If only Jim Leyland hadn’t been so hands on

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Tigers manager Jim Leyland spent the first four months of this season with two reliable relievers: left-hander Drew Smyly and right-hander Joaquin Benoit. Obviously, that’s less than ideal. But it did give him fewer chances to mess things up.

And mess things up he did in the ALCS. With Jose Veras and Al Alburquerque at his disposal, Leyland turned Smyly into a matchup guy. In Saturday’s game, Smyly induced a possible double-play grounder from the only batter he faced, Jacoby Ellsbury. Unfortunately, the play was botched by Jose Iglesias, who should have at least gotten one out.

Smyly was pulled. Veras came on with the bases loaded and gave up a grand slam to Shane Victorino. The rest is history.

From a percentage standpoint, it wasn’t such a bad move. Victorino certainly hits lefties better than righties, and Veras had been throwing well. But it was such a waste of the team’s best or second best reliever. Smyly held righties to a .242 average this year. He shouldn’t have been put in the situation as a one-and-done. Leyland wanted to save Phil Coke for David Ortiz, apparently, but it would have made more sense to let Coke face Ellsbury and then let Smyly have at Ortiz and a couple of the right-handers surrounding him. That was their best bet.

Instead, Smyly was gone after facing one left-handed batter for the third time in four ALCS appearances. It had happened just five times in 65 appearances between the regular season and ALDS (during which time he amassed a 2.34 ERA in 77 innings). The one time he was allowed to go longer against the Red Sox he ended up retiring all five batters he faced.

Game 2 was lost by the Tigers in nearly the same fashion as Game 6. Benoit, who gave up David Ortiz’s grand slam, was the fourth reliever to pitch in the eighth inning. Smyly walked Ellsbury and was immediately removed in that one.

Of course, not all of this is on Leyland. Things could have worked out fine had some non-Smyly relievers made better pitches. It’s just that Smyly seemed like the best bet to make those better pitches.

It’s easy to imagine the Tigers overreacting to their ALCS loss and signing a big-name closer this winter after passing on Rafael Soriano last winter. Trading Rick Porcello for late-inning relief help and moving Smyly to the rotation might also be a consideration. Benoit is a free agent, and if he’s back, it’ll probably be as a setup man. Ideally, Bruce Rondon would have been ready to close, but after his late-season elbow woes, he can’t be counted on in the role just yet. As is, I can’t help but think the Tigers will import one closer from the group of Grant Balfour, Joe Nathan and Brian Wilson this winter.

Nats’ success shouldn’t be about Bryce Harper

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Bryce Harper turns 27 years old today. As an early birthday present, he got to watch his former team reach the World Series for the first time in franchise history. His new team finished exactly at .500 in fourth place, missing the playoffs. These were facts that did not go unnoticed as the Nationals completed an NLCS sweep of the Cardinals at home last night.

Harper spent seven seasons with the Nationals before hitting free agency and ultimately signing with the Phillies on a 13-million, $330 million contract. The Nationals offered Harper a 10-year, $300 million contract at the end of the 2018 regular season, but about $100 million of that was deferred until he was 65 which lowered the present-day value of the offer. The Nats’ offer wasn’t even in the same ballpark, really.

Nevertheless, Nationals fans were upset that their prodigy jilted them to go to the Phillies. He was mercilessly booed whenever the Phillies played in D.C. Nats fans’ Harper jerseys were destroyed, or at least taped over.

Harper, of course, was phenomenal with the Nationals. He won the NL Rookie of the Year Award in 2012, then won the NL MVP Award several years later with an historically outstanding 1.109 OPS while leading the league with 42 homers and 118 runs scored. Overall, as a National, he had a .900 OPS. Pretty good. He was also productive in the postseason, posting an .801 OPS across 19 games, mostly against playoff teams’ best starters and best relievers. Furthermore, if the Nats had Harper this year, he would have been in right field in lieu of Adam Eaton. Harper out OPS’d Eaton by 90 points and posted 2.5 more WAR in a similar amount of playing time. The Nationals would have been even better if they had Harper this year.

The Nationals lost all four Division Series they appeared in during the Harper era. 3-2 to the Cardinals in 2012, 3-1 to the Giants in ’14, 3-2 to the Dodgers in ’16, and 3-2 to the Cubs in ’17. They finally get over the hump the first year they’re without Harper, that’s the difference, right? I saw the phrase “addition by subtraction” repeatedly last night, referring to Harper and the Nats’ subsequent success without him.

Harper, though, didn’t fork over four runs to the Cardinals in the top of the ninth inning in Game 5 in 2012. He didn’t allow the Dodgers to rally for four runs in the seventh inning of Game 5 in ’16 before ultimately losing 4-3. He didn’t use a gassed Max Scherzer in relief in 2017’s Game 5, when he allowed five of the seven Cubs he faced to reach base, leading to three runs which loomed large in a 9-8 loss. If certain rolls of the dice in those years had gone the Nationals’ way, they would have appeared in the NLCS. They might’ve even been able to win a World Series.

The Nationals saw how that looks this year. It was the opposing manager this time, Dave Roberts, who mismanaged his bullpen. Howie Kendrick then hit a tie-breaking grand slam in the 10th inning off of Joe Kelly to win the NLDS for the Nats. The playoffs are random. Sometimes a ball bounces your way, sometimes an umpire’s call goes your way, and sometimes the opposing manager makes several unforced errors to throw Game 5 in your lap.

Reaching the World Series, then thumbing your nose while sticking out your tongue at Harper feels like a guy tagging his ex-girlfriend on his new wedding photos. It’s time to move on.