Tigers Face Quite The Dilemma With Joaquin Benoit

DETROIT, MI - APRIL 08: Joaquin Benoit #53 of the Detroit Tigers prepars to throw a eighth inning pitch while playing the Kansas City Royals on Opening Day at Comerica Park on April 8, 2011 in Detroit, Michigan. Detroit won the game 5-2. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Joaquin Benoit has hardly been the lights-out setup reliever that the Tigers gave a $16.5 million contract to. But if they're going to win games, they'll need him to live up to the team's investment.

It's been a few weeks since I wrote a feature/column here at SB Nation Detroit, so I knew I was due. And I knew I wanted to write about the Tigers. At one point, it was going to be something on the team's seven-game losing streak. How were the Tigers seemingly falling apart after they'd won four in a row?

But then, the Tigers turned themselves around. They won three of four games from the Yankees, generally considered by most observers to be among the three or four best teams in baseball. A seven-game winning streak (which included a no-hitter by Justin Verlander) soon followed, giving the team 10 wins in its last 11 games. National baseball writers were taking note, saying the Tigers were making their move and about to assert themselves in the AL Central.

This was the time to write something! Maybe a Top Five listing the five players most responsible for the turnaround. Or the five reasons the Tigers were now playing well. What about a ranking of the five players that rebounded after struggling earlier in the season? (Alex Avila? Austin Jackson? Brad Penny?)

Yes, yes and yes! Except it was no, no and no. Because I didn't write those posts.

But last night, I intended to sit down and write on one of the topics mentioned above. Or maybe a look at the Tigers now that they've passed Sparky Anderson's famed 40-game mark for judging a team. (Overdone? Yes, probably. But a quarter of the season is probably a decent benchmark for measuring a team's merits.)

Then Monday night's game between the Tigers and Blue Jays took place. And in the aftermath of Detroit's 4-2 loss, I could only think of one thing to write about:

What the hell is up with Joaquin Benoit?

I was a big advocate for signing him as the offseason began. The Tigers needed a setup reliever in front of Jose Valverde and Benoit was the best last season. He racked up 75 strikeouts in 60 1/3 innings, giving up only nine earned runs. Neither lefties nor righties hit well against him, batting a collective .147.

The Tigers made it clear Benoit was their guy, pouncing on him almost as soon as they were allowed to. The contract raised eyebrows throughout baseball, with Benoit getting a three-year, $16.5 million deal after one elite season. Relievers aren't supposed to get three-year deals. Never mind that plenty of others got similar deals during the offseason. If teams wanted good relievers, they had to pay for them. And add that third year to a contract. The Tigers were in that position with Benoit.

But no one was going to talk about the money if Benoit pitched well. And he looked fine after his first 10 appearances this season, allowing just one run and five hits in 9 2/3 innings.

However, something happened since then. In his 11th outing, Benoit gave up three runs (two earned) in one-third of an inning versus the Mariners. But maybe that could be chalked up to rust, as he hadn't pitched in five days. Maybe Benoit was the kind of reliever who needed constant work to stay sharp. And Jim Leyland is usually pretty good about making sure his relievers get that work. (Well, maybe not with his closers, but let's put some blame for that on the save statistic.)

But in his next appearance, Benoit gave up four runs in one-third of an inning against the Indians. That was only two days later, so Benoit couldn't have claimed he was rusty. And just to be clear, that's speculation on my part. Benoit didn't say anything to the media afterwards.

Two days later, Benoit had yet another miserable outing versus Cleveland, giving up three runs in two-thirds of an inning. He was now officially struggling. This was a bad streak by anyone's measure. And Benoit finally offered a possible reason for his troubles in postgame remarks: His changeup wasn't working.

From MLive.com:

"It's basically my out pitch," Benoit said, "and I can't locate it well enough. It's kind of hard and you see the results."

Manager Jim Leyland also told reporters that he thought Benoit was battling his mechanics. Benoit had pitched two scoreless outings since then, giving hope that maybe he had figured out what was going wrong. So Leyland put him in an important situation on Monday night, bringing him on for the eighth inning with the score tied 1-1. As you know, it didn't go well.

Benoit gave up hits to the first three Toronto hitters he faced, giving the Blue Jays the lead. Sacrifice flies by the next two batters added two runs to that margin. After the smoke cleared, the Blue Jays had a three-run lead and the Tigers' seven-game winning streak was effectively over.

So what is going on with Benoit? Leyland may have been onto something when he mentioned Benoit's mechanics. But Tigers coaches seem to believe the main problem is where Benoit is locating his pitches. (This screen cap form MLB.com's Gameday that Bless You Boys' Al Beaton posted would seem to confirm that.)

When discussing the matter with Kurt Mensching of BYB, he referred me to a Pitch F/X chart that showed an inconsistency in Benoit's release point. (That isn't necessarily attributable to mechanics, however. Video evidence doesn't show anything drastically noticeable.) That could certainly result in his secondary pitches flattening out and finding the middle of the plate.

But Kurt has plenty of other conclusions he's drawn from the Pitch F/X data and you should check out his post for some possible answers. Based on the data he collected, it certainly appears that Benoit might be guilty of overthrowing. And that would be understandable. Maybe he feels pressure of trying to live up to his contract. Maybe his poor performance makes him feel as if he has to throw harder. That would obviously have an effect on his pitches, as well.

Unfortunately, the Tigers don't really have the luxury of hiding Benoit until he straightens himself out. Leyland can pitch him in lower-leverage situations, perhaps in middle innings with a big lead or deficit. Then Benoit can concentrate on smoothing out his delivery or easing back on the throttle without the game at stake.

But the reality is that the Tigers aren't paying him $5.5 million a year to pitch mop-up duty. They need him to win games, games like Monday night that worked perfectly into the sort of bullpen arrangement that Detroit put together this offseason. Unless scoring 8-10 runs a game or shutting out the other team is part of the Tigers' game plan.

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