Tigers vs. Athletics, 2013 ALDS: A's bullpen could make a difference late in games

Jason O. Watson

The Tigers might have the better starting rotation, but there's no question that the A's have the better bullpen in this series.

Despite their bullpen's best attempts, the Tigers were able to finish off the Oakland Athletics in five games in last year's ALDS. Joaquin Benoit blew a 3-2 lead in Game 2 of the series -- the tail end of his weird homer-prone 2012 -- but was let off the hook when the Tigers scratched across a pair of runs against the A's pen for a walkoff win.

In Game 4, the Tigers had the A's on the ropes at the O.Co Coliseum. Leading 3-1 in the ninth, Jose Valverde allowed three runs on just 14 pitches to send the series to a decisive Game 5. Luckily for the Tigers, Justin Verlander didn't give his bullpen a chance to blow another lead, throwing a four-hit shutout to send the Tigers to the ALCS.

Plug and play?

This season, things started about as well as they ended in 2012. The "closer by committee" approach was successful for all of one game, as Phil Coke vultured a save on Opening Day before blowing one the next afternoon. The Tigers' pen allowed five runs in the eighth inning in the third game of the year, and the quest for a new closer began.

Unfortunately, that quest didn't take them too far from last year's roster. Jose Valverde was signed, sealed, and delivered to Detroit much to the fanbase's chagrin. He started off decently -- if dangerously -- but quickly fell out of favor again, blowing three saves in 12 chances.

With Coke and Valverde out of the running, Jim Leyland turned to Joaquin Benoit. Thankfully, Benoit rose to the challenge, saving his first 19 chances in the closer role. He blew a pair of saves in late September -- one of which came after the Tigers had clinched the AL Central -- but finished the season with 24 saves in 26 opportunities, a 2.01 ERA, and just five home runs allowed in 67 innings. Benoit's ground ball rate and pop up rate both rose dramatically from 2012, resulting in a .194 opposing batting average and 1.03 WHIP this season.

One of the biggest reasons why Leyland was comfortable with moving Benoit to the closer role was the emergence of Drew Smyly as a competent late innings reliever. Smyly finished the season with a 6-0 record, 2.37 ERA, and 2.31 FIP in 76 innings. He was used sparingly in September, logging just seven innings in 10 appearances. With Coke out for the series, Smyly will be Leyland's first choice as a left-handed pitcher out of the pen thanks to a .471 OPS against this season.

Midseason acquisition Jose Veras had a couple of shaky outings since coming over from Houston, but maintained a solid 3.20 ERA despite his walk rate rising to pre-2013 levels. He was able to keep baserunners at bay for the most part, allowing a 1.22 WHIP and just two home runs in 19 2/3 innings with Detroit.

One of the biggest storylines in the Tigers' bullpen -- literally and figuratively -- is the absence of Bruce Rondon from the playoff roster. Rondon has been battling elbow soreness, but was absolutely dominant in his last outing, striking out the side against the Minnesota Twins on just 10 pitches. Al Alburquerque will likely fill Rondon's role as the strikeout specialist, a role he excelled in during the stretch run. He didn't allow a run after his awful September 4th outing against the Boston Red Sox, and only gave up one hit and three walks in 8 2/3 innings while striking out 11 batters.

Rick Porcello will join the playoff bullpen again in 2013, but it's tough to see where he fits in. He only pitched 1 1/3 innings in two mop-up appearances in last year's playoffs and his two relief appearances in the 2011 postseason weren't much better. One came in a rain-soaked Game 1 of the ALCS where he replaced Justin Verlander after a lengthy delay, while the other came in the decisive Game 6 after the Tigers were already down 5-2. If used "properly" -- a term fans struggled to define with Smyly this season -- Porcello could be a useful asset.

The Tigers will likely carry one or two more relievers, with Luke Putkonen, Jose Alvarez, and Evan Reed among the frontrunners. All three had their ups and downs during the regular season. Alvarez had more downs than ups at the major league level, but is also the only lefty of the group. Given Oakland's versatility and willingness to substitute based on pitcher-hitter matchups, I'd like to see the Tigers go with the best pitcher in either Reed or Putkonen.

Of course, combining them to create an eight foot Finnish monster with four arms would probably be the best option for all parties involved. Given the time needed for something like this to occur -- German scientists, you're killing me here -- I'd only give this a 40% chance of happening.

This seems familiar

The last time the Tigers saw Grant Balfour, Torii Hunter was circling the bases at Comerica Park after salvaging one of the worst series in memory with a three-run walkoff homer. Balfour headlines an A's bullpen that hasn't changed much since last year. He, Ryan Cook, Jerry Blevins, Sean Doolittle, and Brett Anderson are all holdovers from last season's ALDS roster -- though Anderson was a starter last season.

Balfour was lights out all year long, allowing just 14 earned runs in his other 62 innings pitched during the regular season. He struck out 72 batters this year, his highest rate since the 2008 season when he was with the Tampa Bay Rays.

Sitting behind Balfour are Cook and Doolittle, with Blevins pitching in an inordinate amount of losses compared to last season. In 2012, the A's were 33-31 in regular season games that Blevins pitched in. In 2013, they were 26-41. Blevins' ERA dropped off some, but his WHIP largely remained the same thanks to a drop in walk rate of nearly a full batter per nine innings. The southpaw struggled to get lefties out this season though, allowing a .791 OPS to left-handed hitters compared to a .581 OPS against righties. Last year, those numbers were .575 and .693, respectively.

Cook's ERA rose from 2.09 in 2012 to 2.54 in 2013, but his peripherals largely stayed the same. He struck out fewer batters but only allowed two home runs all season long. He was lights out at home, holding opposing hitters to a .562 OPS and 2.15 ERA in 37 2/3 innings. The left-handed Doolittle saw a sharp drop in strikeout rate from last season, but maintained a nearly identical ERA despite facing nearly twice as many right-handed hitters as lefties. His FIP rose from 2.09 to 2.71 due to the drop in strikeouts.

Lefty Brett Anderson was in the A's rotation to begin the year, but a rough start in which he allowed seven runs on eight hits to these same Tigers in Oakland was the beginning of the end for him. He gave up 11 runs in his next three starts before going on the disabled list for an ankle sprain and stress fracture. He returned on August 28th, picking up his first big league save in a three inning appearance against the Tigers where he allowed three runs on five hits. He wasn't much better in September though, giving up seven runs in 12 2/3 innings. I don't think Anderson will be used in many late inning situations, especially given his awful platoon splits against left-handed hitters this year.

Newcomers Jesse Chavez and Dan Otero, both righties, are at opposite ends of the fans' spectrum in the Bay Area. Otero had a 1.38 ERA and 2.12 FIP in 39 innings this year thanks to a minuscule walk rate and no home runs allowed. He induced ground balls at a 56% rate, but a .333 BABIP resulted in opposing hitters batting .275 off him. Chavez relied more on strikeouts, fanning 8.63 batters per nine innings. He was much wilder than Otero however, giving up 3.14 walks per nine innings. He was particularly prone to bad outings; he gave up two runs or more in eight separate relief appearances this season.

The bottom line

The A's had one of the best bullpens in the American League this season. They had the third lowest ERA, FIP, walk rate, and home run rate among AL bullpens. They also ranked first among AL playoff teams in all of these categories. Other than Balfour, they don't have specific roles carved out like the Tigers do, and their versatility is their strength. Doolittle and Blevins can get righties out, and Bob Melvin has trusted them to do so throughout the year. Cook and Balfour are power arms that don't have some of the command issues that the livelier arms in the Tigers' pen do. If any games in this series go extra innings, the A's have a good chance of picking up a W.

Advantage: Oakland

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