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Q&A with Bless You Boys

With Atlanta heading to Detroit for a three game series, I exchanged some questions with Rob Rogacki of Detroit's SB Nation site Bless You Boys.

Gregory Shamus

Here's what Rob had to say:

TC: Saturday's starter Rick Porcello has long been considered a pitcher who's breakout has been hurt by Detroit's porous infield defense. Porcello has struggled mightily so far this season, sporting an ERA over 11 and a FIP over 6. Is it still primarily infield defense that's hurting Porcello, or is there something else contributing to his struggles? If he continues to see bad results, how long of a leash does he have in the rotation?

BYB: While it wasn't great to begin with, Porcello's ERA ballooned after allowing nine runs in just 2/3 of an inning last weekend against the Los Angeles Angels. We referred to it as "death by paper cuts" at BYB, because nearly every hit was a slow-rolling ground ball or bloop single out of the reach of the Tigers defense. Porcello was keeping the ball down and pounding the strike zone as well as we have seen in the past 13 months. However, the knock on Porcello has always been the lack of an "out pitch," something he can go to with two strikes to get a strikeout when needed.

Porcello scrapped his slider during Spring Training and seemed to be prepped for a breakout yet, but clearly that has not been the case in the regular season. I think the organization will give him a few more starts to figure things out, but with left-hander Drew Smyly pitching well in the bullpen, the leash on Porcello has definitely been tightened.

TC: Getting Victor Martinez back from his knee injury was supposed to provide a boost to an already potent Detroit lineup, but that hasn't been the case. Martinez is hitting just .167/.273/.182 on the season with no home runs. His walk % and strikeout % both look good, so is he just having bad luck at the plate, or is there something off mechanically or health wise that is cause for concern?

BYB: It seems like Martinez's struggles are purely luck-related so far. He has been hitting the ball hard all year, but hasn't gotten many hits to drop in. His BABIP on line drives was a ridiculous .083 at one point, and even after being gifted an additional hit by a scoring change last week, his overall BABIP sits at .190. However, I started to notice that Martinez is struggling to catch up with good fastballs. He didn't fare well against Angels starter Garrett Richards, who packs mid-90s heat, and looked downright slow against closer Ernesto Frieri the next afternoon. Hopefully this is just a timing issue for Victor, who is a key component to the Tigers' chances in 2013.

TC: How happy/sad are you to see Jose Valverde back in closer role for Detroit, and do you think he's the best option in that spot for 2013?

BYB: I am a lot more optimistic about Valverde than the majority of the Tigers fanbase. Based on the reports we have heard/read, Valverde's velocity is back to pre-2012 levels, which is a good sign. I'm more interested in seeing how his splitter looks, though. He shied away from using the pitch during a good portion of the 2012 season, and PitchFX data shows that he wasn't getting as much break on the splitter as he had in prior years. Valverde reportedly threw in front of Tigers scouts back in the Dominican Republic before they even signed him to a minor league deal, so it seems like they have done their homework with him. Now, it's up to him to get big league hitters out again.

As for whether Valverde is the Tigers' best option at closer, I think it's a toss up between him and rookie Bruce Rondon. Valverde has the veteran wherewithal to get hitters out in tight situations, but isn't getting any younger. Rondon is the prospect with a golden arm, and according to Triple-A manager Phil Nevin, loves getting the ball in the ninth inning. Best case scenario: Rondon pitches well enough to take the job from Valverde and the Tigers flip one of them at the trade deadline for a prospect or two.

TC: Looking at the bullpen as a whole, the group's ERA is high but everything else looks pretty good. With the additions of Valverde and now Bruce Rondon, how formidable can that unit become, and what do you expect from Rondon?

BYB: I don't know if "formidable" is the right word to describe the Tigers' bullpen, especially when conversing with fans of the organization that employs Craig Kimbrel. The bullpen has the potential to be above average if everything goes right. Rondon is a closer in the making, with a fastball that scouts already rank among the best in the game, a plus slider, and a pretty good changeup. However, his command is horrible. I would be happy to see him stick with the big league club all season, but I'm not expecting the second coming of Aroldis Chapman (or Kimbrel, if you prefer) quite yet.

As for the rest of the bullpen, the pieces are there. Joaquin Benoit was homer-prone last year, but still put up good numbers. Octavio Dotel is on the disabled list for now, but had a great season in 2012. Phil Coke is an excellent LOOGY that the organization insists on using against righties. Al Alburquerque's lethal fastball-slider combo is perfect for the "fireman" role he currently sits in. Darin Downs has emerged out of nowhere as a decent lefty in middle relief. There are a few other promising options in the minors as well. This isn't a shutdown unit by any means, but if enough people pitch well it won't be the Tigers' downfall either.

TC: To wrap things up, what are your expectations for the series?

BYB: I think that the Tigers' pitching staff matches up very well with the Braves' strikeout-prone offense, but the Braves are catching a big break by missing both Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander this weekend. Doug Fister and former Marlin Anibal Sanchez are capable of locking up an offense on any given day, but don't have the big strikeout numbers that Scherzer and Verlander do.

The Tigers have won 207 games at Comerica Park since the start of 2009 (a .627 winning percentage) in no small part due to an offense that has scored five runs per game in that span. Things seem to be no different this season either. They have played just six of their 18 games at home, yet have scored half of their 80 runs in those games. I think the Tigers take two of three this weekend, but it could easily swing the other way.

Thanks again to Rob of Bless You Boys for doing the Q&A. I'll update with a link to my answers on their site whenever their post goes up.

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