If you think that the Detroit Tigers’ new seventh inning right-hander Octavio Dotel has been around forever, you’re basically right; he turned 38 in November–that’s about 78 in baseball years. If you read Lynn Henning’s recent profile on set-up man Joaquin Benoit, you know that the Dominican transplant is wise beyond his years, but if you’re aware that he’ll turn 35 shortly after the All-Star break in July, you realize that the age of his body can’t be far behind that of his mind. Closer Jose Valverde may have the kinetic energy of a child, but he’ll be 34 before the coming regular season–younger than both of his late inning cohorts but older than more than three quarters of the other pitchers who qualified as relievers (using FanGraphs’ standards) for the 2011 season.
Understandably, some seem unsure of the ability of the Tigers’ back-end relief corps to stay, at least for the most part, off the disabled list this year. For me, this is a question that’s a little ways down on the list of concerns for the Detroit club, but it remains one worth asking; is there legitimate reason to stress about the vitality–or lack thereof–of the key cogs in their ‘pen? After all, Mike Ilitch and the Tigers’ front office have committed $17.5 million to the trio being discussed just for 2012.
First, a note on relievers in general: they’re notorious for extreme volatility and unpredictability from year to year and even from month to month. Detroit vice president and assistant general manager Al Avila told the Detroit News, “Yeah, I think the most unpredictable (part of a major league roster) are relievers. Free-agent relievers even more so, because there could be a lot of different issues with them, and most of the time it’s because of an injury. Even with a lot of research, there’s still a little roll of the dice.”
There are, of course, exceptions to the rule. Out of 134 men who pitched enough innings to qualify as relievers for the ‘11 season, only 77 also qualified in 2010–Valverde, Benoit, and Dotel are all on that list. Valverde and Dotel are part of even more exclusive groups. Both are among the group of 47 relievers who have qualified in each of the last three seasons and Valverde is one of just 11 relievers who has qualified in each of seven seasons dating back to 2005.
As the above paragraph indicates, Valverde and Dotel have been quite reliable in recent history by an innings pitched standard. The workload of the former has seen a steady uptick in the last few years, up from 54 innings in 2009 and 63 in ‘10 to 84.1 in ‘11 (all innings pitched figures include playoffs). Same (albeit on a smaller scale) for the latter, Dotel, who threw 62.1 frames in ‘09, 64 in ‘10, and 64.1 in ‘11. Benoit hasn’t missed significant time since sitting out the entire ‘09 season due to surgery to repair his rotator cuff. Despite being two seasons removed from that operation, it’s probably cause for at least a little worry. Note that his arm has been good for 64 and 68.2 innings in the past two seasons.
Though all of these guys have been under the knife, injuries haven’t been an astronomical problem for any of them. Valverde hasn’t missed significant time since the end of ‘09 when he missed 41 games due to compartment syndrome in his calf. He hasn’t made a DL trip for an arm issue since ‘05, so his 2004 labrum repair surgery seems long in his past. Benoit, similarly, has not missed a single day due to injury since his surgery before the ‘09 season. Since Dotel’s Tommy John surgery in ‘05, he has been largely healthy save a few strains here and there–in his left abdomen, right shoulder, and most recently his left thigh. None of those have been severe enough to land him on anything more than the 15-day DL, a trip to which he got out of the way last year early–in April–before finishing strong for the World Champion St. Louis Cardinals (he pitched 10.1 innings in the postseason and posted a 2.61 ERA while batters hit him for just a .139 average). None of these guys throw a particularly stressful secondary pitch often enough to register real injury concern (think Al Alburquerque’s slider).
Another typically dependable way to evaluate wear and tear on a pitcher’s arm is to look at fastball velocity. Valverde’s four-seamer has lost two miles per hour since ‘09, down from 96.61 to 94.59 (all miles per hour figures are from BrooksBaseball.net). He’s maintained success with the pitch by being a bit pickier when locating it, resulting in a few extra walks. The velocity drop here may not sound like much, but it really is. Mike Fast at The Hardball Times wrote in ‘10 that a reliever’s run average (runs allowed per nine innings) normally increases by about 0.45 for every mile per hour lost off his fastball. That means Valverde’s run average should have increased 0.9 points from ‘09 to ‘11. Instead, it’s gone up just 0.11. That’s probably unsustainable, and if his velocity dives even further this year, it might mean he’s starting to run out of gas. Since return from surgery, Benoit’s fastball has zoomed in at a pretty consistent speed; he was at 94.82 in ‘10 and that number dropped just a tad to 94.69 last year, an immaterial change and a good sign for Benoit’s shelf life. Dotel’s fastball velocity has dropped a bit, but only about a mile and a half per hour since 2007 so it’s a fairly tolerable drop; from 93.71 to 92.27.
In conclusion, I believe that the trust the Tigers are putting in these arms (in the form of large contracts) is well-founded. Certainly there are some things to keep an eye on–Valverde is losing fastball velocity at a somewhat alarming rate, Dotel’s career is obviously nearing its end, and Benoit had major shoulder surgery three years ago–but all things considered, I like the chances that this group will be able stay on the mound–at least for the coming season. Hopefully they can do so well into October.