March 28, 2013
Jim Leyland, Joaquin Benoit, and Bouncing Back
You might not think it’s particularly important for a team to have a dominant closer, or even to have a defined one. But Tigers manager Jim Leyland definitely does. Two months ago, he told The Detroit News, “I totally disagree with people who don’t think you need a closer to win. Most teams that win have a truly dominant closer.”
So Leyland probably isn’t pleased that his team is without an established closer as Opening Day draws near. Prospect Bruce Rondon was presumed to be the favorite for the job entering spring training, but the 22-year-old, who walked over four batters per nine innings in the minor leagues last season, walked nine in 12.1 Grapefruit League innings, which removed him from closer consideration. (To be fair, he also struck out 19.)
With Rondon headed to Toledo, Detroit is stuck with a classic closer-by-committee. Here’s Dave Dombrowski, again from The Detroit News, this time today:
He’ll be mixing and matching with candidates including Octavio Dotel, Phil Coke, Joaquin Benoit, Al Alburquerque and Brayan Villarreal. There are some pretty good pitchers in that group, but despite what Dombrowski says, Leyland clearly isn’t completely comfortable with the idea that all of those guys can close games consistently.
At TigerFest in late January, Leyland expressed reservations about the closing capabilities of Dotel, Coke, and Benoit. His qualms about Dotel and Coke seemed to be based at least in part on makeup concerns that we can’t really put to the test. But about Benoit, Leyland said, “Joaquin Benoit physically, I don't think he can do it. With all due respect to Benoit, he doesn't bounce back.”
That we can check. Here are Benoit’s career relief splits by days of rest:
If anything, Benoit has actually been at his best when pitching on back-to-back days, on the whole. But he had rotator cuff surgery in 2009, and he’ll turn 36 in July. He’s been more effective, with better peripherals, since the surgery than he was before it, but it’s conceivable that he could have lost some bounceback ability to injury and age. Here are the same splits for 2010-12, Benoit’s post-surgery seasons:
Since the surgery, Benoit has been better on zero and one days of rest than he was prior to 2009, but much better with two and three days of rest than he was prior to 2009. Does that mean anything? Well, maybe; we’re talking about tiny samples here, so it’s hard to say. The strongest evidence in support of Leyland’s statement is Benoit’s performance with zero days of rest last season: a 4.50 ERA in 22 innings. But Benoit also struck out 27 batters in those innings—a higher K rate than he recorded with any other amount of rest—and had a .315 BABIP, which is quite high for him. Maybe he was less effective, and Leyland is right, or maybe he was just a little unlucky, and Leyland is overreacting to a recent small-sample fluke. The bulk of Benoit’s career (including his 2011 with the Tigers, when he had a 1.46 ERA with a 5.0 K/BB in zero-rest situations) suggests that he’s perfectly effective when pitching on back-to-back days.
Is there any sign of degradation in Benoit’s stuff when he’s asked to come back quickly? With the help of Harry Pavlidis, I looked at Benoit’s weighted average velocity by days of rest over the past two seasons, both of which he spent in Detroit under Leyland. Here’s 2011-12:
And here’s 2012 alone:
The three lowest data points on the graph are all from appearances with zero days of rest, but they’re also all from April, and this data isn’t temperature-adjusted. Even so, there doesn’t seem to be any smoking gun here. Benoit’s velo last season with zero days of rest was virtually identical to his velo with two and three days of rest.
I can’t vouch for Benoit’s closer mentality (though I would point out that he’s historically pitched better in save situations than non-save situations), but there doesn’t seem to be any conclusive evidence in his stats or stuff to suggest that he physically couldn’t close. We know Leyland hates having a committee, so he’s bound to elevate one of his setup men soon. PECOTA says Benoit would be the best of the bunch, but PECOTA might be missing something.
We often hear about how much more managers know about their players than we do; maybe this is an instance of an experienced skipper perceiving something in a small sample that outside observers can’t see and statistics can’t prove. And for all we know, Benoit, Dombrowski, or Detroit's doctors and trainers have told Leyland that Benoit can't pitch on back-to-back-to-days, so as not to endanger his already repaired arm. That would explain why he's done so only once in each of the past two seasons, while Jose Valverde did it 10 times (including one string of four consecutive days) in 2012 alone. We're working with less information than the Tigers, so it's probably best to give them the benefit of the doubt. Whatever we're missing, Leyland's bullpen decisions, and his usage of Benoit, bear watching.
Thanks to Tommy Rancel for tipping me off to Leyland’s remark about Benoit.