The Blue Jays’ bullpen has been a bit of a mess this year. In early May, they suddenly lost their closer, which forced every other Blue Jays reliever to adopt a new role. It’s been an exercise of “trial and error” for John Gibbons as he attempts to navigate his relief corps and find the best way to utilize his relievers.
All things considered, the Blue Jays’ bullpen has performed admirably under this unexpected duress. Despite having to back-fill their bullpen, Blue Jays relievers are middle of the pack in terms of ERA and strikeouts (11th in MLB in strikeouts and 15th in MLB in reliever ERA).
Just because the Jays don’t have the best bullpen in baseball, doesn’t mean Jays relievers haven’t had some memorable games and clutch performances.
Here’s my best attempt to rank the five best relief appearances by Blue Jays pitchers this season. A qualifier; this list is somewhat subjective on my part. It’s ranked mostly by WPA (win probability added) per appearance, but I also considered the situation of the game at hand, the opponent and the calibre of batters the reliever faced.
5.) Ryan Tepera: June 6th vs New York, 2 IP, +.243 WPA
John Gibbons’ path to the ninth inning used to be fairly linear. In 2016, it was Cecil/Biagini to Grilli to Osuna. Last year, it was Leone/Barnes to Tepera to Osuna. This year, those plans flew completely out the window. It often caused Gibbons to call upon his most-trusted relievers for more than three outs.
This was the case for Ryan Tepera on June 6th in Toronto against the Yankees. After Gaviglio put forth a gutsy seven-inning performance, Gibbons immediately went to Tepera in the eighth and was rewarded with an effective 11-pitch performance from Tepera.
Since he went through the top of the Yankees’ order so easily, Tepera was called upon for a second inning of relief, needing only 17 pitches to retire the Yankees’ 4-5-6-7 hitters.
4.) Joe Biagini: July 6th vs New York, 1.2 IP, +.208 WPA
How’s this for a high-pressure situation? Joe Biagini entered this game with the bases loaded in the fifth inning, his team clinging to a 5-2 lead and Giancarlo Stanton at the plate. Stanton owns a career .811 OPS with the bases loaded, so this situation seemed like a recipe for disaster.
Instead, Biagini struck out Stanton looking and then got Didi Gregorius to line out to end the threat. Those two combined putouts accounted for a 16% win probability increase for the Blue Jays, the second biggest WPA swing of that game.
Maybe the most impressive part of this appearance? In the plate appearance against Stanton, Biagini fought his way all the way down from a 3-0 count to put away Stanton with a fastball on the outside corner.
After he retired Stanton and Gregorius, Biagini came back and pitched a clean sixth inning to help preserve the Blue Jays’ 5-2 lead over the Yankees. If anything, this appearance reaffirmed my opinion on whether Biagini should stay in the bullpen.
3.) Seunghwan Oh: July 8th vs New York, 2 IP, +.243 WPA
This appearance by Seunghwan Oh was the model of efficiency for the Blue Jays bullpen. He faced six batters, gave up one hit and it took him only 20 pitches to get six outs.
It was ultimately a losing effort for the Blue Jays (the Yankees won 2-1), but Oh’s scoreless eighth and ninth innings at least kept the game close.
2.) John Axford: June 9th vs Baltimore, 2 IP, +.274 WPA
This was one messy game for the Blue Jays’ bullpen. In the top of the eighth inning, the sequence went as follows for Toronto’s relievers: groundout, hit by pitch, reached on error, walk, strikeout, wild pitch, strikeout.
The following inning, John Axford nearly contributed to his own demise. With runners on second and third with one out, the Ax Man escaped unscathed thanks in part to a great throw by Aledmys Diaz to nail Adam Jones at home plate.
Axford went back out for a second inning of relief in the tenth inning and locked down the win, courtesy of a walk-off walk in the bottom of the frame by Luke Maile.
1.) Sam Gaviglio: May 11th vs Boston, 3 IP, +.410 WPA
Sam Gaviglio made his Blue Jays debut on May 11th in extra innings against the Boston Red Sox and the situation could not have been higher leverage. Truth be told, Gibby didn’t have many options left in the bullpen for this game after he used Axford, Oh, Tepera and Clippard to pick up four innings of relief once Aaron Sanchez exited after five innings of work.
Kudos to Gaviglio for navigating through the buzz-saw that is the 2018 Boston Red Sox lineup. He faced Mookie Betts twice, struck him out once, while also successfully retiring J.D. Martinez.
He faced 12 batters in total during this relief appearance; giving up one lone hit, walking no one and striking out three batters. Gaviglio walked the tightrope during extra innings and helped the Blue Jays hang in just long enough for Luke Maile to deliver the walk-off home run in the bottom of the 12th inning.