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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.