This post was originally going to be a page view-grabbing garble of words about how Drew Smyly could conceivably be the Tigers' closer due to the fact that his splits against right-handed hitters aren't as horrible as everyone else in the bullpen. However, two things happened.
For one, I remembered that certain members of the Tigers organization read what we write, so I figured it was best to not plant bad ideas like wasting Smyly's value by turning him into a one-inning pitcher into their heads. So, Tigers organization, do this instead.
Second, and more importantly, I looked at Al Alburquerque's career splits against right- and left-handed hitters, and... well, they're really good. That said, everything from here on out gets a "small sample size" asterisk applied to it.
In two seasons with the Tigers, Alburquerque has logged just 56 2/3 innings due to an elbow injury that sidelined him for nearly the entire 2012 season. In that time, he has allowed just 10 earned runs while striking out a whopping 36.2% of batters. This crazy strikeout rate is largely thanks to a devastating slider that he throws over 55% of the time. His whiff rate, or the percentage of times that a hitter swings and misses at that pitch, is nearly 25%.
However, with the dearth of options available in the bullpen to close games, we're most concerned with Alburquerque's ability to get lefties out. The other relievers vying for the spot -- Joaquin Benoit, Phil Coke, Brayan Villarreal (hey, why not?), and Octavio Dotel, all gave up worse splits to opposing-handed hitters in 2012. Here are the actual results.
|Coke vs. L||.263||.313||.373||.685||3.75||.333|
|Coke vs. R||.396||.446||.604||1.050||2.10||.474|
|Dotel vs. L||.288||.360||.413||.772||2.38||.377|
|Dotel vs. R||.197||.217||.307||.523||10.75||.258|
|Benoit vs. L||.237||.296||.424||.721||3.92||.302|
|Benoit vs. R||.217||.278||.442||.720||3.70||.244|
|AlAl vs. L||.167||.272||.167||.439||3.82||.313|
|AlAl vs. R||.117||.292||.136||.428||1.65||.197|
|Villarreal vs. L||.253||.395||.400||.795||1.00||.306|
|Villarreal vs. R||.220||.280||.321||.601||4.23||.304|
*The numbers in the table for Alburquerque and Villarreal are career splits due to small(er) sample size issues
Alburquerque's numbers clearly stand out here, especially against lefthanders. Remember that slider that we were talking about earlier? He throws it "just" 53.6% of the time against lefties, but they swing and miss almost 29% of the time. Additionally, Alburquerque's command against lefties has been even better than against righties. He has issued just 11 walks to lefties compared to 26 against righties in his career despite facing a near-50/50 split of hitters on either side of the plate.
One of the main arguments against using Alburquerque as the closer is the same exact set of points I have made so far to suggest he would succeed in the 9th inning: his ability to strike hitters out on either side of the plate. Alburquerque has served as a "fireman"-type reliever in the past two seasons, coming into the game in high-leverage situations where a strikeout is needed. More often than not, he has delivered. There are no stats to back up whether this role is more important to the team than the closer position, but there are no shortage of personal biases filling the void.
Another argument against using Alburquerque in the 9th inning is his durability. He hasn't been able to stay healthy, largely thanks to the same slider that makes him so effective in the first place. However, I don't know that the "will he be able to pitch two days in a row?" argument can be used for the closer role without being flipped back around to talk about his current role in the bullpen.
Overall, your opinion of where Alburquerque should be used in the bullpen is going to reflect your personal bias of the importance of the closer position. I would like to see Alburquerque stay in his current role because of the amount of success that he has had so far. I'd imagine that Jim Leyland and the Tigers feel the same way, and will roll with the veteran trio of Benoit, Coke, and Dotel working the ninth inning to start the season. Is it the right decision? It's still too early to say, but hopefully we won't be revisiting this issue in six months wondering what could have been.