The Tiger bullpen has been a problem all season, and the players that they do have are being poorly utilized. We all knew that Jose Valverde was an accident waiting to happen. Well, it happened. Again. And Jim Leyland let it happen. It didn't have to happen, but it did, and there you have it. Now what?
You can quote all the stats you want about Valverde's ERA and WHIP for the season entering Friday's game. But what we all saw was a starting pitcher, 119 pitches into a dominant performance, taken out of the game with a three-run lead in the ninth inning. His replacement, "the closer" stood there on the mound, throwing batting practice, when any little leaguer could see that he didn't have it, and he served up not one, but a pair of two run homers, blowing a great start and snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
The Tigers bullpen now has a save percentage of 55.5 percent, which ranks 14th in the league. That means that the bullpen has blown over 44 percent of the leads of one to three runs that it has been given in the seventh inning or later.
As for Valverde, let's first acknowledge the fact that reliable closers are very difficult to find, and he has been a rare gem among closers over the past three seasons. But no more. The guy who stood on the mound Friday night was not El Papa Grande that we once knew and loved. He was not throwing any strikes at the bottom of the strike zone at all. In fact, he was not a major league pitcher. Still, indications are that he's Leyland's guy and he's sticking with him in the pre defined role of closer.
The bullpen problems should come as a surprise to nobody. The Tigers bullpen last year allowed the second highest batting average and OPS in the league to opposing hitters, and finished with only the tenth best bullpen ERA. Their closer had imploded, yet they rolled the dice on an unproven rookie to fill the narrowly defined ninth inning role. The solution? Bring back the guy who couldn't get it done last year.
Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski decided early in the winter that replacing Valverde as the closer was not a top priority. This from a guy who has always made having a veteran closer a priority, even when he wasn't signing any free agents to multi year contracts. He has never gone hog wild, paying $10 million salaries and more for a pitcher to pitch the ninth inning, but he has always filled the role with a veteran through free agency, and things have gone very well for the club.
This time, the Tigers thought they had a young prospect in Bruce Rondon who could fill the role. Without throwing a pitch in the major leagues, he was given the job to lose. He lost it. When Jim Leyland addressed the closer situation in January during TigerFest, he went down the list of Tigers relief pitchers, name by name, and gave reasons why each of them was ill suited to be the team's closer. Leyland was right.
If Rondon couldn't step up, plan B was to use a "closer by committee" approach, changing pitchers constantly based on match ups. For Leyland, this would mean left, right, left, right, etc. That was a terrible idea.
Leyland left Valverde in the game on Friday because he was the team's closer, dammit, and it was the ninth inning. If he can't pitch the ninth inning, the world is in turmoil. Changing the plan when things go wrong is not an option. The formula rules, even in the face of logic that would dictate otherwise.
Leyland forces Phil Coke in situations to face right-handed hitters because the role that he has predetermined for Coke is that of a set up man, not a LOOGY. It doesn't work. Sunday's game was another typical example of ridiculously bad bullpen management, when Rick Porcello was left in when it was apparent that he was fading badly. Coke had allowed an whopping OPS of 1.050 to right handers last year, and .951 this year, yet he was brought in to face two right-handed batters, with predictable results. Game blown.
Leyland is loyal to his players and will stick with them through thick and thin when things don't work out. In return, players know their roles, there is no question what is expected of them, and you don't see anyone complaining about their job. They give Leyland maximum effort every game. This loyalty comes with a price tag, sometimes costing the team runs, or even wins. On the one hand, you don't want a manager who goes into a panic and changes roles at the first sign of trouble. On the other hand, there should be some flexibility when it's obvious that things aren't working.
The Tigers have three pitchers in the bullpen who have been particularly effective this year. Drew Smyly, Darin Downs, and Joaquin Benoit. Give Dombrowski credit for supplying them. Those three should be placed in the highest leverage situations. Instead, Leyland burned up Smyly on Saturday night with a 10- 3 lead.
I suggest that the Tigers turn back the clock and scrap the concept of having a closer, period. I suggest that they turn back the clock to a time before the whole silly concept of having one pitcher for the ninth inning was ever born. Drew Smyly is presently the best pitcher in the Tiger bullpen. Bring him in whenever the team has a lead and he is available, and leave him in as long as he can go. Third inning, ninth inning, whatever.
There are times when a pitcher doesn't have it. No relief pitcher is immune from having a bad game from time to time. The more frequently the pitcher is changed, the greater chance that you'll come across a guy that doesn't have it, and the lead is gone. When you find a guy that is getting the job done, leave him alone. Switching pitchers to get the right match up is not always the percentage play. The odds are better leaving an effective pitcher alone to finish the job.
Dombrowski needs to do his part by supplying Leyland with relief pitchers who are better than some of the guys that they have. Leyland should, but hasn't been able to use the best pitchers in the highest leverage situations. Players are currently cast in roles that they can not perform. It's a recipe for failure.
I don't know what the Tigers should do with Valverde. It would have been a nice story. Outcast hero returns to glory. But it's not going to go down that way. Valverde doesn't have it any more. His splitter has split town. As long as they keep Valverde in the closer's role, this story won't have a happy ending.