The issues that the Tigers have had this season finding a closer are well documented. A decision was made during the off season, or maybe before the off season arrived, that Jose Valverde would not return as the Tigers’ closer, and that first crack at the job would be given to rookie Bruce Rondon, despite the fact that he had never thrown a pitch in the major leagues. So here are some options that are available without having to sell the farm to acquire an over priced ninth inning pitcher.
Plan A: Bruce Rondon is currently the closer for the Toledo Mud Hens Triple-A club. In 23.1 innings, he has an impressive ERA of 0.77, and a WHIP of 0.90. He has walked 12 and struck out 29 in those 23 innings, and recorded ten saves for Toledo.
The issue with Rondon is the same issue that caused him to be sent down to start the season, and the same issue that caused him to be sent down again after he struggled in his brief major league debut with the Tigers. He has a 4.6 walks per 9 innings rate to go with his solid strikeout rate of 11.2 strikeouts per nine. He has not allowed a single home run this season.
It’s not just the walks that are bothersome. After all, when you add up all the walks and all the hits, he still allows less than one base runner per inning, and he doesn’t allow runners to score. In his last call up to the majors, he pitched just 2.1 innings, allowing three runs on five hits and two walks, while striking out one batter. He did not allow a home run.
You just have to read between the stat lines, here. If Rondon has trouble throwing strikes, what will happen when he takes his triple digit fastball and his repertoire to the major leagues? If he’s just issuing free passes and blowing hitters away, and not allowing any home runs, well that’s fine. That act will play at any level. But if he also misses up in the zone as well as horizontally, major league hitters will make him pay a dear price for his lack of command.
There are two schools of thought here. One theory is that he needs to gain command of his pitches before being promoted, while the cost of making mistakes isn’t too high. On the other hand, Rondon has little to prove by blowing away minor leaguers. He needs to take his game to the next level, and learn from mistakes there.
There is only one way to find out whether Rondon is ready for prime time. Bring him up again and see how he does. Whether he should be thrown right into the closer’s role is another story. I would call him up sooner, rather than later, but get him some work when games are not on the line before giving him ninth inning duties.
Plan B: Jose Valverde. The major league saves leader over the past three seasons has nine saves in 12 chances this season. If he had gotten just one more strike on Wednesday in Kansas City, he’d be 10 for 12, for an 83% save rate. That’s right about where Todd Jones was, and within striking distance of Valverde’s save percentage a year ago.
But the issue here is deeper than save percentage. I won’t rehash the whole story of Valverde’s splits, which I covered in excruciating detail here on Tuesday. Suffice it to say that Valverde’s four seam fastball is performing adequately, but he is having a serious problem locating his split fastball. That issue has caused him to give up as many home runs already this season as he allowed in any previous season since he came to Detroit.
The problem is that Valverde leaves his splitter up in the zone too often. The pitch has lost it’s effectiveness to the point where it, and he, are unreliable. If he can somehow get that pitch back, or if he can somehow get by without throwing it high in the strike zone, problem solved. Look no further. If Valverde had not allowed any home runs on hanging splitters this year, he’d be 11 for 12 in the save department, and there wouldn’t be an issue.
I’ve written my piece on El Papa Grande, and I would love to be wrong this time. But I think the team should at least select another player, immediately, from within the organization to handle ninth inning duties, and see if Valverde can regain consistency with his split fastball. I am skeptical. He’ll need to throw it in cold weather in October, which is something he said he was unwilling to do earlier this season. That’s scary. At a minimum, the team should obtain some insurance, just in case Valverde doesn’t miraculously finds his splitter again.
Joaquin Benoit is having a very nice season for the Tigers this year. In 28 innings of work, he has an ERA of 1.98, and a WHIP of just 1.04. He strikes out 10.6 hitters per nine innings, walking fewer than three per nine, and has not blown a lead yet this season. He has three saves to go with seven holds.
Benoit had a problem last season giving up the long ball. In fact, his 14 home runs allowed was the most in the league among relief pitchers. This season, he has allowed just two home runs. He has some experience in the ninth inning, with 16 saves in his career, and he has been effective in pressure situations, including the post season.
There is some question whether Benoit could handle the duties of being a closer in back to back games. Well, in five games this season pitching on zero days rest, he has allowed opponents to hit just .188 with an OPS of only .438. He has done slightly better (.138/ .415) in nine games with one day of rest, and better than he has with three or four days rest.
In 2012, Benoit allowed .253 avg/ .767 OPS with no rest, .200/ 775 with one day rest, and his best work with two days rest. My guess is that this is pretty random. I see nothing there to deter the Tigers from giving him a chance at the ninth inning.
I also don’t buy the idea that Benoit does not want to be a closer. Someone took a comment that he made to that effect when he was signed to perform in a set up role. What do you expect him to say? Thanks for the money, but I really want to be a closer! I think you can rest assured that Joaquin would not balk at the chance to triple his pay in the last year of his contract.
There is no point in discussing Octavio Dotel, who has more experience closing games than any pitcher on the Tigers’ staff other than Valverde. Dotel has not been able to get healthy, and they still don’t know when he will return. If he does come back, so much the better, but we can’t afford to wait and see when and if that will happen.
Phil Coke has allowed right handed batters to hit .308/.349/.487/.836 this season, and has an overall ERA of 5.30. Conversely, he has an impressive line of .143/.233/.200/.433 against left handed hitters. He is known for his brain, and we all know that a mind is a terrible thing to waste, so we don't want him facing right handed hitters with the game on the line.
Drew Smyly, the wunderkid who was a popular choice to unseat Rick Porcello from the rotation has drawn some support among fans to close out games. Smyly’s numbers are comparable to those of Benoit. He has a stellar ERA of 1.93 and a WHIP of 1.04 this season in 37 innings over 21 appearances. He strikes out more than a batter per inning, and has walked eleven while allowing one home run.
I would not object to the Tigers using Smyly as the first option out of the bullpen when available, and then leaving him in the game as long as he is effective. That doesn’t mean yanking him because "X is the closer and it’s the ninth inning" or "Benoit is the eighth inning guy". Just leave him alone if he’s effective.
However, the team won’t be able to do that game after game. If they do wise up and decide to maximize chances of winning by making fewer pitching changes and leaving effective pitchers in the game, they will need another guy to go with Smyly to fill that role. There will be days when he doesn’t bring his A game also, and then you turn to Benoit, or whomever to finish the job.
One issue with Smyly is that he hasn’t been the most effective pitcher against right handed hitters. Eleven of the 22 hits that he has allowed to righties have gone for extra bases, and right handers have hit him for a more average stat line of .262/.333/.429/.762. Some of this is surely due to a BABIP of .350. I would count Smyly as one viable option.
I’ll toss out the name of Melvin Mercedes, who is currently on the Tigers' 40 man roster, and is the closer for the Lakeland Flying Tigers. He has posted some impressive numbers, and maybe enough to earn a mid season promotion to Erie, But he hasn’t pitched above the advanced-A level, so it’s not gonna happen just yet.
Well, I believe that those are the best in house options for the Tigers to find a closer without going outside the organization. If you were Jim Leyland, who would you have as the closer right now?