Jim Leyland’s Curious Choice of Relievers

Thursday night, the Tigers got yet another great pitching performance from their starting rotation, as Doug Fister struck out 12 over seven shutout innings. But a couple of hours after he came out of the game the Tigers walked off extra-inning losers, and it was basically all manager Jim Leyland’s fault.

With the game in the balance, on the road, against a streaking Pirates team, Leyland turned to … Luke Putkonen? A non-prospect reliever who has spent a grand total of 18 days in the majors this year, Putkonen wasn’t faring all that poorly at Triple-A this season. But then he was repeating the level in his age-27 season, so you know, his performance isn’t really all that impressive. Last night wasn’t the first time he brought him into a tie game on the road in extra innings. The first time he did it was on the day he was called up to the Show for the first time this season, back on May 2.

Everything worked out that night, but then Detroit was playing the Astros. Entering with two outs in the 12th inning, Putkonen retired Brandon Laird to end the frame, and then set down the vaunted trio of Brandon Barnes, Matt Dominguez and Marwin Gonzalez in the 13th. Then the Tigers scored four runs. Putkonen would tally the final three outs in the 14th, but the one plus hitter he faced in the frame — Jose Altuve — walked. Now, we can sing a refrain of “it’s just the Astros” until we’re blue in the face, but the question of why Putkonen was pitching in this situation in the first place remains. There were plenty of fresh arms that night. To wit:

May 2

In this chart, the boxes highlighted in blue are the days the pitcher was active, with the numbers representing the number of pitches the pitcher threw on that particular day. We can see that Leyland in that Houston series, Leyland was comfortable riding the least tenured members of his ‘pen in Putkonen and Jose Ortega, who managed to get in the first two games after his callup. Some of the good pitchers, meanwhile, were kept on ice. Entering the May 2nd contest, Al Alburquerque had only pitched in one of the three previous games, Jose Valverde hadn’t pitched in any of the three, and Drew Smyly had had a day off as well. Smyly in particular would seem like a great option. By the 12th inning, a manager has to be wondering about how long the game will last.

Even after managing to put that game in the black though, Putkonen went back to being an afterthought. In his next four outings, his pLI was 1.03, 1.05, 0.91 and 0.34. Hardly nail-biting stuff. He didn’t pitch poorly, but then it was just two innings in four outings. In one outing, he was brought in to face a single hitter — the slumping Josh Willingham — and he failed to retire him.

Still, Putkonen has managed to hang around. That in and of itself seems strange. Seemingly unloving to live with the ups and downs, but also the likely superior stuff of Alburquerque, Rondon and Bryan Villareal, Detroit has been content to keep Putkonen and Ortega around. That’s not to say that they want them pitching. Entering last night’s game, Putkonen hadn’t pitched in three games, and Ortega had only thrown in one of the last four. Then again, the Tigers haven’t had much need for the bullpen. Let’s take a look at the ‘pen workload heading into and including last night’s game:

May 30

That’s a lot of nights off for the ‘pen. Only two of the seven pitchers had pitched on back-to-back days in the seven-day span. Aside from Smyly, everyone had the night off on Wednesday, and Smyly had two days of rest before tossing a tidy 15 pitches in Wednesday’s loss. Yet with the game reaching extras, Putkonen got the call for the 10th. And for a hot second, it seemed like Putkonen would skate, as he escaped the eight and nine-hole, and then a leadoff hitter in Starling Marte who was one-for-13 since returning from suffering a migraine headache on Monday. Inning over, bring in one of the better pitchers, all of whom are rested, right? Well, not exactly. Putkonen was left in to face the heart of the order, and they delivered the second-round knockout — Putkonen didn’t retire a batter. Russell Martin’ssingle to end was a bit of a misnomer — he crushed the ball, it wasn’t a bloop or a bleeder.

If the Tigers had been working their relievers hard, turning to a 27-year-old with 20 innings under his belt might be understandable, but in last night’s game that simply was not the case. Leyland has managed the bullpen strangely all season — I mean, who denies interest in your long-time closer all offseason and then re-signs him after the season’s second game? But it’s not just the closer situation that has been wonky. Luke Putkonen may end up being the next great heartwarming tale of a career minor leaguer done good, but the Tigers would be better served letting him stick to blowouts until he proves deserving of such high leverage assignments.

The Royals and White Sox may have failed to grab the bull by the horns in the early going, but the Tigers are already facing a challenge from the Indians. It should be a passing challenge, as the Tigers starting rotation is far superior to Cleveland’s, but unless someone tells Leyland that it’s OK to use his good relievers in a tie game, the American League Central race might end up being a lot closer than expected.

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Paul Swydan is the co-managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for ESPN MLB Insider and the Boston Globe. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan.

54 Responses to “Jim Leyland’s Curious Choice of Relievers”

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  1. SB says:

    Before I knew much about baseball, I had a lot of respect for Leyland, but now that I have a clue as to what the eff is going on, it’s clear to me he’s just like Ned Yost, Ron Washington, and Eric Wedge. It just so happens he’s blessed to manage arguably the most stacked, healthy team in the majors. Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible for him to fck the season up so he’ll never really pay for his mistakes.

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    • JuanPierreDoesSteroids says:

      As a Rangers fan, I appreciate this message.

      Ron Washington is freaking crazy. Its pretty sad when the fact that you actually DID do cocaine during the middle of a season is an after thought when the fans scream “IS HE ON CRACK?!”

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      • ElToroStrikesAgain says:

        Lol I own david murphy and leonys martin on my fantasy team, for the TEX-AZ doubleheader i was deciding whether or not to start them. I saw Tyler Skaggs minor league splits, where lefties are hitting him much better than righties. Then i remembered the manager is Washington and said, yeahhh Gentry and Baker will be in there for sure. Of course they were.

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        • JuanPierreDoesSteroids says:

          Yep. Thats Wash.

          BTW, the combination of Kinsler on the DL and Ron Washington having to decide what to do when Kinsler is on the DL is, in short, painful to watch.

          Mainly because Kinsler is usually the leadoff hitter with Andrus usually is 2nd in the order. When Kinsler went down Andrus and his 70 wRC+ (85 career) becomes the leadoff hitter. The 2nd spot in the order is going to Murphy with his 70 wRC+ (albeit 105 career) and Leury Garcia with his 23 wRC+.

          And Murphy hitting 2nd in the order may not seem TOO bad, except that, because this is a Ron Washington managed team, he is hitting there against lefties alot.

          And Profar has been hitting very well since being called up. WAY better than Garcia. But he has to bat 8th for some reason.

          I mean I could seriously go on all day…

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    • Josh says:

      Leyland actually says that he doesn’t believe in locker room camaraderie and chemistry; he continually says this in interviews. That tells me that his lineups and bullpen management as well as in game strategy are because he really believes that they help give them a better chance of winning.

      He also says that he is a “slugging” guy instead of an OBP guy. He just manages by his emotions and what he thinks works.

      This is like a doctor not looking at research, outcomes, and epidemiology studies and just says that he will treat your gonorrhea with doxycycline instead of the universally approved ceftriaxone because he “has a hunch.” Let’s just see if it works.

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  2. theetrain7 says:

    The only explanation for Leland is that Putkonen is his “Lucky Luke” Aka (cigarette loving cartoon character)…


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  3. DD says:

    How do you write this article without mentioning the “won’t use your closer in a extra inning tie game on the road” mantra of the old-school managers?

    This “strategy” was covered extensively with regard to Papelbon early last season on Crashburn Alley.

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    • vivalajeter says:

      Probably because most managers won’t use their closer in that situation. It doesn’t make sense to call Leyland out for doing something that other managers would do too.

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      • DD says:

        So because most managers don’t do it, that makes it OK? Not using your best reliever is largely regarded as a bad move, so why not call ANY manager out on it?

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        • Zach says:

          Valverde is not their best reliever.

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        • @zach says:

          @Zach: Valverde is not their best reliever but most managers keep their closers on the bench for save situations.

          It works out in the Tiger’s case that Valverde is not put in high-leverage situations, but if the tigers had an elite closer Leyland would misuse him and not put him in tight spots.

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  4. Simple answer says:

    Simple answer: Leyland is an idiot and isn’t playing with a full deck.

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  5. Wobatus says:

    He also seems to have stopped using Darin Downs much. He has a 28.1% k rate, 6.7% bb rate, and a 2.65 siera. He had some holds in early April but none since and that chart in your article highlights the fact he hasn’t pitched in over a week.

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  6. John in Michigan says:

    Stats friendly Tigers fans have complained for a while about how Leyland uses his bullpen.

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  7. Mike Matheny says:

    That move makes sense to me. You can’t always go with the guy who gives you the best chance to win, sometimes you have to go with Mitchell Boggs – or somebody else, that’s just a hypothetical example.

    +18 Vote -1 Vote +1

  8. Ruki Motomiya says:

    A fine example of why a good manager is important and how a bad one can be quite detrimental.

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  9. NWein44 says:

    Of his remaining righties, I have as much confidence in Putkonen as Ortega or Valverde, so I can’t fault Leyland for the RHP he chose, it’s not like he had Papelbon rotting in the pen. His lefty options were better, but he would never bring in a lefty to face a slew of righties.

    This should really be an article about going for R/R matchups over L/R matchups even when your RHP isn’t as good as your LHP.

    Watching Leyland since ’06, I don’t think he’s a very good in game strategist, but he seems to be very popular with the players and players want to come to Detroit to play for him, which is probably more valuable to the team because SO many of the people in managerial seats in MLB are terrible in game managers, so this fault relative to average isn’t too costly because anyone you would replace him with wouldn’t be much better.

    We should crowdsource which managers are the best in game strategist. I’d be interested to see the perceptions of each team’s fan base.

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    • Simple answer says:

      But you don’t need a “rah, rah” manager. Incompetent people shouldn’t be in positions of power. If Andy Dirks needs a cheerleader to make sure he is “mentally” fine and is not motivated enough to play well to keep his job, then I would be worried about Dirks. Same with guys like Austin Jackson that don’t have long-term contracts. I would HOPE that they would have enough motivation already.

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      • vivalajeter says:

        That’s silly. It’s not always about motivation, it’s about different people with different personalities. There are talented people who have issues with depression. There are people with confidence issues. Not everybody deals with failure (or success) the same way, and it’s foolish to act like mental/personality issues are irrelevant.

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        • Simple answer says:

          Yes, they are factors. But they are definitely secondary to the most important thing: being a competent manager. If I batted Cabrera 8th in the order and put Don Kelly leadoff, it wouldn’t matter how good I am at the touchy feely stuff.

          Cabrera: I’m just so upset about not getting a hit the other day.

          Leyland: (patting him on back) Don’t worry, you the man.

          Cabrera: (face brightening) I’m going to hit a homer now, he made me feel good with the compliment and back pat.

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        • Nathan says:

          “If I batted Cabrera 8th in the order and put Don Kelly leadoff, it wouldn’t matter how good I am at the touchy feely stuff.”

          Yeah but now you’re intentionally using a hyperbolic example that has never, and will never happen to make your point. It’s not realistic.

          I think the point about players wanting to play for Leyland having value for the Tigers is more about their ability to trade for and then sign Cabrera, re-sign JV, bring in Prince Fielder, bring in Hunter, re-sign Sanchez… no doubt about it, the Tigers overpaid for most of these guys too, but I refuse to believe the overpayment was all it took, because there are a handful of teams that consistently overpay like this just the same.

          There are probably a hundred reasons that go into each player’s decision, but I have to think Leyland is one of the plus reasons. Why would you willingly choose to play have a boss that you hate working for?

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      • isavage30 says:

        It’s natural for stat-minded fans to discount the more personal and personality-based aspects of managing, because it’s not really measurable. I think it makes a significant impact though, in what job doesn’t it? If you like and respect your boss, and your boss deals with the various personalities well, you’re going to perform better at your job then if you dislike and disrespect your boss, and if you relationship is tense. For example, I always like Manny Acta a lot for his in-game management. He rarely did anything questionable. I feel like this article about Leyland could have just as well been written about Terry Francona this year with the Indians; his bullpen usage, and lineups, have been bizarre. But the players pretty much admitted they didn’t like playing for Acta, that he didn’t communicate well, and he definitely seemed to have trouble getting the best out of his players. So while Francona makes me smack my head against a wall with some decisions he makes (Nick Hagadone pitching to Joey Votto with a guy on 3rd and 1 out in a tie game!), I let it slide.

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        • kk says:

          Unit cohesion does not become magic fairy dust when you apply it to sports instead of an ER unit or a combat platoon.

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        • @kk says:

          Especially in a sport like baseball where there is much less interaction and physical contact than sports like football, unit cohesion isn’t as important.

          If I’m pushing 300 pound guys on the football field, anger will probably give me a small performance boost but in a mostly skill sport like baseball–I need a level head.

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      • NWein44 says:

        It’s not just motivation, but also about creating an environment that attracts free agents and makes players want to sign extensions. Verlander likes Detroit and I’m sure one of the reasons is that he likes his boss. It’s not something we have a great handle on, but it’s valuable. And the point is, there are so few good in game strategists around the league, so Leyland being bad at it isn’t really a detriment to the club compared to his peers. Until the population turns over and teams start hiring people who understand their role better, we’re just going to be watching poor decisions from managers.

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        • Simple answer says:

          So we should just accept incompetence because most managers are incompetent? Seems like a bad way to judge peoples’ performance.

          It’s like saying, “A lot of congressmen are corrupt but we should just accept it because most are.”

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  10. The post that was 8 years in the making. And this was 2 days after trying to get 2 innings out of Jose Ortega and well I don’t have to tell you what happened next.

    Just so numb to it now though.

    So numb.

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  11. Ron says:

    Tigers fans have known this for years, glad he is getting exposure on this,

    add in sticking with incompetent batters for months on end; Raburn, CrInge, kelly who is on pace for about 250 at bats.

    The Tigers could still win ‘Despite’ Leyland’s constant f ups.

    and don’t get us Tigers fans started about ‘The Butt Triplets’, Loathsome Lloyd McClendon and fat daddy Gene Lamont, Three Stooges.

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    • Simple answer says:

      Raburn actually used to be a good hitter with the tigers except for the last year, so I can live with that decision. Same with Inge; his glove really gave him a lot of value.

      Kelly…not so much. Leyland has a big mancrush on him.

      I hate how tigers fans on blessyouboys.com say that just because he has been managing 30+ years or whatever, he knows more than educated, rational, objective fans. There are idiots in high positions in all walks of life, unfortunately.

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  12. mario mendoza says:

    Same old Leyland… he preaches that everyone on his team is capable of performing, and likes to demonstrate his faith from time to time. Ramon Santiago has been his posterboy for this mantra, frequently batting him 3rd. I guess Luke is the bullpen version.

    We’ll never know the value of motivating players who SHOULD need no motivation. It probably isn’t worth “throwing” a game. But anyone who’s played knows baseball is psychological, so it’s probably worth *something*

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    • Jake says:

      Ramon Santiago has started zero games in his career where he batted 3rd in the lineup.

      +15 Vote -1 Vote +1

      • Dave K says:

        Why use Santiago as an example when Don Kelly makes a much better example?

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      • mario mendoza says:

        My memory is fuzzy. It was a few years ago, I think when Pudge was still in Det, and I remember wondering what Leyland was doing… there was a string of games when Santiago batted 5th. And that was the explanation Leyland gave.

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        • Jake says:

          Santiago has never started a game hitting 5th.

          This stuff is not hard to look up using Baseball-Reference’s career splits feature. I suggest you do that instead of trusting your fuzzy memory.

          I myself had no idea if the claims you mad were true, so I used B-R to double-check them.

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    • Simple answer says:

      If the person can’t get motivated and focused to save their job, I fear for that person.

      Other big issues with Leyland is the fact that if a starter has a day off, the backup is put in the same spot. There is no reason that replacement player types like Kelly should be anywhere other than at the bottom of the order.

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      • mario mendoza says:

        It’s not motivation so much as confidence. Not that it is a good idea to use Luke or hit Santiago 5th, but to ignore confidence/psychology/motivation is like ignoring defensive metrics. It’s part of the game, too.

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      • David says:

        Fine, fear for that person, you are wrong, and have an undue opinion of/tolerance for the frequency of personal failings in human beings, but even if you feel that way…

        If the dude can hit a baseball better than 99.9% of other human beings, and him hitting a baseball well helps you, then wouldn’t you rather help the dude hit a baseball than ship him out and move on? the population of humans who are physically capable of playing professional sports is extremely limited, and these guys cost an enormous amount of money to train.

        Management is essential in any business, because different people have different strengths, and a company doesnt want, for example, a researcher to set their own research schedule (maybe a bad example, I don’t know, if it is, forgive me). They want the researcher to do research, and a Business Development person to tell them what to research, because these are the areas of core competency. With baseball, the issue is complicated, because Managers have to manage their Employees, AND make strategic decisions within a game setting. These are essentially two different jobs, and competency in one probably has relatively little correlation to competency in the other. If you want to blame anybody for Jim Leylands poor use of the bullpen, maybe blame Tigers management, for not hiring someone else for that job. It IS possible that Leyland is particularly adept at coaxing maximum on-field performance from his players when controlled for in-game decisions (In other words, that Miguel Cabrera, in the same lineup, with the same useage, in the same park, and against the same competition, will perform better for Leyland than a replacement Manager). The problem that we run into here is that we are currently very poor at measuring this impact against a baseline, we may not get better at it any time soon considering the exponentially greater number of variables and outcomes involved in this calculation VS. offensive statistics with a limited set of 24 possible base-out states. Our inability to measure the “management effect” causes us to default to a state whereby we essentially assume that all managers are equally skilled in this area and only measure a Manager by his ability to make in-game strategic decisions. This is similar in a way to our defensive evaluations of Catchers… 5 years ago, we assumed they were all equally skilled pitch framers and callers, and that we would forever be unable to measure the expected difference in performance from the same pitcher, pitching to the same offense, in the same park, in the same conditions, but to different catchers. I guess my point is this, “complicated” doesn’t mean “impossible”; “We can’t do it right now” doesn’t mean “it cant be done”; and just because we cant tell what the difference is, doesn’t mean the difference doesn’t exist.

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  13. gnomez says:

    It should be a passing challenge, as the Cardinals’ starting rotation is far superior to Cincinnati’s, but unless someone tells Matheny that it’s OK to use his good relievers in a tie game, the National League Central race might end up being a lot closer than expected.


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  14. Brian says:

    how about when managers won’t bring in the closer with say..bases loaded in the 8th with 2 outs…instead they will bring in somebody else just because its not a “save situation” even though its the most important situation of the game…its pretty frustrating…guess that goes in line with bringing in closer with tie game etc like u guys were saying.

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    • JuanPierreDoesSteroids says:

      Actually, if it is a close game, that WOULD be a save situation if he finishes the 9th too.

      Which makes it even crazier that it still happens! I remember last year, after Brandon League struggled and lost his closer job, within the next couple of days Wedge brought him in a similar situation. I think it was a 1 run lead with 2 men on and no outs.

      The stuff that goes on with MLB managers is just mind blowing!

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  15. tz says:

    Amen to the last two posts. Nothing peeves me more than a manager refusing to use his closer OR his “eighth-inning” guy in a game that’s tied late.

    Imagine the advantage you’d have using a top reliever in a tie game while the other guy uses his 3rd-best (or worse) option…..

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    • Simple answer says:

      But he needs confidence. MLB players are all head cases that can’t survive without their manager giving them moral support. Thus, it is acceptable for demonstrably inferior players to be in high-leverage spots.

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  16. statsman says:

    Curious about this. Seems like most managers use their bullpen this way during tie games, especially in extra innings. Seems that somebody needs to watch more baseball.

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    • statsman says:

      or actually try managing a real team before spouting off.

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      • wattt? says:

        Just because most are dummies doesn’t mean that it should be accepted.

        And no, you don’t need to be intelligent or even hard working to be a major league baseball manager. It’s not friggin brain surgery or rocket science; you need connections.

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  17. ElToroStrikesAgain says:

    Naming a LOOGY that allows a 400 BAA to righties is a gigantic red flag.

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  18. Whoomp there it is says:

    Nitpicking at it’s finest. The real valverde showed up saturday, and you can’t expect smyly to pitch back to back or 3 of 4 nights all time when he’s a multi inning guy. Valverde can easily flame multi nights in a row, especially when 1 run will lose you a game! Ron Warshington used to be clueless, but now must have someone like Maddux making the call on what relievers to bring in.

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  19. Ron says:

    Leyland and Wimpy are clueless.

    My eye teeth for the reincarnation of the old Tigers pitching coach Johnny Sain.

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  20. Nathan says:

    Take this for what you will… I’m not sure I believe it entirely, but I’m also not sure I would discount it out of hand.

    One thing Leyland has said numerous times in interviews is that he likes to get his bench guys regular work because he believes it helps keep them ready to perform their best if they’re pressed into duty by an injury, an extra innings game, or a bad SP performance. He has also said numerous times that he likes to get guys like Putkonen (admittedly this is despite his pedigree) out there in “real” situations to “see what he has” in them.

    I know most people here will dismiss this. I don’t particularly buy it either, I think it’s mostly something he says after a decision like this costs his team the game. But if I keep an open mind, I can give him a tiny little bit of rope on this one.

    If we really want to talk about curious decisions, let’s talk about signing Valverde two minutes after the bullpen had a bad game to start the season. That’s really the scariest thing that Tiger management has done this year.

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    • Funk says:

      So he uses pressure situations in real games to evaluate his rookie relievers?! That’s what spring training is for …

      In 2009 the Tigers lost their division by one game, and Leyland was still blowing games back then by using rookies late in tied games. If he had managed every game like it counted perhaps his team would’ve made the playoffs that year.

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  21. mike says:

    Miguel Cabrera’s on-track to out-RBI Hack Wilson this season. In May, Tigers pitchers notched the third-highest monthly strikeout total in AL history. The team finished 14-14 for the month. Why? Well, it could be the invocation of a powerful demonic curse, unleashed from Hell unto the Tigers. Or it could be bad managing. You decide.

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