Considering the closer options for the Detroit Tigers

If you’ve tuned into sports radio or been online at all today, the hot topic is the Detroit Tigers bullpen and specifically the closer, Francisco Rodriguez. Desperate fans have been wringing their collective hands about who to hand the baseball to in the 9th inning.

The prevailing opinion these days is that Rodriguez is a terrible closer. He’s horrible, it’s a debacle, and he’s never been good. That’s patently false as demonstrated here.

I took a deeper, more nuanced look at the stats in a recent article to delve into what ails the Tigers most. It became clear that there is more blame to go around than just with the closer.

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Tampa Bay Rays
Apr 19, 2017; St. Petersburg, FL, USA;Detroit Tigers relief pitcher Francisco Rodriguez (57) reacts after they lost to the Tampa Bay Rays in the ninth inning at Tropicana Field. Tampa Bay Rays defeated the Detroit Tigers 8-7. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Quite frankly, if you’re relying on ERA, the number of walks, or the number of hits given up by a closer to back up a theory that KRod is bad, you’ve missed the point. The only stat that matters for a closer is this: save percentage. Aside from being the active saves leader in Major League Baseball, Rodriguez’s career save percentage is 85.5%. Even with the last 2 blown saves added in, KRod has closed 51 out of 60 games as a Tiger (85%). For comparison, Mariano Rivera‘s career save percentage is 89.1%.

That said: in the last two games, the team put themselves in a position to win in the 9th inning, handed the ball to Rodriguez, and he has not come through. No one can argue that. Past success so far this season (and in his career) doesn’t matter today. KRod is either slumping or “done” after a sixteen-year career.

The Tigers will likely make a change at closer for at least the time being. Let’s take a look at some of the options.

Current Roster Options

Justin Wilson

Sporting a solid 1.32 ERA in 15 games so far this season, Wilson has arguably been the best relief pitcher for Detroit. He already has 1 save in 2017 when he was filling in for KRod against the Boston Red Sox. He has been a very solid 8th inning specialist. The downside of moving him to the 9th inning is that it weakens the setup position.

Alex Wilson

The other half of “The Detroit Law Firm Of Wilson & Wilson” (as coined by DSN Tigers contributor and College Sports editor Alexander Muller is also a good option for the Tigers. In 13 appearances this season, Alex Wilson has a 2.25 ERA and 8 Ks. He too has some limited save experience (2 save in 2015 and 1 in 2017 for Detroit), so, it wouldn’t be his first time stepping on the bump in the 9th inning. However, the same caveat applies with Alex as with Justin. This move weakens the 7th inning relief where Alex Wilson has shined this year.

Shane Greene

Making Greene the closer would be an outside the box move for manager Brad Ausmus. At 6’4″ tall and 220 pounds, Greene is an intimidating figure on the mound. He was 2 for 3 in save opportunities during the 2016 season. In limited action this year, he has performed well with a stat line of 1.46 ERA, 13 K, and 1.459 WHIP. My favorite number in that stat line is the 13 strikeouts.

The Tigers might miss him in middle relief, but, this move might be welcomed by the fans. DSN Tigers Editor, A.J. Reilly, says the following about Greene and I agree:

“You need a quirky guy (as a closer), and he’s quirky enough.”

Minor League Options

Arcenio Leon

The “Next Big Thing” coming out of the minor leagues for Detroit is Arcenio Leon. He has been dominant as of late closing for the Toledo Mud Hens. His stat line is impressive with a 0.69 ERA and 7 K in 13 IP. The grass is always greener and the new guy always gets a honeymoon period. However, can his arm hold up against Major League bats?

Joe Jimenez

Speaking of coveting what we don’t have, the Tigers made the mistake of bringing Jimenez up too early this season. Fan outcry was at a fever pitch because many casual fans care more about baserunners than save percentage. So, the young fireballer Jimenez was thrust into the spotlight. He promptly proved that he was not ready running up a 12.46 ERA in 5 appearances. In his only opportunity to garner a major league save so far this season, he did not convert.

Bruce Rondon

This cannot be a realistic option for Detroit at this point. If KRod made you crazy with his ERA, Rondon is going to take you right over the edge. This is not a misprint: Rondon’s ERA in the majors this year is 40.50. He has appeared in 3 games for the Tigers so far this season and none of those were save opportunities. Once thought to be the closer of the future, Rondon has proved again that he has a long way to go.

It’s going to be interesting to see how Ausmus and the team deal with this closer situation. Already at the 40-man limit for the roster, any move to bring up a minor league player will necessitate another player being sent down. It’s very difficult to imagine Francisco Rodriguez pitching in the minor leagues after his long and storied career in the bigs.

Moving a current reliever to the 9th inning weakens the vacated spot in the bullpen. The 7th and 8th inning have been very good for Detroit this year. Middle relief has been the weakest spot in the bullpen in 2017. I’d hate to see that get weaker. However, if the starting pitchers can continue to be solid, Greene is an interesting option.

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