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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.