on-going problem on-going problem

Jim Leyland and the Blatant Misuse of Don Kelly and Wilson Betemit


This morning, Lee Panas of Tiger Tales wrote about the on-going problem that is the hot corner for the Detroit Tigers. As Panas noted, despite the acquisition of Wilson Betemit, who was supposed to be the club’s primary third baseman, Tigers manager Jim Leyland has used utilityman Don Kelly quite often at the got corner instead.

"I’d like to see Betemit get more of an opportunity, but if Leyland doesn’t feel comfortable enough using him regularly, then third base is still a big hole.  Kelly is batting just .194 for July and is no better than average defensively at third."

In the 11 games since Betemit joined the club, he has started only six of those contests (twice he has entered the game off the bench) while Kelly has gotten the nod in the other five games. In the six games Betemit has started, the Tigers are 5-1 and he has produced an overall line of .269/.321/.423/.745 in the 28 plate appearances he has garnered. He was hitting at a .750 OPS clip before the trade, so certainly he has delivered what the Tigers (and Leyland) should have expected.

Kelly, meanwhile, while an upgrade with the glove over Betemit, is only average at the position. This does nothing to offset his lack of production at the plate. For much of the season, Kelly has been viewed as the lesser of two evils and had gotten quite a bit of support from the fans when he was used in place of Brandon Inge. That should have changed when Betemit was brought in, and from a fan’s perspective I think it has. Unfortunately, Leyland seems to think Kelly remains at least a viable option in a platoon situation. Frankly speaking, that’s just not the case.

The Tigers have faced a right handed starter seven times in the 11 contests since Betemit’s arrival. Betemit has been in the starting lineup only three times in those games. He has started three of the four games against left handed starters. It’s pretty clear then that Leyland is viewing his new third baseman as the weaker half of a platoon.

The problem is that the switch-hitting Betemit is significantly better against right handers than he is versus southpaws. This season, Betemit is over 200 points better in terms of OPS when batting left handed, coming in at an .813 clip versus just .610 when batting right handed and facing a left hander. Kelly, meanwhile, has had only 15 at bats versus left handers this year, but even against right handers he has posted an OPS of only .659. That’s a staggering difference between the two hitters.

If you want to take it a step further, over the course of their careers Betemit has posted an OPS of .807 versus right handers (.688 vs lefties) while Kelly’s OPS against right handers is only .654.

Getting back to Panas’ piece, he uses the final paragraph to warn the wary that we may not have seen the last of Inge patrolling third. I’ll take that one step further. If Leyland is convinced that Betemit should not be the regular (i.e. eight out of every nine games) third baseman when his only competition for the job is Kelly, then you better believe that when Inge returns to the club in September, it will be Inge that sees the bulk of the at bats at the hot corner.

We spent the entire first half begging Dave Dombrowski to make a move to shore up third base and he finally did something about it. But it does the Tigers absolutely no good whatsoever if his manager is too stubborn to use the pieces provided to him. Keeping Betemit on the bench when a right handed pitcher is on the mound prevents the hitter from doing what he does best. Utilizing Kelly in any starting role is a bad move, but doing so at the expense of a hitter who thrives against right handed pitching is borderline negligent.

It comes back to what the anti-Leyland group has been preaching for years; the manager has his favorites and they will play far more often than they should. The counter argument has always been that he didn’t really have a clear upgrade available to him. When Betemit walked into the Tigers’ clubhouse, that argument went out the door.

I have always been a supporter of Leyland, generally speaking, but with his persistent and blatant compulsion to give valuable at bats to Kelly continuing despite having a guy with a career OPS of over .800 available and able to play, Leyland is quickly losing any support he had from me and I’m sure from many others. Now, I’m under no delusion that that will mean a damn thing to the skipper, but when you lay all the evidence on the line and look at the hard numbers, you see that he does, in fact, seem to favor “his guys” more than a successful manager should.

I don’t know what will have to happen for Betemit to see regular time against right handed pitchers, but it’s looking more and more like as long as Kelly is available, Leyland will find a way to sabotage the season by using him. At least until Inge returns, then, I’m guessing, the job is all his again.

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