Bay of Cigs: Forget what you know

This year’s Detroit Tigers are far from perfect, but they’re off to a good start on the strength of their starting pitching and the bats of Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, Jhonny Peralta, Torii Hunter, Omar Infante, (increasingly) Victor Martinez, and (once again) Austin Jackson.

The weak link– the bullpen– has been both very obvious and very weak. Hoping for some addition by subtraction, the club sent onetime-closer Jose Valverde down to the minors, and a more focused "closer-by-committee" approach has emerged, centering around Joaquin Benoit and Drew Smyly, with an emphasis on not misusing Phil Coke.

One of the criticisms of manager Jim Leyland is that he likes to have go-to players to fill defined roles, and nowhere is this more applicable than in his handling of relief pitching. In short, Leyland wants to have one guy be his guy when it comes to closing out games in the ninth inning. His unwillingness to deviate from that approach has had exceedingly frustrating consequences when The Closer is someone less effective than the likes of a Craig Kimbrel or, say, a 2011-vintage Valverde. (This is especially true because the Tigers have trouble scoring late in games. If the bullpen blows a lead late, this team is unlikely to mount a comeback.) Even though fans would like to see Leyland be a bit more nimble with the way he utilizes his personnel, some of his attitude surely has rubbed off on them. The fans want to have someone who can be The Closer too.

Buster Olney launched a thousand blog posts with his suggestion that current Philadelphia Phillies reliever Jonathan Papelbon might make a good fit in Detroit. Papelbon has a great reputation as a closer, and, as Buster writes, "there are no questions about whether he could handle October," which is where the Tigers’ expectations reside.

Team owner Mike Ilitch has shown little resistance to spending money on this iteration of the team, which means that the large contract that’s scaring other teams away from Papelbon is unlikely to be an issue in Detroit.

My opinion is that, if the Phillies are willing to part with Papelbon without demanding much beyond the absorption of his contract, the Tigers should get him. If his steady hand can turn these cardiac kitties into some cool cats come playoff time, it’ll be worth it.

That said, it probably is worth taking a look at how Papelbon would stack up with his new teammates if he were to catch a ride to Motor City this season.

Right now, the Tiger bullpen looks like this:

  • Smyly leads all active relievers with 1.2 WAR, an ERA of 1.75, and 2.18 FIP. He’s giving up the fewest home runs per nine innings (aside from Al Albuquerue, who hasn’t been a consistent member of the major league roster this year, but who also hasn’t surrenderd any home runs in seventeen game appearances) and the fewest walks per nine innings (aside from Evan Reed, who’s only appeared in five games).
  • While Smyly has shifted into the setup position, Leyland has begun to stretch Benoit from an eighth-inning-only guy to being the eighth and ninth inning person, which is the most sensible thing to do with the current lineup. Benoit is right behind Smyly in most categories (0.9 WAR, 2.01 ERA, 2.38 FIP, 0.57 HR/9, and 2.59 BB/9– Darin Downs actually is second in that category), and he leads the bullpen with 10.63 strikeouts per nine innings (aside from Albuquerque, who’s posting a rate of 14.88 K/9 in about half as many innings as Benoit this season).
  • Valverde’s numbers aren’t hideous, but anybody who’s been watching knows that his -0.5 WAR portends future negative trends unless he accepts his assignment in Toledo and makes some major changes.

Papelbon ostensibly is replacing Valverde, but, practically speaking, he’s replacing (part of) Benoit, who’s doing double duty as long as needed, or until a ninth-inning man comes on board. It therefore makes sense to compare Papelbon directly with Benoit.

Besides his contract, one of the concerns about Papelbon is his age. He’s currently thirty-two, but Tiger fans should remember that Benoit, who hasn’t triggered age concerns, is thirty-five.

As for the numbers, Papelbon and Benoit are fairly comparable this season:

  • ERA: Benoit (2.01) is slightly better than Papelbon (2.12);
  • FIP: Benoit (2.38) is better than Papelbon (3.65);
  • HR/9: Benoit (0.57) is better than Papelbon (1.21);
  • K/9: Benoit (10.63) is better than Papelbon (7.89);
  • BB/9: Papelbon (1.52) is better than Benoit (2.59);

In 2013, Benoit has outperformed Papelbon in four out of five important statistical categories. He’s done that pitching almost exclusively in the eighth inning, though, and there’s no guarantee that doubling his workload will allow him to continue at that pace. At least one indicator– batting average on balls in play– suggests that Benoit’s relatively good numbers aren’t a result of especially good luck: his BAIP of .284 is just below the league average, .292, while Papelbon’s is a slimmer .218. (For a control, the Phillies rank in the bottom third of the National League in defensive efficiency, and their rate is almost identical to the Tigers’.) Given both teams’ struggles in the field, it might be Papelbon’s numbers, not Benoit’s, that are due for a future correction.

This is not an argument that the Tigers should not acquire Papelbon, and it is not necessarily an argument that Benoit is the better closer. Having a player like Papelbon alongside Benoit could shore up a leaky bullpen and make it postseason-worthy. As I wrote above, if the circumstances are right and Detroit doesn’t have to give up much more than money to get Papelbon, I think they should make that move. The above is simply to provide some context to understand what the Tigers would be getting if they did.

Of course, there are other options, and there’s no guarantee the Phillies will be sellers this season.

(If you want to compare Papelbon with any of the other current Tiger relievers or bullpen prospects, you can monkey with the settings here.)

This is a FanPost and does not necessarily reflect the views of the <em>Bless You Boys</em> writing staff.