The worst feeling that a baseball team or their fans can have is when the team has a lead in the ninth inning, their closer blows the lead and the game is lost. Such was the case on Saturday night in Oakland, when closer Francisco Rodriguez failed to protect a one run lead, losing the game 6-5. He followed that up by yielding three runs on two hits and a walk in four batters to blow another one-run lead to lose the game on Sunday.
Rodriguez had the Oakland Athletics down to their last out on Saturday, with an 0- 2 count to backup catcher Bruce Maxwell, but he wound up walking him, then giving up a double to Matt Joyce putting runners on second and third. A single by light hitting Adam Rosales drove in the tying and winning runs, sending the Tigers fanbase into a feeding frenzy. Sunday’s game was less suspenseful, with a walk, an RBI double, line drive out to left field, and a walk off two run homer.
Of course the fan base wants Rodriguez replaced at closer, forthwith. And of course manager Brad Ausmus will not make such a move. If there is one thing that we know about Ausmus, it is that he will stick with failing veterans long past their expiration date. He confirmed as much to reporters after the Saturday’s game.
Brad Ausmus said he remains confident Francisco Rodriguez can turn things around, no changes at closer imminent.— Evan Woodbery (@evanwoodbery) May 7, 2017
The blown saves were the third and fourth of the young season for Rodriguez, and his third and fourth losses of the year. He now has a stat line of 11 2⁄3 innings pitched, 19 hits, five walks, 13 strikeouts, and four home runs. He holds an ERA of 8.49 and 2.06 WHIP. He has allowed at least one run in eight of his twelve appearances, a dozen runs in all with eleven of those earned. These are not acceptable numbers for any major league pitcher, let alone the team’s closer, who is entrusted with the highest leverage situations.
The Tigers have stuck with their veteran closer through his struggles thus far this season for a few reasons. First, he has a history as an effective closer, saving 44 of 49 games just last season. Second, he has struggled early in the season previously, including last season, only to settle down and pitch very effectively the rest of the season. Third, the Tigers have exactly one relief pitcher who has been without issues in their bullpen this season.
Justin Wilson would be the logical choice for ninth inning duty should the team make a change in that role. He has been by far the Tigers’ most reliable relief pitcher, allowing just two runs in 13 appearances, striking out 14.66 batters per nine innings. But the team needs more than just a closer. Every bullpen needs a few good men to hold a lead for up to three innings or, as we saw on Saturday, more than that.
Alex Wilson has been fairly effective, if not the “blow em away” kind of strikeout artist that team’s like to use in the late innings. Blaine Hardy, who inexplicably started the season in Toledo, has also pitched well and has graduated to sixth inning duty, along with Shane Greene. Presumably, those three would handle the set up duties.
This is where things get dicey when looking at the domino effect of removing Rodriguez as closer. Greene has not allowed a home run this season, but he has walked more than seven batters per nine frames. He has not allowed a lot of runs, but has allowed plenty of runners. Of the entire group, only Justin Wilson has a positive fWAR for the season.
The Tigers’ bullpen had recently started showing signs of settling down before Saturday’s implosion. BYB tweeted during the game:
Much of the Tigers’ bullpen woes have been moved either back to the minor leagues, or out of any meaningful situations, but the problem in the ninth inning persists.
Fixing a problem with the closer is not as easy as just switching the closer. If it exposes a liability elsewhere in set up roles, then you’re just rearranging chairs on a sinking ship. It takes at least three pitchers in sync to protect a lead on most nights.
For the moment, the Tigers have a problem with their closer, and Rodriguez should be removed from the role until he sorts himself out in a lesser role. He may be able to find his groove, but it makes no sense to keep giving your most ineffective pitcher the highest leverage roles. The complete solution may not be obvious, but what is obvious is that Frankie Rodriguez is not the solution at the moment.