In a season that has provided too many “yikes!” moments, Monday night was a “YIKES!” moment for Tigers fans.
A certain Detroit reliever, whose official name may actually be “Well Traveled Octavio Dotel”, blew a save opportunity in the ninth inning when he mysteriously forgot how to throw strikes. As a result, the Tigers lost another game to the Seattle Mariners, a team that Detroit makes look like the ’27 Yankees.
The agonizing loss was the latest in a series of bullpen calamities for Jim Leyland’s club. But does it have to be this way?
Last season the Tigers were 77-0 when they led after seven innings. It was, according to the folks who keep track of such things, the best record in such situations since the Harding Administration. Those were the days. Predictably, the Tigers returned their backend relief combo of Joaquin Benoit (Mr. Eighth Inning) and Jose Valverde (Mr. Ninth Inning). Valverde was a perfect 49-for-49 in save opportunities last season, despite making many of them very interesting. But, as I wrote quite prophetically in spring training, the odds that Valverde would have another season like that were very low. Nostradamus I am not, I was just hedging the odds. Also, let’s face it – relievers are unpredictable, few are good year in and year out, except the guy in New York.
GM Dave Dombrowski brought in Dotel to serve as a bridge to Mr. Eighth Inning. The veteran won a ring with the St. Louis Cardinals, and if there’s one thing Leyland loves is players who come with seals of approval from BFF Tony LaRussa. See Gerald Laird’s return for further proof of the “Ring-tested, Mother LaRussa approved” program.
Yet several times already in 2012, the Tigers skipper has pulled his starters after they’ve been cruising, only to see one (or more) of his relievers blow it. To be fair, Dotel started out brilliantly, racking up 8+ scoreless innings as a Tiger before allowing a game-tying home run in a loss last week. Then Monday night’s performance reminiscent of “The Wild Thing”.
The proof that Benoit has been miserable this season can be seen by the fact that Tigers fans go to the concession stand when he enters the game. Not only because they can’t bear to watch, but because they know that “Slowpoke” will afford them plenty of time to order their nachos with extra cheese without missing one of his (errant) pitches. Benoit is pitching like a man with zero confidence in his stuff. He hems and haws and then hems again before tugging at his cap, kicking at the dirt, wiping his brow, and then hawing and hemming some more before finally delivering his pitches. His first strike percentage is one of the lowest in the league for a reliever.
Valverde has entered that phase that almost every reliever (except for the robot in NYC, Mo) reaches – where he is no longer trusted and admired, but is vilified and bemoaned. No matter how many games he might save, Papa Grande is now destined to be judged by every hit he surrenders, every baserunner he allows, every blown game. He’s in the dominion that Tigers fans previously reserved for Mike Hennemann, Todd Jones, and even Willie Hernandez, who even after his magical ’84 season heard boos later in his career when he had the audacity to be human.
But Valverde has been less than human so far in 2012. Like Benoit, he looks like a man who doesn’t trust his stuff. Is he hiding an injury ala Daniel Schlereth? Has Papa Grande lost a few miles on his heater? Or maybe he’s just forgotten how to finish games. Whatever it is, The Big Potato has been mashed way too many times this season. He’s blown two saves this year and been roughed up in a few others that he managed to convert. Overall, Leyland’s seven-man bullpen (do we really need that many relievers?) has managed to blow five of their 10 save opportunities.
But does it have to be this way? One need not look too far to find examples of teams that are doing things a little differently. The Texas Rangers, leaders of the West, and the Tampa Bay Rays, co-leaders of the East at 19-10, are relying on their starting pitchers to get them deep into games. The Rangers organization, led by President of Baseball Operations Nolan Ryan, is committed to teaching young pitchers the art of completing games. Egads. Rays manager Joe Maddon subscribes to an age-old baseball theory that it’s far easier to find four good starting pitchers than it is to find five. Update that for 2012: it’s easier to find five good starters than it is to find 4,5,6, or 7! relievers. There’s a reason relievers are in the bullpen – they don’t have good enough stuff to be starters.
The Rangers and Rays have their starters pitch more innings than most other clubs (the White Sox under new manager Robin Ventura are also employing a more aggressive approach with their starters too). Meanwhile the Tigers under Leyland rank 11th in the league in innings by their starters. And it’s not because the Tigers pitchers have been knocked out early: Detroit starters are getting into the fifth and sixth innings frequently, but Ol’ Smoky is more likely to yank them for Dotel or Phil Coke or one of his least effective relievers than allow the starter to go deep. Monday night in Seattle, Doug Fister was on cruise control and had thrown about 70 pitches when he was removed from the game. Pitch counts are something the Rangers and Rays, for example, are paying far less attention to than in the past. The Tigers are still a slave to the pitch count. Notwithstanding a few games this year when Leyland allowed Verlander to throw deep into the game, the skipper is still hesitant to let even his ace toe the rubber in the ninth inning.
By my count, there have been seven games this season in which a Tigers starter has been dealing just fine, thank you, but was pulled by Leyland to follow the “LaRussa late-inning strategy” of one-inning or match-up bullpen use. Not only does it make for a slow game but it doesn’t really make a lot of sense. Especially when the 7th, 8th, and 9th inning guys are pitching poorly.
As I wrote earlier this spring, starters won’t ever learn how to finish a game unless they are allowed to finish games. Verlander has been given a little longer leash, but Leyland continues to trust the 7th, 8th, and 9th innings of one-run games to pitchers who are having troubles throwing strikes. You can almost see the opposing team salivating when the starter (who has frustrated them all game up to that point) is pulled. Advantage enemy batters.
Drew Smyly has been an unexpected treat so far in 2012. JV is JV – simply the best pitcher in baseball. Fister looks like he hasn’t lost a thing after missing a month with a rib injury. That gives the Tigers three excellent starters to build a rotation on. Rick Porcello and Max Scherzer are frustratingly inconsistent, but if they get it together, the Detroit rotation will be a strength. A strength the team will need if the offense continues to sputter. It’s becoming apparent that Leyland should revisit his use of the bullpen. He may find the results are similar to those the Rangers and Rays are getting. First place teams are good clubs to imitate.