Joaquin Benoit has ended all discussion of the Tigers' need for a closer. But when the season began, he was not the obvious choice. Think back to 2012. When Joaquin Benoit was summoned from the pen, what was going through your mind? Was it fear of another home run?
Benoit pitched for the Rangers from 2001 to 2008. He missed 2009 recovering from surgery on his shoulder. The Rays took a chance on him in 2010 and Benoit responded with one of the best seasons among all relief pitchers, an ERA of 1.34 with over 11 strikeouts per nine innings and a miniscule WHIP (walks plus hits per inning) of 0.68.
With the Tigers in 2011, Benoit could not sustain such dominance but was still very effective. One area where he did improve was decreasing home runs allowed from six to five. For a relief pitcher, especially a setup man who may be brought in with men on base in a tight game, this is especially important. But in 2012 Benoit allowed 14 home runs, a rate of 1.8 per nine innings. He continued to dominate with over ten strikeouts per nine innings and his WHIP was a respectable 1.14, barely up from 2011's 1.05.
Benoit just could not keep fly balls in the park. Over 18% of fly balls left the yard in 2012. This would be a problem for a closer, certainly leading to blown saves. In 2013, the rate has fallen all the way to 6.5%, even better than his amazing 2010 season with a 9.4% rate. While he allowed two homeruns in the first month, he has allowed only one home run since.
Was 2012 simply a run of bad luck for Benoit? He has used the fastball over 60% of the time from 2010 through 2013, except last year when he dropped almost to 50%. Instead he increased his slider usage from 12% to 16%, and changeup from 26% to 33%. By using more breaking balls in 2012 he was getting more swings and misses on strikes, up from 14% to 17%. There was less contact overall with batters whiffing on 35% of swings versus 29% in 2011 and 2013. Benoit even had batters missing almost half the time they swung on a pitch outside the strike zone, down to 52% from 62%.
Had Benoit's velocity dropped it could have indicated a return of the shoulder injury, but his fastball has maintained 94 mph from 2010 through 2013. It appears than in 2012 he was relying more heavily on his breaking pitches, as they were generating strikeouts. But he took it too far, perhaps becoming too predictable, allowing more pitches to be squared up.
Benoit is a perfect 17 for 17 in save chances. He is relying more on his fastball like in 2011, and is keeping the ball in the park. When he enters the game, there is no longer apprehension.