As we enter a tryptophan-fueled holiday lull in the offseason, I thought I would poke a stick into the hive of discontent that surrounds the Tigers' bullpen. My aneurysm-inducing argument is that we already have the relievers we need - we just don't know who they are yet. Bullpens are largely a game of chance - they can go from disorder to elite performance and back again over the course of a season. Although I concede that the Tigers' relief corps could certainly be improved, my central claim is that we have enough lottery tickets to expect a reasonable level of performance in 2014.
My simplistic way of thinking about the bullpen is this: however you use them, you need at least 3 "plus" relievers - guys with ERA's typically below 3.50 - and at least 1 ought to be a southpaw. Beyond that, you'd like another 4 relievers who are at least "OK", with ERA's in roughly the 3.50 to 4.00 range. Splitting innings between pitchers like these, you could easily end up close to the league average bullpen ERA of ~3.50. Last year the Tigers' bullpen ERA was a subpar 4.01, including a hefty dose of early season disarray.
The problem that many of us see when looking at Detroit's tentative 2014 bullpen is that there are very few pitchers outside of Joe Nathan who seem like locks for the "Plus" or even the "OK" categories. Yet it seems like there may be a large number of pitchers (maybe more than in past years) who could potentially perform well for the Tigers. So I decided to tackle this issue with a small dose of solid statistics and a hefty heaping of subjectively conjuring numbers. Sound like fun? It actually sort of was.
For each reliever on the Tigers' 40 man roster (and a few off it), I gave my best guess at the probability that they would be at least "OK", and the chance that they would fall in my "Plus" category. Add them up and you have the expected number of righty and lefty relievers in each category, based on my intuitive say-so. I focused my predictions more based on the end of the season than the beginning (with playoffs in mind), allowing prospects some time to develop, and here's what I got:
|Pitcher||Chance of OK||Chance of Plus|
Basically, I predict that the Tigers will have 2 or 3 "Plus" righties and 1 "Plus" lefty. They would have another 2 or 3 "OK" righties and another 1 or 2 "OK" lefties". One thing that should catch your eye is the "non-roster" lines having relatively substantial numbers. Although there's no single non-roster player that I'm wildly optimistic about, in the aggregate these groups could potentially add an "OK" contributor each to the righty and lefty side. Here's where those numbers actually came from:
Sure, there's endless opportunity to quibble with my numbers for one player or another, but I've tried my best not to be overly optimistic or pessimistic in general. If I've succeeded, there should be some merit to my conclusion. The Tigers bullpen may not be elite in 2014, but I contend that we might expect average performance or even a little better (albeit with a high degree of uncertainty!). Combined with a still-outstanding rotation and a fairly formidable offense, the Tigers may still have about as good a chance as anyone else at capturing that elusive title.
Now it's your turn to tell me how crazy I am. Or, you can paste this thing into your own spreadsheet and tell us what answers you get (do that and you'll get a free Detroit Tigers numbers geek lapel pin! ...at least in a virtual sense). If nothing else, it passes the time until we get to see how the Tigers reliever roulette pans out in 2014.