July 21st, 2013

Game 97: Benoit’s mentoring helps Rondon

Bruce Rondon came through the Tigers farm system getting advice and help from Jose Valverde, the man he was eventually invited to spring training to replace. Valverde did a lot for young players in minor-league camp over the years he was here, from bringing over food in spring training to talking with pitchers about mound mentality.

Aside from a brief stretch in April, Valverde and Rondon did not play on the same team. The Tigers made the call to bring up Rondon last month only after they pulled the plug on Valverde as the closer and needed to fill the opening it left in middle relief.

Benoit not only became the closer, he became the veteran. He’s helping provide advice to Rondon.

“He’s trying to take advantage as much as he can of the little things in baseball,” Benoit said. “He’s been around the league and can learn some hitters’ tendencies. Basically I told him how to face some guys.”

There are young hitters Benoit doesn’t know, and he tells Rondon in those situations to go with his gut. He also has talked with Rondon about setting up his fastball, about throwing it up to change the eye level on hitters.

There are also hitters that Rondon has already seen, in which case he’s learning how to apply what he has seen from them. He saw the Royals in his Major League debut in April, and he gave up three hits in an inning to them to blow an eighth-inning lead. He’s a completely different pitcher since then.

“He already faced them a time before,” Benoit said. “We already talked about them. He knows already that he can’t try to do the same thing every time, because they’re professional hitters.

“He’s learning. You can see his approach is different. He’s throwing his fastball more often. He’s elevating more. He’s throwing for strikes and controlling his pitches.”

His manager, in turn, is slowly working him into bigger situations. Sunday’s matchups all but dictated going with Drew Smyly in the seventh inning for three left-handed hitters, then Rondon in the eighth for the middle of the Royals order.

“I’m going slow with him,” Leyland said.

Two of the three hitters Rondon faced Sunday faced him in April. Billy Butler, whose leadoff single on a 2-0 pitch started the eighth-inning rally the first time around, fell into an 0-2 count on fastballs before grounding out on a slider. Lorenzo Cain, whose sacrifice fly in April brought in the tying run, saw four fastballs and didn’t make solid contact with any of them, striking out on a foul tip off a 102 mph heater.

In between, Salvador Perez — who took a called third strike against Rondon on Friday — lined out to third.

It was the third consecutive perfect outing for Rondon, who has retired 11 consecutive batters in that stretch. He has walked two batters in nine innings since rejoining the team nearly four weeks ago. All of that work has come in the seventh inning or later, but Sunday was Rondon’s first close lead, resulting in his first Major League hold.

Rondon’s potential use over the stretch run is going to depend a ton on what the Tigers do on the trade market. It would be a major surprise if GM Dave Dombrowski doesn’t add a reliever he can use in the late innings, either to close or set up.

That doesn’t mean that Rondon will be a forgotten man. Leyland will pick and choose his situations more to use Rondon, but he’s not going to forget that kind of arm. He also isn’t going to forget what kind of asset he has with the kid.

Benoit isn’t forgetting what the young arms behind him mean to the team. He reads what has been written about Detroit’s bullpen, and all the faults thrown at it. He ran through a list of them as he talked following Sunday’s list.

“I think we’re good,” Benoit said. “We’re not as bad as people put us.”

Sunday’s lineups: Tigers at Royals

Left-handed hitters are batting just .237 off of James Shields this year, which explains in part why Jim Leyland is using Brayan Pena (4-for-8 lifetime off Shields) behind the plate today despite Alex Avila’s three-hit game. However, Andy Dirks still gets the start in left field over Matt Tuiasosopo, who’s 1-for-6 with three strikeouts against Shields.

The Royals turn to Jarrod Dyson for a start in center field against Doug Fister, with Lorenzo Cain shifting over to right.

Gameday | TV: FS Detroit, MLB.TV | Radio: 97.1 FM, AM 1270, Gameday Audio

TIGERS (career numbers off Shields)

  1. Austin Jackson, CF (6-for-16, walk, 3 K’s)
  2. Torii Hunter, RF (12-for-38, 9 K’s)
  3. Miguel Cabrera, 3B (14-for-32, HR, 3 walks, 5 K’s)
  4. Prince Fielder, 1B DH (3-for-11, 2 walks)
  5. Victor Martinez, DH 1B (7-for-25, 8 K’s)
  6. Jhonny Peralta, SS (10-for-26, 3 HR, 3 walks, 6 K’s)
  7. Andy Dirks, LF (1-for-3)
  8. Brayan Pena, C (4-for-8, walk, K)
  9. Ramon Santiago, 2B (6-for-20, 5 K’s)

P: Doug Fister

ROYALS (career numbers against Fister)

  1. Alex Gordon, LF (5-for-21, 4 K’s)
  2. Eric Hosmer, 1B (3-for-11, walk)
  3. Billy Butler, DH (7-for-23, 2 walks, 3 K’s)
  4. Salvador Perez, C (3-for-16, K)
  5. Lorenzo Cain, RF (2-for-3)
  6. Mike Moustakas, 3B (5-for-13, HR, 3 K’s)
  7. Miguel Tejada, 2B
  8. Alcides Escobar, SS (6-for-21, HR, walk, 4 K’s)
  9. Jarrod Dyson, CF (1-for-6, K)

P: James Shields

Game 96: Verlander, Leyland and careful pitching

Let’s all agree on this: It’s no longer a question of velocity with Justin Verlander.

His fastball on Saturday averaged just under 96 mph, according to data from MLB.com Gameday and brooksbaseball.net. That’s his best of the year. His command of it, on the other hand, was not.

There’s a strike rate on Verlander fastball that seems to correlate with how he has been doing this season. When his strike ratio on his fastball has hovered around 60 percent, he has usually struggled. When it’s around 70 percent, he has been at his best. On Saturday, he threw 28 out of 44 fastballs for strikes, according to Brooks’ site. That amounts to a 63.64 percent rate, or the exact same rate of strikes he threw with his changeup.

His hardest pitches ranged around that 32-pitch fourth inning, when he loaded the bases twice and walked in a run.

To suggest he isn’t throwing as hard as he used to seems to be an old argument now. Whether he can actually command it the same way when he throws hard now, or anywhere close, is another matter.

Perhaps that’s why there seemed to be some differing views on what exactly is going on with Verlander.

“He wasn’t sharp,” manager Jim Leyland said. “His control wasn’t good. He was behind guys. This is just me; I don’t know what Justin will say. But it looks to me like he’s pitching a little careful. He’s just not being aggressive with his stuff and pitching a little bit too careful. That’s just my observation.”

Verlander’s response: “No.”

Asked what would lead Verlander to pitch carefully, Leyland deferred.

“Can’t answer that,” Leyland said. “You’ll have to ask him.”

When asked later would lead Leyland to suggest he was pitching carefully, Verlander deferred.

“That’s a question for him,” Verlander said.

His catcher’s response was somewhere in the middle, but seemed to trend towards Verlander a bit.

“Well, he’s attacking guys,” Alex Avila said. “I think he just doesn’t have his release point. At times, he knows where he wants to throw it, but it’s just not going there at times. It’s just a matter of finding it.”

The fastball, Avila said, seems to be there.

“I mean, I’m not concerned about his fastball. He’s throwing hard,” he said. “When he’s throwing it there and he has good command of it, they’re not taking good swings. And when they do, they’re not hitting it hard. They haven’t really been taking good swings off his fastball. It’s just making sure you can not only get ahead of guys, but finishing them with the same release point.”

Verlander and Leyland don’t seem to be on the same page as far as the root of the issue, but I’m not sure they need to be. The man Verlander needs to be in agreement with is the pitching coach, because he and Jeff Jones have another long week ahead.