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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.