Texas Rangers v Detroit Tigers - Game Five

Jim Leyland is a great quote. It’s a great baseball man, if we’re being honest. He’s just plain great. A salty old dog and surely the greatest granddad in the game today. Before Game Five in Oakland, Leyland was asked about his bullpen options in the deciding game. His quote remains priceless:

Leyland jokes but an element of truth lives in his jocular tone. The Tigers bullpen is no picnic for their manager, an odd collection of former starters and players who seem better than they actually are. The Tigers bullpen ranked in the bottom third in ERA, walk rate and strand rate.

As a group, they managed a league-low 102 “shut downs”, Fangraphs’ WPA-based counting stat credited every time a reliever increases his team’s odds of winning by 6% or more. This counting stat doesn’t allow for much nuance and the incredible, dominant starting rotation has a big hand in this matter. The Tigers bullpen registered the fewest innings pitched of any relief corps in baseball.

The Tigers playoff bullpen is slightly more robust, as Rick Porcello joined their ranks after a strong season as the fifth starter. But the fact of the matter remains – Jim Leyland has reason to be nervous when he strides out to the mound to make a pitching change. Is there a chance, should his starter falter, Leyland can still make some chicken salad and get a win with his bullpen?

The easy answer to this question is “yes.” The Tigers won Game One of this series, protecting a one-run lead for three innings. In that game, Leyland called on his top relievers in the following order: Al Alburquerque, Jose Veras, Drew Smyly and finally his closer, Joaquin Benoit.

In Game Two, Leyland presented his pen with a much easier task – protect a four-run lead without the pressure of a no-hitter looming overhead. Considering the large lead, it wasn’t a big ask for his four-man pen to get six outs. Leyland’s bullpen choices are below. The biggest difference – opting for Veras first and Alburquerque when the going get tough with two runners on.

Pitcher wWPA wWE Play Description
Bottom of the 8th, Red Sox Batting, Behind 1-5, Tigers’ Jose Veras facing 8-9-1
Jose Veras replaces Max Scherzer pitching
Jose Iglesias replaces Jhonny Peralta playing SS batting 6th
Drew Smyly replaces Jose Veras pitching
Al Alburquerque replaces Drew Smyly pitching
Joaquin Benoit replaces Al Alburquerque pitching
Bottom of the 9th, Red Sox Batting, Tied 5-5, Tigers’ Rick Porcello facing 6-7-8
Rick Porcello replaces Joaquin Benoit pitching
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 10/15/2013.

This, of course, didn’t work. The burden of blame falls mainly on Benoit but each reliever before him failed in his task. Not to mention the grand slam to Oritz was the worst possible outcome in that situation. Even allowing a bases-clearing double gives the Tigers a chance to escape the inning with a lead.

Despite being a converted starter with the capability of going multiple innings, Drew Smyly is a lefty specialist in this bullpen. The Tigers admirable starting depth gives them this luxury. In Game One, he faced only Ortiz. In a different situation in Game Two, he faced just one hitter – lefty Jacoby Ellsbury. Ellsbury walked and Leyland went back to the well in search of the platoon edge.

Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs looked at some different ways the fateful eighth inning might have played out, given a few different decisions. In reading through the possible scenarios, one must credit the Red Sox for aligning their batting order in a way which demands multiple pitching changes – provided the manager goes strictly by the book.

There are a few things working in Jim Leyland’s favor, should he choose to get more creative:

  • Al Alburquerque is slightly better against left-handed pitchers. It is still early in his career but Alburquerque has marginally better numbers against glove-side hitters. Rather than yo-yoing his relievers has he has in the first two games, Leyland can opt to leave hard-throwing righty in to face the bottom of the Sox order and the likes of switch-hitter Jarrod Saltalamacchia and lefty Stephen Drew.
  • Al Al is also a ground ball machine. Should the Tigers be in desperate need of a ground ball or strikeout, Alburquerque fits that bill as well. Given his neutral splits, this might make him a better option than Smyly, who is better against lefties but is much more fly ball dominant.

This is all a drawn-out way of suggesting Jim Leyland make better use, or at least continued use, of Al Alburquerque. For most of the season, he was one of the first men out of the pen (among the current four man end game group.) Alburquerque`s ability to get lefties out, get strikeouts and get ground balls suggest Leyland should use the in higher leverage situations. Walks can trouble Alburquerque so, perhaps, ensuring his appearances start innings, rather than enter with runners on, might be his best position to succeed.

This is the incredibly difficult and touchy job of a baseball manager in the playoffs. The messy reality of a high-pressure game trumps these attempts to create a hypothetical road map. Leyland knows what he has and he knows Benoit is his guy at the end of the game. Taking advantage of Alburquerque’s particular skill set might help him overcome the dearth of available talent.