Detroit Tigers: With Jose Valverde Benched, Who's the Closer?
Jose Valverde's historic meltdowns against Oakland and New York—I daresay there have never been two more horrific back-to-back outings in MLB playoff history—have left the Tigers searching for a door-shutter in the ninth inning.
Officially, the Tigers are saying Valverde's still the closer—he's just on a leave of absence until he straightens things out. But notably missing from that official statement is what's wrong and how the Tigers and Valverde will fix it.
About Valverde's issues, Leyland said only, "His delivery is way too slow." Well, you can't simply tell a pitcher to pitch faster.
And speaking of faster, they need to come up with a solution quickly because they are two wins from the World Series.
So who's the current Tigers' closer?
Phil Coke seems to be an obvious choice simply because of his success in Game 2. Coke got six outs in the eighth and ninth innings, while allowing only one baserunner, Alex Rodriguez, on a two-out single in the ninth.
Coke has a fastball that frequently touches 95 mph, and interestingly, he's most effective on no rest, with an opposing batting average of .238 in back-to-back games. That's an ideal criterion for a closer.
His struggles this season, though, are well-documented and much discussed:
• a .396 average against right-handers
• a 5.82 ERA after the All-Star break
• a stretch from May to August where opponents batted well over .300 against him, including an August where the batters he faced became batting champions, hitting .444.
But Coke says he has figured out the reason for his struggles (via the Detroit Free Press).
"My daughter was born (on July 21), and then we went on a 10-game trip," Coke said. "I got to take my wife and my child home, and I had to pack and leave. That was terrible…that was part of my personal struggle through the remainder of the season…I figured it out. I kept pressing. I wasn't going to give in. I wasn't going to give up."
So perhaps Coke has righted his own ship. And almost as interesting as his effectiveness on no rest is the opposing batters' averages based on runners on base. His opposing average declines the more runners are on base.
With none on, his batting average against this season was .376. With one one, it was .286. With runners in scoring position, it was .224, and Coke was perfect with the bases loaded.
Those numbers offer support for anointing Coke as the Tigers' interim closer. But more important than the season numbers is his playoff performance: after his Game 2 mowdown, who's going to take the ball away from him?
It's common knowledge the Tigers are Dotel's 13th team, a major league record.
What's less commonly known is his excellent control—Dotel walks fewer than two batters per nine innings. Over the 2012 season, Dotel's batting-average-against in July was a stellar .208, and it was .193 in August. Moreover, on either one or two days of rest in 2012, Dotel's opposing batting average was under .200.
And when asked about being the closer, Dotel claims he's up for the challenge. He told the Free Press' Jeff Seidel, “I’m ready for anything. Right now, I’m ready for my team. To step up for my team. I just need to do what I do. To help.”
Of course, you'd lose Dotel for the seventh or eighth innings by moving him to the ninth, but he's a strong possibility to be striding to the mound with three outs to go.
Al Albuquerque, the Richard Dawson of relievers, was not fazed by the chorus of boos raining down on him in Oakland in his first appearance after his frenching of a ball hit back to him against the A's.
In that hostile environment, Albuquerque preceded Valverde's first playoff meltdown and pitched a perfect inning--to go perfectly with his perfect inning in his notorious ball-kissing appearance.
The line on Albuquerque in the 2012 playoffs: no runs, no hits, no walks, one strikeout, 0.00 ERA.
Since Albuquerque only pitched in a handful of games in 2012, using him in the ninth wouldn't mean shuffling your other relievers in rotation.
Is there a case against him? He's a great spot reliever, so Leyland loses some of the pieces in his chess game. And again, he didn't pitch much in 2012. So can two innings of perfect ball to go along with eight appearances in the regular season with a 0.68 ERA be truly considered as a body of work?
Personally, I don't see why not, and to me that kiss was a taunt against the A's. Watch Albuquerque's eyes as mouth meets ball. He's looking right at the batter. The act might well have been unsportsmanlike, but it also showed a killer instinct, which you want in a closer. In addition, his fastball can touch 98 mph, and his slider is recognized as one of baseball's most outstanding.
If it were up to me, Albuquerque would be the guy.
Joaquin Benoit could be the closer, but there are a lot of reasons he'd be a shaky one.
For starters, his batting-average-against in the last month of the season was .308. Scary.
Moreover, despite his struggles at the end of the season, Benoit is the eighth-inning setup man. So once again, you'd have to shuffle your reliever lineup if your starter goes six or seven.
However, against batters with the tying run on deck, the game tied, or the opposing team up by one run, Benoit's opposing batting average this season was .212. In his 18 ninth-inning appearances, Benoit's opposing batting average was .190, and he sported a 2.65 ERA. And with 11 years in the major leagues, you can't underestimate Benoit's experience.
So all in all, he remains a legitimate candidate.
Drew Smyly or Rick Porcello
Drew Smyly made a nice relief appearance against the Yankees, throwing two innings of one-hit ball and allowing no runs.
His true position, though, is as a starting pitcher, and he's on the postseason roster in case a starter has a bad game and has to be pulled. Same situation for Porcello. Closer is not a natural choice for them, and it would tie the Tigers' hands if a starter does have a rough outing.
Both Smyly and Porcello will remain in the bullpen as long relievers.
The Bottom Line
The Tigers haven't made a definitive decision on their closer--or if they haven't, they've not disclosed it publicly. And my opinion plus three dollars won't buy you a latte at Starbucks.
But for what it's worth, my money's on Coke or Albuquerque, with the latter being my personal choice.
And whomever it is, let's hope the Tigers are in position to choose a closer in Game 3. After all, that means they're ahead with the game on the line.
And with that, this article comes to a...well, to a close.
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