The Detroit Tigers’ 2012 season ended on a freezing cold October night at Comerica Park, watching the San Francisco Giants celebrate a four game sweep of the World Series. As the Tigers, and Tiger fans asked themselves what went wrong, attention was focused on an offense that had produced runs all season but inexplicably shut down at the end. And attention focused on a bullpen that imploded at just the wrong time.
Just as the 2012 playoffs began, the Tiger bullpen began to fall apart. Jose Valverde, who had been unreliable for three seasons, was completely unreliable. Joaquin Benoit, who had been brilliant in an eighth inning role, had allowed more home runs than any other relief pitcher in the league, and was again having issues with the long ball in October. Phil Coke managed to get a few key outs to escape disaster, but Coke was on the mound in the tenth inning to surrender the winning run by giving up a couple of Twinkie style hits to a pair of right handed hitters that sealed the Tigers’ fate.
The 2013 season started in much the same way, with questions about the bullpen. Dave Dombrowski decided to stand pat. The plan was addition by subtraction. Let Jose Valverde walk, and replace him with rookie, Bruce Rondon, who had never thrown a pitch in the major leagues. When Rondon failed to make the team, the questions persisted. Jose Valverde was brought back and notched nine saves, but blew three chances and his heralded splitter had split town, leaving him with only a mediocre fastball that he dare throw over the plate.
It was very clear from comments made during the off season that Dombrowski was a whole lot more confident in the Tiger bullpen, and in finding a closer within the organization, than Jim Leyland was. Leyland at one point actually went down the list of names on the roster, and stated his concerns about being able to find a closer among them.
When the dust had settled, after almost the entire staff at BYB had each called for Benoit and/ or Drew Smyly to be given a shot at closing games, rather than trading Rick Porcello or a top prospect for a "proven closer", and after Rondon was demoted, and Valverde departed, the Tigers settled on Benoit for ninth inning duties. Smyly found his way, ever so slowly, into a set up role, and voila!, the Tiger had one of the most effective late inning tandems in the league.
By mid season, Benoit was being considered for a spot on the All Star team. He and Smyly were as good of a one- two punch in the eighth and ninth innings as any in the league. Next, Rondon was recalled and given a low pressure role, and he began to thrive. Jose Veras was acquired in a trade from Houston at the end of July. Leyland began to mix n match obsessively, using the foursome in the late innings with great effectiveness.
Al Alburquerque returned, his walk rate cut in half from one per inning to maybe one every two innings, and he threw more wicked sliders than hanging sliders. Coke was moved from closer consideration, to set up, to LOOGY, to Toledo, before being given his pre-destined spot back on the roster. Life was good, although still very interesting when Tiger starters handed the ball over to the bullpen.
By season’s end, the Tiger bullpen as a whole looked quite respectable. For the season, they posted a net ERA of 4.01, which was 12th in the league, but their save percentage of 71% ranked third, ahead of any other playoff team. In the second half of the season, their 73% was fourth in the league- and fourth in their division. By contrast, the Red Sox had a save percentage of just 57% in the second half, better than only the Houston Astros who had shipped their closer off to Detroit.
The Tiger bullpen lost the lead just seven times after the all star break in the seventh inning or later. Only two teams, the Twins and Indians (Chris Perez included), had fewer blown saves. The Red Sox blew ten saves, the A’s eleven, the Royals "best in the league" bullpen blew eight late leads.
Led by Benoit, who converted 24 of 26 save opportunities, the Tiger bullpen was very efficient when it mattered most. Benoit allowed just five home runs in 2013, compared with 14 in 2012. He didn’t blow a save opportunity until September, when he lost a lead in two meaningless games against the Twins and the Marlins during the last week of the season. You could say that he was "due" to let a couple of games get away, and you’d probably be right.
In the final analysis, Dave Dombrowski was right in believing that the Tigers didn’t have to spend a fortune to bring in a "proven closer", or sell the farm to trade for one. Even after Rondon, Valverde II, Coke, Brayan Villarreal, and Octavio Dotel were unable to fill the roles that were scripted for them during the season, others stepped up and filled the roles.
This is not to say that the Tiger bullpen doesn’t have issues. Every bullpen has it’s questions. Tiger relievers, other than Smyly, aren’t as great against left handed hitters. They could use another left handed reliever since Coke has been so ineffective against lefties recently, and Alvarez isn’t the answer. Maybe Coke can just be an Ortiz specialist. An OOOGY?
Where does that leave the Tigers now? Benoit has given up a grand slam to David Ortiz on a pitch that should never have been thrown. It’s only natural for Tiger fans to feel haunted by the ghosts of Valverde and Benoit past. But even amidst a few unclean innings recently, he still gets the job done the vast majority of the time. The Tigers have won five of six games in the post season when their closer was summoned to finish the job.
The Tigers have four relief pitchers, not counting Rick Porcello, who have been very effective recently. Benoit, Smyly, Veras, and Alburquerque are each striking out at least a batter per inning. Alburquerque is still an adventure every time out, but he's been more good than bad. Benoit’s 2012 late season is still fresh in the minds of Tiger fans. But on the whole, there have been relatively few games that get away in the late innings.
Bullpens are, by nature, the most fickle part of a baseball team’s roster. Relief pitchers are mainly pitchers who have failed as starters at some point in their careers. Very few relief pitchers remain effective in their roles year after year. But
When you add it all up, the Tigers have had no more problems with their bullpen than any other team. It’s perfectly natural for relievers, including closers, to allow runs and even blow leads from time to time. It’s also very common for a pitcher to struggle for several games at a time. It’s even more natural for fans to freak out and want to change closers at the first sign of trouble. Many fans also wanted to bail out on some of the players in the lineup who have gotten the Tigers this far. Wisely, Leyland didn’t heed their calls. Be careful what you wish for. The alternative isn’t likely to be any better than what we’ve got.