As Detroit Tigers fans, we have been playing the “what if?” game for years. What if the Tigers offense actually showed up during the 2006 or 2012 World Series? What if David Ortiz doesn’t hit that grand slam in the 2013 ALCS? What if the Tigers had re-signed Max Scherzer?
Fans around baseball also do that to a lesser extent during the season. What if our team had won another game or two? In the Tigers’ case, it all comes in one weekend: what if the Tigers used another closer in their series against the Oakland Athletics? One might argue that they would be 4-0 on their current road trip with a competent closer.
Fortunately, we don’t have to play that “what if?” game anymore — well, not with Francisco Rodriguez, at least. The Tigers named Justin Wilson their new closer on Tuesday, and he promptly navigated the teeth of the Arizona Diamondbacks’ lineup with ease to finish off a 7-3 Tigers victory.
Is this the best use of the Tigers’ scant bullpen resources, though? Wilson is widely regarded as Detroit’s top reliever, and many fans would like to see him pitching earlier in the game to put out fires as they happen.
This week’s question: Who should be the Tigers’ new closer?
Brandon: My preference would be to ban the word closer and the closer role from the game entirely. That said, I'd try Alex Wilson first. It’s too hard to trust Shane Greene from night to night just yet. I'd like Justin Wilson free to use against the heart of a team's order. Alex Wilson has done everything asked, been a bulldog, and he is getting more whiffs this year. The strikeout rate isn't great, but until Greene settles into a groove or Jimenez arrives, I'd start with Alex Wilson.
Peter: What he said.
Jeff: I don’t want the Tigers to have a designated closer. I want them to go with the best option available at the time. Play matchups. Use Justin Wilson when a bunch of lefthanders are coming up, or keep a pitcher in there if they are doing well. For example, if Greene just pitched a 1-2-3 eighth inning on 10 pitches, leave him in for the ninth. I do not like labels for relievers. Maybe pitchers like certain roles and that’s why we have them, but it seems like it would be better if they would just use the pitcher that is right for the situation, whenever that situation happens to be. And if that pitcher isn’t doing well that night, take him out for someone else. That way the manager doesn’t feel obligated to leave someone in because “that’s his inning.”
Jake: The optimal scenario would be not using a designated closer, as Brandon and Jeff have described. The ninth is sometimes the most important inning, but not always, so it doesn't make sense to establish a rule that our best reliever has to pitch the ninth inning.
But, manager Brad Ausmus seems wedded to the idea of a closer. So here's a slightly less radical idea than abolishing the closer. Use Justin Wilson as your relief ace, taking inspiration from the way that Terry Francona and the Cleveland Indians have been deploying Andrew Miller. It's not a perfect analogy, since Justin Wilson probably can't pitch multiple innings as often as Miller does. I can see scenarios where Justin Wilson is our best option for the ninth; if that's the case, use him then. But lots of times the game can be on the line in the sixth or seventh inning. In that case, use Wilson as a fireman if the starter leaves runner on base. He has elite strikeout numbers and can pitch out of a jam. Bridge the gap to the ninth inning somehow, and then use Alex Wilson or Shane Greene in save situations. I like Greene because he can strike people out, but Alex Wilson has been more reliable on balance.
The worst option (other than just sticking with K-Rod) might be using Justin Wilson in the ninth, creating situations where our best reliever sits on the bench while a worse reliever blows the game in the sixth or seventh inning. We usually see a handful of losses like that a season using the traditional "closer" model.
Ron: For right now I’d like to see Justin Wilson close ball games for the Tigers. He has shown so far that his stuff is just a little bit better than the other guys who would be in consideration. Not to mention, he leads Tigers relievers in almost every stat category. With the struggles the Tigers have had with closers the past decade, I want the surest bet there is when they reach the ninth inning with a lead. Plus, between Alex Wilson, Shane Greene and Blaine Hardy, they have enough right now to bridge the gap from the starter to Justin Wilson. That will only become easier when Bruce Rondon gets back to his old self and is called up.
Ideally I’d like to see Joe Jimenez take over the closer role by the end of the season, maybe after the All-Star break. The Tigers would have to ease him into high leverage situations because his big league experience is quite limited. His biggest task for now is polishing his slider and change-up so they are effective. Best case scenario, Jimenez is my closer, giving me five other above-average pitchers to mix and match depending on the situation. The Tigers haven’t really had a shut-down ‘pen top to bottom, but if they receive solid performances from Blaine Hardy, Shane Greene, Alex Wilson, Justin Wilson, and eventually Bruce Rondon and Joe Jimenez when called up, that is a top-10 bullpen on paper.
Jay: Ideally, Joe Jimenez would be ready to close games. Sadly, that is not the case yet. He has proven that he’s not quite ready, and will spend a bit of time in Triple-A Toledo refining his slider. In my brain, that leaves three options: Shane Greene, Alex Wilson, and Justin Wilson. There is a case to be made for all three. Alex Wilson has fought for a spot on the roster tooth and nail for the last three seasons, proving to be one of the best relievers in the system. The other Wilson, Justin, has been masterful this season, striking out 23 through 14 2⁄3 innings, putting together a 1.58 FIP. Finally, there’s Greene, a player who I’ve always like more than most. His slider/cutter has been devastating at times, and when healthy, he has blown away the competition. He has been locked in this season, and but he has struggled with his slider command. Greene may be a good candidate in due time, but that time is not now. I would prefer if Justin Wilson were used in the highest leverage situations in the way that Francona uses Miller. That would narrow it down to Alex Wilson, who I would be more that happy to see pitch the ninth.
Ashley: I think rather than rigid bullpen roles, it would be better to just use who is the most fresh, the most reliable, and the best in each given situation. A lot of baseball managers seem so set on picking guys and only letting them come in for certain innings. "Oh, it's the seventh, better go to Hardy for one hitter." Ausmus had been pretty set in his ways about which guy had which job and very rarely deviated from it, which obviously led to a lot of poor performances. There are not a lot of options in the ‘pen right now, so it’s best to just judge based on the scenario. Justin Wilson has been great, but pigeonholing him as the "closer" is dangerously inflexible.
Nolan: It doesn't particularly matter what I want, since Brad Ausmus has already found The Guy for the role. That said, you could do worse than having Alex Wilson set into the eighth inning and Justin Wilson in the ninth. Justin is one of the best arms in the league right now and should help protect those darn one run leads. Alex Wilson limits extra base hits as well as he ever has and should be able to pitch a clean inning on his own. Most important to their success, honestly, is finding one more arm to bridge the gap. Shane Greene can only be relied on for so many innings (and when he's off his game, can't be relied on at all). Ausmus has never trusted my man Blaine Hardy to get righties, with good reason. Finding one more guy to complement them (Bruce Rondon? Joe Jimenez?) will be key to the team's success in holding leads.
Rob: For all of this talk about Justin Wilson pitching in high leverage situations, he hasn’t seen many true jams in 2017. Among his 16 appearances, Wilson has only pitched in the seventh inning twice, and both of those appearances came when Bruce Rondon was serving in a setup role. Since Rondon’s demotion, Wilson has been used as the Eighth Inning Guy.
While it may not be the most statistically efficient way to use Justin Wilson, I’m fine with him serving as the team’s closer. Manager Brad Ausmus is going to use his final couple relievers in set roles no matter how much we complain, and I think a true lock-down closer can provide a mental advantage for the rest of the bullpen. “Just get through eight” can be a mantra of sorts, especially for a team that has struggled in the later innings for so long.
Of course, we could ask this same question every week and get a different answer every time. Closers are weird, man.