In 2014 the Detroit Tigers have experienced an interesting problem. It seems that after facing over 11 thousand batters between them, Joe Nathan and Justin Verlander have forgotten how to get batters out as evidenced by Nathan’s ERA (5.80) and Verlander’s most recent start (one inning, four hits, two walks and four earned runs).
Nathan has allowed at least one run in 15 of his 48 starts and with his recent gesture shenanigans with the fans, the Tigers should probably be looking for a new closer. However, with the worst bullpen ERA of any team with a winning record a replacement is not likely to come from their current relievers. One thing that the Tigers do have, however, is starting pitching.
With three Cy Young award winners, an ERA champion and Rick Porcello, who has two complete game shutouts this season. If you take Verlander, who has struggled mightily, out of the rotation you still have a very strong staff. Assuming Anibel Sanchez returns from the DL, you have three guys who can pile up strikeouts — Sanchez, Max Scherzer and David Price — with two young guys that they believe in — Robbie Ray and Porcello — which would make a strong rotation.
So, if you don’t use Verlander in the rotation where could you use him? As a closer.
Just think about it. What do you need your closer to do? Does Verlander have these attributes?
Throw hard? Check.
Verlander’s velocity is down, but he is still 15th among starters in fastball velocity. If you let him air it out in one inning, he may be able to touch 97 like he used to in the ninth innings of his complete games.
Have good complimentary pitches? Possibly.
In his Cy Young runner-up season of 2012, Verlander had three pitches off-speed pitches that were above average according to fangraphs. If he could find the touch on his slider, curveball and change-up in the bullpen he could become a force that the Tigers havent had in years.
High leverage experience? Check.
In his career, Verlander has a 2.79 ERA in 19.1 ninth innings pitched despite all of those innings coming after pitching the first eight. In addition to being able to close out games, Verlander has a 2.51 postseason ERA in the last three seasons.
All of these things mean it could work but there is one thing that should give the Tigers the confidence to give this a try.
Roll your memory all the way back to 2012. A successful team with a strong starting rotation and good offense was having trouble with the bullpen and one of their most decorated pitchers. The team, the San Fransisco Giants, asked their struggling starter two-time Cy Young award winner Tim Lincecum to join the bullpen in a much needed long reliever role for the playoffs.
In the 2012 playoffs Lincecum allowed just one earned run out of the bullpen in the Giants run to the championship, including two shut-down outings in the Giants’ World Series sweep.
The very next season, Lincecum returned to the starting rotation and improved his ERA by almost one full point, so the Tigers should not be worried about losing Verlander as a starter in the future.
So why not try Verlander in the ninth? After all, how much worse can he be than the Tigers 6.13 ERA in the ninth?