Detroit Tigers reliever Joe Jimenez losing his role at closer will help manager Ron Gardenhire to modernize bullpen usage
One of the larger qualms from Detroit Tigers fans who are critical of the coaching staff is how the bullpen has been utilized over their tenure. The loyalty to bullpen roles has proven to be outdated; as teams have opted for the fireman and utility roles within the bullpen. The evolution stems from the playoffs, where teams like the Cleveland Indians made no hesitation to deploy relief aces like Andrew Miller in the sixth, seventh, or eighth innings–or even multiple innings, provided they could maintain their sharpness.
The Detroit Tigers and Gardenhire did their best to make Joe Jimenez the closer. He comes from a long line of highly anticipated prospect relief arms that have been tagged as the future closer of the club. Ryan Perry, Bruce Rondon, and Adam Ravenelle are just a few of the names that have had the title; in part perhaps due to Detroit’s scarcity of reliable bullpen arms. The frustration is none of these names have worked out; but while the above names have had their baggage respectively, Joe seems to have the ingredients to be a reliable relief pitcher in the major leagues.
His fastball velocity tends to dwindle and surge appearance-to-appearance and his slider has been inconsistent, but he has shown the ability to be effective. In 2018, Jimenez was the Tigers representative for the All-Star game while supplying 1.4 fWAR and striking out 78 batters in 62.2 innings and supplying a 2.90 FIP; suggesting his 4.31 ERA was a product of some misfortune.
His 2020 numbers do not speak to his true talent level and 9.2 innings is not enough to develop opinions, but Joe also has not passed the eye test as a reliever. Getting him out of situations in which he appears in close games late is protection for him at this time and will likely slow fans from sharpening their pitchforks or dusting off their tiki torches. Likewise, it will give Gardenhire the chance to put him in match-ups that favor him as opposed to a particular inning which could yield a variety of hitters and scenarios.
Early, those match-ups will likely come from a low spot in the lineup or a game that is out of hand one way or the other, but in the future, it will likely mean a right-handed heavy appearance as Joe has had more success with his breaking pitches against righties: a .129 xBA and a 55 percent whiff rate according to Statcast. Fellow contributor Kellen Gove suggested an increase in slider usage for Jimenez in his piece here.
Beyond Jimenez, though, it also frees up the bullpen to leverage strengths and skillsets throughout the game. Detroit Tigers’ newfound bullpen ace Gregory Soto has been electric and deserves to go against a team’s best hitters. As for now, it appears that is the likelihood in the short term:
It would also be wise to deploy Buck Farmer when a double play is needed or they need to limit extra-base hits; as his 3.3 percent barrel percentage as well as his 57.9 percent ground ball percentage would both play nicely in both of those instances.
Cisnero has proven to be another late-inning option and would be welcomed against opponents who struggle against off-speed pitches. Not only is Cisnero’s fastball velocity in the 93rd percentile, but opponents are hitting just .056 off his slider so far this season.
In a season from the not-so-distant past, Gardenhire would likely allow the pitchers to work through their own trouble in an inning, but Wednesday night’s deployments showed us how 2020 is different. Not only did Joe appear in the sixth inning rather than the typical ninth, but after just three batters (as is the minimum these days), Gardenhire yanked Bryan Garcia after a walk, a hit, and a loud out to allow Cisnero to take on free swinger Javy Baez whom he would ultimately strikeout.
Maybe this will not be the norm as the season progresses, but the lack of roles proved refreshing Tuesday night. Finally, the club now has a few useful relief arms to help them navigate through a game. Taking the next step and putting those talented pitchers in better positions to thrive is only going to help their confidence personally as well as help the team stays in games–a task that proved taxing over the last few seasons.