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Joe Jimenez shouldn’t be pigeonholed as the “eighth inning guy”

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The rookie has the skills to be so much more.

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Detroit Tigers Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

On Friday night, the Tigers and Indians were in a 1-1 tie heading into the eighth inning. Joe Jimenez pitched a scoreless eighth using only 13 pitches. Shane Greene, who has been streaky all year, entered the ninth and gave up a game-winning three-run homer.

On Tuesday night, with the Tigers beating the Twins 2-1 heading into the seventh, Ron Gardenhire chose not to use Joe Jimenez, and instead turned to a mix of Louis Coleman and Warwick Saupold. The latter gave up what would be the game-winning hit: a grand slam.

Both instances have sparked massive debate regarding when and how to use Joe Jimenez. Everyone can agree Jimenez is the most consistent and reliable reliever on the Tigers’ staff so far this year. He has a 2.30 ERA, a 2.21 FIP, 1.09 WHIP, 26.2 percent strikeout rate, and a 1.0 fWAR.

But when Jeff Riger asked Gardenhire why he wasn’t used in the seventh inning on Tuesday night, Gardenhire replied that he is only going to use him in the eighth inning.

By using him this way, they can monitor the 23-year-old’s arm. They don’t want to risk overusing him by having him pitch too many innings in a year where the Tigers do not have much chance of going to the postseason. A similar situation arose in 2006 with Joel Zumaya. Zumaya pitched over 83 innings in 62 appearances that year helping the Tigers reach the postseason for the first time since 1987. He did it with a 1.93 ERA, and pitched more than one inning in 31 of those appearances. After that season, he experiences several injuries and was done pitching professionally after the age of 25 (although some off-field factors may have contributed to his injuries). Ron Gardenhire understandably does not want the same thing to happen with Joe Jimenez.

However, Gardenhire is taking the anarchy approach at monitoring Joe Jimenez’ innings this year. Jimenez has already pitched in 34 games this year. Only Edwin Diaz and Bryan Shaw (36 games each) has appeared in more games. With 31 1/3 innings pitched, Jimenez is averaging less than an inning an appearance. According to leverage index, he isn’t being used effectively. And yet to this point, Gardenhire has leaned on Jimenez quite heavily in terms of innings and appearances.

The average game leverage index shows how stressful the situation is when the pitcher enters the game.

Tiger’s relievers game leverage index

Reliever gmLI
Reliever gmLI
Shane Greene 1.82
Daniel Stumpf 1.66
Alex Wilson 1.61
Warwick Saupold 1.44
Joe Jimenez 1.40
Louis Coleman 1.18
Buck Farmer 1.05
Drew VerHagen 1.02
Artie Lewicki 0.92
FanGraphs.com

The table above only shows Tiger relievers with at least 10 innings pitched. Shane Greene has the highest leverage index at 1.82. This makes sense as save situations have very high leverage indexes. But then Daniel Stumpf (1.66), Alex Wilson (1.61), and Warwick Saupold (1.44) are all ahead of Jimenez (1.40). This should not be the case, as all three pitchers have struggled more than Jimenez this year. All because Gardenhire is adamant on using Joe Jimenez in the eighth inning regardless of the situation? Why not base it on need? In some cases — like Tuesday night — the seventh inning is just as important, maybe even more important, than the eighth.

Joe Jimenez has pitched the eighth and only the eighth inning in 24 of his 34 appearances. In six of those appearances, Jimenez appeared a score difference of more than three runs. That’s six appearances in which could have been reassigned to the seventh (like Tuesday’s game) or the ninth (like Friday’s game).

In the end, you don’t necessarily want Jimenez constantly coming in to snuff rallies and pitch out of jams. There’s extra stress in those sort of appearances as compared to holding a lead in the eighth with a clean slate, even against the heart of an opponent’s order. And the Tigers absolutely must avoid the kind of heavy usage Joel Zumaya saw in his rookie season. However, the situation on Tuesday was perfectly set up to use Jimenez in the highest leverage spot. There was plenty of time to warm up, and he was on three days rest.

Anyway you slice it, Gardenhire’s management of Tuesday’s night’s game wasn’t ideal, and his explanation for it doesn’t hold a lot of water. There may not be high expectations on the season, but doesn’t that make it the ideal time to try something a little unorthodox?