Committee no way to finish games
After the opening series in Minnesota to start the Major League baseball season, I’m feeling particularly uneasy about the Detroit Tigers’ closer situation.
The three-game line read this way:
– Ace Justin Verlander gets the opening-day win;
– Phil Coke, with an assist from two outfielders, blows a ninth-inning lead to lose Game 2;
– The relief corps collapses and gives up five runs in the eighth inning for another loss in Game 3.
Friday’s victory against New York brought some relief, mainly because the offense got its groove back, as a movie of 15 years ago might say, with Prince Fielder hitting two home runs and Alex Avila a third.
More relief came because it was against the hated Yankees, even though one stat flashed on TV during the game showed how toothless they are – though the Bronx Bombers hit nearly 250 home runs in 2012, nine of their top 10 bashers from last year are not on the active roster, either due to injury, trade or release.
The injured include ex-Tiger Curtis Granderson, who almost caught Miguel Cabrera in last year’s home-run race with 43 (Cabby had 44).
He plus third baseman Alex Rodriguez, shortstop Derek Jeter and first baseman Mark Teixeira are all on the disabled list.
You might think the Yankees deserve this fate after buying their way to world championships for the past 35 years, but really, this could happen to just about any team.
Enough about that, though, since what really worries me is this closer situation.
This pitching position has got to be about the most thankless job in baseball, though the hours seem pretty good.
You’re called on to pitch only 60 or 70 innings the whole year, but with just an occasional exception, you’re considered an abject failure if you give up just one run, even if it’s scored by a guy somebody else put on base.
We don’t even expect Verlander to pitch 7 2/3 scoreless innings every time out, though he does do that a lot. But that gets him recognized as the best pitcher in baseball.
A reliable closer simply has a reservation to come out of the bullpen in the ninth inning every couple of days.
It’s why the Tigers’ closer-by-committee philosophy sounds better than it is. Supposedly, manager Jim Leyland just has to select the best among a half-dozen relievers at the end of the game, and he’ll pitch well enough to preserve a lead.
Until he doesn’t.
Give the Tigers credit, though, I think all the candidates to close, which off the top of my head includes Joaquin Benoit, Al Alburquerque, Phil Coke, Drew Smyly, Darin Downs and sent-to-the-minors Bruce Rondon, are pretty decent pitchers.
But if none of these guys is successful often enough in the late innings to grab the closer’s job, the Tigers are going to have something like a 10-35 record in one-run games, and I can guarantee you no division title, no playoff berth, and certainly no World Series championship in October (or November).
If a pitcher isn’t simply unhittable, like 105-mph flamethrower Aroldis Chapman of the Cincinnati Reds, that means sometimes he gets the key out, sometimes he doesn’t.
Anytime a round bat makes contact with a round ball, something fluky can happen.
So if none of these Tiger relievers are consistently shutting down the opposition, the committee will remain intact.
Like the NFL says about quarterbacks, if you’ve got two, then you don’t have any. Or in the Tigers’ case, if you have six, you really have none.
However, if someone does emerge, like say Benoit, the closer committee will be dead. Benoit will come in to pitch every time Detroit is up one, two or three runs entering the ninth inning.
Er, wait a minute, let me amend that “closer committee will be dead” statement – actually, it won’t go away.
It’ll just get a new name – “set-up pitcher by committee.”
And I suppose the process will start all over looking for the new closer’s eighth-inning man.
Steve Brownlee can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 246. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org