden returns, Blevins is the longest-tenured player on the current active roster.
That seems like an odd fact for a couple of reasons. First, Billy Beane goes through relief pitchers faster than toilet paper; Oakland seems to have a completely new bullpen just about every season. It is surprising that any one reliever could have stuck around long enough to be the longest-tenured player, even if that distinction only requires 5 years of service time.
Second, Blevins just isn't that good. Or at least, he has never seemed to be that good. He's always been that extra lefty at the back end of the bullpen, shuttling between Oakland and Sacramento. He's the guy who fans never want to see in a tight spot in the 8th, because he doesn't feel like a reliable, shutdown reliever. His stats probably back that up. I'll just assume that they back that up. No need to go and check...
Blevins, career: 186.2 innings, 122 ERA+, 2.61 K:BB, 8.4 K/9ip 1.0 HR/9ip, 3.74 FIP, +0.95 WPA
Wait, what? Those are pretty good numbers. Are we talking about the same Jerry Blevins?
2007: Rookie year, insignificant sample size
2008: 37.2 innings, 133 ERA+
2009: 22.1 innings, 90 ERA+, BUT career best K/9, BB/9, and K:BB
2010: 48.2 innings, 112 ERA+, BUT career worst BB/9 and HR/9
2011: 28.1 innings, 140 ERA+, BUT career worst K:BB
As it turns out, Blevins has been consistently solid throughout his career. He's never put together that one amazing season, where everything falls right and he posts an insane ERA, but he's always had good-to-excellent strikeout and walk rates and his career 122 ERA+ (meaning that his ERA has been 22% better than average) shows that the results have been there, too. His homer-happy 2010 (7 bombs in 48 innings) may be the reason why A's fans are so reluctant to trust Blevins; it seemed like he served one up every time he took the mound that season.
Here's the thing, though. Remember how I said that he's never had that one season where everything came together?
2012: 45.0 innings, 181 ERA+, 3.0 K:BB
He's having it right now. Blevins has quietly put together one of the best seasons out of Oakland's 2012 bullpen, sporting a 2.20 ERA and a K:BB ratio which, among the current group, has only been exceeded by Sean Doolittle. More importantly, Blevins has been trusted with a few more high-leverage, late-inning situations than normal (6.1 "high leverage innings," according to Fangraphs, without allowing a run), not to mention a dozen outings where he's recorded at least 5 outs. During Monday's marathon 15-inning win over the Rays, Blevins turned in a crucial 8-out performance, allowing just 2 hits.
While Oakland's offense has come alive this summer, the team's playoff hopes lie squarely with their pitching staff. The young starting rotation has been impressive, but the bullpen has been absolute nails, putting up an AL-best 2.87 ERA despite lackluster peripheral stats. For Oakland's pennant chase to continue, the 'pen will have to continue to perform at a high level. That starts with closer Ryan Cook and setup man Sean Doolittle, but a great bullpen needs to be strong from front to back. It needs unsung success stories like Blevins and Jordan Norberto to cover the middle innings, so that leads stay intact long enough to reach the serious firepower in the 8th and 9th.
Jerry Blevins is having an excellent season and, although he's flown a bit under the radar, he's been a big part of Oakland's league-best bullpen. Turns out that pitching well is nothing new for him, though. He's been doing it for years; we just didn't really notice.