SweetSpot: Phil Coke


The last we saw of Jose Valverde, he was buried deep in the Detroit Tigers' bullpen in the World Series, Jim Leyland having lost confidence in him after he'd lost one playoff game against the A's and blown a four-run lead against the New York Yankees in another. Midway through the postseason, Leyland dumped his Proven Closer, who had recorded 35 saves in the regular season, and gave final-out duties to Phil Coke, a pitcher who had allowed a .396 average to right-handed batters.

Obviously, there is no time in the playoffs to let a pitcher work through a slump, so Leyland had little choice but to go with the hot hand, or what he perceived to be the hot hand. It wasn't an easy decision to make, and you have to give Leyland credit for making the adjustment.

But this is still modern baseball and managers still love having that security blanket for the ninth inning, so even though the Tigers elected not to re-sign Valverde as a free agent -- with good reason, as he just wasn't all that good in 2012, no matter what the saves column may say -- here he is, back with the Tigers, and there he was on Wednesday night, saving a 7-5 victory over the Kansas City Royals to push the Tigers back over .500.

The official record says Valverde cruised through an 18-pitch inning, retiring Alex Gordon, Alcides Escobar and Billy Butler. A closer look reveals he still has a lot to prove before Leyland grows comfortable using him. He threw 18 four-seam fastballs, and while he was clocked as high as 95 mph, he didn't induce a single swing-and-miss. Gordon flew out to left fielder Andy Dirks just shy of the warning track, Escobar hit a hard grounder to second base and Butler flew out to Dirks on the warning track. Valverde got the outs this time; we'll see about next time.

[+] EnlargeJim Leyland, Jose Valverde
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesJim Leyland, left, went back to the Jose Valverde security blanket ... despite the limited security.
The bigger issue here is what Joe Sheehan alluded to above: Impatience in October makes sense, but why the impatience in April? Nobody wanted Valverde on their team, or, to be fair, not at Valverde's asking price or given his desire to be a closer. So after the Tigers handed the job to rookie Bruce Rondon (who lost it before spring training ended), and then went to a bullpen by committee, and then to Coke, and then to Joaquin Benoit, and then I think John Hiller and Willie Hernandez got opportunities ... suddenly Valverde is their guy again? Explain. The Tigers lost confidence in the entire bullpen after 18 games?

The kicker is Detroit started the season 9-9, but the bullpen was hardly to blame. The pen was 1-4, but two of those losses came in the 12th and 13th innings, hardly the fault of the relievers. The Tigers had lost just one game when leading heading into the eighth or ninth, and that loss in Minnesota in the second game was facilitated by Austin Jackson and Dirks miscommunicating on a fly ball.

I get that the Tigers had no Proven Closer and managers love to have one. I wrote a couple weeks ago about the closer myth -- most of them come from nowhere anyway -- and the Tigers probably would have been fine settling on Coke or Benoit or Al Alburquerque.

Now they have their PC, although I'm not exactly sure what it accomplishes. Let's say Valverde scuffles through another mediocre season but does well enough to hold on to the job, and the Tigers return to the playoffs. This is a guy who has pitched in 14 career postseason games and allowed 16 runs. Does that sound like a security blanket?
Craig Kimbrel Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesCraig Kimbrel led the NL in saves last season and is considered the most dominant closer in baseball.

The Tigers need one. The Brewers thought they had one. The Cubs already have a new one. Some teams probably wish they had a different one. Closers are already melting down in rapid fashion.

On Monday afternoon, with closer Jason Motte sidelined with a sore elbow (he'll get a new MRI on Tuesday), the Cardinals' bullpen imploded in a 13-4 loss to the Reds, led by Mitchell Boggs giving up seven runs in the ninth inning. Now they might have closer issues as well. Rookie Trevor Rosenthal blew a 4-3 lead in the eighth, his second blown "save" of the young season, so he's not necessarily the answer if manager Mike Matheny has lost faith in Boggs.

The Tigers will apparently give Joaquin Benoit their next save opportunity, but many think they need to make a trade for a Proven Closer (tm). The problem ... well, there aren’t really that many Proven Closers out there. And the truth is, most closers weren’t preordained to be closers anyway, many arriving at the role only after failing as starters or finally getting the opportunity in their late 20s. Let’s rank all 30 closers and you’ll see what I mean.

Proven Closers
These are guys who have done the job for more than one season, thus earning the coveted title of Proven Closer.

1. Craig Kimbrel, Braves
The best ninth-inning guy in the business, coming off maybe the most dominant relief season ever -- he fanned over half the batters he faced -- in the modern era, or what Goose Gossage likes to refer to as "After I retired."

Before becoming a closer: Groomed as a closer, he's never started a game in pro ball and became Atlanta's closer as a rookie in 2011.

2. Aroldis Chapman, Reds
I'm actually breaking my own rule here since Chapman has only been a closer for less than one season. But unless his control suddenly abandons him, he's obviously the real deal after striking out 122 in 71.2 innings last season.

Before becoming a closer: Lacked the secondary pitches and stamina to make it as a starter.

3. Mariano Rivera, Yankees
He's old, he basically has one pitch and he's coming off a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Anyone want to bet against him?

Before becoming a closer: Failed starting pitcher prospect.

4. Jonathan Papelbon, Phillies
Starting his eighth year as a closer, which is entering elevated territory. (Hall of Famer Bruce Sutter, for example, only had seven dominant seasons as a closer.) Papelbon had some not-so-clutch moments last season, however, finishing with four blown saves and six losses.

Before becoming a closer: Forty-eight of his 58 appearances in the minors and his first three major league appearances came as a starter, but Red Sox converted him to relief.

5. Joe Nathan, Rangers
Not quite the Rivera-like force he was during his Twins days, but still pretty good. Picked up his 300th career save Monday, becoming the 23rd reliever to hit that mark.

Before becoming a closer: Had a 4.70 ERA in two seasons as a part-time starter for the Giants in 1999-2000, had a 7.29 ERA in the minors in 2001 (5.60 in 2002), made it back, traded to the Twins, then became a closer at age 29.

6. Rafael Soriano, Nationals
Has three seasons as a closer with three different teams, so this will be his fourth year as a closer with his fourth different teams, making him the best example of Proven Closer, Will Travel.

Before becoming a closer: Spent parts of seven seasons in the majors (starting as a rookie with Seattle), many parts of which were spent on the disabled list.

7. Huston Street, Padres
Now entering his ninth season as a closer, Street has recorded 30-plus saves just twice, as he's often hurt and hasn't pitched 60 innings since 2009.

Before becoming a closer: Groomed as a closer since Oakland made him the 40th pick in the 2004 draft out of Texas.

8. Chris Perez, Indians
Now entering his fourth season as Cleveland's closer, he's been an All-Star the past two seasons despite a less-than-awe-inspiring 3.45 ERA and 4-11 record.

Before becoming a closer: Mediocre middle reliever with St. Louis and Cleveland for two years. Fell into the closer role in 2010 because Kerry Wood was injured at the start of the season.

9. J.J. Putz, Diamondbacks
He's had four seasons of 30-plus saves, although he spent three years in between closer jobs. He's another guy who isn't the most durable pitcher around and hasn't pitched 60 innings since 2007.

Before becoming a closer: Started for three years in the minors for Seattle, moved to the bullpen, spent two years as a mediocre middle guy, but learned the splitter and became a closer at age 29 after Proven Closer Eddie Guardado imploded early in 2006.

10. Joel Hanrahan, Red Sox
All-Star closer with the Pirates the past two seasons, but he walked 36 and allowed eight home runs in 59.2 innings last year. Could easily lose the job to former Proven Closer Andrew Bailey.

Before becoming a closer: Didn't make it as a starter with the Dodgers, traded to the Nationals and then to the Pirates. Spent three years as a middle reliever.

One-year wonders

These guys became closers last year, and several of them had dominant seasons. But beware the John Axford lesson: One season does not make you a Proven Closer. Do it again and we'll start believing.

11. Fernando Rodney, Rays
After years as basically a bad reliever (22-38 career record., 4.29 ERA), he signed with Tampa Bay and lucked into getting a save in the season's second game as the fourth reliever of the ninth inning in a game against the Yankees. Went on to have one of the greatest relief seasons ever, with a 0.60 ERA and five earned runs allowed. He's already allowed three earned runs in 2013. Was last year a fluke?

Before becoming a closer: See above. Did save 37 games (with a 4.40 ERA) for the Tigers in 2009.

[+] EnlargeSergio Romo
Ron Vesely/MLB Photos/Getty Images)After many seasons as a middle reliever, Sergio Romo finally got the chance to close and got the last out in the 2012 World Series.
12. Sergio Romo, Giants
The slider specialist replaced Santiago Casilla, who had replaced the injured Brian Wilson. Saved 14 games and then allowed one run in 10.2 postseason innings.

Before becoming a closer: Not much of a prospect as a 28th-round pick who didn't throw hard, but Romo was an excellent middle guy for four seasons.

13. Ernesto Frieri, Angels
The hard-throwing righty came over after an early-season trade with the Padres, got the closer job after Jordan Walden struggled and had a terrific season. Might lose his job anyway if former Journeyman Made Good Ryan Madson gets healthy.

Before becoming a closer: Moved to the bullpen after posting a 3.59 ERA in Double-A in 2009.

14. Jason Motte, Cardinals
Took over the closer role late in 2011 and helped the Cards win the World Series. Saved 42 games with 2.75 ERA last year. Currently injured.

Before becoming a closer: Spent first three pro seasons as a catcher.

15. Jim Johnson, Orioles
In his first full year as closer he saved 51 games. Rare among closers, he's a ground ball specialist who doesn't register many whiffs (41 in 68.2 innings in 2012).

Before becoming a closer: A not-very-good minor league starter.

16. Tom Wilhelmsen, Mariners
In his first full year in the majors, he replaced a struggling Brandon League. Did just fine with his mid-90s fastball and hammer curve.

Before becoming a closer: Was bartending. No, seriously.

17. Addison Reed, White Sox
Saved 29 games as a rookie, although his 4.75 ERA wasn't exactly Rivera-ish.

Before becoming a closer: Drafted in the third round out of San Diego State in 2010, he had a dominant relief season in the minors in 2011 (1.26 ERA) that pushed him quickly to the majors.

18. Greg Holland, Royals
Had 16 saves last season, but his job could be in jeopardy after four walks in his first two innings of 2013. Aaron Crow saved Monday's win for the Royals.

Before becoming a closer: Came out of nowhere to post a 1.80 ERA with the Royals in 2011.

19. Steve Cishek, Marlins
Saved 15 games after expensive Proven Closer Heath Bell gakked up several memorable save opportunities.

Before becoming a closer: The sidearmer was never on prospect radar lists because sidearmers are never on prospect radar lists.

20. Brandon League, Dodgers
Saved 37 games for Seattle in 2011, but lost his job early last season due to general lack of impressiveness. Throws a hard sinker so he gets ground balls but not many K's. Pitched better in 27 innings for the Dodgers last season so they gave him a bunch of money. Control was fine in 2011, not so fine last year.

Before becoming a closer: Didn't make it as a starter in the minors despite high-90s fastball.

Journeymen Made Good
These guys became closers essentially because their teams didn't have anyone else. Perseverance pays off!

21. Grant Balfour, A's
Hard-throwing Aussie became a closer last year for the first time at age 34.

Before becoming a closer: Played Australian rules football. OK, not really. Went from Twins to Reds to Brewers before finally having some good years with Tampa Bay.

22. Glen Perkins, Twins
The rare lefty closer had 16 saves a year ago.

Before becoming a closer: Career 5.06 ERA as a starter in 44 games before moving to the bullpen.

23. Rafael Betancourt, Rockies
At 37 years old, he became a closer for the first time and saved 31 games for Rockies in 2012.

Before becoming a closer: Has a career 3.13 ERA, so he'd been a good reliever for a lot of years.

24. Jason Grilli, Pirates
The veteran reliever had a career year last year at age 35 with 90 K's in 58.2 innings and took over the closer role when Hanrahan was traded.

Before becoming a closer: Played for five major league teams before Pittsburgh.

25. Casey Janssen, Blue Jays
Another late bloomer, he got the ninth-inning job after Sergio Santos was injured last year.

Before becoming a closer: The former starter didn't really have a wipeout pitch so he got pushed to the pen.

26. Bobby Parnell, Mets
He's long been heralded as a closer candidate due to his high-octane fastball. Now he'll finally get the opportunity.

Before becoming a closer: One-time minor league starter has spent past four seasons in the Mets' bullpen.

The Import
27. Kyuji Fujikawa, Cubs
The new Cubs' closer could be good, bad or something in-between. I think he'll be pretty good.

Looking for help
28. Tigers. The problem with Phil Coke as a closer is that Phil Coke just isn't a very good reliever. Al Alburquerque and Brayan Villarreal have better stuff but not much experience.

29. Brewers. Axford was signed out of independent ball and had a monster 46-save season for the Brewers in 2011. He's allowed four home runs in 2.2 innings this season and the Brewers may sign Rollie Fingers.

Might not get a save opportunity until May

30. Jose Veras, Astros.
Now 32, he's pitched for the Yankees, Indians, Marlins, Pirates and Brewers and has five career saves.

Before becoming a closer: The Brewers had the worst bullpen in the majors last year and even they didn't want him back.
Quick thoughts on Wednesday's games:
  • Three closers blew ninth-inning leads -- Phil Coke of the Tigers, Fernando Rodney of the Rays and Chris Perez of the Indians. The Rays and Indians ended up winning their games anyway, so no harm, no foul. Of the three the one I'd most worry about is Rodney, because he was so good last year and the Rays need him to dominate once again. Coke entered with a 2-1 lead after Joaquin Benoit had walked the leadoff hitter in the ninth, and Coke gave up a little flare to right and then a two-run double to Eduardo Escobar that was tagged to deep left-center but Austin Jackson and Andy Dirks had a miscommunication, letting the ball drop. I'm not that worried yet about Detroit's closer-by-committee situation, as I still think they have enough good arms down there to make it work.
  • The other closer to really worry about, however, is Milwaukee's John Axford. After giving up a game-tying homer in the opener, he pitched the ninth while down 4-3 and allowed five hits and two runs, failing to get three outs. Rockies beat writer Troy Renck reported on Twitter that a scout said hitters are seeing Axford's release point so easily that it's almost like he's tipping his pitches. I don't see how the Brewers can use him in a save situation again until he proves he can actually go through an inning without giving up a home run. (Carlos Gomez did have the play of the day, however.
  • Watched Tim Lincecum's start and it wasn't pretty, although he escaped with the win despite walking seven batters in five innings. How rare is that? Tommy Hanson was the only starter to walk seven batters last year and come away with a victory. Like with Roy Halladay, we're still left wondering what lies ahead.
  • Great game in Arizona that I didn't stay up for, the Diamondbacks beating the Cardinals 10-9 in 16 innings. Josh Collmenter pitched five innings to get the win, which begs the question: How many teams even have a reliever like that anymore, a guy you can leave in to soak up innings? Collmenter has spent parts of the past two seasons in the Arizona rotation. (Although I don't understand moves like this: David Hernandez, one of the best setup guys in the game, pitched just one inning and 10 pitches. In a tie game, why remove him so quickly? In a tie game, don't you have to think about the game being extended and how you want as many innings as possible from your best relievers? Especially since Arizona doesn't even play on Thursday. It worked out in the end for Kirk Gibson, but I hate that rote "remove a guy after one inning" mind-set and ignoring his pitch count.)
  • Was watching Halladay pitch, so missed Matt Harvey's gem for the Mets (7 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 10 SO). I think I'll be watching some of his starts soon enough. In a postgame interview, he said he had command of his fastball to both sides of the plate, and didn't have to shake off catcher John Buck all game.
  • The Astros, Marlins or Yankees: Which team will be worse? Just kidding, Yankees fans! (Sort of.)

Offseason report card: Tigers

February, 1, 2013
2012 in review
Record: 88-74 (88-74 Pythagorean)
726 runs scored (6th in American League)
670 runs allowed (5th in AL)

Big Offseason Moves
Re-signed Anibal Sanchez. Signed Torii Hunter. Lost Jose Valverde and Delmon Young.

It has been a relatively quiet offseason for general manager Dave Dombrowski, but his two major signings made perfect sense. Bringing back Sanchez gives the team another reliable innings-eater in the middle of the rotation, even if he's not quite as good as his three terrific starts in the postseason, when he posted a 1.77 ERA.

Snapping up Hunter for two years and $26 million was one of the sleeper free-agent signings of the winter. While the Tigers ranked 25th in the majors with minus-32 defensive runs saved, the biggest defensive liability wasn't Miguel Cabrera at third base or Prince Fielder at first base, but the collection of right fielders (primarily Brennan Boesch). Hunter will be a clear defensive upgrade there, and while he won't hit .313 again (he'd never hit .300 before 2012), he'll provide more offense than the .235/.285/.357 line the Tigers got from right field in 2012 (the lowest OPS in the AL).

Position Players

The return of Victor Martinez is addition by subtraction, because it means the departure of Young and his .296 on-base percentage. Martinez is a career .303 hitter, but he is 34 and returning from missing an entire season following knee surgery.

Certainly, any lineup with Cabrera and Fielder is going to score runs; it's knowing you can build around two of the most durable players in the league (they missed only one game between them last year). Despite their presence, the Tigers ranked just 10th in the AL in home runs and they'll remain one of the slowest teams in the league. But if Martinez hits and Alex Avila hits like he did in 2011, there is potential for more runs here.

Pitching Staff

They have the best pitcher in baseball in Justin Verlander and follow that up with the underrated Doug Fister (how did the Mariners trade this guy?), Max Scherzer (fourth-best ERA in the AL in the second half) and Sanchez. Drew Smyly is one of breakout candidates for 2013, and clearly the Tigers believe so as well if the trade rumors involving Rick Porcello are true.

The question mark: Who closes? Following Valverde's meltdown in the playoffs, Phil Coke handled the position just fine, but his 4.05 career ERA and ugly .854 OPS allowed in 2012 have led to speculation that hard-throwing rookie Bruce Rondon -- with no major league experience -- will be given the chance to close. I have my doubts about that, considering Rondon has fewer than 30 innings above Class A and enough command issues (4.4 walks per nine in the minors) that Jim Leyland might want to see the kid throw some strikes before handing him the ninth. The closer issue moves the overall grade of the staff down a notch.

Heat Map to Watch
Miguel Cabrera's 44 home runs was one element of the Triple Crown. Impressively, he hit 40 of those off right-handed pitchers -- and you can see from the heat map Cabrera's ability to turn on inside pitches.

Miguel CabreraESPN Stats & InformationMiguel Cabrera hit 44 of Detroit's 163 home runs in 2012 -- 40 off right-handers.
Overall grade


How many games will the Tigers win?


Discuss (Total votes: 15,707)

Despite their World Series appearance a year ago, the Tigers were hardly a super team, top-heavy around the big three of Verlander, Cabrera and Fielder. Winning 88 games in the weak AL Central doesn't necessarily inspire a lot of confidence, but I have a feeling the rotation will be stronger after Fister and Scherzer had strong second halves, a full season of Sanchez and the full-time addition of Smyly. Hunter is big upgrade in right field as well. The Tigers will be heavy favorites once again to win the division.

SAN FRANCISCO -- This was the Madison Bumgarner Giants fans saw most of the season: the pitcher with impeccable control, the ability to get inside on right-handed batters, generate ground balls and change speeds. This was the pitcher who had become one of the best young left-handers in the game, not the guy who had struggled in recent weeks.

Bumgarner justified manager Bruce Bochy’s faith in choosing him to start Game 2 over Tim Lincecum or Ryan Vogelsong, leading the Giants to a 2-0 victory and sweep of the first two games. He threw seven shutout innings, an efficient 86 pitches with eight strikeouts and just two hits allowed, one of those being an infield single. It was a dominant effort.

Amazingly, the day before, Bumgarner himself didn’t seem to know what to expect. Through his first 25 starts he had a 2.83 ERA and had allowed a .218 opponents' average. But he had struggled since an August start against the Dodgers when he threw 123 pitches. Since then he’d posted a 6.85 ERA. His fastball velocity had dipped and he appeared fatigued in his previous playoff start, against the Cardinals. Batters had feasted off his fastball, hitting .400 against it his past nine starts.

Before Game 1, he hesitantly suggested he and pitching coach Dave Righetti had resolved his issues. “I think we were going through some mechanical issues that -- just some small things that might have affected my arm and made it more difficult to throw, and I think that’s really all it was,” he said. “I think we’ve got it fixed. Like I said before, there’s no way to tell 100 percent until you get out there and get going game speed.”

I think we’re 100 percent sure now.

* * * *

Doug Fister -- despite taking a line drive off his head in the second inning -- matched Bumgarner zero for zero through six innings, albeit with one caveat: not with the same efficiency.

That set up the key decision of the game. With Hunter Pence leading off the bottom of the seventh, Fister had thrown 108 pitches. Pence hits right-handed, followed by three lefties. Jim Leyland had right-hander Octavio Dotel and rookie lefty Drew Smyly warming up. If Leyland brings in Dotel -- probably his best option against right-handed hitters -- it’s probably for just one hitter with the string of lefties due up.

Leyland decided to leave in Fister for one more batter; he’d thrown more than 108 pitches seven times, so it wasn’t uncharted territory. Pence had flied out twice against him and has looked feeble most of the postseason. There were certainly cries on Twitter suggesting Leyland should have pulled Fister. I see it both ways. I can certainly see Leyland’s desire to hold back Dotel to possibly face Marco Scutaro and Buster Posey later in the game. It's easy to criticize Leyland since the decision didn't work out and in this day and age few managers want to lose game when a starter is over 100 pitches.

[+] EnlargeGregor Blanco
Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAYThis little thing -- Gregor Blanco's bunt staying fair -- led to the only run the Giants needed in Game 2.
On his 114th pitch, Fister left a 2-2 slider over the middle of the plate and Pence grounded a base hit past Miguel Cabrera.

That brought in Smyly, who walked Brandon Belt on a 3-2 slider up out of the zone. Gregor Blanco then placed a bunt down the third-base line, the ball rolling to a stop on the dirt between the grass and the baseline. Catcher Gerald Laird had no option but to let the ball go; it was just a perfect bunt by Blanco. Brandon Crawford grounded into a double play but that scored the game’s first run.

Leyland did have another option there. Use Phil Coke instead of Smyly. Coke, of course, had defaulted into the closer's role after Jose Valverde's postseason implosion and pitched well in the American League Championship Series against the Yankees. Normally, the seventh inning -- especially against the left-handers -- would have been Coke's inning, followed by Joaquin Benoit and Valverde. Instead, Leyland trusted a rookie with little experience pitching in relief. Coke did finally get into the game -- in the eighth, with the Tigers now trailing 2-0.

"Probably if Valverde was ready, probably would have had Coke in that situation, but Smyly did fine," Leyland said. "He got a little bit wild there, but he got a couple big outs. He got the double-play ball and gave us our shot at it."

A 114th pitch. A slider meant to be a few inches outside left over the plate. A perfect bunt. The little things.

* * * *

One more little thing that can matter: sliding. In the top of the second with none out, Prince Fielder was hit by a pitch and Delmon Young doubled just inside the third-base bag. As the ball bounced away from left fielder Blanco, third-base coach Gene Lamont waved home Fielder. First, the wave. With nobody out, you had better be pretty sure Fielder is going to score. In fact, you had better be just about absolutely sure Fielder is going to score.

According to sabermetrician Tom Tango’s run-scoring matrix, an average team would be expected to score about 2.05 runs with runners at second and third and no outs; with a runner on second and one out, the average run production is about 0.7 runs. That data is from 1993 through 2010, so the run-scoring environment is a little lower now, and of course you would have to adjust based on upcoming hitters and so forth. Still, Lamont’s decision was about a 1.3-run decision. Fair or not, he made the wrong one.

Blanco’s relay throw actually airmailed shortstop Crawford, but Scutaro -- him again! -- was backing up and threw home to catcher Posey, and replays showed he tagged Fielder on his shoe and/or rump just before he slid across the plate. If Fielder had slid to the back part of the plate, he probably would've been safe, as Posey would have had to stretch to make the tag. That’s asking a lot from Fielder, however; he's not paid to slide expertly into home plate. Yes, the next two Tigers hitters popped out and struck out, so maybe Fielder wouldn’t have scored, but it’s kind of like time travel: That play changes everything that potentially comes after.

Then, in the top of the fourth, Omar Infante was picked off first and caught at second. With a better slide -- he dragged his foot behind him -- he might have been called safe.

Those two plays exemplified the first two games of the series: The Giants made plays and the Tigers didn't. Pablo Sandoval snagged a Cabrera line drive; Cabrera didn't have the range on Pence's base hit. Scutaro made the relay, Fielder didn't make the slide. Smyly couldn't execute the 3-2 slider that he walked Belt on, Fielder grounded into a 1-6-3 double play after Cabrera had led off the seventh with a walk.

Right now, like Bumgarner's pitches on a perfect San Francisco October evening, everything is working for the Giants.
We finally know the World Series participants and maybe it's good news the second wild-card team didn't reach the World Series. Instead, we do end up with two first-place teams and two of the game's historic franchises. Here are three key players from each team I'm paying attention to.

Justin Verlander
There’s always pressure on a team’s ace to deliver the goods in a World Series, of course, but even more so for Verlander, and not just because he’s the best pitcher in baseball. The alignment of the pitching rotations -- Barry Zito will start for the San Francisco Giants in Game 1 -- means the Detroit Tigers will be huge favorites in Verlander’s two starts.

After mediocre performances in his first two postseason trips in 2006 and 2011, Verlander has a chance to finish off one of those legendary playoff runs -- think Orel Hershiser in 1988 or Jack Morris in 1991 or Curt Schilling in 2001. In fact, with two wins, Verlander would become the first starting pitcher to win five games in a single postseason.

Delmon Young
Tigers fans have suggested I have it out for Young. Well, they’re kind of correct. Young had a lousy season. Those are just the facts. He hit .267 with 18 home runs, but that masks his ineffectiveness: He grounded into as many double plays as he drew walks (20) and posted a lowly .296 on-base percentage. He scored just 54 runs. Despite hitting behind Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder, he drove in just 74 runs. Tigers’ designated hitters -- mostly Young -- ranked 12th among 14 teams in the AL in OPS. What Young did do, however, was produce a great American League Championship Series, hitting .353 with two homers and six RBIs to win MVP honors. He also hit five home runs in last year’s postseason, leading to some false beliefs that Young has some sort of magical postseason bat. Trust me. He doesn’t.

This leads to a dilemma for Jim Leyland when the series begins in San Francisco: Does he play Young in left field, hoping to get a hot bat in the lineup, but doing so by playing a terrible defensive player? Remember, one reason the Tigers pitched so much better in the second half is that Andy Dirks, Quintin Berry and Avisail Garcia provided better defense than Young and Brennan Boesch, the Tigers’ Opening Day corner outfielders.

My guess: Young starts in Game 1 against the left-handed Zito, since he hit .308/.333/.500 against lefties. But if Tim Lincecum or Ryan Vogelsong start Game 2, you can’t justify Young in the lineup considering he hit .247/.279/.370 against righties. I’d rather go with Berry and Dirks and the better defense.

Aside from all that, Young will be an important part of the Detroit offense. He delivered some clutch hits against the Yankees and will have to do so again.

Phil Coke
Does Leyland go with the hot hand and keep Coke as his closer after his 5.2 scoreless innings against the New York Yankees? Coke is certainly a better matchup against the Giants than he would have been against the St. Louis Cardinals, who would have run out a long string of right-handed batters against him.

Still, it’s hard to ignore the fact that the right-handers hit .396 and slugged .604 off Coke this season. I can see Coke matching up against the bottom of the Giants’ lineup or against switch-hitters Angel Pagan and Pablo Sandoval. But Octavio Dotel, Joaquin Benoit or Al Alburquerque would be better options against the 4-5 combo of Buster Posey and Hunter Pence. Posey hit .433 against lefties this season; considering Detroit’s all-righty rotation, if Leyland plays his cards right, Posey won’t see a left-hander in the series.

Hunter Pence
Similar to Young, Pence occupies that fifth slot in the lineup. Just like the Giants will pitch around Fielder whenever possible, the Tigers are going to be more willing to pitch to Pence than Posey. Pence has not hit well since coming over to the Giants in a midseason trade, hitting .219 with seven home runs in 59 games in the regular season and then .188 in the postseason. His approach has been terrible, with a lot of uncontrolled swings, leading to one walk and 11 K’s in 12 playoff games. He has also fared poorly in AT&T Park, where he hit just .220 with three homers in 31 games in the regular season.

Even after pounding out 14 hits in the Game 7 wipeout of the Cardinals, the Giants are hitting just .234 in the postseason. They need more offense from the middle of the order.

Brandon Belt
Pence will be facing Detroit’s tough foursome of right-handed starters, which means that pressure for more offense may fall on Belt’s shoulders. Maybe the home run he launched in Game 7 will get him going. He has hit .222/.300/.389 in the postseason, but after hitting .349 in August and .310 in September, he was a key reason the Giants’ offense ranked second in the NL in runs per game after the All-Star break. If you’re looking for a surprise candidate to deliver some big hits for the Giants, Belt may be your guy.

Tim Lincecum
The Giants haven’t announced their Game 2 starter yet, leaving three rotation options for Bochy, assuming Madison Bumgarner -- who looked fatigued against the Cardinals -- isn’t a consideration.

Option No. 1: Zito, Lincecum, Vogelsong, Cain, Zito, Lincecum, Vogelsong

Option No. 2: Zito, Lincecum, Cain, Vogelsong, Cain, Zito, Lincecum, Cain

Option No. 3: Zito, Vogelsong (3 days’ rest), Cain, Lincecum, Zito, Vogelsong, Cain

I’d go with option No. 3, which gives the Giants the potential of using Ryan Vogelsong and Matt Cain for four starts instead of three. Vogelsong has never started on three days’ rest, but I’d take the risk, knowing that winning a series in which Zito and Lincecum start a possible four games is going to be difficult.

Either way, Lincecum then becomes a key to the Giants’ hopes. In options 1 and 2, he’d start twice, matched up against Doug Fister. In option 3, he likely becomes a bullpen option, either in long relief of Zito or maybe for an inning or two in relief of Vogelsong if he doesn’t go deep into the game. He has pitched great in relief in the postseason, allowing just three hits and one run in 8.1 innings. Somewhere, somehow, Lincecum will have to step up big for the Giants.

The obvious answer here is: Well, of course, you do. Starters rarely throw complete games anymore in the postseason; in the past 10 postseasons we've had just 19 complete games. Only two starters have thrown more than one in that span: Josh Beckett and Cliff Lee, with three apiece.

But what I'm really getting at: Can the Detroit Tigers reach and win the World Series without Jose Valverde closing games? Valverde had 35 of Detroit's 40 saves this season, but two disastrous outings against the A's and the Yankees clearly made Jim Leyland lose confidence in him.

So far that hasn't mattered, as Phil Coke has closed out the past two wins. Coke has a good arm -- and as we saw last night when he struck out Raul Ibanez, the ability to put away left-handed batters with that nasty slider -- but he didn't have a good season. Among pitchers with at least 50 innings, only 11 allowed more walks plus hits per inning than Coke. But maybe Leyland has discovered a hot hand. Sometimes that's all you need. Look at World Series champions during the wild-card era with some issues at closer.

[+] EnlargeJose Valverde
AP Photo/Paul SancyaA pair of disastrous outings appears to have cost Jose Valverde his role as Tigers closer.
2011 Cardinals: Jason Motte. Didn't pick up his first save of the season until Aug. 28. Remember, he wasn't perfect in the postseason, either. He gave up two runs in the ninth in Game 2 of the World Series as the Rangers won 2-1. And he gave up two runs in the top of the 10th on Josh Hamilton's home run in Game 6, only to be rescued in the bottom of the 10th when the Cardinals tied it up.

2006 Cardinals: Adam Wainwright. When Jason Isringhausen got injured late in the season, the rookie got two saves the final week and then four in the postseason, as he pitched 9.2 scoreless innings.

2005 White Sox: Bobby Jenks. Another rookie who started closing games after Dustin Hermanson got injured. Jenks had six saves in the regular season and four more in the playoffs, although the White Sox also threw four straight complete games in the ALCS.

2003 Marlins: Ugueth Urbina. A trade acquisition, Urbina eventually took over the closer role from Braden Looper. Jack McKeon used him extensively in the postseason -- 13 innings in 10 appearances (the Marlins played 17 games total). He did pick up four saves, although he also had two blown saves in the playoffs and allowed five runs in 13 innings.

2001 Diamondbacks: Byung-Hyun Kim. Kim had a good regular season and did pick up three saves before falling apart in the World Series, but this team rode Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson all the way.

The point being: You don't need your closer to be perfect to win it all. The Tigers lost Game 4 against the A's, but won Game 1 against the Yankees and certainly have a shot to win it all. It is worth noting that all the pitchers above had much better regular-season numbers than Coke. Valverde did pick up a save earlier against the A's, so another question: Since the wild-card era began, has a team won the World Series with different relievers closing out games?

Yes. Sort of.

In 1995, Mark Wohlers was Atlanta's closer. But after he allowed a home run and a double to begin the ninth in Game 4, Bobby Cox used lefty Pedro Borbon for the final three outs in a 5-2 game. Three other teams also won a World Series with more than one pitcher getting a save during their postseason runs, but the saves came in unique circumstances. Ramiro Mendoza got a save for the Yankees in 1999, coming in during the eighth inning of a 4-1 game and staying in for the ninth when it was 6-1. Looper got a save for the Marlins in 2003 in the 11th inning of an National League Championship Series game and Mark Buehrle got a save in the 14th inning of a World Series game for the White Sox.

What Leyland will have to do is rather unique in recent postseason annals. As Paul Swydan wrote today Insider on ESPN Insider, using multiple closers wasn't so unique prior to the wild-card era. Maybe Leyland sticks with Coke. I suspect we'll see Octavio Dotel or Joaquin Benoit at some point.

It won't be as easy as running Mariano Rivera out there, but it can done. It just requires a little thinking outside the box. And if any manager is capable of that, it's Leyland. Remember, this is a guy who with the Pirates once started a relief pitcher in a playoff game.

Will it be four and no more for ALCS?

October, 17, 2012
CC Sabathia William Perlman/THE STAR-LEDGER/US PresswireCC Sabathia will be on the mound for the Yankees to try to extend the ALCS to Game 5.
DETROIT -- Down three games to none, facing a better rotation in its own park backed by a lineup built around Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera, how hopeless does the task confronting the Yankees seem?

As tough as it will be for them to get back to the Bronx, it seems as though they may be no more likely to return to New York with a live shot than they will with their dignity intact. Consider Phil Coke's postgame comment about his opponents: “These guys are a great ballclub. They’re scrappy, and they’re built to win, and we’re just matching them.”

The Yankees ... scrappy? When, in the history of the English language, or just American vernacular, has that ever been a word you associate with the Yankees? The next thing you know, we'll have to endure listening to Joe Girardi talk about how his team is just lucky to be here, and they're taking it one day at a time.

One pitcher's off-the-cuff remark aside, there's still at least one more game to play. If the Yankees are to take solace in anything going into Game 4 on Wednesday night, it might have to begin and end with the matchup on the mound, because they have CC Sabathia facing Max Scherzer in an elimination game.

In 2012, Sabathia was 3-0 against the Tigers, holding them to .238/.289/.405. So that's fairly promising, unless you want to start worrying about postseason-edition Delmon Young's Yankee-killing prowess showing up yet again. Given Sabathia's willingness to pitch around Miggy in the past -- walking him eight times, three times intentionally in 38 at-bats, having also surrendered a pair of homers and two doubles -- the prospect of a Young versus Sabathia matchup with men on could be the fulcrum upon which the game's outcome pivots.

Jim Leyland will no doubt try to expand the Tigers' scoring opportunities by mixing and matching with his lineup card. Avisail Garcia should be in right, for example, fulfilling his half of the late-developing platoon with Quintin Berry. Should the Tigers also start Gerald Laird instead of Alex Avila behind the plate? While Leyland generally tried spotting Laird for Avila against lefties, you might wonder why given Laird's feeble .204/.275/.347 line against southpaws this season. But Laird has a good career clip against Sabathia, hitting .417/.500/.625 in 28 plate appearances, while Avila is 0-for-11 with seven strikeouts. In a microcosm, these are choices that reflect Leyland's flexibility with his lineup. Lineup changes during the ALCS without any drama? Who does that? The team up three games to none.

In the other half of the game, at least on paper the Yankees' lineup would seem perfectly set up to exploit Scherzer's huge platoon split. This year, he has held right-handed batters to .201/.244/.343, while lefties hit him for .292/.366/.465, including a walk rate of more than 10 percent. It's worth noting that during his late-season run of seven quality starts before getting slowed down with shoulder trouble, Scherzer never had to see a lineup that leaned as heavily to the left as the Yankees' normal starting nine: six lefty bats, which goes up to seven if Girardi decides to have Alex Rodriguez keep him company in the dugout again and start Eric Chavez at third base.

Set against that, though, is the combination of the Yankees' absolute futility at bat in this series and this postseason. Girardi's panic-stations Game 3 lineup didn't achieve anything against Justin Verlander, and the Yankees' collective career line against Scherzer is a thoroughly woeful .177/.266/.282. So even if Girardi tries stacking the deck with seven bats from the left side against Scherzer by starting Chavez, he's got a lineup that's almost as punchless all of the time against him as it has been during the rest of the postseason.

However, there is the other issue Scherzer will have to overcome to become the latest Tigers' rotation stalwart turned October hero -- health. If the shoulder's OK, that's great, but how great, and how long before he tires? Add to that the ankle injury suffered during Detroit's dog pile to celebrate the division series win, and whether the Yankees struggle or not, this seems to cue up an opportunity for the Tigers' bullpen to make an extended appearance.

Certainly, that puts the spotlight back on Coke after he closed out each of the Tigers' past two victories. After Game 3, Coke hardly sounded like the fire-breathing closer, saying of his game-ending whiff of Raul Ibanez, “Alex called slider, 3-and-2, gotta make it count, and I threw it as a hard as I could, luckily he swung as hard as he could and didn’t hit it.”

Admittedly, that he got to do it against Ibanez, who had homered against him in the 2009 World Series for the Phillies when Coke was a Yankee, surely that was worth some strutting? Not so much. “He’s killing everybody; my hat’s off to him. He’s done things that nobody’s ever done in the game of baseball. He did take me deep in the World Series in ’09, about 460 to the gap if I recall correctly, so I’m glad that I’ve been able to put all that behind me.”

Coke doesn't exactly have a handle on his being the closer, even if he's closing, saying, “I didn’t know I was going to finish it. I thought that I might have a couple of lefties, and then maybe [Joaquin Benoit] was coming in for [Mark] Teixeira, but as soon as I saw that there wasn’t anybody was going to come out to talk to me, I was like, ‘all right cool, let’s roll.’”

So much for the necessity of a closer -- or any reliever -- needing to know his role, beyond a responsibility for getting people out. But the other thing you can take from that comment is that Coke wasn't looking for Jose Valverde to take his place, but Benoit. That says a bit about where Valverde is, whatever noncommittal "let's see how he feels” comments Insider made for his benefit. Come the ninth, with a one-run lead, the Tigers weren't looking for Papa Grande to bail them out, not even out of a sense of polite inclusiveness.

There's something very Mitch Williams circa 1993 about seeing “established” closer Valverde surrender leads and his job in the middle of a postseason. That year, the Phillies managed to survive Williams' combustibility in the NLCS, only to see him surrender history to Joe Carter in the World Series. But even to get that far, the Phillies had gotten surprise relief help from journeyman Roger Mason, not unlike how Leyland has had to place his faith in Coke now.

For Tigers fans' sakes, you can hope for a happier ending for Coke and Valverde, but first there's a fourth game to win at the Yankees' expense. If the Tigers' bullpen can finish what Scherzer will start, that may not have to wait until Thursday, let alone a trip back to New York.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

OK, it got a little nervous there for Tigers fans in the ninth inning. A little sweat. A little pacing. Maybe a few words you don’t want the kids to hear when Robinson Cano singled with two outs off Phil Coke, moving the tying run to second base and bringing up ... Raul Ibanez.

Mr. Ninth Inning himself.

Coke threw six straight fastballs. Ibanez took three and fouled three off. The count was full. The runners were moving, the fans were up and hoping disaster could be avoided. Coke threw a slider on the seventh pitch. What a slider. Swing and a miss.

Just a routine 2-1 victory for the Tigers. One win away from the World Seriees.

* * * *

I suppose there was a chance the Yankees would break out of their slump in this game. I mean, they did score the second-most runs in the American League, hit the most home runs, drew the second-most walks. They have a few guys that have accomplished a few things in their careers.

But not on this night. Not on a 56-degree evening in Detroit that got chillier as the innings rolled along. And certainly not against Justin Verlander.

Verlander dominated without dominating, if that makes sense. He finished with just three strikeouts. But he walked nobody -- something he’d done in just four starts this season -- and took a shutout into the ninth inning.

Early on, Verlander was efficient and cool. He does have issues at times in the first inning -- he had a 4.09 ERA in the first inning during the regular season, 2.41 after -- but cruised through a perfect three innings, throwing just 33 pitches. That pitch count was a good sign for the Tigers and a bad one for the Yankees: It ensured Verlander would be going deep into this game.

[+] EnlargeDetroit's Justin Verlander
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesJustin Verlander allowed just one run in 8 1/3 innings against the Yankees.
In the middle innings, his command wavered, but when he fell behind in the count he would usually rear back and give the Yankees the old No. 1. Brett Gardner led off the fourth and worked the count to 3-1, but perhaps showing his rustiness (he was making his first start since April 17) fouled off three straight fastballs out of the zone before Verlander threw a not-very-nice 86-mph changeup that Gardner popped up to catcher Alex Avila.

He fell behind Ichiro Suzuki with three balls, got the count full, but Suzuki poked a fastball into left field for the Yankees’ first hit. He fell behind Mark Teixeira and Cano as well but retired both. In the fifth, he went 2-0 to Ibanez and Eric Chavez, but retired both. In the sixth, Curtis Granderson missed a meaty 3-1 fastball down the middle, popping up to third.

Verlander was terrific. But the Yankees were terrible. As Verlander kept falling behind in the count, they were getting fastballs over the plate. Of course, a Verlander fastball isn’t exactly your run-of-the-mill fastball.

By the ninth, Verlander’s pitch count was up to 115. His season high was 132 pitches and he’d topped 125 just three times. His career high is 133, in last year's ALCS. With a quick inning, however, he would go the distance and finish off his second straight shutout.

Eduardo Nunez had a terrific nine-pitch at-bat, finally powering a curveball over the left-field fence for a home run that prevented the Yankees from becoming the first team since the 1991 Pirates to get shut out in consecutive playoff games. Gardner had a tough eight-pitch at-bat before tapping back to Verlander. That was it for Verlander; 132 pitches.

Asked after the game about coming out, Verlander hesitated before saying he had faith in his bullpen. He was still throwing in the upper 90s but his inability to finish off Nunez or Gardner was perhaps a sign that he was about done. Still: It takes guts to take out Verlander with two outs to go in a 2-1 game and no reliable closer in your ’pen.

"I was up around 130 pitches or so," Verlander said. "I don’t think they’re going to leave me out there and sacrifice the rest of the postseason just for this game, especially when Coke’s been throwing the ball extremely well."

Verlander has not allowed two runs in 24 1/3 innings this postseason. While 2011 seemed to go down as The Year of Verlander when he hauled off MVP and Cy Young trophies, I'm starting to wonder if 2012 won't go down as The Year of Verlander II -- in which he ends up hoisting the big trophy.

* * * *

I thought Joe Girardi messed up the ninth inning. Right-handed batters destroyed Coke this season --.396/.446/.604. Coke came into to face Suzuki, an obvious pinch-hitting opportunity even though Ichiro had two of the Yankees' three hits at the time. As bad as Alex Rodriguez has looked this postseason, most of that badness has come against right-handers. He's actually 3-for-5 against lefties. Ibanez, despite his late-inning heroics and home run off Orioles lefty Brian Matusz in the Division Series, hit .196 with no homers off left-handers in the regular season. Girardi could have sent three righties up against Coke -- A-Rod, Teixeira and Swisher. Instead he let Coke face two left-handers. He let his emotions get in the away of making the right -- and obvious -- move.

* * * *

The Yankees are now hitting .200 in the postseason and .182 in this series. The Yankees may not match the .155 of the Twins in the 1969 ALCS for lowest team average in a league championship series, but it's certainly one of the most pathetic offensive displays in playoff history. Cano was 0-for-29 before his two-out single off Coke. Granderson is hitting .103. Chavez, Girardi's replacement for the benched A-Rod, is hitless in 14 at-bats.

Look, Girardi can make all the gut calls he wants and move guys around in the lineup and all that stuff that makes him feel like he has some control over the game. He doesn't. This one looks like a sweep, Max Scherzer over CC Sabathia on Wednesday and the Tigers back in the World Series for the first time since 2006.

Yankees' ALCS Game 3 lineup is just nuts

October, 16, 2012
DETROIT--With all the hand-wringing over the Yankees’ offense in the postseason, you knew Joe Girardi was going to try and do something with his team trying to dig out of an 0-2 hole in the ALCS. But perhaps nobody expected the extent of the skipper’s willingness to change things up.

The focus is on Alex Rodriguez-related drama, because it’s A-Rod, the superstar everybody loves to hate, or blame, or pile on because unless you’re on the Forbes 400, he’s richer than you are. So A-Rod’s out of the lineup, and Eric Chavez is starting at third base. That might sound like a nice way to play matchup games, swapping in a lefty bat for A-Rod, but A-Rod has a good career record against Justin Verlander, hitting .267/.405/.600 with three homers in 37 at-bats.

And if past postseason failure is the criterion for why you’re riding pine in pinstripes tonight, Chavez has a far longer track record for October failure: He’s 0-for-12 for the Yankees between this year and last. Sure, small sample sizes, but overall he’s hit .200/.244/337 with more than 120 postseason at-bats -- his consistent failures in October made him Oakland’s A-Rod-level postseason disappointment a decade before A-Rod got there. Athletics fans remember only too well too many Chavez October at-bats that ended early with weak 4-3 tappers in early counts. So sure, that’s the cavalry: A guy 10 years past when he was already an established October flop in his prime.

And punishing Nick Swisher? Sure, that’s earned by performance, but consider the alternative: It’s so Brett Gardner can take his place and lead off. Gardner has all of four big-league at-bats since coming back from the DL at the end of September counting his extra-inning appearance in the first game of the ALCS, and he’s 0-for-4. He got all of eight at-bats in the minor leagues in his rehab assignment. That’s a whopping twelve plate appearances against live competition since April. That’s more flavors of crazy than you can count.

You can also get bent out of shape over the order: Gardner leading off? Curtis Granderson batting eighth behind both Russell Martin and Chavez? But you can say one thing about this lineup: While Girardi has broken with convention to bat consecutive lefties one-two (Gardner and Ichiro Suzuki), four-five (Robinson Cano and Raul Ibanez) and seven-eight (Chavez-Granderson), the one thing I like about that tactically is that if Jim Leyland brings in southpaw Phil Coke or the like to go after those duos, that isn’t bad news. In the case of Gardner and Chavez, Girardi’s got the weaker bat in front, so he could readily swap in a right-handed pinch-hitter and keep the platoon advantage.

It’s the nicest thing you can say about a lineup that otherwise will be the biggest head-scratcher yet in the ALCS.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
The Detroit Tigers have allowed 15 runs in seven postseason games. Jose Valverde has allowed seven of those. So, in 62.1 innings the rest of the Detroit staff has allowed eight runs; in 2.1 innings, Valverde has allowed seven. Those seven runs include memorable blow-ups against the A's in Game 4 of the Division Series and then against the Yankees in Game 1 of the ALCS.

Despite those numbers, Jim Leyland says Valverde will remain his closer. "I guess that sounds like I am mud watching, but I am really not," Leyland said. "We will do some work with him."

No, I don't have any idea what "mud watching" means.

Jose Valverde
The case for: He's been their closer all season, saved 35 of 40 games, allowed just three home runs in the regular season and was perfect in 2011, in case you really want to bring up 2011.

The case against: His 6.3 K's per nine is way below the standards you expect from a closer these days. Had a large platoon split -- .515 OPS against right-handers, .754 against left-handers -- and Yankees roll out a lot of lefties and switch-hitters. He stinks.


Who should the Tigers use as their closer?


Discuss (Total votes: 2,771)

Phil Coke
The case for: The lefty got the save in Sunday's 3-0 victory by getting the final six outs. Yankees have all those lefties and switch-hitters so Coke is maybe the best matchup out of the pen. He gets the platoon advantage against Ichiro Suzuki, Robinson Cano, Curtis Granderson and Raul Ibanez and flips Nick Swisher to his weaker side.

The case against: He's not really that good. He allowed 71 hits in 58 innings during the regular season and right-handers hit .396 off him. LOOGY? Sure. Closer? Are you kidding?

Octavio Dotel
The case for: The veteran has closer experience and had the best numbers of any Detroit reliever -- allowed a .230 average and .276 OBP and his SO/BB ratio of 5.17 was sixth-best among AL pitchers with at least 50 innings.

The case against: Has historically had big platoon splits. Righties hit .197 off him this year but lefties hit .288. Using him against a string of left-handers is just asking for trouble.

Al Alburquerque
The case for: Maybe the best stuff in the Detroit bullpen but pitched just 13.1 innings after returning from elbow surgery. In 56.2 career innings, opponents are hitting .140 off him with just two extra-base hits and 85 strikeouts. Would be worth it just to see Mike Francesa's reaction.

The case against: His slider is near unhittable but he can also be wild. Has never saved a game. While he's never allowed a regular-season home run, the Yankees touched him up for three runs in one-third of an inning in last year's Division Series.

Update: Obviously, I forgot to mention Joaquin Benoit, which was just stupid of me. I added him to the poll. Of course, he's just as dicey as everyone else, considering the 14 home runs he allowed were the second-most of any reliever in 2012 -- with only ancient Livan Hernandez allowing more. As I write this, the "committee" idea was winning the poll in a landslide anyway. I suspect -- despite what he said -- that is probably what Leyland will end up doing.
Joey Votto has not played in the past two World Series.

He has never hit 28 home runs in one round of the Home Run Derby.

He's not a former No. 1 overall pick who overcame the demons of a drug addiction.

And he did not hit four home runs in one game earlier this season and hit .400 for the first six weeks.

But Votto, and not Josh Hamilton, is the best hitter in baseball right now.

Votto, of course, plays for the Cincinnati Reds, who would have attracted more attention if his teammates were named Rose, Morgan and Bench instead of Cairo, Hanigan and Heisey. Playing for the Reds now means you're a long ways from the center of the baseball universe, so even though Votto was the 2010 National League MVP, he remains a minor name on a national scale, well-known by fantasy players and diehards but not a big name to casual fans.

In the Reds' exciting 6-5, 10-inning victory over the Detroit Tigers on Friday, Votto had another big game, going 3-for-5, including a long three-run homer off Rick Porcello in the third inning. Porcello's pitch wasn't bad -- a tailing 2-1 fastball on the outside corner, but Votto crushed it just to the left of center field.

That's what Votto does better than any hitter in the game right now: wait, wait, wait ... boom. While Hamilton is hyper-aggressive at the plate -- no regular has swung at a higher percentage of pitches outside the zone than Hamilton this season -- Votto makes pitchers throw strikes. While Hamilton has swung at 46.6 percent of the pitches he has seen that were outside the zone, Votto has swung at just 21.1 percent.

Here are the heat maps of all their swings in 2012, and you can see how Votto lays off the outside pitches:

Joey Votto and Josh Hamilton heat mapESPN Stats & InformationIn looking at the hot zones of their swings in 2012, Hamilton will chase more pitches.

Of course, approach is just a means to production; Hamilton's approach clearly works for him. As I write this, Hamilton just slugged his 22nd home run, in the fifth inning of the Rangers' game against the Giants. Votto has just 10 home runs. Hamilton is hitting .341 and has 59 RBIs; Votto is hitting .360 with 38 RBIs. Hamilton must be better! He has more home runs and way more RBIs!

Most of you reading this probably understand that there's much to evaluating a hitter's production's than the traditional Triple Crown stats. So, yes, Hamilton has a 12-homer advantage. But Votto has outdoubled Hamilton 25 to 12 and, thanks to Hamilton's more free-swinging ways, drawn 46 walks to Hamilton's 22. That means Votto gets on base more while using fewer outs, which can be seen in each player's on-base percentage -- Votto's is .480 and Hamilton's .397. That 83-point gap is the same difference between Hamilton and, say, Marco Scutaro. According to FanGraphs' all-encompassing batting statistic, wOBA, Votto led Hamilton entering Friday's games at .458 to .450 (Paul Konerko actually ranked second at .454).

But the RBIs! Simply a matter of context. Votto entered Friday's action hitting .405/.526/.905 with runners in scoring position and .392/.517/.747 with men on base. Yes, that's a 1.431 OPS with runners in scoring position. And he went 2-for-3 on Friday, including the home run. Hamilton entered Friday hitting .358/.435/.736 with RISP and .355/.420/.806 with runners on.

So Votto's RBI total is merely a reflection of his teammates, not a lack of clutch hitting on his part. The guys batting in front of him on Friday were Zack Cozart and Chris Heisey, with OBPs of .301 and .292. The guys batting in front of Hamilton had OBPs of .342 and .371. In fact, if you still don't believe, Votto's average in high-leverage situations this season is a robust .487 with four home runs and nine doubles in 39 at-bats (before Friday).

He actually did fail to come through in a key situation on Friday, striking out against Phil Coke with two out, two on and the game tied in the eighth inning. But even in that at-bat you could see what makes Votto so tough: After Coke got ahead with two strikes, Votto choked up on the bat even more than he normally does (like Barry Bonds, he always chokes up a bit, not gripping the bat completely at the knob). Coke got him, but it's another indication of why Votto hits well with two strikes.

Speaking of Bonds, how rare is the .480 OBP that Votto owns right now? Since 1950, it has been just 10 times by five players -- including four times by Mr. Bonds. Before Bonds, the last player to do so was Frank Thomas in 1994.

And before Rangers fans get all worked up, this isn't criticism of Hamilton. It's actually a compliment, because if you can be mentioned in the same breath as Josh Hamilton in 2012, maybe you do deserve a little more recognition.
Alex Avila, Carlos Santana & Joe MauerUS PresswireWith Alex Avila, Carlos Santana and Joe Mauer, the AL Central is loaded at catcher.

We're back with more divisional position rankings for 2012. You can scream, you can holler, you can protest and call me names. But just because I rated your player lower than you think he deserves doesn't mean I hate your team.

(Here are the NL East and NL West rankings.)

1. Alex Avila, Tigers
2. Joe Mauer, Twins
3. Carlos Santana, Indians
4. Salvador Perez, Royals
5. A.J. Pierzynski, White Sox

The AL Central might not be baseball's glamor division, but it may have three of the top five catchers in the game if Mauer bounces back from his injury-plagued campaign. Since we're not certain of his health, I'm going to give top billing to Avila, who had the best hitting numbers of any catcher outside of Mike Napoli and plays solid defense. I wouldn't be surprised if Santana explodes; with his power-and-walks combo, all he has to do is raise his average 30 points and he'll be one of the most valuable players in the game. Considering that his average on balls in play was .263, there is a good chance of that happening. Perez hit .331 in 39 games; OK, he won't do that again, but he doesn't turn 22 until May and puts the ball in play. There's no shame in being fifth in this group but that's where I have to place Pierzynski, who keeps rolling along and is now 36th on the all-time list for games caught.

First base
1. Prince Fielder, Tigers
2. Paul Konerko, White Sox
3. Eric Hosmer, Royals
4. Justin Morneau, Twins
5. Matt LaPorta, Indians

In 2009, when Morneau played 135 games, he hit .274 AVG/.363 OBP/.516 SLG. Even if he replicates that line, he may rank only fourth. Konerko has hit a combined .306 with 70 home runs the past two seasons. He's 104 home runs from 500 but turns 36 in March, so he's probably four seasons away; not sure he'll hang on that long, but who knew he'd be this good at this age. If Hosmer improves his walk rate and defense and Konerko declines, Hosmer could climb past him. If it doesn't happen this year, it will happen next. The most similar batter to him at age 21: Eddie Murray.

Second base
1. Jason Kipnis, Indians
2. Gordon Beckham, White Sox
3. Johnny Giavotella, Royals
4. Alexi Casilla, Twins
5. Ramon Santiago, Tigers

Well, this isn't exactly a Robinson Cano/Dustin Pedroia/Ben Zobrist debate, is it? Kipnis' bat is a sure thing, as evidenced by his excellent play after his call-up (.272 average and .507 slugging in 36 games). His glove was once a question mark but now appears solid enough that he looks like a future All-Star to me. Can anybody explain what has happened to Beckham? He's second mostly by default; he's gone downhill since his superb rookie season in 2009 but is only 25, so there's hope that he'll find those skills again. Giavotella has some potential with the bat (.338/.390/.481 at Triple-A), which is more than you can say for Casilla and Santiago.

Third base
1. Miguel Cabrera, Tigers
2. Mike Moustakas, Royals
3. Lonnie Chisenhall, Indians
4. Danny Valencia, Twins
5. Brent Morel, White Sox

We'll go with the idea that Cabrera is Detroit's starting third baseman, although I predict he'll end up starting more games at designated hitter. Manager Jim Leyland will end up doing a lot of mixing of his lineups, but for this little exercise we have to choose a starter. Moustakas didn't tear up the league as a rookie and I worry about his ability to hit lefties (.191, homerless in 89 at-bats), but he showed more than fellow rookies Chisenhall and Morel. Valencia doesn't get on base enough and he rated poorly on defense in 2011. I hope he's at least good in the clubhouse. Morel was terrible all season and then exploded for eight of his 10 home runs in September and drew 15 walks after drawing just seven the previous five months. Maybe something clicked.

1. Asdrubal Cabrera, Indians
2. Alexei Ramirez, White Sox
3. Jhonny Peralta, Tigers
4. Alcides Escobar, Royals
5. Jamey Carroll, Twins

Peralta had the best 2011 season, but he's a difficult guy to project. He had an .804 OPS in 2008 but dropped to .691 in 2009. He had a .703 OPS in 2010 and then .823 in 2011. I just don't see a repeat season, at the plate or in the field. Cabrera didn't rate well on the defensive metrics, and after a strong start he wore down in the second half. Ramirez has turned into a nice player, with a good glove and some power, and he even draws a few walks now. Escobar is a true magician with the glove. Carroll is actually a useful player who gets on base (.356 career OBP), but he's pushed as an everyday shortstop and he'll be 38. He'll be issued the honorary Nick Punto locker in the Twins' clubhouse.

Left field
1. Alex Gordon, Royals
2. Alejandro De Aza, White Sox
3. Ben Revere, Twins
4. Michael Brantley/Shelley Duncan, Indians
5. Ryan Raburn/Don Kelly, Tigers

I'm not sure what to do here. After Gordon, I just get a headache. We'll pretend to believe in De Aza after his impressive stint in the majors (171 plate appearances, .329/.400/.920). He's hit in Triple-A for three seasons now, and while he's not going to post a .400 OBP again, he should be adequate. Revere is one of the fastest players in the majors, but he's all speed and defense; he hopes to grow up to be Brett Gardner, which isn't a bad thing, but he'll have to learn to get on base at a better clip. Brantley doesn't have one outstanding skill so he'll have to hit better than .266 to be anything more than a fourth outfielder; Duncan provides some right-handed pop as a platoon guy. The Tigers have Delmon Young, but I'll slot him at DH. That leaves supposed lefty masher Raburn and utility man Kelly to soak up at-bats; both had an OBP below .300 in 2011, although Raburn has hit better in the past.

Center field
1. Austin Jackson, Tigers
2. Denard Span, Twins
3. Grady Sizemore, Indians
4. Lorenzo Cain, Royals
5. Alex Rios, White Sox

I can't rate Sizemore any higher since he's played just 104 games over the past two seasons, and he hasn't had a big year since 2008. Rios was terrible in '09, OK in '10 and worse than terrible in '11. I'm not betting on him.

Right field
1. Shin-Soo Choo, Indians
2. Brennan Boesch, Tigers
3. Jeff Francoeur, Royals
4. Josh Willingham, Twins
5. Dayan Viciedo, White Sox

Choo would like to forget 2011, but there's no reason he shouldn't bounce back and play like he did in 2009 and 2010, when he was one of the 10 best position players in the AL. I don't expect Francoeur to deliver 71 extra-base hits again, but maybe he'll surprise us. Viciedo is apparently nicknamed "The Tank," which makes me wonder how much ground he can cover. He did improve his walk rate last season in the minors and turns 23 in March, so there's still room for more growth.

Designated hitter
1. Billy Butler, Royals
2. Travis Hafner, Indians
3. Ryan Doumit, Twins
4. Delmon Young, Tigers
5. Adam Dunn, White Sox

Has there been a bigger prospect disappointment than Young in the past decade? I mean, yes, there were complete busts like Brandon Wood and Andy Marte, but those guys had obvious holes in their games, while Young was viewed as a sure thing, a consensus No. 1 overall prospect. But his bat has never lived up to its billing. Other than one decent year in Minnesota, he has low OBPs and he clearly lacked range in the outfield. His career WAR on Baseball-Reference is minus-0.2 (1.6 on FanGraphs), meaning he's been worse than replacement level. He's just not that good, Tigers fans.

No. 1 starter
1. Justin Verlander, Tigers
2. John Danks, White Sox
3. Justin Masterson, Indians
4. Luke Hochevar, Royals
5. Carl Pavano, Twins

Masterson was better than Danks in 2011, and I do believe his improvement was real. He absolutely crushes right-handers -- they slugged an anemic .259 off him. Danks had two bad months but has the longer track record of success. Even in his "off year" he had a higher strikeout rate and lower walk rate than Masterson. If you want to argue about Hochevar versus Pavano, be my guest.

No. 2 starter
1. Doug Fister, Tigers
2. Ubaldo Jimenez, Indians
3. Gavin Floyd, White Sox
4. Francisco Liriano, Twins
5. Jonathan Sanchez, Royals

Yes, sign me up for the Doug Fister bandwagon club. Jimenez's fastball velocity was down a couple miles per hour last season but the positives are that his strikeout and walk rates were identical to 2010; he'll be better. Floyd isn't flashy but he's now made 30-plus starts four years in a row, and he'll become a very rich man when he becomes a free agent after this season. Sanchez won't have the luxury of pitching in San Francisco (and to eight-man NL lineups).

No. 3 starter
1. Max Scherzer, Tigers
2. Scott Baker, Twins
3. Philip Humber, White Sox
4. Bruce Chen, Royals
5. Josh Tomlin, Indians

I could be underrating Baker, who was excellent last season, but only once in his career has he made 30 starts in a season. Tomlin's fans will disagree with this ranking, but he's a finesse guy who relies on the best control in baseball (21 walks in 26 starts). He's the kind of guy you root for, but the league seemed to figure him out as the season progressed.

No. 4 starter
1. Felipe Paulino, Royals
2. Rick Porcello, Tigers
3. Jake Peavy, White Sox
4. Derek Lowe, Indians
5. Nick Blackburn, Twins

Scouts still love Porcello's arm and I know he's just 23, but he's made 89 big league starts and shown no signs of getting better. His WHIP has increased each season and his strikeout rate remains one of the lowest in baseball. Paulino has an electric arm -- he averaged 95 mph on his fastball -- and is getting better. How could the Rockies give up on him after just 14 innings? How could the Astros trade him for Clint Barmes? Anyway, kudos to the Royals for buying low on the guy who may turn into their best starter. Peavy can't stay healthy. Lowe has led his league in starts three out of the past four seasons, but I'm not sure that's a good thing anymore. Blackburn is a poor man's Lowe, and I don't mean that in a good way.

No. 5 starter
1. Chris Sale, White Sox
2. Jacob Turner, Tigers
3. Aaron Crow/Danny Duffy, Royals
4. Fausto Carmona/David Huff/Jeanmar Gomez, Indians
5. Brian Duensing/Jason Marquis, Twins

Welcome to the AL Central crapshoot. Turner and Sale have the most upside, but one is a rookie and the other is converting from relief. Crow will also be given a shot at the rotation, but his difficulties against left-handed batters (.311 average allowed) don't bode well for that transition. Even if the artist formerly known as Carmona gets a visa, what do you have? A guy with a 5.01 ERA over the past four seasons. Duensing is another typical Twins pitcher, which means he at least throws strikes. His first full season in the rotation didn't go well, so of course the Twins brought in Marquis, yet another guy who doesn't strike anybody out.

1. Jose Valverde, Tigers
2. Joakim Soria, Royals
3. Matt Thornton, White Sox
4. Chris Perez, Indians
5. Matt Capps, Twins

Four good relievers plus Matt Capps. I do admit I'm a little perplexed by Perez, however. In 2009, he struck out 10.7 batters per nine innings. In 2010, that figure fell to 8.7 but he posted a pretty 1.71 ERA. In 2011, it was all the way down to 5.9, but without much improvement in his control. Perez blew only four saves but he did lose seven games. He survived thanks to a low .240 average on balls in play. He's an extreme fly-ball pitcher but didn't serve up many home runs. Bottom line: I'd be nervous.

1. Indians -- Vinnie Pestano, Rafael Perez, Tony Sipp, Joe Smith, Nick Hagadone
2. Royals -- Jonathan Broxton, Greg Holland, Louis Coleman, Tim Collins, Jose Mijares
3. Tigers -- Joaquin Benoit, Octavio Dotel, Phil Coke, Daniel Schlereth, Al Alburquerque
4. White Sox -- Jesse Crain, Jason Frasor, Will Ohman, Addison Reed, Dylan Axelrod
5. Twins -- Glen Perkins, Alex Burnett, Anthony Swarzak, Kyle Waldrop, Lester Oliveros

If you're starting to think I'm not high on the Twins for this season, you would be correct.

1. Royals
2. Indians
3. Tigers
4. White Sox
5. Twins

I like the youthful exuberance of the Royals, plus the likelihood of improvement from the young players and the possibility of some midseason reinforcements from the minors. The depth of the bullpen will help bolster a shaky rotation, and this just feels like an organization that is finally starting to believe in itself. The Indians are riding last year's positive results and enter the season knowing they might get better production from Choo and Sizemore and full seasons from Kipnis and Chisenhall. I'm not knocking the Tigers here, but they do lack depth in the pitching staff and the pressure is on them.

The final tally
1. Tigers, 65 points
2. Royals, 55 points
3. Indians, 54 points
4. White Sox, 46 points
5. Twins, 35 points

No surprise here: The Tigers will be heavy favorites to win the division with a lineup that should score a ton of runs. I don't think it's a lock that they'll win -- Verlander, Avila, Peralta and Valverde will all be hard-pressed to repeat their 2011 campaigns, for example. But the Royals and Indians appear to have too many questions in the rotations, the White Sox have serious lineup issues, and the Twins have a beautiful ballpark to play their games in.

Kansas City Royals, Detroit Tigers, Minnesota Twins, Cleveland Indians, Chicago White Sox, Andy Marte, John Danks, Jonathan Broxton, Denard Span, Nick Punto, Alcides Escobar, Rafael Perez, Justin Morneau, Doug Fister, Rick Porcello, Brandon Wood, Anthony Swarzak, Dustin Pedroia, Tim Collins, Justin Verlander, Jonathan Sanchez, Alexei Ramirez, Ryan Doumit, Justin Masterson, Jason Frasor, Jason Marquis, Francisco Liriano, Matt Capps, Luke Hochevar, Alex Gordon, Matt LaPorta, Prince Fielder, Gordon Beckham, Alexi Casilla, Joakim Soria, Gavin Floyd, Delmon Young, Ramon Santiago, Carl Pavano, Mike Napoli, Ubaldo Jimenez, Grady Sizemore, Jeff Francoeur, Travis Hafner, Jose Valverde, Jake Peavy, Billy Butler, Derek Lowe, Miguel Cabrera, Brian Duensing, Ben Zobrist, Fausto Carmona, Jim Leyland, Shin-Soo Choo, Max Scherzer, Michael Brantley, Danny Valencia, Jose Mijares, Danny Duffy, Carlos Santana, A.J. Pierzynski, Austin Jackson, Robinson Cano, Chris Perez, Clint Barmes, Brett Gardner, Brennan Boesch, Nick Blackburn, Paul Konerko, Scott Baker, Chris Sale, Josh Willingham, Jhonny Peralta, Asdrubal Cabrera, Vinnie Pestano, Matt Thornton, Aaron Crow, Josh Tomlin, Lonnie Chisenhall, Jason Kipnis, Jamey Carroll, Jesse Crain, Alex Avila, philip humber, Brent Morel, Joaquin Benoit, Ben Revere, Eric Hosmer, Al Alburquerque, Ryan Raburn, Mike Moustakas, Dayan Viciedo, Octavio Dotel, Jacob Turner, Salvador Perez, Johnny Giavotella, Lorenzo Cain, Jeanmar Gomez, Shelley Duncan, Alejandro De Aza, Bruce Chen, Greg Holland, Louis Coleman, Glen Perkins, Felipe Paulino, Nick Hagadone, Daniel Schlereth, Will Ohman, Addison Reed, Dylan Axelrod, Alex Burnett, Kyle Waldrop, Lester Oliveros

Mark Simon and myself joined forces on Friday's Baseball Today. Before you listen, however, take a few seconds to go to podcastawards.com and vote for Baseball Today as the best sports podcast -- we're one of 10 finalists. Now, things we discussed:

1. Another crazy game in the AL with a bunch of statistical quirks. Jim Leyland's plan worked out and Justin Verlander was good enough to get the win.

2. The NL game wasn't nearly as exciting, but Randy Wolf was excellent to get the Brewers even in the series.

4. Mark and I discuss the best League Championship Series ever. Not surprisingly, Mark prefers the 1986 NLCS, but which one do I rank No. 1?

5. We discuss a great email from a reader: Pitchers have struggled this postseason. Are they tired from pitching more in the regular season?

All that plus Simon Says, previewing the weekend action, the Cubs, CC Sabathia to the Rangers and more on Friday's Baseball Today. Enjoy the game and the weekend.

Is Detroit's Coke the real thing?

February, 18, 2010
My favorite thing about spring training? I mean, when I'm not actually there? Trying to guess who's going to grab those No. 5-starter slots. Speaking of which, here's Dave Cameron on the Tigers:
    Last week, we talked about Kyle Farnsworth, and I applauded the Royals for giving him a chance to see what he can do as a starting pitcher. Kansas City isn’t the only AL Central team considering trying a relief pitcher in the rotation, however, as Jason Beck reports that the Tigers may do the same with newly acquired Phil Coke.

    Coke was a starter in the minors, and had a decent amount of success, so Detroit isn’t entirely throwing spaghetti at the wall here. However, unlike Farnsworth, Coke just doesn’t seem to have a starter’s repertoire.


    Unless the Tigers know something about the development of Coke’s change-up, this doesn’t seem like a very good use of resources. Coke is terrific against left-handers, but moving him into a starting role will guarantee that he won’t get to face many of those. I wouldn’t expect this experiment to go very well or last very long. Coke belongs in the bullpen, where his stuff can be leveraged against good left-handed bats, and I’d guess that the Tigers will quickly come to the same conclusion.

As Cameron points out, Coke's been all fastball/slider as a reliever and he's struggled against right-handed hitters while dominating the lefties. Perfectly suited for relief work but ill-suited for starting, right?

Well, maybe not. As one commenter points out, it's instructive to look at the sample sizes. As a starter (mostly) in the minors, Coke pitched 464 innings and did just fine against right-handed hitters. As a reliever in the majors, he's pitched only 75 innings and faced 127 righties. Repertoire aside, it's probably too early to give up on a pitcher with a good minor-league track record who throws in the low 90s.

Particularly considering that -- as another commenter notes -- Coke's competition for the No. 5 slot would seem to be Armando Galarraga and Nate Robertson.

Maybe it won't work. I don't mean to suggest that Coke's some great undiscovered talent. Shoot, he turns 28 this summer and he's won exactly five games in the majors. But it might work. And if it doesn't, he can always resume his career as a LOOGY.