Posted by: Larry Smith Jr. | March 15, 2010

The Tigers Lefty Fortune

In a movement that has been somewhat under the radar, Detroit Tigers General Manager Dave Dombrowski has assembled something of a stable of riches of left-handed relief pitching for the 2010 season and possibly many years beyond. How much this truly matters in seasons to follow is a matter of debate, but in 2010 when four of the five teams in the division are separated by very little in terms of talent and expectations to compete (sorry Kansas City), it could be an important point of leverage for the Tigers in a division with several threatening power left-handed bats. If the Tigers can lower the threat of these players in big situations — Knowing that they play AL Central teams for roughly half of their overall schedule of games — It gives them a huge situational advantage in games that are close late, whether they are ahead or behind.  

The Tigers currently have five left-handed relievers who all have a legitimate shot at making the 2010 club. It is almost completely certain that all of them will not make the 2010 club. Which means at least a couple of them will be ready to join the team and help out when a) Someone is ineffective, b) Someone is traded, c) Someone is injured, or d) Rosters expand in September. Profiling the lefties really gives a clue about how strong the Tigers could be here in a hurry: Bobby Seay
2010 Age:
2009: 48.2 IP, 4.25 ERA, 3.61 FIP, 1.29 WHIP, 6.8 K/9, 3.1 BB/9
Car: 223 IP, 4.16 ERA, 3.80 FIP, 1.37 WHIP, 7.7 K/9, 3.6 BB/9
LHB Career vs. Seay: 489 PA, 265/343/378, 4 HR, 3.24 FIP

Phil Coke
2010 Age: 28
2009: 60 IP, 4.50 ERA, 4.68 FIP, 1.07 WHIP, 7.4 K/9, 3.0 BB/9
Minors: 464 IP, 3.61 ERA, 3.68 FIP, 1.28 WHIP, 7.5 K/9, 3.0 BB/9
LHB ‘09 vs. Coke: 163 PA, 197/221/349, 6 HR, 3.90 FIP
LHB Minors vs. Coke: 457 PA, .252 Opp. BA, 7 HR, 3.46 FIP 

Dan Schlereth
2010 Age:
2009 : 18.1 IP, 5.89 ERA, 4.02 FIP, 1.64 WHIP, 10.8 K/9, 7.4 BB/9
Minors: 42 IP, 1.13 ERA, 2.81 FIP, 1.11 WHIP, 13.6 K/9, 5.2 BB/9
LHB ‘09 vs. Schlereth: 37 PA, 222/400/370, 1 HR, 6.36 FIP
LHB Minors vs. Schlereth: 41 PA, .211 Opp. BA, 0 HR, 1.60 FIP 

 Fu-Te Ni
2010 Age:
2009: 31 IP, 2.61 ERA, 4.16 FIP, 1.00 WHIP, 6.1 K/9, 3.2 BB/9
Minors: 34.2 IP, 2.60 ERA, 3.76 FIP, 1.11 WHIP, 8.0 K/9, 2.3 BB/9
LHB ‘09 vs. Ni: 72 PA, 113/211/258, 2 HR, 4.32 FIP
LHB Minors vs. Ni: 48 PA, .188 Opp. BA, 1 HR, 2.27 FIP 

The fifth is 32 year old Brad Thomas, who has pitched in the major leagues before but last did so in 2004. For that reason, I didn’t find it relevant to post his statistics from back then, as he was by Detroit from the Korean Professional League where he was among the league‘s leading closers. 

Clearly a number of these guys are young with limited track records, but virtually all of them provide reasons to believe that they can be effective lefty stoppers this year. Schlereth has command issues and may be best suited to start he year in Toledo. Ni very well may be a victim of the fact that Thomas was signed to a major league contract during the off-season and therefore cannot be optioned without first passing through waivers. Seay has battled injury issues all Spring long but if he is healthy enough to pitch, he will likely again be their left-handed workhorse. He actually has a better platoon split against right-handed pitching and therefore may find himself pitching in all scenarios, particularly if the Tigers elect to carry three left handers overall. Coke was unlucky last season in allowing home runs — A problem that may be solved with the move from Yankee Stadium III to Comerica Park — Yet he also had some luck on allowing hits on balls in play, so that may also balance itself out this season. In any event, while he hasn’t yet shown the ability to be spectacular, he was a strong lefty neutralizer on a championship team last year, and there is no reason to believe that he couldn’t do the same for the Tigers in 2010.

 Of the five, Thomas is the biggest question mark because he comes from a league where the talent level is questionable, hasn’t pitched in the American professional leagues in four years, and is 32 years old. There’s not much to be said about him definitively if you haven’t seen him. What I can say, is that I very much trust the Tigers scouting department when it comes to finding pitchers. They found Fu-Te Ni last year out of a foreign pro league as well. So if the Tigers thought enough to sign Thomas to a major league deal, then that is a good enough endorsement for me until I’m given a reason to believe otherwise.

 So in total, with five legitimate left-handed bullpen arms, the Tigers have a real chance at being able to wreak late innings havoc on lineups. Their biggest threat to the division title in the Central, the Minnesota Twins, have a lineup that is highly composed of lefties, particularly among its key hitters (Mauer, Thome, Morneau, Kubel). In addition to that, switch-hitters Alexi Casilla, Nick Punto, and Orlando Hudson are all better when facing right handed pitching than left (though only in Hudson’s case is the difference dramatic). Every one of the Twins lefties except for Denard Span has a significant platoon weakness. Even Joe Mauer posted “only” a .910 OPS against lefties last year, compared to over 1.100 against righties. For his career he is in the low/mid 800s. Kansas City’s David DeJesus and Rick Ankiel are left-handed, as is Alex Gordon. Their second best hitter is a player who likely will not start the season with the team because for some reason management refuses to create a spot for him, but when Kila Ka’aihue finally forces his way into the Royals lineup, Tiger fans will be happy to know that he hits with significantly less power against lefties. The White Sox Juan Pierre and A.J. Pierzynski are left-handed, as are Indians Grady Sizemore, Michael Brantley, Shin Soo-Choo, Russell Branyan, and Travis Hafner.
In a division where most of the scary hitters outside of Detroit are left-handed (Carlos Quentin probably being the scariest right-handed hitting non-Tiger in the AL Central, along with Billy Butler), the Tigers may really be able to leverage a major advantage in the late innings of close divisional games this year. In a season that figures to be as close as 2009, that small bit of leverage could prove to be the difference between going to the playoffs and another year of sitting at home thinking “What if?”.


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