Detroit Tigers Don’t Need A “Proven” Closer


Oct 24, 2012; San Francisco, CA, USA; Detroit Tigers pitcher Jose Valverde (46) walks back to the dugout after being relieved by manager Jim Leyland (middle) in the seventh inning during game one of the 2012 World Series against the San Francisco Giants at AT

I think everyone is aware by now that the Tigers have stated that they have no interest in trying to bring (former) closer Jose Valverde back to the team for 2013. This means the Tigers have an opening in their bullpen, and indications are that they will try to fill it in free agency.

Phil Coke stepped up admirably in the playoffs and mostly filled the same closer role (though appearing in more multi-inning games than Valverde would have), but I’m not sure the Tigers would (or should) want him to serve in that capacity across an entire season. He’s shown huge platoon splits in his career and probably couldn’t be counted on to consistently get right handed batters out in high leverage situations.

I’ve heard it stated on sports talk radio especially, but also on the internet that the Tigers need to go after a “proven” closer to fill the ninth inning void. I think that’s a bunch of malarkey. Does anyone remember what happened the last time the Tigers opted in favor of a high-priced (“proven”) closer instead of exploring cheaper options? Jose Valverde was as “proven” as closers come – going perfect in save situations the year before – so the Tigers picked up his $9 million team option last off-season. The result was a very average season and perhaps the worst postseason of all time. This is, of course, an n=1 sample size (though we could up it to n=2 if we brought up the Miami Marlins and Heath Bell) and one could pick a single anecdote in support of any position, but it does go to show that a closer who has “proven” his past worth with his saves may not be “proven” to be successful in the future.

Again, Valverde didn’t necessarily have an awful regular season – he saved 88% of his opportunities which is only 1% worse than his career average – but his ERA ballooned to 3.78 and his strikeout rate dipped sharply to a paltry 6.3 per nine innings. There were signs that trouble could be brewing: his strikeout rate had fallen for five straight years, his ERA had far outpaced his DIPS numbers for four straight seasons, and he had always been one to struggle with walk issuance. This wouldn’t necessarily be the case with any other “proven” closer – another could very well turn out to be good, but I don’t see the sense in betting $9 million dollars that a guy can keep his numbers up when you could be betting $4-$5 million that a “non-proven” reliever (with peripherals that are as good or better) could get the job done just the same.

I find it particularly humorous that the Tigers paid for a high-priced, “proven” closer in 2012 that didn’t do any better than “fine, maybe” in the regular season and then completely imploded in the playoffs, that he was replaced by a “non-proven” closer who pitched lights-out-insane in high-pressure innings in high-pressure games, and that there are people that still think the Tigers need to shell out big dollars to bring in another “proven” guy.

Again, not that Phil Coke should be “the guy”, I don’t think he should, but if the Tigers are going to go fishing in the free agent pond for a bullpen arm, they’d be better served to go after a quality set-up man who (1) could serve as the closer or (2) be another one of five or six guys (along with Al Alburquerque, Phil Coke, Octavio Dotel, Joaquin Benoit, and perhaps Brayan Villarreal) to be used in a mix-and-match role to cover the seventh, eighth, and ninth innings depending on the matchups.

There’s something to be said for having Mariano Rivera waiting for the ninth inning – but there’s only one of him – and there’s a good case to be made for simply having a ton of arms available to throw out there in short stints to keep the platoon advantage on your side.