Scouting the Free Agent Market: Left-Handed Relievers

noboone.jpg (Justin Edmonds/Getty)
noboone.jpg (Justin Edmonds/Getty)

The Yankees came into the offseason seemingly determined to land a big money closer, and they did exactly that two weeks ago, when they inked Aroldis Chapman to a five-year contract. Chapman joins Dellin Betances and Tyler Clippard in the bullpen, probably Adam Warren too. The remaining bullpen spots are up for grabs with a whole bunch of young pitchers in the running.

Reports indicate the Yankees are still looking to add bullpen help — well, every team is looking for bullpen help, but you know what I mean — particularly a left-hander. They were in touch with Brett Cecil before he signed with the Cardinals, and they had interest in Mike Dunn before he signed with the Rockies. Here is New York’s lefty reliever depth chart at the moment:

  1. Aroldis Chapman
  2. Tommy Layne
  3. Chasen Shreve
  4. Richard Bleier
  5. Dietrich Enns

Chapman is the closer and won’t be used in left-on-left matchup situations in the middle innings. Right now Layne is that guy, and while he did nice work for the Yankees this past season, I’m not sure he’s someone they could count on going forward. The other three guys aren’t all that reliable either. They might prove to be next summer, but right now, I can’t imagine anyone wants to go into the season with one of those three as the top middle innings southpaw.

The current free agent class is not very good, especially now that most of the top players are off the board, but it does offer a few quality left-handed bullpen options. They won’t come cheap — Cecil got four years and Dunn got three years, so yikes — which might keep the Yankees out of the market all together. Still though, if a nice opportunity presents itself, the Yankees could pounce. Let’s review the available options.

Jerry Blevins

Blevins. (Greg Fiume/Getty)
Blevins. (Greg Fiume/Getty)

2016 Performance: Blevins, 33, spent the 2016 season with the Mets and pitched to a 2.79 ERA (3.05 FIP) in 42 innings spread across 73 innings, which tells you how he was used. He held left-handed hitters to a .250/.313/.324 (.283 wOBA) batting line against with 31.0% strikeouts, 7.1% walks, and 49.3% grounders. Blevins was actually much more effective against righties (.245 wOBA), but that was a big outlier compared to the rest of his career (.312 wOBA).

2016 Stuff: As with most relievers, Blevins is a two-pitch pitcher who relies on his fastball and breaking ball, in this case a curve. He has thrown a changeup on occasion in the past, but it’s not a big part of his arsenal. Here’s the PitchFX data from his past season. This numbers are against lefties only since we’re looking at matchup guys:

% Thrown Avg Velo Whiff% GB%
Fastball 63.0% 89.9 4.2% 59.5%
Curveball 35.7% 71.3 25.6% 32.0%

The fastball swing-and-miss rate is below-average (MLB AVG: 6.9%) while the curveball swing-and-miss rate is comfortably above-average (MLB AVG: 11.1%). Blevins got a ton of grounders with his fastball this year (MLB AVG: 37.9%), always has, while his curve is the opposite. It has a lower than average ground ball rate (MLB AVG: 48.7%) and has throughout his career.

The Skinny: There are very few consistently reliable matchup left-handers in baseball and Blevins is one of them. Since reaching the show for good in 2012, he’s held lefty batters to a sub-.285 wOBA four times in five years. Despite his success this year, Blevins isn’t effective against righties, and there’s nothing to indicate this year’s success was anything more than sample size noise (he faced only 65 righties). If the Yankees want a pure specialist, Blevins is one of the best out there.

J.P. Howell

2016 Performance: Last offseason Howell exercised a $6.25M player option in his contract to remain with the Dodgers. The 33-year-old had a 4.09 ERA (3.50 FIP) in 50.2 innings and 64 appearances overall, and lefties roughed him up pretty good too: .299/.340/.412 (.328 wOBA) with 21.4% strikeouts, 3.9% walks, and 66.7% grounders. Righties had success against Howell this year as well (.304 wOBA). Just a year ago he held lefties to a .237 wOBA, however.

2016 Stuff: Howell is another two-pitch reliever. He’s a sinker/curveball guy with kind of a funky delivery that adds some deception. Here’s how Howell’s stuff played against lefties in 2016:

% Thrown Avg Velo Whiff% GB%
Sinker 50.6% 85.9 4.7% 73.7%
Curveball 49.2% 79.1 11.7% 58.8%

Howell is a ground ball guy, not a bat-misser. Ground balls are fine, but when the guy’s primary job is to get out lefties, you’d like him to be able to do it without relying on his defense so much. A ground ball doesn’t help much when there is a runner on third with less than two outs. Howell is the not the type of pitcher who can come in and get you that strikeout.

The Skinny: Howell fell so far out of favor with the Dodgers this year that he wasn’t even on their postseason roster. Manager Dave Roberts went with rookie Grant Dayton and veteran Luis Avilan as his two lefty relievers in October. Howell is a finesse pitcher with no track record of big strikeout numbers, so there’s no reason to expect that going forward. Want him to get a lefty out? Chances are he’ll need his defense to make a play behind him.

Boone Logan

2016 Performance: Shoulder inflammation sidelined the 32-year-old Logan for two weeks at the end of May, and around that, he had a 3.69 ERA (3.23 FIP) in 46.1 innings and 66 appearances. He absolutely dominated lefties. They hit .139/.222/.255 (.215 wOBA) against him with 33.6% strikeouts, 7.6% walks, and 60.6% grounders. Nearly 70% of the lefties Logan faced this summer either struck out or hit the ball on the ground. Righties has more success against him, naturally (.305 wOBA).

2016 Stuff: As I’m sure you remember from his time with the Yankees, Logan is a four-seamer/sinker/slider pitcher with good velocity and a breaking ball that, when thrown right, is allergic to bats. Here are the numbers against lefties from 2016:

% Thrown Avg Velo Whiff% GB%
Four-Seam 31.7% 93.9 8.9% 42.9%
Sinker 12.4% 93.9 3.2% 70.6%
Slider 55.5% 84.2 27.8% 66.7%

Logan throws a ton of sliders, always has and always will. That pitch is the reason he’s in the big leagues. The slider gets a ton of swings and misses and a ton of grounders. The four-seamer gets an above-average amount of both too. Now that Dunn and Cecil are off the board, Logan is the only true power lefty remaining in free agency. He can throw the ball by hitters, which sure is a nice skill to have.

The Skinny: Logan never dominated lefties as thoroughly as he did this year. A season ago he held them to a .222/.349/.254 (.286 wOBA) batting line, which is nothing to write home about. His 2016 performance was a great big outlier compared to the rest of his career. That said, Logan has been generally serviceable against left-handed batters in his career, and his slider is probably the single best pitch among current free agent lefties.

Javier Lopez

Lopez. (Sean M. Haffey/Getty)
Lopez. (Sean M. Haffey/Getty)

2016 Performance: Lopez, the stalwart southpaw who was a key part of all those championship bullpens with the Giants, had a 4.05 ERA (5.40 FIP) at age 39 in 2016. He threw 26.2 innings across 68 appearances (lol), and lefties hit .208/.318/.316 (.289 wOBA) against him with 66.2% grounders and the same number of walks as strikeouts (11.2%). Righties absolutely clobbered Lopez this past season (.413 wOBA).

2016 Stuff: Lopez is a classic left-on-left matchup guy with little velocity, a sweepy breaking ball, and a funky sidearm delivery. The stereotypical LOOGY. PitchFX credits Lopez with both a slider and a curveball even though they’re the same pitch. He just varies the shape of his breaking ball. Anyway, here are the numbers against lefties from 2016:

% Thrown Avg Velo Whiff% GB%
Sinker 72.8% 85.0 6.2% 76.9%
Slider 21.3% 78.5 6.7% 50.0%
Curveball 5.4% 72.4 15.8% 0.0%

Well, the good news is Lopez is able to get ground balls with two pitches. Swings and misses though? It’s not happening. The curve, which is just a variation of his slider, got a good amount of whiffs, though he didn’t throw it all that much. Like Howell, Lopez is a guy who is going to put his defense to work to get outs.

The Skinny: Guys like Lopez scare the crap out of me. I know he spent all those years as a high-leverage matchup guy on championship teams, but, at this point of his career, Lopez is pushing 40 with no way to miss bats, even against lefties. The Giants had a miserable bullpen this past season and they’re walking away from a guy who was a key part of their bullpen through the title years. That’s kinda telling.

Travis Wood

2016 Performance: Unlike the other guys in this post, Wood has had success as a starter in his career. He made nine starts for the Cubs as recently as 2015 before moving to the bullpen full-time. This past season the 29-year-old had a 2.95 ERA (4.54 FIP) in 61 innings and 77 appearances. Wood was excellent against lefties, holding them to a .128/.208/.239 (.203 wOBA) batting line with 19.2% strikeouts, 9.2% walks, and 38.4% grounders. (And a .143 BABIP.) Righties hit him pretty hard though (.362 wOBA).

2016 Stuff: Even in relief, Wood used three pitches against lefties this summer. He attacked them with two fastballs (four-seamer and cutter) and a breaking ball (slider). And every once in a while he spun a curveball, but not often. Here’s how his stuff played against same-side hitters in 2016:

% Thrown Avg Velo Whiff% GB%
Four-seam 58.3% 91.5 9.8% 26.4%
Cutter 23.2% 87.7 6.2% 55.6%
Slider 13.7% 82.7 14.3% 53.3%

Whereas Logan has one excellent pitch in his slider, Wood has three good pitches but no truly dominant offering. I find it interesting Wood attacks lefties primarily with a four-seamer and cutter and not his slider. Does he front door the cutter? Or aim it at the outside corner and let it cut off the plate? Intrigue!

The Skinny: The free agent pitching market is so thin right now that I wonder if a team will look to sign Wood as a starter. He opened the 2015 season in the Cubs rotation and made at least 26 starts each year from 2012-14, so he has a lot of experience in that role. Either way, I don’t buy him being a true talent .203 wOBA pitcher against lefties, not with those strikeout and ground ball numbers, and especially without Chicago’s defense behind him. That doesn’t mean he’s a bad pitcher. I just don’t think Wood is really as good as he was in 2016.

* * *

To me, Blevins and Logan and Wood are at the head of the class here. Howell and especially Lopez are players I wouldn’t consider on anything more than a minor league deal. There are an awful lot of red flags with those two. Blevins is reliable, Logan brings that nasty slider, and Wood might have a chance to be something more than a pure left-on-left matchup guy.

As always, it’s going to come down to cost. Bullpen help is not cheap these days. Cecil signed for four years and $7.625M annually. Dunn received $6.33M per year across three years. Remember when the Yankees gave Matt Thornton two years and $7M total and it seemed kinda crazy? Those days are long gone. Decent middle relief help will cost you $6M a year or more. The Yankees might not be willing to commit that much to a lefty reliever, especially with no true shutdown guy available.

The Jerry Blevins Option

(AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

The Yankees have been without a second left-hander in the bullpen all season because of Pedro Feliciano’s torn shoulder capsule (and Damaso Marte‘s injury, but that was expected), though they recently picked up Randy Flores on a minor league contract. He’s made a handful of appearances for Triple-A Scranton and can opt out of his contract sometime before the All-Star break, but another lefty reliever hit the market this afternoon: Jerry Blevins.

The Athletics designated Blevins for assignment earlier today after 14.1 brutal innings. He walked as many batters as he struck out (13), and the 28 left-handed batters he faced tagged him for a .318/.429/.591 batting line this year. No way around it, that’s awful. But that’s also not the real Blevins. Prior to this season the 27-year-old held lefties to a .227/.270/.292 batting line with 54 strikeouts in exactly 200 plate appearances. Not a huge sample, but he showed a similar split in the minors and it’s a whole lot more meaningful than what he did this season.

The cause of Blevins’ problems this year seems to be his slider. He’s lost about six inches of horizontal break and an inch of vertical break from the pitch over the winter, so it’s basically flattened out. Batters went from whiffing on the pitch more than 10% of the time in the past to exactly zero percent of the time this year. As a result, he was using it just 6% of the time in 2011 as opposed to ~13% from 2009-2010. Maybe it’s just a mechanical problem, maybe he’s hurt, maybe this is the real Blevins, who knows.

With all due respect to Flores, Blevins is a much more promising LOOGY candidate given his age and recent history, this year notwithstanding. There’s zero chance he’ll clear or even get to the Yankees on waivers, so they’d have to trade for him. The Athletics devalued him with the DFA, so it shouldn’t cost a ton to acquire him. Given Boone Logan‘s poor overall performance against lefties (.323/.382/.484 in 35 PA), having a second option would be a nice luxury. That would also allow Hector Noesi to go back to the minors to actually, you know, pitch. That would leave Lance Pendleton as the long man, which is fine by me. Blevins’ numbers are ugly this year, but someone will gamble on that pre-2011 track record and I really hope it’s the Yankees.

Mailbag: Oakland Relievers

Not gonna happen. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

Tucker asks: You already wrote about possible deals with the A’s for starting pitchers, but what about relievers? Could guys like Blevins, Breslow, Wuertz or Ziegler be had and would they be worth it? Could taking a shot on Joey Devine play dividends?

Here’s the post I wrote about Oakland starters earlier this offseason, before the Hisashi Iwakuma fallout and the David DeJesus/Vin Mazzaro trade. Maybe a trade for a starter could have been worked out if things had played out differently, maybe not. At the moment, the A’s are set to open the season with Dallas Braden, Trevor Cahill, Brett Anderson, Gio Gonzalez, and the winner of the Rich Harden-Brandon McCarthy Spring Training battle in the rotation. That leaves about 14 candidates for the bullpen according to the team’s 40-man roster, but of course some of those guys still need time in the minors. Regardless, they have plenty of bullpen depth and can afford to move one or two relievers for an upgrade elsewhere.

Assuming that former Rookie of the Year and two-time All Star Andrew Bailey is off-limits, let’s look at five of the team’s better relievers and see if they’d make sense for the Yankees.

(AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Jerry Blevins
I’m not sure if anyone has shut down lefty batters as quietly as Blevins has in recent years. He’s held them to just a .276 wOBA with 54 strikeouts and six unintentional walks in exactly 200 plate appearances against. It’s not a huge sample, but it’s what we have. His career ground ball rate isn’t fantastic (36.6%), but it’s workable. From what I can gather, he has one minor league option (though I could easily be wrong, this stuff can be tricky) and five more years of team control remaining (he’s going to qualify as a Super Two, however), so he also provides quite a bit of flexibility. The 27-year-old Blevins fits in any team’s bullpen.

Craig Breslow
A Yale grad, Breslow bounced from the Padres to the Red Sox to the Indians to the Twins before finally sticking with the A’s. His overall numbers were rock solid in 2010, pitching to a 3.91 FIP with 8.56 K/9 and 3.01 uIBB/9 in 74.2 IP. The lefty held same-side batters to .273 wOBA in 2010, and for his career it’s a .265 wOBA against. His 83-31 K/uIBB ratio in 360 plate appearances isn’t as good as Blevins’, but it’s plenty good enough. The biggest negative is that he’s an extreme fly ball guy (70.4% non-grounders last year, and it’s been trending in the wrong direction for a few years now), so Yankee Stadium will exacerbate his already established homerun problem (1.06 HR/9 last few years). Breslow is definitely out-of-options, so he has to stick in the big leagues no matter what, plus he’s just heading into his arbitration years and will be making some decent coin.

Joey Devine
Back when it was cool to draft college closers in the first round, the Braves made Devine the 27th overall pick in the 2005 draft, one spot ahead of Colby Rasmus. I think Atlanta would like to push the reset button on that one. The 27-year-old hasn’t thrown a pitch (majors or minors) since 2008 because of a prolonged recovery from Tommy John surgery, but the A’s stuck by him and have continued to renew his contract since (a total of $1.525M counting his 2011 salary). He was lights out in 2008, striking out 9.66 batters per nine while walking just 2.56 unintentionally per nine in 45.2 innings (zero homers, 0.59 ERA, 1.97 FIP). That accounts for 69.9% of his big league career in terms of innings.  Devine, a rare sidearmer that throws hard (averaged 93.3 mph), has demonstrated a slight platoon split in his brief time in the majors: .240 wOBA against vs. RHB, .274 vs. LHB. He has to be considered a complete unknown given the long layoff, but there is some upside here.

Michael Wuertz
You’d be hard pressed to find a better relief season than Wuertz’s 2009 campaign. He struck out 102 batters in 78.2 innings (11.67 K/9) and walked just 22 unintentionally (2.52 uIBB/9). Combine that with an above average 45.5% ground ball rate, and you’ve got yourself one hell of a dominant reliever. That season earned Wuertz a two-year, $5.25M contract (with an option), buying out his final two years of arbitration eligibility. Elbow trouble (completely unsurprising for a guy that throws about 60% sliders) and minor thumb tendinitis limited him to just 39.2 IP in 2010, when his rate stats dropped to 9.08 K/9, 3.63 uIBB/9, and 41.3% grounders. He also became strikingly homer prone (1.36 HR/9 after a few sub-1.00 years). If you acquire him, you’re gambling $3.05M (his 2011 salary plus the buyout of his $3.25M option) that he reverts back to the guy he was in 2009. In terms of walk and homerun rate, that 2009 season sticks out like a sore thumb compared to the rest of his career.

(AP Photo/Jack Rendulich)

Brad Ziegler
Ziegler burst onto the scene with a 39.1 inning scoreless streak to start his big league career back in 2008, but since then he’s been a rather generic sinker-slider submarine reliever. He makes up for a mediocre strikeout rate (5.81 K/9 career) by getting a ton of ground balls (60.5% career) and limiting walks (2.88 uIBB/9 career). As with most submariners, Ziegler has a pronounced platoon split and should be considered nothing more than a righty specialist. He’s held right-handed batters to just a .269 wOBA, but lefties have tattooed him for a .371 wOBA. The 31-year-old has four years of team control left and at least one minor league option remaining.

* * *

The Yankees have shown interest in Wuertz before, but Blevins and Ziegler are the most desirable to me given their low cost and general flexibility. The fact that both are nothing more than specialists sucks, but it is what it is. I can’t imagine the A’s would be willing to part with Devine (at a reasonable price, anyway) after sticking with him for so long. Perhaps a potential trade could be expanded to include Conor Jackson, who is stuck in limbo after the A’s rebuilt their corner outfields this winter. He’s a righty hitting leftfielder/first baseman with a career .373 wOBA against southpaws that does not strike out at all (just 238 K in almost 2,100 career plate appearances, 4.9% swings and misses). The problem is that he’s been hurt (Valley fever, two hamstring strains, and a sports hernia) and generally awful (.294 wOBA) over the last two seasons. He earned $3.1M last season and will make at least that in 2011 during his final trip through the arbitration process, and that’s simply too much money to gamble on a rebound candidate for the bench in my book. Why Oakland didn’t non-tender him, I’ll never know.

Anyone, one of the problems involving a potential deal is that these two clubs don’t match up well. Oakland’s pitching staff is generally set, and after adding Josh Willingham, David DeJesus, and Hideki Matsui this winter, their lineup is pretty much set as well. They re looking for an upgrade over Kevin Kouzmanoff at third base, but they Yankees don’t have that guy to offer. Maybe prospects would get it done, but I don’t like the idea of giving up prospects for relievers, especially flawed ones like Ziegler and Blevins. There’s definitely a it for the Yankees, but not for the Athletics, and it takes two to tango.