The Joaquin Benoit Conundrum


Everyone watching the game had to know it was going to happen.

Joaquin Benoit was going to come in to “relieve” Doug Fister, and he was going to allow a home run.

Benoit had given up 14 homers, the most among employed relief pitchers. His second half ERA was 5.52. He had given up 11 home runs in 34 innings from July to September. You could see his confidence waning with every appearance, but you knew that, like clockwork, he would be brought in from the bullpen at the top of the eight and that he would allow a run (19 ER in that 34 inning stretch).

In comes Benoit, out goes a laser courtesy of Josh Reddick.

What is going on with this guy, and what can be done?

Oct 7, 2012; Detroit, MI, USA; Oakland Athletics right fielder Josh Reddick (16) runs the base after hitting a home run off of Detroit Tigers relief pitcher Joaquin Benoit (53) during the eighth inning of game two of the 2012 ALDS at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-US PRESSWIRE

Statistically, Benoit is nothing if not confusing this year. His k/9 is higher than last season at 10.65. His xFIP is the exact same as last season at 3.29.  His fastball and changeup velocity are about the same as well. His BABIP and ground ball percentage are actually better this season. So, reasonably, the school of thought can be one of two things: first, since the All Star break he’s been battling some kind of injury that’s been affecting him ever so slightly. Secondly, this just ain’t his year.

With an injury, we all know athletes are proud and stubborn people. And a lot of pitchers, contrary to popular belief (and Rich Harden), do try to pitch through these injuries. Since his resurgence with the Rays, Benoit seemed to be a pitcher on a mission. He seemed to relish coming in at tough times and challenging hitters. He was unrelenting, and his numbers showed it. Yet this season, something just doesn’t seem right with him the last few months. Granted, his resurgence is part of a small sample size of about three seasons, but something is just off.

With this just “not being his year,” heck, it happens. If you play fantasy baseball you’ve seen your expensive pitchers just flop in the midst of a successful stretch. Remember 2008 Justin Verlander? He had a weird, fluky season where he just didn’t have “it,” and couldn’t seem to right the ship. Relievers are of a breed where their dominance seems to be able to come and go without any rhyme or reason (the annual Closer Carousel can show that). Maybe Benoit is just lost and might not be able to find his way back.

Now, what to do with him is a bit tricky. As we all know full well, Jim Leyland is loyal to a fault, stubborn as a mule, and as Old School as they come. Asking him to not use his designated 8th Inning Guy is akin to asking him to switch to nicotine gum in a pennant race, but in this scenario he has to consider it. Sure, he keeps throwing him out there, hoping that Benoit’s confidence and mojo will magically be restored. He does the same thing with Phil Coke (a Left-Handed Specialist who allows LH’s to hit .263 against him, whereas the Lefty vs. Lefty league-wide average is about .250. Ugh). The playoffs, we can agree, is not the place to try and find one’s confidence.

I suggest the Tigers treat Benoit a bit like the Giants treated Pablo Sandoval in 2010: although healthy (we think), he just didn’t have the season he was capable of, and Bruce Bochy kept him off the field during their World Series run. Sandoval is an integral part of the Giants’ past and future, but for whatever reason he wasn’t getting the job done and the manager made a hard decision for the benefit of the team. Will Leyland have the resolve to do the same thing?

I guess we’ll see tonight.