The Detroit Tigers have quite a few glaring weaknesses for a team that leads its division by 4.5 games, namely struggling closer Jose Valverde and an anemic offense that only shows up for six innings a night.
Manager Jim Leyland has come under scrutiny in recent weeks because of these woes plaguing a team that should be competing for the best record in baseball behind Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander, Prince Fielder and co.
Leyland has two issues on his hands right now and it's tough to figure out which he should try to address first. Let's break down both issues and try to make sense of the mess in Detroit.
The Struggling Offense
Let's start with the issue of an offense that apparently can't hit relief pitchers.
The Tigers have the best 3-4 punch in the MLB behind Cabrera and Fielder, and the offense appears to be just fine when you look at its league-leading batting average and its ranking of fifth in runs scored.
But that's just the top layer.
The Tigers might be able to blow opponents out of the water in some of their games, but what about in close games? What about games that come down to the final inning? What about games that are as close as you'd expect a playoff game to be?
Well, that's a whole new story.
As MLive.com reports, the Tigers are the best team in baseball for the first six innings, but can't do much of anything when relief pitchers come in for the last three innings:
The Tigers lead the majors in batting average (.308), runs scored (263) and OPS (.850) in the first six innings. They are 29th in batting average (.222) and runs scored (61), and 28th in OPS (.620) in the seventh inning and beyond.
If any team can win a nine inning game with only six innings of batting it's the Tigers, and they've proved that so far. However, it certainly won't be enough come playoff time.
What's Wrong with Jose Valverde?
Less than two years after going 49-for-49 in save attempts, Valverde has become one of the shakiest closers in the game. What's worse is that he's been giving Leyland headaches simply from all the questions coming at the Tigers' skipper.
Leyland proved that the questions are getting to him, dropping some very colorful quotes (via MLive.com):
I'm not going to talk about silly (expletive). We're going to do the best we can. We're going to use Jose Valverde until we decide Jose Valverde can or can't do it or we've got somebody else better. That's what we're doing. That's like everybody else does. That's what you do. That's what we've got, in our opinion, right now. …
We've got a good team and a lot of guys have been doing good. Some guys haven't been doing as good. Papa Grande's been good on some occasions. He's let a couple get away. I haven't managed great in every situation. Everybody hasn't hit great in every situation. Somebody made an error once in a while. That's all baseball. That's all baseball.
Leyland didn't stop there, though. Per USA Today, he kept ranting to reporters who were only too happy to scoop these quotes up:
Who the (expletive) should I close with? Who do you want me to close with? Who the (expletive) do you want to be the closer? … I don't know what the (expletive) these people want. They just throw stuff out there. People just talk, they don't think about it.
Well those answers weren't good enough for fans on Twitter, as they went off on Leyland and what they saw as his inability to change closers, while others continue to crack jokes at the expense of their once beloved closer.
Dear Jim Leyland, Please stop trying to fool us. José Valverde is not the "best man for the job." He is done. Let Benoit do it. Sincerely Me— Alexandra Simon (@catswithbats) June 14, 2013
Jim Leyland need to stop (expletive) crying and replace Valverde with Benoit! Leyland, man up and do your job!— Lawrence Wider (@gadgetnerd24) June 14, 2013
If anyone could blow a save on his off day, it would be Jose Valverde— Miguel Cabrera (@DrunkMiggy) June 14, 2013
The other day I heard about a guy who put a fat head of Jose Valverde on his garage door... It can't close anymore. 😂— Jake Money (@moneys7714) June 14, 2013
The fans clearly want to abandon ship after Valverde has surrendered seven earned runs in his last six games, calling for Joaquin Benoit to be named closer after posting a 1.93 ERA and 1.04 WHIP this year.
However, Valverde had been exceptional before June, posting a microscopic ERA of 0.75. He has really only struggled for six games, as USA Today reports.
Yet the recent numbers reveal an ugly story and explain why the Tigers are turning to their unlimited call plan, speed-dialing teams for a closer. Valverde yielded a .077 batting average (3-for-39) with no homers in his first 12 appearances this year but is allowing a .370 batting average (10-for-27) with five homers in the six games since.
The fans want a new closer and Leyland doesn't, but it will all come down to Valverde's efforts in the coming weeks.
The Bottom Line
The Tigers have two problems staring them in the face, but it's obvious that the team's offensive woes are far worse than Valverde's struggles on the mound.
Without offense, you can never get into a position to win games, and you can't maintain leads. While the team hits well for six innings, it tails off after that.
The biggest reason why the team's bullpen is 4-12 in spite of having a solid ERA and WHIP is because the Tigers never score when the relievers are in. The bullpens surrenders a few runs every once in a while, but because the team can never score those times almost always turn into losses. Meanwhile, the lineup has only managed to win tied games or come from behind with the bullpen in the game four times all year.
The other clear reason why the offense is the biggest issue is because Valverde had been on fire up until two weeks ago. Also, he is only struggling because opposing batters are hitting him hard, as USA Today reports that his WHIP is very low compared to the rest of his career.
Valverde, along with the Tigers coaching staff, will argue that he's pitching better than he did last season. His walks are down, his strikeouts are up, and if he maintains his 1.04 WHIP (walks and hits per nine innings), it would rank as the second-best ratio of his career.
If Valverde can regain his confidence he will likely return to his old self, and even if he doesn't, the team can move Benoit to closer.
The offense, however, cannot be replaced for the last three innings. If the Tigers continue to struggle in the last three innings of games, they will likely be ousted from the playoffs before they can make a run, and that is what really matters in Detroit these days.