It’s baseball’s version of the quarterback controversy. Who should be the closer – the man to come in, slam the door, and secure victory? It can cause fans to fight and debate and argue, all while rooting for the same team.
Get ready for that sort of circus with the Tigers for a while. But don’t worry, it may not be a bad thing at all.
In modern baseball the prevailing wisdom is that every team needs a “bona fide” closer. If you don’t have one, it causes your manager undue stress, unsettles the team, lessens your chances of winning, adds worry lines to the faces of your fans, and so on. Some of that is hokum. But damn the facts – if that’s the way the fans and the team feel about needing a closer, that’s the way it is.
The Detroit Tigers enter 2013 without an established closer. For the last three years they employed Jose Valverde, a man whose neurotic mannerisms on the mound made it look more like he had Tourette Syndrome than a talented right wing. But Papa Grande has been divorced from the Tiger family, leaving a “Big Potato” sized void in the bullpen. It was supposed to be filled by an even larger specimen – young Bruce Rondon, a man-child who can send lasers from his throwing hand at over 102 miles per hour. But before we could come up with a nickname for our new bullpen ace (Young Spud?), the youngster was exiled to Toledo to start the ’13 season. The team feels Rondon needs more seasoning (insert potato and food pun here).
That leaves Jim Leyland with the task of finding a closer from within his 7-man bullpen. That’s right … a 7-man bullpen. There are enough guys down there to form a reggae band. Hey-oh!
Normally I would go off on a rant about how a 7-man bullpen is a ridiculous waste of roster space (especially on a team with a rotation as good as Detroit’s), but I’ll save that for later. Besides, Smoky is going to need options until he figures out who will close his games on a regular basis.
There are many things that separate the stat geeks from the rest of the baseball fans. The likelihood of getting a date, for example. But one of the biggest is the two sides opinions on the role of the closer. The normal baseball fan has bought into the notion that their team has to have an intimidating figure who explodes out of the bullpen door and mows down the enemy to seal a victory. SABR geeks point to studies and charts and numbers which show that using a top-notch pitcher in the closer role is a waste of talent. Most save opportunities, they argue, are slam dunks anyway. But this ignores a very important factor that slide rules and algorithms ignore: the human element.
A few years ago I had the chance to talk to Ron Gardenhire, the talented and well-respected manager of the Minnesota Twins. I asked him about the closer and the “modern” use of the bullpen. He had some interesting things to say.
“Most of the guys [in the bullpen] feel more comfortable when they know their role,” Gardenhire said. And the skipper also went on to explain that many fans don’t realize that relievers need to throw frequently to be sharp. Game usage is critical.
“I’ve had guys who need to throw 3-4 times a week in order to be effective.”
So when we’re pulling our hair out and throwing the remote at the TV when our manager pulls Max Scherzer while he has a shutout in the 6th inning, remember this. Maybe Phil Coke or Octavio Dotel need to throw an inning.
I’ve also been told by big league pitchers that they like to know what their role is. It helps them prepare and it gives them some comfort. Joaquin Benoit could close, most assuredly, but if he does, he wants to be told that’s his role. Knowing that he is the 8th inning guy has given him the confidence to do that job as well as almost anyone in baseball the last few seasons.
In April, Leyland will, by his own admission, mix and match his relievers, choosing his closer based on the situation. That could be bumpy at first, since the reliever may not know going into the game that the 9th inning will be his domain. But it could benefit the Tigers in the long run.
Sure, a save or two may be rocky or even be squandered in the early going, but as more pitchers get a chance to taste the 9th inning action, the team can only be better for it. Whether it’s Coke*, Dotel**, Benoit, or Drew Smyly or Al Albuerquerque, the Tigers will figure out who their closer is. 2013 might start out as a Bullpen by Committee, but eventually it will morph into a Committee of One, which could help propel Detroit far into the post-season once again.
* The most likely candidate to get the bulk of the save opportunities early in the season.
** A veteran pitcher who has been a closer before and who can throw the ball almost every day.