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Tigers don’t need a left-handed relief specialist

The Detroit Tigers still have needs, but they don’t need a left-handed specialist in the bullpen.

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

When Tigers President and GM Dave Dombrowski addressed the team's needs heading into the offseason in his postseason press conference, he mentioned three areas where the club would be looking to improve.

1. Find a centerfielder who could either play full-time or platoon with Rajai DavisAnthony Gose was acquired in a trade with Toronto for infield prospect Devon Travis. Check.

2. Add a left-handed bat somewhere in the lineup, possibly even a player who could come off the bench. The club signed Victor Martinez, the best free agent hitter on the market, within days after Dombrowski’s announcement. Check.

3. Improve the effectiveness of the bullpen, and that might be done internally. The team picked up the $7 million option on Joakim Soria, who will pitch in a defined setup role. Check?

Dombrowski avoided saying that the team needed a corner outfielder to replace Torii Hunter. Having both Davis and Gose in the starting lineup would leave large holes in the lineup both offensively and defensively. He also avoided saying that the team could use a replacement in the starting pitching rotation for Max Scherzer. Those two needs were apparent to everyone.

Sure enough, the Tigers acquired Yoenis Cespedes to play left field, and traded for Shane Greene and Alfredo Simon to fill out the starting rotation. In theory, David Price could replace Scherzer, while Simon and Greene would replace Rick Porcello and Drew Smyly in the starting rotation. Many of us find those last two replacements to be inadequate, but that’s another topic for a different discussion.

Another area that was not mentioned by Dombrowski but is getting some attention in the press is the perceived need for a left-handed relief pitcher. The team has lost Phil Coke to free agency and Pat McCoy was released after the season. Blaine Hardy was the most effective left-handed relief pitcher the Tigers had last season. He faded after four months, leaving the team without an effective left-hander in the bullpen.

The expectation from some quarters is that teams should always have a left-handed relief specialist in their arsenal. And yet, very few left-handed pitchers actually face more left-handed hitters than they face right-handers. In all of Major League Baseball, there were 40 left-handed relief pitchers who logged at least 40 innings in 2014.

Only five of those faced more left-handed hitters than right-handed batters during the 2014 season. Of those five, all of them faced at least 42 percent right-handers. Two of the five had reverse splits, actually faring better against right-handers. The other three are Jeremy Affeldt, J.P. Howell, and Mark Rzepczynski. Affeldt and Howell are locked in with their current teams and are effective against both left and right-handed hitters. Rzepczynski has the most dramatic platoon splits, but still faced 71 right-handers, allowing a batting line of .338/.437/.507.

For the Tigers, Phil Coke faced 114 left-handed batters and 143 right-handers. He held left-handed hitters to a line of .255/.310/.381, but allowed right-handed batters to hit .326/.394/.476. For reference, just 12 hitters in the major leagues had an OPS of .870 or better last season. Overall, he had a WHIP of 1.53 and an fWAR of 0.0.

Hardy faced 93 right-handers and 74 left-handers, allowing an OPS of .657 and .554 against them, respectively. He was an example of a good relief pitcher, not just a good lefty specialist, at least as long as he was pitching effectively.

There were several good left-handed relief pitchers in the major leagues last season. Twenty-seven of those who logged at least 40 innings posted an overall ERA of better than 3.50. Twenty-eight allowed opponents an OPS of under .700. Any of those pitchers should be worth their place in any bullpen. Their value is not in just being able to get left-handed hitters out, but being able to get all hitters out.

There are situations during the course of a season when a manager would like to be able to bring in a pitcher to get a tough left-handed batter out. A good relief pitcher can do that, whether he throws left or right-handed. Having a pitcher who will just be used in such situations, or just against left-handed batters is a nice theory, but it’s not reality. Burning a roster spot on a left-handed pitcher just for those limited situations when he will be used as often against right-handed hitters is poor roster management.

The Tigers could use a decent hitter or two on the bench. When trailing by a run in the late innings and Rajai Davis due up against a right handed pitcher, Brad Ausmus should have more than just a utility infielder, a backup catcher, or Gose to bring in. We should never again be subjected to watching Hernan Perez pinch hit in a key situation, or Don Kelly hit "because he’s the most experienced left-handed hitter."

The Tigers also have a number of starting pitchers who spent most of last season at the Triple-A level in Toledo. That is the group that were about to do battle for the fifth and final spot in the starting rotation before the team traded for Shane Greene. With four of five starters being right-handers and opposing managers likely to stack their lineups with left-handed hitters, having a left-handed "long man" relief pitcher who can go multiple innings could be very useful.

Detroit’s bullpen could use a few good men. But when selecting pitchers for the bullpen, it is important to know that they will be facing more right-handed hitters than left-handers. That’s the nature of the game. Go with pitchers who can get hitters out, and drop the obsession with having a LOOGY on the roster.