What makes a good closer? Is it an ingrained trait, something that a pitcher is born with? Are they forged through years of pitching in stressful situations, weeding out the pretenders along the way? Or is the "closer's mentality" a myth, as current sabermetric theories would lead you to believe? While I believe that the closer role is highly overrated, we're not here to debate this theory.
Instead, we're interested in what's best for the Tigers, and after yesterday's game, it's hard for anyone to argue that Jose Valverde is involved in that discussion. Valverde blew his third save of the year yesterday, allowing a two-run home run to Lorenzo Cain on an 0-2 splitter that caught way too much plate. While I was a proponent of the Valverde experiment -- I started the bandwagon back in February, much to the dismay of many -- it's important to know when to cut your losses and move on, and it seems pretty clear that the time to change closers has come.
We're still not sure what the Tigers have planned for Valverde. Jim Leyland wasn't exactly the happiest guy during post-game interviews yesterday, and gave no indication of whether Valverde would still be the closer going forward. For the sake of this post (and our sanity), let's assume that the Tigers have had enough. Conventional theory suggests that Dave Dombrowski will look around the league for a trade partner to bring in a relief pitcher with closer experience.
However, this doesn't have to be the case. As I stated above, I don't believe in the "closer mentality." Sure, it's probably not a good idea to rely on a guy that says "Eh, I'm not sure I want to pitch in the ninth." Then again, there's a good chance that someone with that mentality probably didn't make it anywhere near the major leagues.
Instead of looking elsewhere for a relief pitcher who may or may not work out, why not save the resources and give someone already in the organization a shot? The popular choices for this will undoubtedly be Drew Smyly, Bruce Rondon, and Joaquin Benoit, with Rick Porcello as a dark horse candidate when the playoffs start, but I'm thinking outside the box.
Given that the organization has already bucked the "closer by committee" idea, I think it's safe to assume that the Tigers will look for one player to handle the ninth inning. Here are a few names you might not have thought of as possible closers for the Tigers going forward.
The real "forgotten man of the bullpen," Downs has only pitched 2/3 of an inning since May 23rd. Unlike David Pauley, Downs hasn't done anything to deserve his lack of playing time. In 23 innings this year, Downs has allowed eight earned runs, striking out 27 batters while walking just seven. His 1.087 WHIP is fourth-best in the Tigers bullpen, behind Smyly, Benoit, and Valverde.
Downs doesn't have the stuff that Benoit or Smyly do, but that hasn't stopped him from striking out over a batter per inning during his 43 2/3 big league innings over the past two seasons. He has allowed righties to hit .250/.347/.420 during that time, but has only allowed them to hit .213/.302/.383 this year. He has also cut down his walk rate by over a batter per nine innings this season. His line drive rate in 2013 is unsustainably low at just 10.3%, but the rest of his peripherals suggest that he will continue to be effective once that normalizes.
Stop laughing and listen. Putkonen is a former third round pick with a fastball averaging 94.6 miles per hour and a curveball that has garnered a 21% whiff rate in 2013. And get this: he has closer experience! All kidding aside -- Putkonen picked up his first career save in the Tigers' final game of the 2012 regular season -- he has pitched well in limited action in 2013. He has allowed just seven runs in a combined 30 innings between Triple-A and the big leagues this season, or a 2.10 ERA. He has struck out just under a batter per inning while only walking 2.7 batters per nine innings in Triple-A.
His big league peripherals haven't been spectacular overall, but we're working with an incredibly small sample size here. He struggled in a couple of outings soon after his first call-up last season, but adjusted well and ended the season with 10 consecutive scoreless innings. The biggest case against the Big Finn -- See! He already has a nickname! -- is that he seems to struggle against left-handed pitching. In his big league career, lefties have hit .293/.370/.415 off him. However, lefties had an OPS 90 points lower than righties did off him in 145 plate appearances at Triple-A last season.
Little did the Marlins know that they were waiving a shutdown closer this spring when they parted ways with Reed. Oh well, it's not like they traded the best hitter of our generation for peanuts, right? Err... bad example.
Reed, like Putkonen, has the big fastball that you expect out of a late inning reliever. His four-seamer has averaged 95.8 miles per hour in his short time with the Tigers this season, and his slider already ranks two runs above average compared with all big league pitchers. He only has four career big league innings under his belt, all of which came in garbage time against the Texas Rangers last month.
However, his minor league peripherals are intriguing. He has struck out a batter per inning in his three seasons at the Triple-A level, including 10.7 batters per nine innings this season. His walk rate at Triple-A -- 4.2 batters per nine innings -- is higher than I would like, but his 1.219 WHIP is still pretty solid. He has pitched well against both righties and lefties as well. A .741 OPS allowed to lefties in 2011 is the highest rate he has allowed from either side of the plate at the Triple-A level.
There will definitely be backlash to these ideas, especially among those that believe that the ninth inning is a different animal than your run-of-the-mill sixth or seventh inning relief appearance. However, the numbers suggest that at least once of these players listed should be able to handle the lion's share of save opportunities for the Tigers. The organization has already thrown the "closer by committee" idea out the window, but it may be a good idea for them to explore some unconventional options when searching for their next closer.