With just three weeks and change standing between the Tigers and postseason baseball for the third straight October, it’s time to start thinking about using the home stretch to make some tough choices. Specifically, the Tigers need to address Jhonny Peralta’s status with the club and which relievers are coming and which relievers are staying home. I’ll leave the Peralta question for another day and tackle the relievers right now.
Let’s start with some basic assumptions. The Tigers are going to carry 11 pitchers and 5 will be the members of their starting rotation, even if one or more of them will pitch out of the bullpen. So that leaves us with 6 slots.
The No Brainers
Joaquin Benoit, Jose Veras, Drew Smyly, and Bruce Rondon are all locks barring a serious injury or some sort of terrible meltdown.
*with both the Tigers and Astros in 2013
Using New English D’s own propriety metric, SOEFA, each of these four grade out as above average relievers for the season with Benoit and Smyly being among the best dozen in the game as of last Sunday.
The Question Marks
We know whomever the Tigers call on has to currently be in the organization and we also know that Octavio Dotel is likely out for the season. That leaves the Tigers with 7 relievers who saw big league action this year. These numbers are in relief and as Tigers.
Downs pitched well for the Tigers earlier this year before struggling and then missing time with a shoulder injury. He wasn’t added to the roster when the limit went from 25 to 40, which signals that the Tigers don’t plan to use him in October. That could change, but it’s possible too that he hasn’t fully recovered from his injury. If Downs is healthy, he’d be an obvious choice for me as he did excellent work until the last couple outings before going on the DL and has an excellent strikeout rate and no serious platoon issues.
Coke struggled with command this season and has become a LOOGY for the most part since returning from Toledo. Last month, I looked into his struggles and didn’t find anything stuff or health related to worry about. Coke seems like an obvious choice if Downs isn’t an option because the Tigers are going to want to carry at least 2 lefties.
Jose Alvarez won’t be needed for his length and it’s hard to think he’s a better LOOGY than Coke at this point. He’s a touch and feel guy who can give you innings, which isn’t that valuable in the postseason.
Luke Putkonen has a solid fastball and some pretty good numbers to match working in long relief (for the most part) this year as he bounced up and down as necessary. Putkonen would be a good fit in principle, but with Porcello likely heading to the bullpen for the playoffs, the value of a guy who can offer length is somewhat diminished. Putkonen is certainly a candidate, but it’s a tough call.
Evan Reed hasn’t spent much time in the show this year, but he’s done solid work during his stints with the big club. There isn’t much to go on with Reed, but he doesn’t really seem to have anything that distinguishes him from Putkonen in terms of what he could bring to the roster.
Jeremy Bonderman is an interesting one because the overall results haven’t been great this year, but he’s show the ability to come in and slam the door at times this year. September will be key for evaluating Bonderman because I’m not sure if he’s capable of being a shutdown middle reliever or not. That might have been a flash in the pan, but I always thought his stuff would play up in the pen.
Al Alburquerque is going to be the key. His strikeout rate is nuts and if you need a big strikeout he’s a guy you want to be able to call upon. But he’s also extremely wild and might walk in the key run as well. He’s been hit hard lately and the overall results package hasn’t been great. He has a high payoff potential, but you’re also scared to use him to some extent with too much on the line. He might punish hitters with his slider or he might get creamed.
Which leaves us with a tough choice. It’s hard to imagine Coke, who had so much success last October and remains the best LOOGY option, doesn’t get invited to the dance. Unless he lays a big egg in the final days, he’s going to join the four-headed monster – even if I would prefer a healthy Downs.
The last righty is a tough one because of the different dynamic in October. If you need length in the pen, you’re going to use Porcello because you don’t need a guy who “saves the pen,” you need a guy who holds the lead at all costs. So a swingman, mop up type isn’t what you need. If Al-Al in the zone, he’d be in for sure, but he isn’t and a guy like Putkonen could be a safe option. He’s not going to come in and get you a big K the way Al-Al could, but you have Rondon for that and you don’t have to worry about holding back in October. The marathon is over and it’s time to sprint.
It’s tough, but I think you have to try it with Alburquerque. He’s a high risk, high reward pick but he brings a skill to the table that Putkonen, Reed, and Bonderman don’t. Presumably, with all of the off days in October and the finish line in sight, you can pitch with a short pen if Al-Al loses it and can’t be trusted. But if he hits one of his grooves, the benefits will be huge.
I’ve written extensively on bullpen usage and the closer role. To catch you up, here are the three big pieces:
I encourage you all to read those piece to catch up, but I’m going to move forward even if you haven’t. I’m going to make a claim and then seek to back it up with real evidence. The claim is this:
Closer experience doesn’t matter. If you put a good reliever into the closer role, he will succeed.
I would prefer managers not use closers at all (see link #3 above), but let’s say managers want to have a closer who comes in during save situations for a single inning. If that is the case, I am here to tell you that you do not need closer experience to be a closer.
I took the 30 pitchers with the most save opportunities from 2012 to test this theory. The group average was 35 save chances from 2012 and none had fewer than 20. Only the Athletics had two players on the list who played for only one team and four players on the list played for two or more teams in 2012. Combined, they averaged 30.3 saves and 910 saves in total.
These are 30 undisputed closers. The took on the closer role in 2012 and accumulated saves. Jim Leyland, who is my target audience right now, would look at their save totals and save percentage and consider them closers.
You with me so far? Good.
Only 10 of them had more than 17 save opportunities in 2011. Only a third of 2012’s best closers would have made the list from 2011. Certainly there were injuries, but Joe Nathan is the only one who was a legitimate closer before 2011 other than Rafael Soriano, who backed up Mariano Rivera in 2011. Maybe I’ll give you Jonathan Broxton, but he had lost his closer tag, so we’ll see. Despite all of this, at most we could say that half of 2012’s best closers had closer experience. Just half.
Half of them had fewer than 10 save chances in 2011 and five had zero save chances in 2011. Half of the best closers of 2012 weren’t even closers the year before.
I’ll cut the group in half and say anyone under 10 save chances in 2011 is non-proven and anyone over 10 chances is proven. I’m being generous.
The non-proven closers averaged 27 saves in 2012 and the provens averaged 33. But they averaged an 87 and 86% save percentage, respectively. The non-proven closers averaged 7 fewer opportunities in 2012, but they converted essentially the same percentage as the proven closers.
These are facts. I’ll go a step further. The five closers who had zero save chances in 2011 converted 84% of their save chance in 2012. There is literally no discernible difference between pitchers with closing experience as it pertains to saves. None. None. None.
It gets better. The proven closers had an ERA of 3.11 in 2012. The non-proven closers had an ERA of 2.73.
So basically, this is the argument I’m making. Closing experience does not predict future success in that role. The 30 best closers from 2012 prove that pretty nicely. The 15 proven guys were no more successful at converting saves and had a worse ERA than the non-proven closers. If anything the unproven closers pitched better.
Jim Leyland and the Tigers have placed an extremely high value on closing experience. They signed a reliever who was past his ability to pitch in MLB because he had saved games before and they won’t turn to better pitchers because they “can’t close.” Leyland has been clear on this. I have never heard a clear explanation about what makes the 9th inning different, but I can tell you very clearly that pitchers have been placed in the closer’s role as recently as last season and had absolutely no problem handling it.
No problem at all. So while I don’t advocate using a closer at all, if managers insist on defined roles with specific limits can we at least accept the fact that you can put anyone who is reasonable competent into the closer’s role?
Leyland doesn’t want to use Smyly or Benoit in the closer’s role and has repeated said the “9th inning is a little bit different,” but there is just no evidence that is true.
You can create a closer by putting a good reliever into the role. The Tigers have good relievers and should just put one of them into the role if Leyland insists on having a closer. It really is that simple. You can invent a closer. Fifteen teams did it last season.
I’ve included an Excel File (Closers) with the the data I used. The stats to the right of the yellow divider are from 2012 and the left side is from 2011.
If you follow me on Twitter or have spent a lot of time on this site (here, also here) you know that I’m not a fan of how most managers use their bullpens. Primarily, I think “saves” are worthless and utilizing a one inning-saves only closer, even if that closer is excellent, is not the right way to use your bullpen.
This idea is simple and it’s explained in the links above, but I’ll summarize. You should use your best relievers when the game is most on the line. That does not always happen in the 9th inning. Your relief ace should pitch when he is needed, not when he can accumulate saves. The 9th inning is not “a different animal” that requires special skills. Many pitchers have moved into the 9th inning role without any problem and a high number of saves does not mean you have pitched well.
In general, I’m a fan of rethinking bullpen usage so that the best pitchers pitch in key situations. I’ve routinely mentioned that Jose Valverde is not a good MLB reliever anymore, but even if he was, the Tigers are using him incorrectly. Let’s explore.
Fangraphs furnishes a statistic that measure the average leverage index each pitcher enters the game during. Leverage index measures how much the game is “on the line” at every moment, so this captures exactly what we’re after. On average, how critical is the moment that Leyland brings in each reliever:
Obvious, some of these guys have fewer appearance than others, but you’ll note that Phil Coke, Jose Valverde, and Darin Downs have been called on during the most critical moments with Joaquin Benoit coming in 4th among pitchers who have a decent chunk of innings. What you should also notice is that Drew Smyly is effectively dead last because Reed and Porcello have hardly pitched at all.
Yet it’s Benoit and Smyly who are actually the team’s best relievers. If we look at Win Probability Added (WPA) which measures the the change in win expectancy from a pitcher’s entry into the game until their removal, Smyly and Benoit are the best the Tigers have:
And if you’d rather consider WPA in conjunction with LI:
What we see here is that Smyly and Benoit are the pitchers who are performing the best out of the Tigers bullpen but they aren’t getting place in the high leverage situations. Leyland is going to Coke, Valverde, and Downs more than Benoit and Smyly when the game is on the line even though those guys are worse.
We can look to other numbers like FIP and ERA, among Tigers relievers with more than 8 IP, Smyly and Benoit reign:
Put very clearly, Smyly (who is 8th in MLB in reliever WAR) and Benoit are the Tigers best two relievers by pretty much every objective measure, yet they are not getting the call when the games count most. Until yesterday (June 9th), Smyly had pitched to just 15 batters in the previous 2 weeks despite being the team’s best reliever. That just isn’t acceptable.
The way to fix this is simple. First, managers need to stop valuing “proven closers” and should not be afraid to go to closer by committee. Jose Valverde leads the Tigers in “Saves,” but by every other measure, he’s nowhere close to the team’s best pitcher. Second, managers need to accept that the most important time in the game is not always the 9th inning and should bring in their best reliever to face the other team’s best hitters or when the other team is threatening. If you go to your best guy with the bases empty against the 6-7-8 hitters, you’re wasting them.
The flaws were on display in Baltimore (5/31) when Jose Valverde came into the game in the 9th inning up by 2 against the Orioles’ best hitters and blew the game, but on the next day, Leyland went to Smyly for two innings up by 7 runs. The opposite should have happened. Valverde should not pitch when the game is on the line and Smyly shouldn’t pitch in garbage time. You need to align your best relievers with the most important moments in the game.
Now certainly you can’t see the future and I won’t begrudge someone for going to Smyly in a tight spot only to find the game gets tighter in a future inning. But when Leyland doesn’t use Smyly for days at a time and then gets him work during a blowout, it’s maddening.
People complain about the Tigers’ bullpen, but it’s actually 7th in MLB in WAR, 9th in FIP, and 4th in K/9. It’s not elite, but it’s reasonably good. The problem is not the individual pitchers but rather how they are used. If Leyland was willing to think differently and go to his best guys in the tightest spots, the Tigers wouldn’t have these late inning issues.
The Tigers have far and away the league’s best staff and one of the best couple of offenses. Their only weaknesses are defense and the bullpen, but the bullpen isn’t really a weakness, it’s an inefficiency. And it’s one that can be fixed.
83-79, 3rd in the NL Central
The Brewers came close to following up their run to the 2011 NLCS with another playoff appearance, but ended up just short and finished 5 games behind WC2 St. Louis. This might feel like a respectable season given the loss of Prince Fielder to the big spending Tigers and Zach Greinke to the Angels via trade, but it’s hard not to look at 2012 as a missed opportunity if you’re a Brewers fan.
The reason I say this is because the Brewers could have made the playoffs if their bullpen didn’t implode time after time during the first half. They played well down the stretch and certainly could have won five more games with two more months of Greinke mixed with a not-terrible bullpen in May and June.
Ryan Braun had a near MVP season (7.9 WAR) and Aramis Ramirez filled in admirably in place of Fielder (6.5 WAR) behind him. Jonathan Lucroy posted a spectacular 3.9 WAR in 96 games behind the plate and Carlos Gomez (3.5), Nori Aoki (2.9), and Corey Hart (2.9) all had solid seasons at the plate.
Collectively, Brewers position players accumulated 33.6 WAR on offense and defense, good for second in all of baseball. They didn’t miss Fielder that much. They got elite production from their stars, solid contributions from regulars, and didn’t have anyone who dragged them down with a lot of at bats of negative value.
On the hill, the story is a bit different. Greinke gave them two great months (3.8 WAR) and Mike Fiers (3.0), Marco Estrada (2.7), and Yovani Gallardo (2.7) all had solid seasons. Wolf and Marcum also made quite a few starts of mediocre value, but the key deficiency of the rotation was that only Gallardo make more than 24 starts. By WAR, they had the 9th best rotation in baseball.
The bullpen, however, was 25th in baseball and posted a 4.11 BB/9 rate. Only the Cubs and Dodgers were as bad or worse in 2012. Only the Mets had a worse Left on Base rate. Only the Astros and Rockies gave up more hits. We should cut them some slack because they pitch in a hitter friendly park, but not this much. And we should also remember they stunk in the first half and did get a little better.
But the story here is that bullpens performing very badly over a short period can cost you a good deal of games with a small raw amount of terrible performance. I don’t like Saves as a stat for many reasons, but when you blow 30 of them as a team in one season, you’re doing something wrong.
So the story of the 2012 Brewers is a story about a good offense, respectable starting pitching, and a rough bullpen. They were good enough to make the Play-in Game except for a ton of blown games late. It’s hard not to let that eat at you over the course of an offseason.
The loss of Greinke going forward will cost them without an obvious replacement, but they should be able to recreate him with a couple of solid arms who can replace all of the starts they gave to AAAA type players.
The Reds and Cardinals aren’t going anywhere and the Pirates look serious. The Brewers need to beef up their bullpen and solidify their rotation if they want to give their offense a shot at carrying them back to the postseason.
2012 Grade: C
Early 2013 Projection: 82-80