The Detroit Tigers have been very fortunate for the past several seasons with their ninth inning relief pitchers. Perhaps no other team in major league baseball, other than the New York Yankees, has had such steadiness and consistency in the relief role that is commonly referred to as the closer.
Since the arrival of Jim Leyland in 2006, the Tigers have had Todd Jones, or Fernando Rodney, or Jose Valverde occupy the ninth inning relief role, and they have been tremendously successful doing what they were assigned to do, which is to save games by holding the lead they were given in the ninth inning.
Jones saved 86% of his chances in each of his three seasons 2006, 2007, and 2008. He never had more than six blown saves, an average of one per month, in his time in that role before he ran out of gas and ceded the job to Fernando Rodney at the end of the 2008 season. Rodney saved 37 of 38 games for the Tigers in 2009, for a 97% save percentage.
In 2010, Rodney left as a free agent and the Tigers signed Jose Valverde, the most successful free agent closer available at the time. El Papa Grande, as he is affectionately known by Tiger fans, saved 26 of 29 (90%) in 2010, a perfect 49 of 49 in 2011, and 35 of 40 (88%) in 2012.
Never in that entire six year span has any of these closers saved less than 86%, and never has any closer had more than six blown saves in a season. By major league standards, that is a fantastic record. There is nothing more frustrating in baseball than losing a game that you though you had won. Tiger fans could be forgiven for being spoiled and for being concerned when a long time stable role is suddenly tossed into turmoil.
Suddenly, Valverde has lost his magic. He has blown two saves in the past week, both in the post season, and fans and media alike are calling for his job. Jim Leyland was asked after Valverde blew a four run lead in the ninth inning on Saturday whether he could trust Valverde to close again. Even Leyland, who is loyal to a fault, refused to say that Valverde is his closer, instead saying that the staff would discuss it. It is clear now, however, that Valverde has lost velocity on his once deadly fastball and his splitter appears to have split on him.
It would appear that the lack of an endorsement from the manager signals the end of Valverde as the Tiger closer. Who then will take his place. The Tigers have seven pitchers in their bullpen, barring any injuries. If Valverde is injured, the Tigers can place him on the disabled list, and replace him on the roster immediately. However, Valverde would then be ineligible for the remainder of the ALCS as well as the World Series.
Joaquin Benoit has been the eighth inning set up man for the Tigers the past two seasons and has done a stellar job in that role. Benoit has 13 saves in his career, and five over the past three seasons. However, Benoit has been barely better than Valverde, blowing a game himself and nearly blowing another one in Oakland. He allowed just three home runs in the first three months of the season, but has allowed eleven homers the past three months, plus one that cost the Tigers a game in the ALDS. Benoit’s 2.25 ERA before the All Star break has ballooned into a 5.52 ERA after the break.
Octavio Dotel would be the choice for those wanting a veteran in the role, and it would appear that is one of the criteria that is important to Mr. Leyland. Dotel has 109 career saves, most recently serving as closer for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2010 where he saved 22 of 26 games. He has a respectable 3.57 ERA and an impressive 1.07 WHIP, bolstered by the fact that he doesn’t walk many batters. The weakness would be that Dotel’s splits show he is much better against right handed hitters, holding them to a .197 average, while lefties hit .288 off him. The on base plus slugging average shows a difference of .250 points. With so many lefty hitters in the Yankee lineup, this may not be the best time for Dotel.
Phil Coke has the opposite splits, except even more extreme. Leyland has generally been using Coke as a lefty specialist, except in rare circumstances where there is a single righty hitting among several lefties, or a switch hitter that hits much better batting left. Coke has an okay line of .263 .313 .373.685 against lefties, but a gawdy .396 .446 .604 1.050 stat line against right handed hitters. He should not be trusted to get a right handed batter out.
Al Alburquerque will be the darling choice of many fans, although he lacks the major league experience that Leyland is likely to want in the closer’s role. He made just eight appearances for the Tigers this season, pitched 13 innings and posted an 0.68 ERA while allowing hitters only a .133 batting average. He has a wild streak but his deadly slider gives him a great strikeout ratio. Many clubs have put talented young relievers in the closer’s role with very good success, but the stakes are sky high and Leyland may not want to roll the dice on the youngster at this time.
Drew Smyly closed out the game on Saturday by throwing two scoreless innings and picking up the win. But Smyly has been a starting pitcher and has a good shot to begin next season in the rotation. He’d have the advantage of being left handed, facing a Yankee lineup stacked with left handed hitters. He’s probably not available Sunday after pitching two innings on Saturday.
Rick Porcello is the other starting pitcher and would be the long reliever should Anibal Sanchez get into trouble in the early innings. I believe he has shown poise beyond his years and could do the job as well as anyone if asked. Porcello has pitched better against right handers and has done his best work in his first 15 pitches, but he is not the classic closer in that he's not a strikeout pitcher.
Jose Valverde has not been officially removed from the job, although that does appear to be imminent after blowing two ninth inning leads in the past week during the post season. It appears that he has trouble locating his split fastball, and the cold weather or an injury could be contributing to that. Regardless, the Tigers can't afford another outing like Valverde had in game one against the Yankees. The Tiger rotation has held opponents to just five runs in over 40 post season innings, but Valverde has given up seven runs in just 2-1/3 innings. El Papa grande may have saved his final game as a Tiger.
Jim Leyland may decide that he will use a "closer by committee" approach, and use some combination of the above pitchers, depending on the match ups.
What do you think the Tigers should do?