The one area of the 2013 Tigers that has taken the most heat, and the one that has drawn the most concern has been their bullpen. The Tiger rotation is as good or better than any in the league. The lineup has led or been second in the league in run production all season. But it's that bullpen that makes Tiger fans nervous.
At the beginning of the season, there was cause for concern. Since rookie Bruce Rondon failed in spring training to grab the closer role that was his to lose, manager Jim Leyland would not commit to any particular pitcher to fill the ninth inning role. They even went back to their deposed closer, Jose Valverde, who imploded during the previous post season, after no other team would give him a contract. It took less than a month to figure out that he still didn't have it.
The Tigers turned to their primary set up man, Joaquin Benoit, which is something that many including some at BYB had been calling for. That worked like a charm, until Monday. Benoit saved his first 22 chances, including three of more than one inning. In fact he was 31-for-31 without blowing a lead if you count his holds. Nobody's perfect. Well, except Jose Valverde in 2011. A blown save was bound to happen at some point.
Overall, the Tigers bullpen has performed fairly well protecting leads. Entering Monday's action, the Tiger pen ranked third in the league with a 73% save percentage, had the third fewest blown saves- now 15 on the season. They're in the middle of the pack in allowing base runners, give up more runs than average, but they have managed to patch together a back end of the bullpen that hasn't lost them games when they're given a lead to protect.
As far as the closer is concerned, the Tigers are fine. Joaquin Benoit is not about to implode. This time a year ago, he led the league in home runs allowed by a reliever, giving up 14 on the season. This year, he's allowed five, and just three since the all star break. He has not allowed a run in 30 of his last 34 appearances, and he continues to hold opponents to about a base runner per inning. One four run inning on September 1st mars an otherwise solid run. He's very reliable.
The Tigers have been using Jose Veras in the eighth inning since he was acquired from the Houston Astros at the end of July. Veras was the other culprit on Monday night, allowing a pair of runs in the eighth inning on a walk and a pair of doubles to switch hitters batting left, while recording one out. Benoit was summoned with the tying run on second base, and he got out of the eighth inning jam, but had to work 1-2/3 innings because Veras didn't finish the eighth.
Veras has been fairly steady in his role. He has three saves as a Tiger, filling in when Benoit is unavailable, and has coughed up the lead just once, holding opponents scoreless in 18 of his 22 appearances. He holds a WHIP of 1.20, allowing a batting average of .200 with 8 walks and two homers in 18.2 innings of work. He's not bullet proof, but he's very good, especially against right handers, to whom he has allowed a .172 batting average, and no extra base hits.
Drew Smyly was as good as any set up man in the league in the first half of the season, but was moved out of his set up role when Veras was acquired, and he has not been as effective since. Smyly gave up two hits on ground balls, one directly to Miguel Cabrera and one up the middle, before being taken out of Monday's game. That's about how it's gone for Smyly since his role was changed.
Reduced to partial inning duty, often only against left handed hitters, Smyly has allowed runs in seven of 19 appearances with three blown saves since the end of July, when he did not allow a run the entire month. He has held the lead seven times in save situations during that span. The increasing effectiveness of Bruce Rondon and Al Alburquerque to go with Veras, and the lack of another decent left handed reliever have pushed Smyly into a more limited role. None of the three have been as effective as Smyly was through the first three months of the season.
There are signs that some of Smyly's recent troubles are at least partially bad luck. His ERA for the second half is 4.15 despite an FIP of 3.34 and he lowest BB rate in the Tiger bullpen. He has a BABIP of .375 and has struck out ten batters for every one that he has walked. That's in just the second half. Things should improve for him, but whether he can regain his first half effectiveness is unknown. At a minimum, Smyly has held left handers to a line of .178 .218 .239 for an OPS of just .457 this season, and that is something that no other Tiger reliever has done.
Bruce Rondon, who struggled in his major league debut in the first half of the season with a 6.00 ERA and a BB rate of 4.0 per nine innings, had been steadily improving before he was shelved due to soreness in his elbow. He has been much more effective in his recent tenure, striking out more than a batter per inning, with an ERA of 2.41, a WHIP of 1.23, and allowing just one home run. He still walks his share, but if he can keep the ball in the park, he's a valuable addition to the Tiger bullpen.
Al Alburquerque also had a rough first half, with an ERA north of 5, walking over 8 batters per nine innings. His K rate is higher than any on the team, but what has troubled Alburquerque even more than the walks is that he allowed five home runs in a span of six weeks from mid July through September 1. He is the wild card of the Tiger bullpen. Most likely to get a key strikeout, and most likely to implode.
Jim Leyland has been using Al Al in high leverage situations, including in the late innings with a lead recently. Maybe that's trying to see how he works under pressure, or maybe he's taking Rondon's place until he returns, being paired with Smyly as the seventh inning guy. Whatever the case, Alburquerque has been fine the past three weeks, and survived an elevated walk rate of over four BB's per nine innings, when he can keep the ball in the park.
There have been signs that Alburquerque's wicked, unhittable slider has returned. He gives up very few hits, holding batters to a .156 average over the past 30 days. He allowed four runs, including two homers in the blowout game at Fenway park on 9/1, but has not allowed a run in 11 of his last 13 outings.
After that, just pray for rain. Phil Coke and Jose Alvarez (7.69 ERA, 1.69 WHIP overall in the second half) have been desperately bad, even against left handed hitters. If the available role is that of a lefty specialist (and it is) Alvarez has allowed lefties a line of .289 .333 .578 for an OPS of .911, while Coke's line vs lefties is .284 .345 .416 for an OPS of 761. No team needs that kind of LOOGY on the roster.
Darin Downs has been recalled in a delayed move that smacks of desperation to find a second left handed reliever. His line of .222 .258 .365 with an OPS of .623 is better than that of Coke or Alvarez, but his numbers vs right handed hitters is even worse, beginning with a .300 batting average allowed, and downhill from there.
Luke Putkonen has shown signs of being able to get hitters out, with a K/9 rate of 13.50 and hasn't walked a batter since being recalled. His 1.20 WHIP is respectable, and he actually has fared better against left handers than anyone but Smyly, with a line of .240 .265 .250 for an OPS of .515.
Rick Porcello figures to be added to the mix once the post season begins, and he has been very effective recently, with three consecutive quality starts for a total of 21.2 innings, allowing just 4 runs while striking out 24 and walking just 3 batters. His achilles has been left handed hitters, where he has allowed an average of .299 and an OPS of .815, but he's been getting lefties out recently as well.
When you add Rick Porcello to the bullpen, get Rondon back healthy, Alburquerque starting to put it together, Smyly due to bounce back, Benoit slamming the door, and Veras in a set up role, that's six relievers with the potential to be very solid. If they can find one more who can get left handers out, they'll have the complete set.