Okay...it's "easy" to write this in the immediate aftermath of a galling loss because there is a bit of frustration and anger fueling the keyboard. It's easy to lose perspective. It's easy to forget that certain decisions have worked recently and that Jose Valverde has had some outings where you thought "he didn't look half-bad".
Maybe this shouldn't be written now. A deep breath and a day or two might make for a more even-handed judgement of the issues. I'm not saying the end is near and the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse are riding into Detroit. This loss is not necessarily a harbinger of pestilence and misery. Jim Leyland doesn't need to retire and Jose Valverde isn't the villain.
But, darn it, that wasn't necessary. Max Scherzer going into bulldog mode after allowing some early runs shouldn't have went for naught. Avisail Garcia's homer and run-scoring single should be being celebrated right now instead of us wondering how he slightly mistimed his leap or didn't take one more step to jump closer to the wall to get that first out in the ninth inning.
First off...forget about Jose Valverde. This isn't necessarily about him (we'll get to that later). It is about Jim Leyland...but only to the extent that it's about almost all managers and how they manage the vaunted "Save Opportunity". It is about how they are under-utliizing a prime bullpen asset and not putting themselves in the best position to win because they are afraid of deviating from accepted practices. Let's look at what was on Leyland's plate.
The Tigers are up two runs and their starter has thrown 119 pitches. We can debate whether or not he should have been asked to go one more inning but we know the answer in the majority of major league dugouts...that guy is done and the Save Compiler is going to get the 9th.
In the 8th inning both Jose Ortega and Drew Smyly were getting warm. This is important to note. Smyly was loose. Once Max Scherzer had ended the 8th inning Leyland could see that the O's would be sending up the lefty Nick Markakis, righty Adam Jones, and lefty Chris Davis to start the 9th. None of those batters is going to get lifted for a pinch-hitter no matter who enters the game for Detroit. Markakis has not hit a homer against a lefty this year and posts lower overall numbers against southpaw so far. Davis has hit well against southpaws, but nowhere near the bludgeoning he is perpetrating on righties.
This is spot where it goes completely off the rails for me around Major League Baseball. Two very tough lefty batters are due up. Arguably the first or second best reliever in the Tigers bullpen happens to be a lefty, Smyly (and he is warmed up). Also neither of the two top relievers are named "Valverde" in the opinion of most. Around the game managers will relentlessly chase lefty/lefty or righty/righty match-ups all through the middle innings and even into the 8th if they don't have a gun-slinging "8th inning guy". However the Save Compiler...the vaunted Closer...is given a pass. Complete immunity from fearing the platoon split issue.
This was the spot to deviate from "The Formula", Mr. Leyland. It cried for it. This is not lowly "second guessing" after the fact. We all can read a batting order and we all saw Smyly was up and ready. The middle of the Baltimore order, two tough lefties, and only a two-run lead in a band-box park. Yes, Valverde has mostly waltzed his way through some tight spots. Yes, Valverde "has no fear" and has "done it before". He's a "proven Closer". All that is fine and it will even work most of the time. There is also a chance that Drew Smyly would have been lit up for three runs himself. This situation, however, had "Valverde's Grave" written all over it.
Drew Smyly has limited lefties to a slash-line of .106/.143/.106. Look at that. No extra-base hits allowed to a lefty. None. Also, please don't trot out Mitch Williams or some other ex-jock on MLB Network telling us, "the 9th inning is different, it just is, you need a special guy to get the last three outs." Stuff it, Mitch. (I like Mitch, by the way, he's just wrong here because as an ex-Closer his reputation now is burnished by pumping up the myth of the Closer's value) Drew Smyly pitched the 12th inning of a playoff game in Yankee Stadium last Autumn to finish a victory and he didn't pee himself to my knowledge. He just went out and did his job. If he could do that, he could toe the rubber at Orioles Park in late May with no special problems other than facing some quality hitters.
By the way...what is Drew Smyly now? Is he a middle reliever, a set up man, a LOOGy, a janitor? The night before in Pittsburgh there was a game that could have gone all night and he never entered it. Did the 5 batters he faced on Wednesday night make him unavailable? Really? He's that fragile now. He didn't pitch on Monday in a close victory because he faced 8 batters on Sunday. He didn't pitch on Tuesday in an 11-inning loss. Then he faces 5 batters on Wednesday and he needs Thursday off? Really? He has faced 13 batters in 6 days. Is the plan to make him a starter at any point in the next two years? This seems like a funny way to go about it. To have him warmed up and ready tonight with tough lefties looming and go the traditional route of the Save Compiler instead was just another day he sits on his butt in the bullpen.
To put it another way, the Tigers have lost four straight very tight games, two of them in 11-innings, three of them with the game deciding runs allowed by the bullpen, and their first or second best reliever has merely faced 5 batters in that time. (and he was tasked to hold a two-run deficit)
The Tigers not using Drew Smyly to their best advantage is completely on management and by that I mean Jim Leyland and Dave Dombrowski. Smyly needs to be pushed for a few more high-leverage innings. He has had some injury issues in his past, but that's all the more reason to push him now while he's healthy. He could break down any time for plenty of reasons. I think they are actually hurting his long term outlook as a starter by using him sporadically and for short stints. He should be used to get six to ten outs as often as possible. But he should also be used when rested to parachute in and rescue a game like this one. Aggressive use of a weapon like Smyly is imperative given the make up of the bullpen. He's as good as they have, let him show it. If he really is so fragile that you can't push him harder, then my word, why aren't you getting more bullpen help tomorrow?
Going the traditional Closer route without even considering the alternatives is also on Leyland but he shares that with 98% of MLB managers. If you put almost any other manager in a Tigers uniform with the same roster alternatives that Leyland had tonight, I'm confident that Valverde would have been given the ball by nearly all of them. Sink or swim. "I went with my guy." No thought involved. The majority of the "blame" gets shunted to the Closer or perhaps to the GM to do something. The manager gets to some criticism (like here!) but if he's handed a new Save Compiler at the trade deadline he can continue on his merry way of not thinking the situation through and going on auto-pilot with his Closer in all Save Opportunities.
I'm not angry as a fan at Jose Valverde for this loss. Yes, he was bad. He grooved two pitches to Markakis and Dickerson. Valverde also is guilty of baiting us into false hope by getting those two pop-ups to nearly get off the hook. He has actually had several solid moments in his handful of appearances. But nights like this are going to happen at this stage of his career. The Tigers signed up for this. Is anyone in true shock over what they saw?
It should also be noted that if he gets the final out to secure the win, the odds are I've written none of this tonight. All is well and the Tigers tee it up tomorrow. However I would have still written about this concept at some point in the aftermath this weekend, even after a win. I feel that strongly that the result tonight is actually immaterial because the tactic employed was less than ideal win or lose. The "standard operating procedure" is where the problem actually sits.
Managers (with their GM's blessing) need to give themselves the chance to consider the entirety of the situation outside of the Closer-centric Formula when it makes sense. The chance to adjust. The opportunity to improve their odds of victory by being proactive instead of wrapping themselves in the cozy blanket of riding out the accepted formula. A better way was available tonight. There is no guarantee Smyly holds that lead...but I liked the odds a lot more.
I'm not saying you need to depose Valverde of the gig either. He will get the job done most of the time. Give him the 3-run save chances. Give him the chances when a lot of righties are due up. He's the guy if pitchers like Smyly or Benoit are spent from previous games. Let him face the bottom of the order against sad-sack offenses like the Twins, Royals, or the White Sox. But, for God's sake, if you see two dangerous lefties due up like Friday night in Baltimore and Drew Smyly is rested and ready to roll...that's the move!!
If you trade for Jon Papelbon later this year, we can discuss the traditional Closer format if you want. But right now you're rollilng with Papa Grande...and that's okay. But only if you allow yourself a chance to deviate when factors dictate a different guy take the hill maximizing your chances of victory.