The Detroit Tigers are perfect in 2012 after an exciting Opening Day win by the score of 3-2 over the Boston Red Sox. Jim Leyland’s hyped ballclub is 1-0. But if you hadn’t seen the game for yourself, you may not know this. No, in reading reaction to the game, the common theme is commentary on Leyland’s decision to remove his ace, Justin Verlander, then cruising with a 2-0 lead, after eight innings and 105 pitches. He inserted his closer, Jose Valverde, perfect in 2011, to defend the lead in the ninth, a task he is being paid $9 million to do. He blew the save and Verlander’s victory, setting up Austin Jackson for a bottom-of-the-ninth walk-off hit.
Already, rabid fan commenters (not limited to those infamous ones at MLive.com) want the manager’s head. How dare he banish the reigning American League Most Valuable Player and Cy Young to the dugout while Verlander was having such an easy time? Remember, though, if you’re one of those who believe Leyland made the wrong choice, that such thinking is not only an indictment on the Tigers manager but on nearly every skipper in the game. Yes, practically all modern managers in Major League Baseball would have made the same call.
Why? First and foremost, it’s the first game of the season. Starting pitchers have been working for over a month to ease their arms into condition to pitch 200 innings, but in the first week of April, even the hardest workers are not quite there yet. Verlander, inhuman as he may seem, is no different; he averaged 95 pitches in his season debuts from 2006-11. His last spring start this year was shortened by rain, leading him to throw 18 extra pitches in the bullpen in order to bring his count to 100. Presumably, that was the first time he hit the century mark all year. It’s also relevant to note that Verlander had previously been pitching under the harsh Florida sun. This was his first game in Michigan’s 40-something degree weather.
With a two-run advantage, why strain such a valuable commodity as Verlander’s arm when a then-perfect closer is waiting in the wings? Further, if Verlander were to be left in and proceed to find trouble in the final frame, Valverde or another reliever would have had to inherit runners and clean up the damage rather than starting with a clean slate as is preferable.
I can back up what I said about most managers feeling this way, too. As David Schoenfield noted at ESPN.com, “there have been just six nine-inning outings (on opening day) since 2000, and only Felix Hernandez has gone the distance since 2007.” This morning, I wrote of seven guys other than Verlander who had excellent Opening Day outings yesterday. Their respective innings and pitch counts:
- Justin Masterson: 8 innings, 99 pitches
- Jon Lester: 7 innings, 107 pitches
- Roy Halladay: 8 innings, 92 pitches
- Erik Bedard: 7 innings, 81 pitches
- Stephen Strasburg: 7 innings, 82 pitches
- Ryan Dempster: 7.2 innings, 108 pitches
- Johnny Cueto: 7 innings, 95 pitches
All were pitching well and doing so efficiently, but none threw more than eight innings or 108 pitches. Halladay, whose situation was most similar to Verlander’s and whose day may have been even less strenuous, was relieved by Jonathan Papelbon at the will of Charlie Manuel.
Baseball men have been wrong before, but I’m with the managers’ consensus on this one. Feel free to complain about the results—it is disappointing Verlander was robbed of a ‘W’ to start the year—but please, cut Leyland some slack until he bats Brandon Inge cleanup.