Monday, June 15, 2009

Make Room for “Zoom Zoom” (please.)

The Tigers are entering a crucial stretch that will heavily influence their chances of winning the AL Central. Oh, and it has nothing to do with the schedule. The front office has to decide what to with the #4 and #5 spots in the rotation and they have to do it soon if playing in October is an organizational goal. Justin Verlander, Edwin Jackson, and Rick Porcello have spearheaded the Tigers to the top of the division but lately their work has been almost entirely undone by the struggles of Armando Galarraga and Dontrelle Willis. Over the last six weeks, the Tigers are 4-14 when Galarraga and Willis start and 19-8 when Verlander, Jackson, and Porcello start. That’s essentially .500-baseball with arguably the best trio of starters in the AL.

The Tigers absolutely cannot afford for either Galarraga or Willis to remain in the rotation beyond June. Both Willis and Galarraga can’t find the plate and when they do, they're getting hammered. Most fans and writers support a demotion for Willis. Galarraga has been just as bad, though. He has allowed 3.6 more baserunners per nine innings this season over last. He has allowed 21 walks to just 20 strikeouts in his last nine starts. Opponents are blasting him for a .375 OBP and he has an unfathomable WHIP of 1.61. A team as offensively challenged as the Tigers cannot afford two horrible pitching performances every time through the rotation.

Solving both rotation problems will not be easy. Fortunately, solving one can be and should be. Joel Zumaya needs to be in the rotation like yesterday. I know some will be quick to dismiss this but we need to get rid of the superficial reasons for not wanting him in the rotation. Zumaya is a starting pitcher. He was brought up through the minors as a starter and he was absolutely devastating. The Tigers didn’t have room for him in the rotation coming out of Spring Training in 2006, but the Tigers liked him so much that they felt they could not break from Lakeland without him. That’s the reason why Joel Zumaya is a reliever today. Bilfer from the Detroit Tigers Weblog feared such a fate back in March of 2006 when he said that he was happy that Zumaya made the team but hoped that it would not “pigeon hole” him as a reliever moving forward. That fear proved to be warranted. Zumaya has not started a single-game for the Tigers despite countless opportunities. He has been “pigeon holed” and it hasn't really mattered until now. If it continues, however, it will be to the detriment of the team. For those of you who have forgotten the path of destruction that Zumaya left in the minors as a 20-year old, here’s a reminder…

Zoom Zoom in the Minors


Zumaya has been a fairly successful relief pitcher for the Tigers boasting a career 2.81 ERA in 160.1 innings. However, with ample opportunity, he has not been trusted as the closer despite having the perfect repertoire for the job. The statistical reasons for why he hasn’t been trusted with closing duties yet are pretty easy to cite. He has an uncomfortable 1.32 career WHIP. He has a dangerously high 5.1 BB/9. He also has an undependable 56% first pitch strike percentage. It would be tough for any manager to routinely trust a pitcher with those splits in a pressurized, end-of-game situation. However, I think there is an explanation for those numbers. Anyone who watches Tigers games on a regular basis has no doubt seen Zumaya’s demeanor when he enters games. He is so "jacked-up" that it appears an impossible endeavor for him to pitch with composure. He becomes an adrenaline fueled machine with one goal in mind: throw 100 mph every pitch. The results have been predictable. His command, or lack thereof, often leaves him visibly frustrated on the mound. To his credit, batters haven’t exactly solved him but they’ve realized that if they’re patient, they’ll get a good pitch to hit. It’s not hard for a major league hitter to hit a 100 MPH fastball when a) he doesn't have to worry about an off-speed pitch and b) he has seen the same pitch four times in a row. That’s likely why Zumaya also sports an incredibly high H/9 of 9.0.

The “role” of 8th-inning stopper has thwarted Zumaya’s progress as a pitcher. He could—and likely would—thrive in a less stressful situation; a situation in which the Tigers happen to sorely need him right now. He would have the opportunity to pitch under the same circumstances in which he dominated the minor leagues as a 20-year old. He would also have the chance to mix his pitches and become less predictable. He has a wicked knuckled-curve that he rarely uses when he forces himself to play the role of the prototypical flamethrowing reliever. He would also be forced to vary speeds on his fastball which is something he rarely does now. Gone would be the days of throwing as hard as possible every pitch. Ideally, that would allow Zumaya to play the role of "a pitcher" which I think suits him better anyways. Zumaya has the make-up to be a dominating starting pitcher. MLB GMs would take that over a good reliever 10 out of 10 times; especially when the back of the rotation is threatening to ruin a playoff-run.

There are two important questions to ask yourself if you’re still on the fence: 1) What do the Tigers have to lose? and 2). Do you really think Zumaya won’t give the Tigers a better chance of winning games—and thus winning the division--over Galarraga and/or Willis? I don’t think there’s any doubt that Joel Zumaya is a better pitcher than Armando Galarraga and Dontrelle Willis. He proved it in the minors and he has proven it as a reliever.

I expect a number of fans to cite “injuries” in their rebuttals. It’s important to put Zumaya’s injuries in perspective. Of the four injuries that I am aware of, three had nothing to do with “workload” or “mechanics”. He famously hurt his wrist while mired in an obsession with Guitar Hero. He hurt his shoulder rushing to move boxes out of his family home in the face of a forest fire. He also ruptured a tendon in his hand in a freak bullpen accident. He has had horrible luck but let’s not confuse that with an abnormal workload/injury relationship. There is no reason other than the same increased risk of injury for any starting pitcher to believe that Zumaya could not physically handle a move to the rotation. In fact, if “workload” is a concern at all, the Tigers would be justified to put him on an 85-pitch or six-inning limit. That’s more than what they’re getting from Galarraga and Willis anyways plus it would come with the added bonus of not being a guaranteed loss.

I don’t think the Tigers will do this. I am fearful that this isn’t even on the radar. It should be, though. Unlike a trade, this move would cost the Tigers nothing instead allowing them to focus on trading for a "bat" to upgrade a moribund offense. The Yankees made a near idential decision to bolster their rotation by inserting Joba Chamberlain from the bullpen and it has paid off substantially. Like Chamberlain, Zumaya was a top-flight starting pitching prospect who saw his role change out of inopportunity. That’s not the case anymore. Nothing has happened along the way to suggest that Zumaya should be anything other than a starting pitcher. He couldn’t make the rotation in ’06 because there weren’t any spots available. Now, there are two glaring openings. The sooner the Tigers fill one with Zumaya, the sooner the odds of making the playoffs increase. There are no more excuses for keeping "Zoom Zoom" out of the rotation. Plus, the Minnesota Twins are about to fire-up the “streak” machine.

1 comment:

Mike said...

I agree it should definitely be considered. My only two concerns are 1. increased chance of injury (even if his previous injuries haven't been in game action pitching more often will do that) and 2. losing our best option out of the bullpen on a team that already has a somewhat iffy bullpen

2 is basically only a problem if Zumaya doesn't transfer from great setup guy to great starter, or at least very good starter. If he became an average #5 guy I'd rather have the bullpen ace, but obviously a quality starter is more valuable than a great setup guy.

My guess right now (and probably what I'd try too) is they go with Galaragga and Miner as #4-5 right now, putting Willis in the pen. If Galaragga or Miner show they can't handle it then I hope they do give Z a shot at starting.


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