The Tigers may not have had any choice but to reactivate Delmon Young to take the place of Magglio Ordonez on the American League Championship Series roster prior to Game 2. But they did have an option on where they batted him, and it didn’t need to be third. By the end of the night, it was one of many confusing decisions on the part of Tigers’ manager Jim Leyland, who did not have his finest night at the ballpark.
The decision to even play Young wasn’t really up for debate against a lefty, assuming good health. Young is better against lefties than he is against righties, and save for Danny Worth — who has never before played the outfield as a professional — the Tigers didn’t have a better option at the plate. But it was apparent right from the jump that Young wasn’t going to have the arm he needed out in left. Elvis Andrus was going to score on Josh Hamilton’s double in the first no matter what — you can see him practically jogging home in the clip — but Young was certainly not going to be an asset in the field. As such, it was a good bet that Young was going to come out for a defensive replacement at some point. That point came in the top of the seventh, with the Tigers clinging to a one-run lead.
Defensive replacements are fine and dandy like sour candy when you have the lead, but the Tigers lost theirs approximately 85 seconds after Don Kelly took over in left. While the top of the order wouldn’t come around for two more turns, the Tigers were still faced with the proposition of having Ramon Santiago in the two-hole and Kelly in the three-hole. And with Austin Jackson struggling in the leadoff spot (more on him in a minute), the Tigers were left with what should have been a completely useless top of the order. Of course, Kelly garnered just his fifth hit of the season off of a lefty when Mike Gonzalez came on to face him in the ninth, but just because the move worked doesn’t take Leyland off the hook for a poor decision. Had he simply moved everyone in the lineup one spot and hit Young behind Peralta in the eight-hole, he would not have been at such a disadvantage. If Young is not capable of playing a full nine, he needs to hit lower in the lineup so that the Tigers may avoid this situation in upcoming games, as things probably won’t work out so well the next time he is lifted.
Leyland’s head-scratching substitutions weren’t done. Leading off the top of the ninth, Leyland pinch-hit for Brandon Inge. This in and of itself was not a bad decision, as Inge produced a woeful 18 wRC+ against right-handed pitching this season. But Leyland chose to go with Andy Dirks instead of Wilson Betemit. On the surface, this is a terrible decision — Dirks produced an 81 wRC+ against righties this year, while Betemit had a 128 wRC+ against them, and 150 in the regular season with Detroit. Now, perhaps Betemit’s knee is still bothering him, but he is on the roster, and as the situation with Young has shown, it’s all hands on deck for Detroit. If you look closer, you can see that the decision was even worse. Alexi Ogando had finished the previous inning by pumping in six consecutive cheese-laden fastballs to Alex Avila, the last three of which hit 98 or 99 mph according to MLB.com Gameday. It was a good bet that Ogando was going to stick with that strategy in the ninth. Going back to our two candidates, we find that while Betemit was essentially neutral against fastballs this year, Dirks compiled a -10.7 wFB, which was good for the 15th-worst mark in the game this season. With only Jose Valverde and Al Alburquerque left among the competent members of their bullpen, the Tigers needed a hit right there, and Dirks was overmatched. He flied out to center. Had they sent Betemit to the dish, perhaps he gets on, and Kelly’s double scores him with the go-ahead run. The move looked even worse two innings later when Dirks, who stayed in the game in right dropped a catchable fly ball. Perhaps Leyland, trying to think ahead, didn’t want Betemit’s glove at third, but that should not have been a factor — the Tigers needed base runners. If the Tigers take the lead there, you can still bring in Dirks and trust your “perfect” closer to win it in regulation. When they didn’t, it spelled trouble for a Tigers’ bullpen thin on trust-worthy relievers.
Still, even with the Tigers low on good relievers, the decision to go with Ryan Perry over Al Alburquerque in the 11th inning was a curious one. Up until that point, Leyland had been very aggressive with his two best relievers, getting five outs from Joaquin Benoit and six outs from Valverde. At that point, the Tigers had one good reliever left, and it wasn’t Perry. Perry throws three pitches, a fastball, slider and changeup. This season, only his changeup qualified as an above-average pitch, and then, just barely. In the regular season, he had the lowest K/BB, as well as the highest xFIP, SIERA and WHIP among Tigers’ relievers, and only Daniel Schlereth had a higher FIP. In his first two postseason appearances, he entered with the Tigers trailing 8-1 and 10-1, respectively. Now he was being asked to keep the Tigers out on a 0-2 hole. He couldn’t do it. Perry did not record one out, and the Tigers never got Alburquerque to the mound, even though he was warming and probably could have (and should have) come in to face Cruz at the very least.
These weren’t the only head-scratching moves Leyland made. He also ordered Jhonny Peralta to bunt in the 10th, but even though Peralta had not laid down a sacrifice bunt since 2009, it wasn’t that awful of a decision. It put a runner in scoring position for Avila, and while the move increased Texas’ win expectancy by three percent that would have not mattered a whit had Avila come through. But he didn’t, and Dirks (him again!) grounded out to shortstop to end the threat.
I’m not trying to paint Leyland as the worst manager ever, because he isn’t, and certainly Ron Washington made some questionable decisions of his own last night. But all in all, Washington’s moves — particularly his quick hook for Derek Holland — turned out much better. It simply wasn’t Leyland’s night. And it won’t get any easier for Leyland in Game 3. As Chris Cwik mentioned this morning, if there is one game in which you want to stack lefties in your lineup, it’s tonight against Colby Lewis. You would have to consider Dirks over Young — their numbers against righties were nearly identical this year and Young isn’t 100% — but Kelly is probably the right play here. You could take Raburn out of the lineup, but he has been one of the Tigers’ best hitters so far this postseason. Either way, tonight should see at least two of Kelly, Betemit and Dirks get starting nods. The other big decision the Tigers have to make is whether or not Jackson continues to hit leadoff. Jackson is now sporting a .290 on-base percentage for the postseason, as well as a lowly .490 OPS. He has struck out in more than half of his plate appearances in the ALCS, and has struck out in nearly half of his postseason PA’s overall. When you add in his September stats, Jackson has walked just 14 times and struck out 56 times in his last 150 plate appearances, which is high even for him. Leyland admitted they would have to look at that going into Game 3. Betemit might prove to be a better catalyst at the top of the lineup, at least for tonight, than will Jackson.
Jim Leyland has proven time and again that he is a world class manager. He has managed six playoff teams, one pennant winner and one World Series champion, and is a three-time Manager of the Year. Simply put, he’s one of the best that’s ever done it. But his performance last night was more blooper reel than it was wall of fame, and his decisions aren’t about to get any easier tonight or beyond.