For what I feel like will be the first time ever, I agree with Jim Leyland. Leyland stated yesterday that the media is making too much of the closer situation for the Tigers. And I couldn’t agree more, but I would really be happy if Jim Leyland wasn’t the one controlling the bullpen in the first place.
I have spoke before about the closer by committee and feel using one is fine, provided it is done properly, which Leyland is not doing. At the beginning of the year, Phil Coke could close if lefties were coming up, Benoit if it were righties. This situation, for the most part, would keep both pretty fresh and not be in the “closer not available” scenario. However, Leyland did not do this and tried to force (up until recently) the issue with Coke and continued to allow him to pitch (quite poorly) to righties.
But, now that Leyland has tried and failed to cement a closer (that despite him blaming the media, he desperately wants) he has the option to solidify the back end of games and stop the bleeding in the late innings. But, he probably won’t.
Leyland finally coming to grips with the fact that Phil Coke is a LOOGY and no more will help, along with his decision to allow Smyly to pitch later in games. Adding in another arm (Jesse Crain, Kevin Gregg, John Axford) changes the ‘pen immensely and moves either Downs or Rondon out of it. It also means there are 3 arms that can close a game down (Smyly, Benoit & New Relief Pitcher) and lowers the room for error on Leyland’s part.
Why this is actually beneficial to the Tigers is that since 1969, when the save became an official stat there have been 140 single seasons with a pitcher having at least 40 saves. In only 10 of those seasons did that pitcher have a WAR above 4.0 and three happened in the 1980’s when each pitcher threw more than 90 innings.
During that same time frame, 74 relief pitchers have had a single season WAR above 4.0. Which means that a relief pitcher can have a greater impact on the game with out being relegated to 9th inning only work. This means that the “closer” and the save stat are overrated.
With Leyland’s lack of one particular go to man in the 9th, it allows him to use his best relief pitchers in different, more important scenarios than just the 9th inning with 0 on, 0 out and a one to three run lead. I would prefer that Benoit, Smyly or an additional reliever be used in the 9th inning, but I don’t particularly care which one it is, and from a statistical standpoint, it doesn’t matter either.
I am much more impressed when Drew Smyly has come into games this year and stranded baserunners with less than 2 outs in close games than I ever was with any Tiger’s “closer” outside of Willie Hernandez, who pitched the last 2 to 3 innings of a game for his saves. The best pitcher in the bullpen should be put into the most critical scenario, not only the 9th inning with a one to three run lead.
There is not a stat for what Smyly has done this year, keeping games close, get out of intense situations in the 7th or 8th innings, but there should be (this has been brought up on the Baseball Prospectus Podcast, Effectively Wild, multiple times this year). Telling me that a pitcher has finished a game is enough to understand where he pitches, the “save” stat doesn’t tell us much beyond that. The “hold” stat is even worse as multiple pitchers can earn one each game.
Tell me when a relief pitcher came into a close ball game, inherited runners and worked out of it with out surrendering the lead. That is the type of pitching that provides value. And these are the types of pitchers Leyland has at his disposal and hopefully an additional one soon. Using this group in those scenarios instead of just the 8th for Smyly and 9th for Benoit is not using his assets effectively.
If Leyland truly believes that the closer situation was blown out of proportion by the media then he can show everyone so by using his best 2 (for the moment) relievers in the worst situations and save some of these games before the 9th inning.