This is the second in a series of articles grading the Tigers on their performance through 81 games of the 2012 season. We reviewed the Tiger rotation here, in a previous article.
2011 was a tale of two bullpens for the Tigers’ relief corps. While they led the league in save percentage, the bullpen overall ranked among the worst in the league in traditional statistics such as ERA and walks allowed. This season, those numbers are virtually reversed. A bullpen that saved 84% of their save chances in 2011, has saved 67% in 2012. The Tigers had ten blown saves all last season, but have nine BS already this year.
I believe that save percentage, not exactly a "sabermetric statistic", is an important number, because it shows the ultimate success or failure of the bullpen when they inherit a lead in the seventh inning or later. Last year’s Tiger pen virtually never blew a lead in the late innings. This year’s crew has not been quite as good, ranking tenth in the league in save percentage. But that's only one part of the equation.
The Tiger bullpen ranks fourth in the league with a 3.39 FIP and eleventh in ERA at 3.67. As with the rotation, the difference can be chalked up to poor defense allowing opponents extra outs by not making plays. The Tiger pen is third in strikeout ratio, eighth in walk ratio, and 13th in batting average allowed. In my view, they have plugged the holes that they had, and when everyone is healthy, they are well above average from top to bottom.
Following is an individual breakdown of the performances of Tiger relievers, season to date:
Jose Valverde- B minus: One could hardly expect that El Papa Grande would repeat his 2011 performance, when he racked up 49 saves in 49 chances. He put that idea to rest when he blew his first save opportunity of the season in April. In fact, Valverde has three blown saves to go with an ERA of 3.66 and a WHIP of 1.34. His career numbers are 3.06 and 1.18 respectively. He has saved his last six chances and has been effective overall, if not the perfect closer that he was last year.
Joaquin Benoit- A minus; Jim Leyland was lobbying to get Benoit on the All Star team this year. In his customary set up role, Benoit has been lights out again this year. In 37 appearances and as many innings, Benoit has struck out 48 hitters and walking only 14, while posting an ERA of 2.37 and a WHIP of 1.21. He has one save, 19 holds, and one blown save in 21 save opportunities. Benoit is as solid as any set up man in the league.
Phil Coke- C minus; The Tigers have used Coke sometimes as a lefty specialist and other times in a regular set up role in the seventh inning. The numbers would indicate that he is better facing left handed hitters. Lefties have hit .296, while right handers have hit .343 against Coke this season. Overall, he has allowed over 1.5 base runners per inning, which is too high for a pitcher expected to work high leverage innings. On the bright side, Coke has not allowed a run in 17 of his last 21 appearances, and just one run in the four others, since May 15.
Octavio Dotel- B minus: The "other" free agent that the Tigers signed, in addition to Prince Fielder, has done an admirable job for them as a right handed set up man. If Phil Coke is a "LOOGY", then Dotel is a "ROOGY", but he has been much more effective overall this season than Coke. Dotel has posted an ERA of 3.86 and a WHIP of just 1.13 while striking out 37 batters and walking just seven in 25.2 innings of work. His weakness? Lefties have gotten on base at a .351 pace, but right handers just .235. ROOGY please, Mr. Leyland.
Brayan Villarreal- A: Villarreal has been a pleasant surprise since the Tigers called him up from Toledo, pitching in many higher leverage situations including in a set up role on occasion. Villarreal has made 23 appearances, throwing 28 innings, giving up just 16 hits and 12 BB’s while striking out 40 batters. That’s almost 1.5 K’s per inning, or 12.86 per nine innings. He has a team low 1.61 ERA and a 1.00 WHIP. He looks like a solid addition to the bullpen who can be counted on in any situation going forward.
Luis Marte- C plus: Marte made the team out of spring training, but started the season on the disabled list. Since his return in May, he has pitched well in nine appearances, posting an ERA of 3.71 and a WHIP of 1.35. He has also fared much better against right handed hitters, who have a stat line of .231 .286 .410 .696 against Marte, while lefties have hit .269 .387 .538 .926 against him. I would hope that his current option to Toledo is a temporary move to get more fresh arms in the bullpen, because he has earned his stay in Detroit.
Duane Below- B plus: Below has worked mainly in a long relief role for the Tigers this season, a role that they struggled to fill adequately last year. Below has gotten the job done, pitching 33 innings of relief in 21 games, allowing just 27 hits and four walks, while striking out 22 hitters. The lefty works as a nice compliment to a rotation that features four right handed starters. Below has an ERA of 2.70 and a team best WHIP of 0.93 as a reliever. It appears that he has found his niche in long relief.
Dan Schlereth- F; After being given a spot on the opening day roster for no good reason, Schlereth proceeded to do exactly what most Tiger fans thought he would do. He gave up 14 hits and 5 walks in seven innings, posting an ERA of 10.29 and a WHIP of 2.71. He was optioned to the minors when he informed the team that he had been pitching hurt, so his option was voided and he was placed on the disabled list. I just hope they have the good sense to send him down and let him stay there until he shows some control when he comes off the disabled list.
The F Troop: Luke Putkonen (8.59 ERA/ 2.59 WHIP), Thad Weber (9.00,/ 3.00)
G Men: Collin Balester, (6.50/ 1.39), released on May 23.
Outlook: Overall, the Tigers have improved their bullpen on the fly this season by replacing struggling pitchers such as Dan Schlereth and Collin Balester with Duane Below and Brayan Villarreal. When the Tigers have had to dip into the minor leagues for more bullpen help out of necessity, the results have not been good.