Playoff Exaggerations and the Detroit Tigers Bullpen

The Detroit Tigers won 88 games in the regular season, tied for the least of all the playoff teams, and good for seventh in the American League. They advanced despite winning fewer games than both the Angels and the Rays. Based only on that, you’d assume that the Tigers are a team with vulnerabilities, and indeed, vulnerabilities they’ve got. Infield defense is a known weakness, although so far in the playoffs Jhonny Peralta has decided to just play all positions at the same time. And then there’s the bullpen. There’s a lot of chatter these days about the Detroit Tigers’ bullpen.

And there’s chatter for a reason. In Game 2 of the ALDS against the A’s, the Tigers’ bullpen gave away a late lead. In Game 4 of the ALDS, the bullpen did the same thing. In Game 1 of the ALCS, a 4-0 lead in the ninth turned into a 4-4 tie in the tenth. The Tigers, clearly, have survived, winning their first series and winning the first two games of their second, but now there’s a lot of distrust. There’s a lot of pressure on the Tigers’ starters, because people are wary of the relievers behind them.

I don’t need to explain why that makes sense. Jose Valverde has never been a real good pitcher against left-handed hitters, and he’s gotten worse overall in 2012. That’s the Tigers’ closer, so that’s the guy pitching the highest-leverage innings. Joaquin Benoit has decided to futz around with a home-run problem, and that’s pretty much the worst possible problem for a late-inning reliever to have. And these are the playoffs, so everything is magnified, with strengths looking three times stronger, and weaknesses looking three times weaker. In the playoffs, it’s not that a player didn’t perform; it’s that a player can’t perform, and who wants a guy who can’t perform in the playoffs?

It’s true that the Tigers don’t have an amazing bullpen. Especially relative to their playoff starting rotation, which is outstanding 1-through-4. So far in the playoffs that Tigers bullpen has allowed nine runs in 16.2 innings, which is too many runs. But it’s important to understand the difference between “not amazing” and “bad and not to be trusted,” and in truth, the Tigers have a fine bullpen that’s had a few recent meltdowns destroy its reputation.

Here is the Tigers’ playoff bullpen, listed in no real order aside from the order in which they are listed:

Valverde’s been the key, because he’s been the closer, and this year he allowed lefties to reach at a .337 clip. He’s been a nightmare in the playoffs, again, and while Tigers sources claim to have identified a mechanical flaw, it’s impossible to tell whether that’s the truth or a cover. Even when Valverde’s going well, he’s shown a big platoon split, and this year his strikeout rate cratered. Valverde is a concern.

But even Valverde is good against righties and not a disaster against lefties. Anybody who says that Valverde can’t pitch to lefties is exaggerating. What they mean is that Valverde can’t pitch as effectively against lefties, but he can still retire them far more often than not. Whenever Valverde faces any lefty, the odds remain in Valverde’s favor. And then there are all those other guys in the bullpen who aren’t Jose Valverde.

Joaquin Benoit is the veteran setup guy, and this year he allowed 14 home runs. He’s allowed another home run in the playoffs, along with some deep non-dinger line drives. However, this regular season Benoit also finished with 84 strikeouts and 20 unintentional walks. While he was allowing dingers in the second half, he posted 33 strikeouts and seven unintentional walks. Benoit in 2012 allowed the lowest contact rate of his career. Historically, Benoit’s been a guy with a reverse platoon split, presumably on account of his changeup, and while I know this seems too easy, we might just chalk up the home runs to fly-ball fluctuation. Benoit hasn’t lost anything in terms of pitch speed or hittability. He’s never shown a home-run problem before. he’s always been a fly-ball pitcher, and the numbers make him out to be more trustworthy than the perception. Benoit might have a real problem, but he might also just be good.

Similar to Valverde, Octavio Dotel has got himself a platoon split. Similar to Benoit, Dotel has got himself a fly-ball rate. Dotel is no stranger to home runs, meaning the whole game could change with any one individual pitch. But Dotel can just shut righties completely down, and his record against lefties is mediocre and shy of disastrous. You don’t want Dotel pitching to multiple lefties, but you can handle him pitching to one, most of the time.

Coke is the primary lefty, and like most primary lefties, he’s basically a LOOGY. Or a lefty specialist, if you don’t want to restrict him to getting one out. Yet on Sunday, Coke pitched two full innings, facing seven batters in a fairly close game. Of the four lefties he faced, zero reached base. Of the three righties he faced, one reached base. You don’t want Valverde or Dotel facing a bunch of lefties and you don’t want Coke facing a bunch of righties, but an advantage is that the Yankees kind of stack some of their lefties. On Sunday the top of the Yankees’ order went L-L-S-L, meaning Coke could stay in and just pitch around Mark Teixeira if need be. Coke doesn’t necessarily have to just be a one-out guy against the Yankees, because the Yankees have a lot of lefties and no quality righties on the bench. They could end up with Alex Rodriguez on the bench, but Alex Rodriguez sure doesn’t look like himself right now.

So we’ve gone through three guys with giant platoon splits and one guy who might have a home-run problem. That brings us to Al Alburquerque, who I consider to be a fascinating wild card. The Tigers’ bullpen, as described so far, could really use a pitcher who can pitch to batters of either handedness, and that’s where I think Alburquerque could step in. Immediately, you see that he’s a fastball/slider righty, suggesting that he’ll struggle against lefties. But in his limited career, he’s shown no such platoon split, possibly owing to his arm slot:

Alburquerque comes over-the-top, and of 105 lefties he’s faced, he’s struck out 42 of them, with a 62-percent contact rate. He’s struck out 43 of 130 righties. What he doesn’t do enough of is throw strikes, as he can get himself into walk trouble, but Alburquerque is incredibly difficult to hit and the majority of balls in play against him have been grounders. Alburquerque looks to me like a guy who should be playing a prominent role. Though he’s coming back from elbow surgery, he seems healthy and he seems effective, and he just doesn’t often allow contact.

Behind those five you have two starters as long relievers. Smyly’s a lefty who’s better against lefties, and Porcello’s a righty who’s better against righties. Both have been perfectly adequate starters so it stands to reason they’d be more effective as relievers. Given how many of the other Tigers relievers have big platoon splits, it’s helpful to have long guys, one of whom can also function as the second lefty.

It seems to me the issue with the Tigers’ bullpen is one not of talent, but of management. It makes the least sense to hand the most critical plate appearances to Jose Valverde just because he’s the closer. The Tigers saw on Sunday what an alternative can do, and it’ll be important for Jim Leyland to protect Valverde from having to face too many lefties the rest of the way. Same with Dotel, and hopefully Leyland knows this. The Tigers have a very good rotation, meaning they should need fewer innings from the bullpen. Needing fewer innings from the bullpen means the Tigers should be able to play more matchups. They don’t have to let Dotel or Valverde face too many lefties, and they don’t have to let Coke face too many righties. If they don’t trust Benoit right now, there’s Alburquerque, with eye-popping statistics. Smyly and Porcello are short of outstanding but both perfectly fine, even in unfamiliar roles.

Of course the Tigers would like to have a better bullpen. Every team in baseball would like to have a better everything, and the Tigers’ bullpen obviously has its question marks. But it’s also got plenty of talent, and as long as Leyland doesn’t just blindly trust Valverde in close games no matter what, the Tigers should be okay. They have relievers with platoon splits, but they have relievers that allow them to mix and match, and in Alburquerque they have a reliever who can strike anybody out. Maybe it wouldn’t be right to call the Tigers’ bullpen a potential strength, but it doesn’t have to be a weakness. There are way worse bullpens.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

42 Responses to “Playoff Exaggerations and the Detroit Tigers Bullpen”

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  1. Gabriel BatCat Bogart says:

    Quite honestly, I’ve never played organized baseball or coached or any of that, but I thought he (Valverde) looked as if snapping his arm back on his fastball release instead of following through to any point across the shoulder/chest plane. Maybe that’s what they’re looking at? Does seem that his fastball was what Ichiro and Ibanez crushed (up and middle of strike zone) for those homers to tie Game 1…….

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    • Eric Cioe says:

      He has done that his whole career. He’s always had shitty mechanics. Now he has shitty mechanics, no secondary pitch, and a fastball that has lost a few ticks since his prime. Oh, and he has never had any command anyway. This is what happens to stuff pitchers once their stuff leaves them. Sometimes they develop command along the way, but Valverde never did.

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      • GG says:

        I forgot you are a expert in the bio-mechanics of pitching. So his “shitty” mechanics produce fastballs into the upper 90’s during Valverde’s peak and to stay health enough to pitch at least 50 games for the past five years? But that doesn’t matter. It looks herky-jerky and his follow-through doesn’t look right to you. That means they are shitty. You should really tell this to Jose Valverde himself. He would want to know that he has shitty mechanics and that his mechanics are holding him back because mechanics are 100% the only answer to any pitching struggles.

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      • Eric Cioe says:

        Would you teach your kid to throw a baseball like Valverde does? He looks uncomfortable throwing a baseball. I’m guessing that’s because he probably is.

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      • Nathan says:

        GG, the argument isn’t really that his mechanics are bad, as in, unhealthy. The arguments are that his mechanics are very unique and somewhat wild, therefore making them harder to repeat on every pitch. If you can’t repeat your mechanics, how can you expect to command your pitches?

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      • Andrew says:

        His mechanics are clearly flawed. And he’s never been a “pitcher” so much as a “thrower” who could throw really well. But that skill set implodes at some point. That point may be now.

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  2. Cory says:

    Is anyone going to write an article about how the Tigers rotation who lead all of MLB in the majority of pitching stats now has a playoff ERA below 1 to go along with 28 consecutive scoreless innings, 1 away from the MLB record?

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    • FanGraphs Supporting Member

      Not now that you asked.

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    • ralph says:

      I was curious about how the Tigers top 4 stacked up against the remaining playoff rotations, and figure WAR/games started might be a useful way to look at things.

      Caveats: I didn’t try to adjust for things like Fister, Scherzer, Pettitte, or others that I might not know about leaving early due to a mid-start injury. I didn’t adjust for Lance Lynn’s few relief appearances. I used 2012 stats only, which isn’t ideal, especially for a guy like Carpenter. And frankly, I don’t how I should account for Zito, since he’s likely to be pulled for Lincecum or someone at the first sign of trouble. But the rough takeaways shouldn’t be affected too much.

      Here are the results:

      GS — WAR — WAR/GS – Pitcher/Team
      33 — 6.8 — 0.21 — Verlander
      32 — 4.6 — 0.14 — Scherzer
      26 — 3.6 — 0.14 — Fister
      12 — 1.4 — 0.12 — Sanchez (Tigers)
      19 — 2.3 — 0.12 — Sanchez (Marlins)
      122 – 18.7 – 0.15 — Tigers Total

      28 — 4.8 — 0.17 — Sabathia
      12 — 1.7 — 0.14 — Pettitte
      33 — 3.9 — 0.12 — Kuroda
      32 — 1.9 — 0.06 — Hughes
      105 – 12.3 – 0.12 — Yankees Total

      32 — 4.4 — 0.14 — Wainwright
      33 — 3.6 — 0.11 — Lohse
      29 — 2.9 — 0.10 — Lynn
      3 — 0.2 — 0.07 — Carpenter
      97 – 11.1 – 0.11 — Cardinals Total

      32 — 3.8 — 0.12 — Cain
      32 — 3.4 — 0.11 — Bumgarner
      31 — 2.6 — 0.08 — Vogelsong
      32 — 0.8 — 0.03 — Zito
      127 – 10.6 – 0.08 — Giants Total

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      • tmorgan says:

        I think it was already pretty clear that the Tigers go 4 deep better than any other team in the playoffs, and perhaps better than any other team period (Rays? Angels?).

        What’s interesting is that the Cards go deep, too, although Carpenter is disguising it. That’s if you believe in Lohse and Lynn, of course.

        The Yanks lack a 4th, and you need to believe in Vogelsong to get the Giants to three if they’re going to avoid Lincecum (and his struggles this year).

        That Cards offense, though. Yikes. I’m a Tiger fan, and the rematch of 2006 scares me.

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      • Wellhitball says:

        You can’t add Anibal’s WAR with the Marlins to the Tigers WAR total.

        I smell a homer.

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      • ralph says:

        It just depends on what one is trying to do with the data. I showed all the data so people can make their own mental adjustments as applicable. For the purposes of this exercise, I really only cared about WAR/GS, so it was nice to know that that Anibal’s WAR/GS was approximately the same with the Marlins and Tigers and I showed that in case people were wondering.

        But if you want to take Anibal’s Marlins starts out, that actually would slightly increase the WAR/GS score for the Tigers, depending on which form of averaging one is using. I used total WAR divided by total GS for the ultimate number, but upon further reflection it probably makes more sense to take a straight average of each pitcher’s WAR/GS.

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    • roscoe says:

      It’s actually 29.0 consecutive IP w/o an ER, which is 3rd all-time. ’74 A’s at 30.1 and 1905 Giants at 44.0 are the two longer.

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    • Wellhitball says:

      As of now it’s only 22.1 scoreless innings. The concept of unearned runs is over-rated anyway.

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      • Wellstrucknut says:

        The WAR isn’t addible from the Marlins, but the WAR/per is the same. Fill in the blanks.

        So how many unearned runs did the ’74 A’s and 1905 Giants give up during their respective runs?

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  3. MrKnowNothing says:

    “What they mean is that Valverde can’t pitch as effectively against lefties, but he can still retire them far more often than not. Whenever Valverde faces any lefty, the odds remain in Valverde’s favor.”

    I know what you’re saying and all, but isn’t this true of most hitters v pitchers? Unless the batter is Barry Bonds, they all make outs more often than not.

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  4. The Humber games says:

    But they have Al Alburquerque, a man with a name that sounds like it came from a pulp western or professional wrestling, so that’s got to count for something.

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  5. It’s funny how the Tigers-Yankees series feels like it’s almost over, but the Tigers have these glaring flaws, and the Yankees have some real strengths. Some of which you may not see, looking at the stats. I get the feeling that this series is far from over.

    I wrote a post about that Yankee’s under-hyped strengths today.

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    • bada bing says:

      Anyone who thinks that the series is over is dumb. Even I realize this, and I’m a Tigers fan.

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  6. Kevin says:

    The problem has always come down to managing. Leyland puts valverede in all these situations merely out of having the title “closer.” When things go well, people praise Leyland’s loyalty and trust in his guys. When you have Saturday night, it is blind trust and proof he’s lost his marbles.

    The truth is probably somewhere in between. I’ve always found the way Leyland manages how he plays certain individuals screwy. (Going back to 2009 with our collapse, and then game 163)

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    • tmorgan says:

      I consider Leyland an above-average manager, albeit with some serious flaws. I’d prefer Showalter or Davey Johnson or Earl Weaver, but those aren’t options.

      He’s a leader, not a master tactician.

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    • Vegemitch says:

      I agree that he’s a leader and not a tactician. A major flaw that Leyland consistently exhibits is his regard for “role” as a “position”. For example, since Cabrera is the #3 hitter, he’ll put Don Kelly in the #3 hole when he plays 3B for Cabrera so that everyone else in the lineup maintains their lineup “position”. This gets even worse on Sundays when he likes to rest multiple starters. This results in strange decisions such as keeping Delmon Young #5 in the lineup all year despite his obvious lack of skill at the plate.

      I believe that due to this tendency we’ll continue to see the bullpen in “positions” with Benoit as the 8th inning man and Valverde as 9th inning man, Alburquerque won’t get work, and continuing to forego platoon advantages.

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      • Tak says:

        I have no idea where you got these ideas on the lineup. This isn’t true at all… The one game that Cabrera sat this year (because of injury) Jeff Baker, his replacement, batted 8th. In fact, that was the only game that Cabrera- Fielder was not the 3-4 combination. Jackson leads off every game, Infante bats either 2nd or 9th, but other than that Leyland is not afraid to mix up his lineup. I believe (I couldn’t find anything to back this though) that he has used the most lineup combinations this year. His 2nd, 6th, 7th and 8th spots literally change every day, depending on which corner outfielders he uses.

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    • Nathan says:

      Yeah, I agree. He seems very loyal to his players. I wouldn’t necessarily call him an inherent “players’ manager,” because of course we’ve all seen him be the disciplinarian. But with the iteration of the Tigers the last two or three seasons, I do think he’s been more a players’ manager. And you know, that’s probably to his credit as a leader and motivator, to understand his people and change his technique to get the most.

      As said before me, it really comes down to tactics. I can justify sometimes weighing psychology of your players over what is the proper tactical decision. But at this stage in the year, with Valverde having struggled essentially all season, the time to boost his confidence was June or July… not now.

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  7. Shrewd Cat says:

    The problem with Valverde is obvious- he’s pregnant. Look at his belly. It’s like in that movie with Arnie where he gets pregnant.

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  8. Northhampstonstead says:

    One cause for the perceived poor quality of Detroit’s relievers is that they don’t have the same sort of benefit of the doubt from the umpire behind home that the Tigers’ starters see. Scherzer, for instance, had a strike zone about 8″ expanded on the outside edge according to the electronic tracking, but his relievers saw the proper strike zone from pitch #1. This puts unnecessary pressure and unfair criticism on the relievers and makes the starters look comparatively better than they are.

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    • tmorgan says:

      People gotta stop looking at that ridiculous strikezone tracker TBS is using and just watch the pitches.

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      • Chris says:

        I didn’t need pitch tracks to show me how much the tigers were being given! I could see it!! It really seemed more expanded for left handed hitters as opposed to rightys! There was a serious amount of pitches that were balls and not even close! Even the announcers were questioning it! It was really bad in the Baltimore series! It reminded me of the last time the Yankees played the tigers in the playoffs! I’m curious to see how we’ll the tiger pitchers adapt when they aren’t given an expanded zone!

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  9. Cluth says:

    I believe Verlander actually had less pitches tracked outside the strike zone, called strikes, than the A’s pitchers did in game five.

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  10. Ziggythebeagle says:

    Thanks for this article Jeff. It was quite interesting, and a different perspective from many other recent articles. I learned something, and I appreciate your efforts.

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  11. Dan says:

    I think this theory about the Tigers’ bullpen applies to just about every bullpen in the league. Save for a handful of dominant closers, just about every reliever has uneven platoon splits, and most could even be considered drastic. Managers should always look to maximize efficiency in their bullpens by not adhering to archaic “roles.”

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  12. wobatus says:

    Agreed the Tigers bullpen isn’t that bad and it is a question of how you manage it. I have to admit I didn’t realize Benoit had such a bad homerun issue this year. Sheesh. But even at that he hasn’t been awful.

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  13. Chris Hannum says:

    Nice that someone mentions Smyly and Porcello’s old roles here in a positive light. We usually hear that they aren’t relievers so they can’t pitch in relief. Phil Coke has a 4.95 ERA as a starter, Benoit 6.06, Dotel 5.61. Given that Smyly and Porcello are actually good enough to start, we might expect them to do even better out of the ‘pen.

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  14. Sean says:

    The problem for Valverde is that the Yankees lineup is stacked with GOOD lefties…

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  15. Jeff says:

    Yes. Their postseason stats clearly back that statement up.

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