What bullpen problems?

Joaquin Benoit facing the Indians - Duane Burleson

Two weeks ago the Tigers' bullpen was a train wreck. Is it too soon to call it a strength?

Two weeks ago the Tigers designated Jose Valverde for assignment. Tiger fans were freaking out about the bullpen. What a difference a couple weeks makes. Now we worry about our batters being targeted, and the injury bug.

Joaquin Benoit is the de facto closer. He has six saves with none blown. Nearly 32% of plate appearances are ending in strikeouts, with only 7.3% walks. He solved the home run problem, or his luck returned to normal, with only two allowed for the year. His WHIP is 1.02. Left-handed batters are actually performing worse than right-handed batters when facing him. His WPA, win probability added, is sixth among all relievers and ahead of Mariano Rivera. Most teams do not have a relief pitcher as good as Benoit.

Drew Smyly has been used in the 8th inning in 10 of his 13 last appearances. His strikeout rate is "only" 26% with a walk rate of 7.0%. His WHIP is actually a bit better than Benoit's at 1.00. He has crazy-good numbers against lefties, but righties only have an OPS of .664 so he does not have Phil Coke's limitation. Most teams' second relief pitcher is not as good as Smyly.

Al Alburquerque is back, striking out more than a third of opposing hitters. Yes the walk rate is a problem, but when entering the game at the start of an inning his approach of all walks and strikeouts works. If you are familiar with the "three true outcomes", Al Al has developed the "two true outcomes". Since his return on June 21, he has pitched five and two-thirds innings with seven strikeouts, six walks, and one hit allowed. In his last five appearances he has entered with nobody on and nobody out. If he walks two and gives up no hits, there is no damage. Maybe Leyland has figured this out.

Luke Putkonen has performed admirably, with a WHIP of 1.13 and ERA of 2.89. Perhaps the most agreeable feature of Putkonen is a low walk rate of 2.4 per nine innings. His appearances are not typically in tight games, and he does not make us suffer through a walk-fest in the way that Jose Ortega and Brayan Villareal were inclined to do.

My main concern with this bullpen depth is that Jim Leyland will return to a lazy approach. Benoit will be the closer and pitch the ninth inning. Smyly will be the setup man and pitch the eighth. Alburquerque or Coke will pitch the seventh depending on the predominant handedness of the batters, or share the seventh if there is trouble. More creativity would provide better results, but even a formulaic approach should keep the controversy away from the bullpen. It is a holiday; let's enjoy this for a while.

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