The interesting thing about relievers: One season they can seem so good, the next they can seem so average.
Fu-Te Ni is no exception.
A midseason callup by Detroit last year, the Taiwanese left-hander seemed like he could do no wrong. Batters hit just .186 against him and he allowed just a baserunner per inning. Finishing the season with a 2.16 ERA, Ni looked like he'd be a valuable late-innings reliever for the Tigers this season, especially as a lefty-specialist.
Then a funny thing happened. Reality caught up to the statistics he was putting up.
If you looked a little deeper, you'd have found his Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) was 4.16 and his xFIP (home run luck is accounted for) was 5.02. Both of those could best be accounted for when you consider a batting average on balls in play of just .204. A strand rate of 83 percent helped, too. While he wasn't striking out a bunch, he wasn't issuing a lot of free passes either.
This year his ERA has more than doubled to 4.82, in part because his luck come back to earth. Actually, he's even gone past that point, now he's maybe even getting unlucky (.354). But what's concerning is this: He's both walking nearly twice as many baserunners (6.27 per nine innings) and giving up line drives at twice the rate (24 percent) as he did last year.
Now of course, I'll give the standard warning: Relievers pitch a comparatively small amount of innings so small variations can be amplified.
This month for example, he's faced 11 batters. Six have gotten hits and one has walked. A bit of bad luck can make a big difference. So can some bad pitching. (Side note: I didn't notice it at the time but Ni went eight days between appearances. What's up with that?)
And like I've shown, there's some of that going on. Last month 11 of 28 batters got on base. In April, it was 16 of 51.
If Ni goes to Toledo, what happens? I'd say lefty reliever Daniel Schlereth might be the direction the Tigers would go.
Schlereth is striking out more than a batter an inning in Toledo right now (10.80 per nine innings). But like Ni, he's walking batters. A lot, actually (6.82 per nine innings). Meanwhile they're hitting a 20 percent line-drive rate off him. Of course, those numbers all look a lot better against left-handers. Unfortunately you can't assume manager Jim Leyland would use him strictly against lefties, either. Ni, for instance, faced three batters or fewer just three times in 19 games.
And interestingly enough, Ni's splits look similar to Schlereth's. He strikes out more than one lefty per inning and walks them at a rate of 4.32 per nine innings. His FIP is 2.89 and xFIP is 3.38.
So I'll ask you: Should Fu-Te Ni spend a little time in Triple-A Toledo to work things out? Should just pitch through it and wait to see if the luck evens out?
Or should Jim Leyland use him as he is designed: a lefty-specialist?
I think you can guess my answer to this question.