Watching Drew Smyly strike out Chicago DH Adam Dunn with two men on and two outs with the Tigers holding a one run lead in the eighth inning Wednesday night was a pleasant sight for Tiger fans, and for Smyly. We'd like to see much more of that, please.
Drew Smyly was one of the very best relief pitchers in the American League in the first half of the 2013 season. The first half statistics show that only two relievers had a higher WAR than Smyly through the all star break, Jesse Crain of the White Sox and Greg Holland of the Royals.
Use whatever metrics you prefer. Smyly had a 4- 0 record, with an ERA of 1.91, a Fielding Independent Pitching mark of 2.02, and a steady strikeout to walk ratio of 4.14. Smyly has struck out 72 and walked just 15 batters this season. Any way you slice it Smyly was one of the best. As was Joaquin Benoit.
At the same time, the Tigers lacked any reliable relief pitcher after Smyly and Benoit who had even decent numbers. Phil Coke, Al Alburquerque, and Jose Valverde were particularly bad. None of them was worthy of holding a major league job.
It took Jim Leyland some time to sort through his options and work Smyly into his rightful place at the back end of the bullpen, setting up Benoit, who took his rightful place as the closer. Things move slowly when a manager has predefined roles, and a strong idea about who should fill those roles. But eventually, Valverde, then Alburquerque, and then Coke, were all sent to Toledo. Without doing anything to earn another shot, Alburquerque and Coke were recalled to Detroit.
In fairness to Leyland, he was not given a full deck to work with. Dave Dombrowski decided at the end of the 2012 season that he would try to force an unproven rookie, Bruce Rondon, into the closer’s role that had been held by Jose Valverde. It didn’t work, and that wasn’t Leyland’s fault.
The Tiger bullpen has faced it’s share of setbacks this season. Octavio Dotel, the veteran set up man who was probably their most effective relief pitcher in 2012, has missed virtually the entire season due to injury. Alburquerque and Brayan Villarreal who provided useful support last season were ineffective. Rondon struggled under the pressure of handling ninth inning duties, having never thrown a pitch in the major leagues.
It wasn’t until July that Dombrowski worked a trade for Jose Veras, the Houston closer, to replace Dotel in a late inning role. Coke was slowly but surely moved from potential closer, to set up guy, to lefty set up guy, to middle relief, to LOOGY, and he wasn’t effective in any role, so he was sent to Toledo.
Prior to the arrival of Veras, Bruce Rondon, the annointed and then banished 22 year old flame throwing closer had been working the 7th and 8th innings when the team held a lead, allowing five earned runs in ten appearances in July. But Leyland stuck with him, and he's now firm in a set up role. Starting in August, Smyly’s role was inexplicably changed.
Through the end of July, Smyly had not blown a lead since April, and had not allowed an earned run, an extra base hit, or even a walk the entire month of July, spanning 13 appearances. Each appearance lasted at least one full inning. Since being removed from a set up role, Smyly has allowed three home runs and six doubles in 14 appearances, ten of which have lasted less than an inning. Since the partial innings of work began, he been less effective.
Since the All star break, Smyly has pitched just 13.2 innings in over eight weeks through Wednesday's game. That’s just 1-2/3 innings per week, for one of the best relief pitchers in the league. Why?
Not only has Smyly’s work load been reduced, but Leyland has stopped using Smyly in any meaningful situations, while Coke, Alburquerque, Bonderman, and Rondon are all pitching in pressure situations with the game on the line.
Smyly’s previous five appearances have come in games with scores of 6- 1, 4- 14, 7- 2 , 10- 5, and 16- 2. If Leyland thinks that Smyly is one of his best relievers, that’s not how he would be using him. He is either very cautious because of some physical condition, or he just won’t trust him as much as he trusts others. Or he's counting innings.
If Smyly has hit a wall, and is worn out, that is something they’re not going to tell us. But his numbers since the break show that he still has a strikeout rate of 8.78 per nine innings, a sparkling walk rate of just 0.68 per nine innings, and a park adjusted FIP of 2.88. He has more appearances, 19, than innings, working less than an inning per appearance, which makes no sense if they're concerned about his work load.
I don’t pretend to know what Jim Leyland is thinking, or what the physical condition of Smyly is. We do know that Smyly has had a reduced role since before Phil Coke was sent to Toledo. Right when the Tigers acquired Jose Veras, at the end of July. That’s when the partial innings began. We also know that Coke has been used in the eighth inning each time he has been used since being recalled, even if mainly to face left handed hitters.
It is true that Smyly had thrown a lot of innings for a relief pitcher in the first half of the season. His 54 innings at the break led the league among relievers. But he threw 99 innings between starting and relief work in 2012. Counting innings, as such, is no way to measure the work load on a pitcher, especially a relief pitcher. And an innings count is certainly not justification for taking one of the most effective relievers in the league and reducing his role while lesser pitchers are called in with games on the line.
Every pitcher has a routine to help him stay sharp. A starting pitcher schedules a bullpen session between starts. Relievers have a much less predictable role, but they still have to stay sharp, so they throw whether or not they’re used in game situations. They deal with unsteady and unpredictable work loads, and often get warmed up without coming into the game. None of that shows up in innings counts, but staying ready and getting ready are more work than the actual innings.
Smyly has thus far made 54 appearances, which ranks 43rd among American League pitchers. If there is some sign of wear and tear on his arm, by all means be cautious with him. But the Tigers need Drew Smyly to play an important role in the post season. While Bruce Rondon has been much more effective recently than he was earlier in the season, Smyly and Benoit have still been the two most reliable relievers thus far this season.
In case there was any doubt that Leyland still held a spot in the bullpen for Coke, the club erased all doubt about that when he was recalled prior to September 1st, on the first day he was eligible to be recalled, and was given a spot on the 25 man roster while Jose Alvarez and Jeremy Bonderman were optioned.
Contrary to what Leyland has said, they don’t "need" Phil Coke. They were right to dial back his role, and absolutely right to send him to Toledo with a 5.00 ERA and a negative WAR in August. Even as a LOOGY, Coke has allowed left handers to hit .282 .316 .394, for an OPS of .711. Not terrible, but not terribly effective, either. More importantly, he has allowed a line of .406 .514 .633 in high leverage situations. That’s terrible.
The Tigers have some talented arms in the organization, but they haven’t found the right combination to assemble a complete bullpen in Detroit. They finally had the back end of the bullpen sorted out with Smyly setting up Benoit. Veras and Rondon could provide a nice complement to that duo. But that’s been abandoned.
The best case scenario is that the Tigers find two more pitchers to go with those four and Rick Porcello by the time the playoffs begin. Luke Putkonen has been the most effective of the rest, and we know that Leyland absolutely must have another lefty in the bullpen.
If the Tigers are just auditioning pitchers and risking games with a five game lead in the division, well that’s one thing. If they’re concerned about Smyly’s work load because of some physical sign, and not just the horrible idea that he might throw 90 innings out of the bullpen, I guess they're just playing it safe. But when important games are on the line, and when they need to hold a narrow lead in the late innings, the Tigers need Drew Smyly on the mound. Inning counts be damned.