Jose Valverde is going to be spending a while on remedial instruction with Jeff Jones trying to fix his delivery and get both deceptiveness and velocity back. Maybe he’ll get it figured out soon, maybe he has got it figured out already. Maybe we’ll see him get some key outs yet this series (though every Tigers fan is going feel a little bit of nausea when they see him trot to the mound). Or maybe not. I have been reading a lot and hearing a lot about how important it is for the Detroit Tigers to get Jose Valverde back – since the Tigers can’t survive the series with a ‘pen one man short. Frankly, I’m not sure that is true. Or even close to being true.
One thing is clear, though: if Jose Valverde can’t be counted upon Jim Leyland is going to have to at least pretend to have confidence in his two converted starters. Honestly – don’t they deserve at least a little? For all intents and purposes, the Tigers have been playing with a 5-man bullpen in the playoffs – including Jose Valverde. Rick Porcello made one appearance in the ALDS and got one out. Drew Smyly didn’t throw a pitch. Rick Porcello hasn’t made an entry in the ALCS yet and Smyly’s only appearance was a gutty show in the 11th and 12th innings of game 1 to get the win.
The Tigers starters have done fantastic work in the playoffs thus far, with only Max Scherzer failing to make it through the 6th, but one can easily imagine that the Tigers could run into difficulties with a 4-man bullpen – especially considering that Joaquin Benoit has looked every bit as suspect (and “as though he expects something bad to happen”) as Valverde. Phil Coke, Octavio Dotel and Al Alburquerque probably shouldn’t be called upon to finish off every single game. But even with Valverde in instructional mode they shouldn’t have to. It appears to be Leyland’s plan (or his definition of their roles) that Smyly and Porcello are both only going to pitch in extra innings or in case of a short start. Why?
As I understand the way Jim Leyland’s mind works, he is never confident in anyone’s ability to perform in any role that they haven’t proven themselves in before. Not a “closer”, might not be able to close. Not a #2 hitter, might not be able to hit if you move him up in the lineup. Etcetera. Either Jim Leyland is going to have to disabuse himself of these notions, Jose Valverde is going to have to make a miraculous recovery (and suddenly be 2010 Valverde again) or the Tigers actually are going to have bullpen trouble.
Leyland and the rest of us had enough confidence in Rick Porcello and Drew Smyly to allow them to make a combined 49 starts for the Tigers. The resistance to using them out of the ‘pen is that they are untried in that particular role. But they are on the postseason roster for a reason – they are vastly superior pitchers than Brayan Villarreal and Darin Downs who have been tried already in those roles. Certainly pitching in relief is different than starting, but this isn’t quite the same thing as calling on a guy who has never bunted all season long to sacrifice somebody over to second. It’s the same thing as having a guy DH for a day, or bringing a regular in to pinch-hit.
Difference in role aside, pitching in relief is easier than starting. It’s no secret why: you can go all out on every pitch without worrying about saving your strength and you never have to face the same batter twice in a game. Examples of guys who have shown improved results operating out of the bullpen are everywhere. Once upon a time Octavio Dotel was a starter – a bad one. His 5.61 ERA in the rotation prompted a move to the bullpen whereupon his ERA plummeted – after a lot of years his career ERA in relief is 3.25. John Smoltz was an exceptionally talented starting pitcher, but concerns about his health and durability made the Braves move him into a closer role instead. His career ERA as a starter? 3.40. As a reliever? 2.41 and that’s despite the fact that he was well past his prime before he made the transition. Brett Myers went from 14 losses and a 4.46 ERA as a starter in 2011 to a 3.31 in relief in 2012.
These guys are here – in theory – to do this job. And they DO have the stuff do get it done. Smyly struck out 8 and a half per 9 as a starter. Remember how Coke did in the rotation? Velocity down, strikout rate down to Brad Penny levels. Porcello doesn’t have the big time K rates because of how he goes after hitters, but he has been throwing as hard as Valverde in September. In short stints I’d expect him to hover around 94-95. Both guys have looked a lot better this year the first time through the order – which is the number one reason that guys get pulled out of rotations and put into bullpen roles. Smyly has allowed only a .602 OPS the first time through, compared to .854 the second. For Porcello those numbers are .679 and .808 – and bear in mind that was while these guys were trying to pace themselves to make it to a hundred pitches.
Role aside, there is every reason to expect Porcello and Smyly to do better out of the bullpen than they ever did as starters. It’s going to be hard for Leyland to hold his nose and pray – but it’s going to be pretty hard for to do the same with homer-prone Benoit and soft-tossing Valverde too. And after all – the best thing about Jim Leyland’s managing style has always been a commitment to use the guys he has even when trusting them is hard.