Who Should Close For Detroit?

After Jose Valverde‘s meltdown in Game One of the ALCS — that followed his meltdown in Game Four of the ALDS — Jim Leyland had finally seen enough of Papa Grande in the ninth inning, and turned to Phil Coke to serve as the guy on the mound in the ninth inning for the rest of the series. However, he hasn’t anointed Coke as his new closer yet, and hasn’t committed to any specific direction for how he’ll handle ninth inning leads in the World Series. So, who should get ball if the Tigers have a lead in the ninth inning tonight, presuming Justin Verlander even lets Leyland take it from him in the first place?

It should probably depend entirely on who is coming up to bat. The Tigers best chance to win is by having multiple closers, including Jose Valverde.

Valverde’s problems against left-handers are well known, and are the primary reason why having him close against NYY was such a poor idea to begin with. The Yankees are stacked with left-handed power, so asking him to come in and run through four or five guys whose strength is Valverde’s weakness was just destined to end poorly. Coke was the perfect antidote for the Yankees line-up, as he could exploit the platoon splits of their best hitters. But, the Giants are not the Yankees.

The Giants best hitter, Buster Posey, was the best hitter in baseball against southpaws this year, racking up a crazy .433/.470/.793 line that was good for a 241 wRC+. Even for his entire career, he’s been the best hitter in baseball against left-handed pitching. And, if Bruce Bochy goes with his standard line-up, the top five hitters in the line-up would all bat from the right side against a left-hander — Pagan (Switch), Scutaro (Right), Sandoval (Switch), Posey (Right), and Pence (Right).

Putting Coke out there against those five would be a bigger disaster than using Valverde against the Yankees lefties, because Coke was one of the very worst pitchers in baseball against right-handers this year. Of the 492 pitchers who threw at least 10 innings against right-handers this year, Coke ranked 486th in opponents wOBA, right in between Liam Hendriks and Francisco Cordero. For his career (which includes 704 PAs vs RHBs), righties have hit .293/.370/.432 against him. Coke is just not a guy you want facing right-handed hitters in the World Series, especially good right-handed hitters, and the Giants have good right-handed hitting at the top of their line-up.

However, after Pence, their normal line-up stacks up three lefties in the 6/7/8 positions, so unless Bochy flips Brandon Belt and Hunter Pence in the line-up again, there will be situations that are tailor made for Coke. If Verlander ends the eighth inning by blowing away Pence tonight, by all means, give Coke the ball in the ninth. But, if the top of the line-up is due up, Coke’s success against the Yankees should go out the window, and the Tigers should go with one of their right-handers instead.

Joaquin Benoit is probably the best option, since he’s got the smallest platoon split of the bunch, and any pitcher will be facing Angel Pagan and Pablo Sandoval from the opposite side, but I wouldn’t be too afraid to go to Valverde or Dotel if Scutaro was the leadoff hitter in the ninth. From two through five in the order, you get three right-handed batters, and can somewhat neutralize the Giants best offensive weapon by forcing him to always hit against a same-handed pitcher.

Closer by committee still is a dirty phrase in some circles, but it’s almost certainly the best option for Detroit against San Francisco. Against the top of the order, go right-handed. Against the bottom, go left-handed. There are going to be situations where Coke is the best option, and there are going to be situations where Valverde (or Dotel/Benoit) is the best option. The Tigers best chance to win will come from using multiple closers, rather than relying either on Valverde’s track record or Coke’s run of recent success. The answer is not either-or, but both.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

21 Responses to “Who Should Close For Detroit?”

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  1. Dan says:

    I’d be tempted to go with Octavio Dotel. Prior postseason and closer experience are major pluses, and Benoit has a tendency sometimes to get changeup-happy and lose control of a game.

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    • DominicanRepublican says:

      Yes, prior closing experience is of the utmost importance. That’s why Brian Fuentes is so good.

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      • Dan says:

        I don’t really understand what your point is. What does Brian Fuentes being a bad closer have to do with anything?

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      • jpg says:

        He’s saying that the past experience means next to nothing. Studies show that he’s probably right. Last year Motte had no post season closing experience and was just fine. Feliz had experience as a closer on a WS team in 2010 and melted down in the WS, in game 7 no less, the following year.

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      • Well-Beered Englishman says:

        That was game 6.

        Sorry. I just can’t ever forget game 6.

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  2. Jason B says:

    As Cameron has suggested, Leyland needs to leave his starters in as long as possible and then go with the advantageous matchups. When your bullpen is as volatile as the Tigers’ is, you can’t afford to have a #1 closer. The guys I trust the most are Alburquerque and Dotel. Alburquerque hasn’t established enough history to be considered a top flight closer, and Dotel has been prone to meltdowns in the past.

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  3. Dave K says:

    Typo – “because Coke was one of the very worst pitchers in baseball against left-handers this year” should probably read right-handers.

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  4. Calvin says:

    Belt should be batting 5 in front of Pence 6. Crawford (8) can’t hit at all, but Blanco (7) is passable vs. RHP and that alternation makes winning platoon as hard as possible for DET. Plus all of their scheduled starters are RHP, so bumping Belt above Pence is probably right anyway. (Given that Bochy will never put an appropriate hitter in the 2-hole).

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    • Marcus Andrews says:

      What is wrong with Scutaro in the 2-hole? And I’m asking to be educated, not to contradict. I mean, he’s no Ryan Theriot. He gets on base at a decent clip, (2nd highest in the lineup) and I don’t think anyone would argue he’s one of the 3-5 best hitters in that lineup. Is there some sort of rule for 2 hitters that he’s awful at that I don’t know about? Again, asking to be elucidated.

      I think that managers are going to like putting a slap hitting middle-infielder second for a long time and it will be a terrible decision a lot of the time (hey, Ryan Theriot) but I don’t see why it is with Scutaro.

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    • Bryan says:

      Pence should be batting in some instructional league.

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  5. Jason says:

    It will certainly be fun to watch, mostly because I don’t trust Jim Leyland to manage a bullpen batter-by-batter. I’m afraid we’ll get Coke against the heart of the Giants order because he thinks Willie Hernandez has been reincarnated.

    Moreover, he doesn’t know who his best RH reliever is, and I don’t either. My gut is with a well-rested Benoit (who, I think, was overused in the AL Central race and the ALDS), but your mileage may vary.

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  6. Ian says:

    I actually love that Valverde forced Leyland’s hand – the guy has a great baseball mind, and has been managing for decades – he shouldn’t need the crutch of a “closer”. Manage batter-by-batter based on your experience and feel for the game…he’s a much better manager when he has to think outside the box (ie. Boesch melts down, so he figures out a way to make Berry & Garcia contributors).

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  7. Calvin says:

    Scutaro is far far far better than Theriot, Crawford, Arias, or Burriss who all got multiple starts in the 2-hole this year. Having Scutaro in the 2 isn’t really worth worrying about beyond a nitpick level- Bochy probably gave away as many runs in one PA sac-bunting Cain with 1st and 3rd one out the other day as he did playing Scutaro in the 2 every time combined. Having any of those other four in the 2 is borderline criminal.

    You generally want your best hitters in the 1/2/4, your next two in the 3/5, and then in decreasing order from there out (putting the P 8th is an idea, but Crawford is bad enough that it doesn’t much matter) with the exact placement depending on skills (BB% and speed plays better in leadoff than cleanup, power plays better in cleanup than leadoff, high GIDP plays worse in the 3 than the 5, etc). And obviously there’s some value to not giving away platoon on a platter in the late innings, and since SF basically has nobody who can PH for the top 7, you have to plan for that from the get-go. If you rank the hitters vs RHP, Scutaro should come out 6th, and I don’t see how any case could be made for top-4 (Posey, Panda, Belt, Pagan.. he’s worse overall than Pence but at least has a very different skillset), so he just doesn’t belong second, but it’s a much smaller problem than putting Theriot and friends up top.

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    • Marcus Andrews says:

      I appreciate the response and I understand all your points but respectfully disagree with the assertion that Scutaro is the sixth best hitter in their lineup against right handers. Now small sample size caveats apply for all of these stats (especially Scutaro because this is taking only his Giants stats because that’s easiest to sort) but just looking at WRC+ against right handers Scutaro has actually been the best since he joined the Giants.

      Now I don’t think WRC+ is the be-all end-all stat, but it’s pretty good and he’s got a 142 compared to 128 for Posey, 120 for Pablo, 119 for Belt, and 118 for Pagan and 83 for Pence (again small sample only Giants stats) . Yes, this is a lot of unsustainable BABIP luck but you tend to have a higher average when you never strike out (seriously, 5.8% k rate vs. righties) and he hits a decent amount of line drives (28%). Again, this is partially scorer bias and might be overstating, but he’s been very good. I think you could make a very compelling argument that he’s been the second best hitter since he joined the Giants.

      I know you said it’s not a big deal that he’s there but I think you’re under-selling Scutaro. He’s probably worthy of batting second. I’d set the lineup up really close to how Bochy has it using your criteria (I’d bat Belt fifth not 6th but marginal difference overall). There are many things to complain about with managers and many lineup decisions Bochy has made that have been spotty at best, but as of right now he’s coming really close to an optimal lineup given his personnel if you ask me.

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      • Calvin says:

        You can’t weight that small a sample that much when you have his whole career of doing nothing like that, and even just his total 2012 splits, where his other home park was Coors of all places, he comes out 103 wRC+. He has (assuming you’re right) hit the best since coming over, but that doesn’t mean I’d bet on it happening again tomorrow. It’s obviously way more likely that he’s running hot for awhile than that he miraculously transformed from a crappy first half to a David Wright/Matt Holliday level of hitter.

        But even if you take Scutaro for what I think he is (much closer to his last few years or even 2012 numbers than YTD SF numbers), he does have good OBP (and non-K) skills, and if you’re going to put somebody in front of your best hitters, at least let it be a guy who’s good at getting on base and deficient in power and not the other way around (you want your best hitters up in higher run-leverage spots obviously, and that means men on). The lineup would be reasonable if he put Belt 5th, both because he’s better against RHP and because it’s basically the perfect anti-platoon lineup and you can’t get that without throwing a pure RHB up top. But when he can’t even flip Belt and Pence for completely obvious reasons, it doesn’t give me much faith (that and having seen a ton of his other decisions through the years) that he even has any idea what he should be trying to do with his lineup or how to do it.

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  8. David G says:

    If only FOX used similar diligence in deciding the announcing crew.

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  9. Tiger fan says:

    Given Benoit’s recent penchant for giving up long balls, I’d rather give Valverde another chance … if he makes a mistake, it will likely be a single (or a walk), and then you could get him out of there without necessarily giving up a run.

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  10. Jason H. says:

    “he hasn’t anointed Coke as his new closer yet”

    ….so rub him down with oil and send him out there then! …I remember when Leyland anointed Kenny Rogers with pine tar in the 2006 ALDS. They guy was lights out!

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  11. Ivan Grushenko says:

    An “outside the box” option might be to use Scherzer as Closer in Game 1, even for 2 innings. Then use the committee in Game 2-6. Then Scherzer and Verlander in Game 7. Then they’re only stuck with platoon matchups in 5 games out of 7. For platoon matchups it could be Dotel and Valverde against righties, Coke against lefties and Benoit against switch hitters and lefties. Benoit actually has a slight reverse platoon split for his career. Overall, as long as Dotel and Valverde are the ones facing Posey, I think that’s about all Leyland can do.

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