Drew Smyly has made this year’s transition to the bullpen better than anyone could have imagined. Not that we imagined struggles for him – he was a good starting pitcher last year – but he’s been so good that many argue he’s the best reliever in the pen.
That may or may not be the case – one could argue in favor of Joaquin Benoit – but that’s really not the point. My argument would be that Smyly is better implemented in his (seemingly) current multi-inning seventh/eighth inning role than he would be as the closer.
The issue here is how manager Jim Leyland would use his “closer”, which is exactly how every other manager uses their closer. Ninth innings with a one-to-three run lead. Maybe sometimes with two outs in the eighth to get out of a jam, and occasionally in a tie game on the road, but that’s it. Most managers don’t want to stretch out their “named closers” for more than an inning at a time because they don’t want them to be unavailable the next day should a save situation arise. If Leyland were to name Smyly his closer, we’d see pretty strict useage of Benoit in the eighth and Smyly in the ninth.
That wouldn’t be horrible – they’d do the job just fine – but what we’re seeing right now is how good Smyly can be in multiple innings, even when the leverage is relatively high. The former-and-future starter should be pitching in “long relief”, but that doesn’t automatically mean mop up duty. The Tigers’ bullpen is short on trustworth arms, so Smyly’s ability to pitch the seventh and eighth inning as a quality setup man is just what the doctor ordered.
Obviously he can’t go multiple innings every single night, and his arm certainly shouldn’t be abused, but he’s used to a starter’s workload (relatively speaking) and could probably handle throwing 100-plus innings out of the bullpen. Augmenting his usage to fit the paradigm of a typical closer would only limit his innings, which would only serve to limit his value to the team.
Benoit is perfect for the one-inning-at-a-time model, and he’s been just as effective as Smyly at getting hitters out. I’d like to see him remain at closer all year (no need to trade for a high-priced ninth inning man), Smyly remain a multi-inning setup man, and for the team to pursue another setup arm or two.