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Tigers do not need a closer

The Tigers desperately need bullpen help, but contrary to the narrative expressed in the baseball media, they do not need a closer.

Joaquin Benoit is one of the best closers in the American League
Joaquin Benoit is one of the best closers in the American League
Duane Burleson

I hate to ruin the narrative for Joe Buck and Tim McCarver, and for the national sports media in general, but get this: the Detroit Tigers do not need a closer. Period. Joaquin Benoit is as good as any closer in baseball, and anyone who has followed the Tigers this season is aware of that fact. The comment spewed by the dynamic duo broadcasting the All Star game was that the Tigers need a closer more than any team in baseball. That's just pure bunk.

In fact, not only do the Tigers not need a pitcher for the ninth inning to fill the modern day role of a "closer", but Detroit has as good of a one-two late inning punch in the bullpen as any team in the league, with Benoit and Drew Smyly slamming the door on opposing hitters as efficiently as any club.

Now, it may very well be the case that Jim Leyland would be more comfortable with a "proven closer," since Benoit has spent much of his career as a set-up man. And it may be that Dave Dombrowski addresses the issue by overpaying for a relief pitcher with ninth inning experience. But to say that the Tigers "need" a closer is just flat wrong.

Here are the stats to prove the point:

  • Ranking all relief pitchers in the American League according to WAR, Drew Smyly is third on the list and Benoit ranks ninth. Only one other club, the Chicago White Sox, have two among the top ten.
  • In ‘high leverage" situations, Benoit has easily the best wOBA (weighted on base average) in the league.
  • Ranking by Fielding Independent Pitching, Smyly ranks fourth, and Benoit fifth.
  • Ranking by ERA, Benoit is fourth, and Smyly twelfth. Only Joe Nathan has a better ERA than Benoit among AL closers.
  • Benoit has a WHIP of just 1.04, and Smyly's is 0.97. Benoit strands 89% of base runners and Smyly over 80%.
  • Benoit strikes out 33% of hitters that he faces, and walks less than 8% of batters.
  • Benoit has allowed opponents a batting average of just .201, and Smyly .197.
  • Benoit has two wins, no losses, eight saves and nine holds without blowing a save. Smyly has four wins, no losses, ten holds and two saves, with one blown save which came on April 12th when he gave up a double and a single in Oakland.

There simply is not any reason why either Benoit or Smyly couldn't be as effective as any closer in the game today.

So what’s the problem?

The problem for the Tigers is not their closer. The problem was that they used the wrong guy in the closer’s role, and they used the wrong left-handed pitcher in high leverage late innings. I made the case earlier this week that Drew Smyly is the best left handed relief pitcher in baseball.

The problem for the Tigers is that you won’t find another qualified Tiger relief pitcher among the top forty in ERA, FIP, or WHIP. They need to find another dependable relief pitcher who can be trusted in the late innings.

After Benoit and Smyly, the effectiveness level of the Tiger bullpen disappears. They miss Octavio Dotel. Phil Coke has gone AWOL, and shouldn’t be trusted with anything less than a six run lead in the late innings. Darin Downs has been inconsistent. The fireballing young guns, Bruce Rondon and Al Alburquerque have nasty stuff, but have trouble finding the plate all too often. You could say that the Tigers desperately need bullpen help, and you would not be wrong.

I would not object if the Tigers were to acquire Jonathan Papelbon from the Phillies or Glen Perkins from the Twins, either for the eighth inning or the ninth, but I don’t think it’s necessary for them to give up what it would likely take to acquire that mythical "proven closer", and then pay them the salary commensurate with the title.

Twenty seven of 30 teams have changed closers in the past three seasons. Papelbon and the IndiansChris Perez are the only current closers to have at least 20 saves in each of the past three seasons. They’re not easy to find. And if they do find one, the odds of them remaining effective over the duration of a multi-year contract are about as good as Jose Valverde getting his splitter back.

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- Drew Smyly is most effective left handed reliever in baseball