By Jonathan Bernhardt
“I cannot sit here right now and tell you I have a definite closer for the end of this game,” Jim Leyland says to the assembled media in the weird early hours before Game 2 of the American League Championship Series. It’s tough to begrudge him his uncertainty; he’s less than 24 hours removed from seeing his closer, Jose Valverde, blow a four-run ninth inning lead to 40-year-old Raul Ibanez, the walking park factor, the deadliest man in Yankee Stadium -- and only in Yankee Stadium.
Valverde, a wide, peacock-ish right-hander whose mound composure might be best described as “dancy,” has been consulted on this (or at the very least, he’s been informed). That’s the only reason Leyland is sitting up in front of the lights and microphones, talking on the subject: “… Obviously that's the reason I did not have any information for you last night, because I would never make a statement about something like that without talking to the player first. That would be totally disrespectful.” Leyland doesn’t elaborate on Valverde’s feelings on the matter, which is fine because it’s unlikely they were fit to print given the night he’d just had.
As it happens, in less than six hours a Tigers pitcher does record a save. Former Yankee Phil Coke -- that’s Coke like the soft drink, not the drug, and he does not drink diet -- is the kind of guy who sprints out of the bullpen and takes full, exuberant advantage of Detroit’s very clear facial hair policy: “Do what thou wilt.” He’s also been a mainstay of the Tigers’ pen this season, more reliable in relief than as a starter. Coke came to Detroit in the deal that sent Curtis Granderson to the Bronx, and since then has been decent for what he is: a guy who can give you more than an inning of work out of the pen and can work on back to back days if you need him to; who’ll give up hits, put men on base via the free pass, but strike them out in acceptable numbers. Coke in particular didn’t benefit from the 2012 squad’s defensive philosophy, which often appeared to be “don’t worry, Miggy will get it back next inning,” but he forces his teammates to get mohawks and sometimes assaults fans in the bleachers with a firehose on summer afternoons, so he’s an understandable fan favorite.
None of this, however, makes Phil Coke the Detroit closer, least of all the fact he’s able to record a save against the same team in the same opposing park where Jose Valverde could not. On this confusing point Jim Leyland is very clear: “He will not close the game today, if it is a close situation. I still consider him the closer,” he says of Valverde before Game 2. “I still consider him the closer, but he will not close the game.”
And like many of the meaningless or self-contradictory things baseball men say when pressed, this makes perfect sense.
The Tiger bullpen has been a slightly off-key stage act this year, like most groups of high-pressure performers whose personalities sometimes get a bit too big for their arms. The leader of the group -- or, failing that, the most tenured -- is Valverde, the “closer,” who up until Game 1 of the ALCS didn’t have scare quotes around that word. Valverde is 34 years old with a long, successful track record of major league seasons in Arizona and Houston that are far more impressive, statistically speaking, than anything he’s done since Detroit gave him the big money to play under the big lights.
Unless the statistic you crave is saves, in which case the best season of Valverde’s career was last year, when he went 49 for 49 in that department, blowing no saves en route to Detroit’s first AL Central title in, oh, ever. The last time the Tigers had finished first in their division was 1987, a decade before the three-division format, when Detroit was still in the AL East.
Valverde is expressive on the mound -- maybe not to the extremes that former Angels closer and current Milwaukee exile Francisco Rodriguez was, back in his heyday, but as far as opposing fans are concerned Valverde’s a grown-ass man in his mid-thirties who struts to the mound in high socks and goggles, throws a bunch of junk, walks a guy, throws more junk, strikes a guy out on a couple pitches he shouldn’t have swung at, throws even more junk, allows the tying run to come to the plate, then gets a warning-track fly ball out to deep left-center to seal the game and just goes absolutely sideways on the mound, arms and legs going everywhere, screaming and carrying on in the most infuriating way. And in one of baseball culture’s weirder inversions of our preconceived social norms, it’s far more acceptable for him to do this as a 34-year-old man than a kid just up from the minors. Because, you know. He’s a veteran.
Detroit fireballer Al Alburquerque, who is 26 years old and has only 60 innings of major league experience under his belt compared to Valverde’s over 600, found this out the hard way in this year’s divisional round, when he fielded a comebacker from Oakland outfielder Yoenis Cespedes in the top of the ninth, men on first and third, game tied with two away -- and had the temerity to kiss the ball (chastely on the cheek, like a proper gentleman) before tossing it to first baseman Prince Fielder to send the game to the bottom of the ninth still tied. The Tigers would then win the game on a Don Kelly sacrifice fly.
I personally found the concept of a walk-off Don Kelly sacrifice fly far more offensive to the enduring spirit of baseball than whatever Al Alburquerque did or didn’t do with the ball behind the dugout on prom night, but Josh Reddick disagreed. “I didn’t appreciate it,” Reddick said after the game. “I think that’s immature and not very professional.” At this point others might bring up Reddick’s strange professional wrestling gimmicks (or his hair), but the astute scholar of the game recognizes that in baseball none of that matters, because he does it off the field (except, again, for the hair). Alburquerque kissed the ball on the field, and therefore might have been doing it, maybe, to show the hitter up, and in this sport’s vague and unwritten code that’s a real big problem. For his part, Cespedes responded after the game in the proper fashion: promising to kiss his bat after his next base hit off Alburquerque. But someone with no romance in his soul (Bob Melvin?) got to him, and by the next media session he was vowing to stolidly drive in runs with the weathered face of a true professional. More’s the pity.
Alburquerque might have kissed the ball just since it’s been so long since the two have seen each other; he missed most of the year due to a stress fracture in his right elbow that had to be fixed with a screw. He only got in 13 1/3 innings of work in the regular season before Detroit headed off to the ALDS against Oakland -- but he still struck out 18 of the 53 batters he faced. That’s a cool one-in-three chance to avoid the defense behind him, which might explain why Alburquerque’s been so good over the last two years at not allowing runs to score. He’s the high point of the Detroit pen, so long as he stays healthy, which leads to the following question that all of us rooting against the New York Yankees have the luxury of asking, with the Tigers up 2-0 with Game 3 in Detroit and Justin Verlander on the mound: How the heck has Al Alburquerque not gotten in a game yet this series?
The answer likely has something to do with “the kid just got a screw put in his throwing elbow.” Leyland’s been hesitant to ever lean on Alburquerque since he came up; even in 2011 when he was healthy and throwing high-nineties death all year long, Leyland only used him on back-to-back days three times (for reference, Leyland used Phil Coke in back-to-back games three times in the first 14 games of the 2012 season). There’s nothing inherently wrong with that; guys that throw as hard and as volatile as Alburquerque do are serious injury risks -- as demonstrated by, you know, that elbow screw.
When he came back from the injury, Leyland started out giving Alburquerque four days’ rest between appearances, then shortened it to two days’ rest when he showed he could handle it with aplomb -- the only appearance Alburquerque made all year with just one day of rest between relief appearances was his last of the season against the Kansas City Royals, and considering that this was the only 2012 appearance in which the young right-hander allowed a run, that might have scared Leyland away from giving him a heavy workload in the postseason. There are doubtless some veteran trust-and-experience issues here too, as there’s not a single clubhouse in the AL Central that doesn’t come down with that plague from time to time. But since Alburquerque is less than 20 innings removed from the disabled list (albeit twenty very, very effective innings), a certain amount of caution is warranted.
Then there’s Detroit’s 38-year-old right-handed specialist Octavio Dotel. Two fun facts about Dotel: He has played for 13 major league teams, and once a team has let him go they’ve never taken him back. And after word came out of the Tiger clubhouse following Detroit’s crushing Game 4 loss in the ALDS to Oakland about Dotel demanding that Miguel Cabrera talk to the press -- in front of the press --then being shot down by clubhouse leaders when he tried to call a team meeting, and then going back to the press and talking about how he’s the bigger, more veteran man and won’t hold a grudge on it, one might have an inkling why.
There’s no denying Dotel’s been effective this year in his role. While he’s excelled against right-handed hitters, he’s not been so bad against the lefties that Leyland couldn’t leave him in if the situation favored Detroit. Dotel’s been a solid-if-not-spectacular relief option his entire career; his more notable success in 2012 had a lot to do with him taking his career walk percentage of 10.2 (about where Valverde is as a Detroit Tiger) and cutting it in half. However helpful he’s been to the team, though, he’s still a gun for hire trying to do public leadership callouts in a clubhouse with two guys to whom ownership gave a third of a billion dollars. And Justin Verlander. Just about no one is shocked it didn’t fly.
The last two main players in the Detroit pen, Brayan Villarreal and Joaquin Benoit, have managed to avoid any huge recent controversy in the media, mostly by avoiding any sort of dancing, kissing or public harassment of the likely American League MVP. Both men have had good years, if flawed. For Villarreal it was his walk rate; he managed to “cut” it from 13.2 percent to 12.4 percent this season, but that’s still firmly in the territory of “far too many.” The good news for Villarreal was that fly balls put in play off of him mostly stopped turning into homeruns. Benoit had the opposite issue. A guy who walked a ton of batters early in his career, he got his walk rate down to 7.6 percent -- but had almost 1 in 5 of the fly balls hit off him end up in the seats. Since his return from rotator cuff surgery he’s finding more of the plate, and that’s doing good and bad things to his results.
So if everyone who could replace Valverde has reasons of their own why one might not hand them the keys to the family car, who would Leyland install in his place? Cross off Brayan Villarreal’s name; he was left off the ALCS roster in favor of press-ganged swingmen Rick Porcello and Drew Smyly (neither of whom would get the nod either). Alburquerque is coming off injury and is also the least experienced member of the pen, and Phil Coke is the only non-Drew Smyly lefty available, so it’s doubtful Leyland would give him the job full-time when he might need him in situational relief. Oh, and there’s also the direct quote from the Detroit manager after Phil Coke saved Game 2: “Now, please don’t write that Phil Coke is the new closer, because we’re going to pick and choose what we do.”
Like Leyland intimates in that quote about Coke, the most likely of all these scenarios would be some sort of platoon of Dotel and Benoit based on guts and how many righties are coming up in the final three, with a hint of Smyly or Coke against the lefty-heavy lineups the Yankees run out there from time to time. It’s not a perfect solution, but if Valverde’s lost the confidence of his manager then --
-- Oh, who are we kidding? Jim Leyland, Oct. 15, press conference: “Like I said yesterday, I still consider Valverde the closer. It's just a matter of have a conversation and see how he is feeling and see what the pitching coach thinks. … I am hoping that Valverde in the very near future is ready to take back over. As I said, that is pretty important that we have him.”
That “very near future” could be as early as tonight in front of a friendly crowd at Comerica Park. With Justin Verlander on the mound and a two-game lead (thanks in no small part to Phil Coke’s two-inning save in Game 2), it’s likely that if a save situation emerges it’ll be one of the easier three-run kind. If Valverde blows it, Detroit still has another two games at home to close out the series; if he doesn’t, his confidence is back and those scare quotes around closer? Gone immediately, vaporized like Raul Ibanez at sunrise.
So it goes in baseball: If you’ve been around long enough, sometimes you can get your job back not just in spite of someone doing it better, but because of it.
Bernhardt is a freelance sportswriter who has contributed to Baseball Prospectus, The Classical and ESPN's Sweet Spot blog network, among others. You can follow him on Twitter @jonbernhardt.