I worked from home today, which meant a consistent stream of sports news outlets streaming in the background for many hours. As such, I was subject to incessant chatter about the back-end bullpen situation for the Detroit Tigers. Normally when we think about the detrimental effects of the 24-hour cable news cycle, we apply it to much more serious matters than sports, but today I really began thinking about some of the outside the lines impacts of Detroit’s closer landscape in light of the modern media environment.
First, let me put my cards on the table. I hold the standard sabermetric-oriented beliefs regarding the closer role. Here are a few things I believe.
- There is no closer gene; nearly all middle relievers who are highly effective and capable of getting out both right- and left-handed hitters can be successful closers.
- High-end closers are certainly valuable players, but they are largely luxuries and usually not worth the salaries they command.
- The ninth inning is neither always the most difficult to pitch, nor most important. The set-up man’s job is often tougher.
With all that said, here’s something else I consider relevant—a media circus is not good for a team; when your team is making the a-block of sports highlight shows for the wrong reasons, that is not a good situation. Players are professionals and it is their job to block out distractions and just play, but incessant questioning by the media and a team’s own fanbase can wear at a team and allow minor issues to snowball. It is through this lens that I question the way the Detroit Tigers have handled their bullpen situation in 2013.
So far the Detroit Tigers have either failed to or decided against bringing in an established closer to replace Jose Valverde in the offseason. They then led most to believe that Bruce Rondon was in line to open the season as their closer. Shortly before Opening Day, they optioned Rondon to the minors. They then announced they’d be using a closer by committee, though it appeared Joaquin Benoit was going to emerge as the closer. During this time, Valverde was pitching in the minors. Earlier this week, they called up both Rondon and Valverde. Valverde converted his first chance. Rondon failed to hold a lead today, allowing the tying run to score in the eighth, while the Tigers ultimately lost in ten.
If part of your job is to evaluate and question the moves across the league, or to find angles to second-guess the Detroit Tigers, you’ve stumbled upon a treasure chest. In terms of giving the media the rope to hang your organization, Detroit has basically done as much wrong as possible, even if the actual impact on winning games is less profound than portrayed.
Instead of essentially institutionalizing uncertainty and indecision and well as bringing back a player they lacked confidence in a mere few months ago, there were a number of other defensible avenues the team could have pursued.
For one, Detroit could have simply brought in a closer from outside over the offseason. Perhaps, there are strict financial and player value arguments against this idea, but it would have changed the discussion regardless of outcome. Detroit is a contender and a spender, so they are certainly in a position where spending a premium for an established closer is defensible. Additionally, had they added a Rafael Soriano type, the organization would largely shield itself even in the case of failure. One of the rubs between pure analytics and real-life team management is that among a fanbase and the media, not all failure is treated equally.
Hypothetically, had the Tigers brought in Soriano only to see him not get the job done, the majority of the blame would be placed on the player, not the Tigers organization. The fact would have been they brought in a player who had done a specific job before and he was asked to do it again, and was unable to do so. For the reputation of the organization itself, that’s a common and acceptable way to fail.
Another less messy way of going about assigning the job of closer would have been to pick a guy – Benoit was probably a decent enough choice – and run with it. Let him pitch himself out of the job or lock it in. This is not necessarily the ideal situation for a team with the expectations of the Tigers, but it’s certainly a common enough situation for teams around the league.
Finally, they could have simply brought a shaky Valverde back and looked for upgrades while letting him prove or disprove himself.
Instead, what they’ve done is open up every possible line of questioning, while relying on a highly questionable option, who has the pressure of essentially being a savior. He’s also fresh off a string of disappointing his team’s fans in the previous postseason.
Again, it’s not just if you lose, but how you lose that drives perception in the pro sports fishbowl and 24-hour cable sports news cycle. There will be a lot of teams whose bullpens will blow many games. There will even be teams who might be playoff teams but for horrible bullpen performances. But that won’t be big news and it won’t be tremendous fodder for everybody to question the wisdom of entire organizations. Last year, the Brewers likely could have made the postseason, if not for an absolutely horrible bullpen, and a seemingly endless string of blown saves by John Axford. The narrative there was that Axford was not performing, not that the Brewers were inept.
If the Detroit bullpen keeps blowing games, it will keep making news in ways that other teams’ bullpen failures won’t. If they were consciously attempting to implement a strategy that was unconventional, but in line with analytic-based understanding, I’d defend them all the way. But, frankly, it looks like they don’t really have a vision at all, and that’s a recipe to turn a molehill into a mountain in short order. The dominant narrative of Detroit’s 2013 season may depend on Jose Valverde taking this opportunity and really running with it.