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Making A Case For Darin Downs


The Tigers, and more importantly manager Jim Leyland, can’t seem to decide who their closer is going to be for the 2013 season. What looked like a lot of options to begin the season, is beginning to look like there isn’t one good option. It’s the baseball version of the two quarterback system that some college football teams like to run when they can’t make up their mind. If you have two quarterbacks, then you truly don’t have one…

Well, if the Tigers have several options for closer, then…

I touched upon that in an article I did for the Free Press today, which can be found here.

To sum up the article if you should choose not to read, I basically made the point that the Tigers aren’t really taking a closing by committee approach. Rather, it’s putting guys in the closer role, and then seeing if they can handle it before moving on to the next guy. A true closer by committee would involve putting guys in that role dependent upon match ups.

There are certainly question marks surrounding every member of that Tigers bullpen in regards to whether or not they have the ability to handle the closers role. Phil Coke struggles against right handers. Joaquin Benoit has a home run problem. Al Alburquerque has an elbow problem (Tigers dont want him throwing back to back days often). Brayan Villarreal has a problem dealing with pressure. Drew Smyly has a role familiarity problem. Octavio Dotel? Well, he hasn’t really ever taken hold of that role and made it his you know what.

Darin Downs? Well, his problem entirely revolves around he is still a relative unknown. Personally, I think it’s about time we find out who he is, or rather Jim Leyland should start the discovery process and give him a save opportunity in the near future.

Being an unknown, even an underdog, isn’t unusual for Darin Downs. The Tigers got the well traveled Downs as a minor league free agent before the 2012 season after spending time in the Cubs, Rays, and Marlins systems. Downs was more well known for his courageous comeback to baseball after getting hit in the head with a line drive than his pitching ability. In 2009, Downs took a line drive off his head that fractured his skull. Not only was his baseball career in danger, but so was his life.

Downs fought back though, and not only recovered from his skull fracture, but returned to the mound in 2010, where he pitched well for the Rays AA club in Montgomery.

Without any expectations from what they would receive from Downs, the Tigers took a chance on signing the lefty who had very pedestrian numbers with the Marlins organization in 2011. But Downs began to take to performing out of the bullpen, and the Tigers began to take note of his performance in Toledo early in 2012. In July of last year, Downs got his first taste of the big leagues, and it appears that he doesn’t plan on going back to the minors any time soon.

Downs performed well for the Tigers in 2012 as the second lefty out of the bullpen. In 18 games with the Tigers, Downs had an ERA of 3.48, while posting a K rate of 8.7/9. Downs big issue is that his command isn’t where you would like it to be ideally as he walks about 4/9. But despite allowing just four runs in his first 16 games, Downs rarely got used down the stretch in September and didn’t make the playoff roster for the Tigers.

His contribution to the team essentially forgotten, Darin Downs once again had a battle on his hands this off-season. This time, instead of a battle just to return to the mound, Downs’ battle was for a roster spot on the 2013 Tigers. Once again, Darin Downs proved to be up to the challenge, pitching extremely well in spring training, earning himself a place as the third lefty in the Tigers pen.

Downs thus far has made the Tigers look good. In the early action he hasn’t allowed a hit in 4.1 innings, and struck out seven batters, but has allowed one run due to a pair of walks. He appears to be a guy that is improving and could be earning himself opportunities when the game is on the line.

Downs doesn’t have traditional closer stuff. His fastball averages in the neighborhood of 91 mph, but more importantly it has life, meaning it appears to be faster than it really is. In a day where chicks dig the high powered fastball, guys like Darin Downs are proving that radar gun readings aren’t a measure of success. If they were, Tigers spring closing appointee Bruce Rondon would be in the big leagues right now.

Getting outs is the true measure of success, and Darin Downs has shown the Tigers he can do that. Left handed hitters are all but useless against Downs, and right handers have only hit .250 against Downs so far in his time in the big leagues. He strikes out more than a batter per inning in his short career thus far and has only allowed one home run in 25 innings.

It’s up to the Tigers to take the next step and start giving Downs the opportunity to finish games for the club, but I believe it’s time to give him a shot. He can pitch back to back days. He can get strikeouts. He can pitch against both lefties and righties. The only question we have is will he respond to the pressure of closing? That we won’t know until he gets the opportunity.

But if I were a betting man, how could I not bet on Downs handling the opportunity? He wasn’t a first round pick (5th), and has battled against the odds to make the majors. He faced a serious injury and beat that as well. He faced what had to be tremendous fear just to get back on the mound, and won yet another challenge. He faced the odds against him making the roster out of spring this year and beat them as well.

Darin Downs faces challenges all the time and overcomes them. It’s just what he does.

And if given the opportunity to close for the Tigers, how much do you want to bet he can beat that challenge too?