Leyland’s bullpen mistakes haven’t helped the Tigers’ cause this October

The Detroit Tigers have never lost a first round series in the Jim Leyland era.

The Detroit Tigers have never lost a first round series in the Jim Leyland era.

Everything that is infuriating about the way managers these days handle their pitching staffs was on display in the Detroit Tigers’ wretched Game Two loss to Oakland in the ALDS.

You can blame Jim Leyland, and many will, for his illogical late-inning decisions, but they were not much different from those most modern managers make.

First mistake: taking Justin Verlander out after seven outstanding innings just because he had thrown 116 pitches. During the regular season this might make sense, but with any post-season loss a potential killer, why would you take out your best starting pitcher (a title Verlander has regained in the last month or so) when he is showing no signs of tiring and still has gas left in his tank? At least run him out in the eighth until he shows signs of fatigue.

A generation ago, a manager who wanted to remove a starter from a scoreless tie after seven innings would have had to bring in a squad of police to do so. Imagine the reactions of Jack Morris or Bob Gibson. Before the pitch count became a pitch limit, starters would throw 130 or 140 pitches and not even notice it. But Verlander and other contemporary pitchers are rarely allowed to finish games and thus don’t have a burning desire to do so. They willingly yield to others to finish their jobs.

To start the eighth, Leyland brought in Drew Smyly to pitch to a left-handed batter and turn Coco Crisp around to his weaker side. Good move. Smyly is the club’s best bullpen option against lefties. His stats all year prove that.

Second mistake: Leyland brings in Al Albuquerque to pitch to Josh Donaldson. Why? If he wanted to summon a right-hander, which made sense in that situation, why not use his best reliever against righties, Jose Veras (right-handed batters hit .164 against him!)?

Third mistake: He keeps Albuquerque in to pitch the ninth. In this situation, you should use your best reliever, who is arguably Benoit. Why didn’t he? Because Benoit is the anointed closer, and by the superstitions currently in vogue, he must be preserved for a closer situation. In these days of advanced analytics and sophisticated statistics, that’s backwards thinking. Of course, there was no closer situation in this game because Albuquerque allowed the winning run to get on base — hardly surprising since opposing batters had a .341 OBP against him (versus .268 for Benoit and .282 for Veras).

Baseball is the only sport I’ve ever heard of where it’s now forbidden by custom not to use your best available players to prevent a loss because they must be kept in reserve to finish up a win. Shouldn’t you first win the game before you try to save it?

And actually, save is a misnomer: the point at which the game needed to be “saved” was in the seventh, eighth, and ninth innings. You “save” someone who is drowning by pulling him out of the water, not by waiting until he is resting on shore and then holding him down so he doesn’t slide back in!

Fourth mistake: Bases loaded and no outs and Leyland brings in Rick Porcello! The game is probably already lost, but this move seals it. Opposing batters hit .270 against Porcello this season. Veras and Benoit are still sitting idly in the pen while Oakland gleefully gets a gift win. Even Anibal Sanchez and Doug Fister could have been used in this spot in bygone days to get a few batters out, and still have had a day or two to rest before their starts.

Thanks, Jim. But the sad thing is that a lot of other managers might have made at least a couple of the same four mistakes. It’s in vogue to not put your best relievers in the game when the game is on the line because you just gotta save them for when you might have a two- or three-run lead in the last inning. Head-scratching stuff, and to me it’s the most annoying thing in the game. Not to mention the Tigers’ most obvious Achilles heel: a bullpen of question marks handled by an inflexible, stubborn manager.

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About Michael Betzold

Author of Queen of Diamonds: The Tiger Stadium Story and other books, former Detroit Free Press reporter Michael Betzold always wore #4 to honor his first hero, the "Sunday Punch," Charlie "Paw Paw" Maxwell.