If you are a cynical fan of the Detroit Tigers, then chances are that you abide by the adage that there are three constants in life: death, taxes, and the Detroit Tigers bullpen melting down every other game or so. When the offseason was over and spring began relentlessly chipping away at winter’s death grip on the nation, the one aspect of this year’s baseball squad that had talk radio hosts forecasting doom before anything occurred was the bullpen. Joe Nathan was essentially replacing Joaquin Benoit, and we were hoping and praying that Joba Chamberlain might do something good, and that maybe Ian Krol wouldn’t blow as a 22 year old lefty, and oh please Phil Coke be good again.
Sadly enough, blind squirrels and nuts and all, they were unfortunately correct. It is no secret that the Tigers bullpen, an area of the team that Dave Dombrowski has yet to figure out how to build effectively and thus leaves untouched, has caused many individuals to run through their alcohol supplies many times over than one would comfortably like to run through their alcohol supplies. I won’t have you relive the horrors by recounting the meltdowns, but because we are all masochists here, let’s dig a bit deeper into the numbers behind this large mass of dumpster fire.
Joba Chamberlain has received some grief over the month he has pitched, and rightful… Hey, wait a minute. Those don’t look like numbers of a really bad bullpen arm. Actually, those look like the numbers one of the most dominant arms in baseball! Now, I realize it’s April and numbers can fluctuate for the next five months, but let’s put what Joba is doing right now in some perspective. Take Joba Chamberlain’s SIERA and compare it to the best bullpen arms from last season. The only pitchers who posted a better SIERA than Joba Chamberlain last year were Kenley Jansen (1.55), Greg Holland (1.43), and Koji Uehara (1.29). The only five pitchers who posted a better K/BB ratio last year were Casey Fien, Mark Melancon, Edward Mujica, Kenley Jansen, and Koji Uehara.
Ok, I concede that there are quite a few relief pitchers who are posting really good numbers early in the season, but so far Joba Chamberlain has been everything Dave Dombrowski had envisioned when he signed him, and then a whole lot more. I mean, all of his peripherals point to him being one of the most dominant pen arms in the league. So what gives? Why does he have an ERA of 5.40?
I will point to Joba’s BABIP as the culprit. Opposing hitters are posting a BABIP of .500 against Joba Chamberlain and are posting a LD% of 27.3%, which is the highest mark of his career. If Chamberlain can maintain his peripherals, and it’s very possible he can, then there is no way that opposing hitters will be able to sustain this mark against him. This is just luck, and his WHIP and ERA will regress to what his peripherals say his ERA should be.
Well, no surprise here, Al Al has been very dissap… Wait, what?! Are you telling me that Al Al is posting the BEST BB/9 mark of his career? Am I reading this right? You mean to tell me that the Amazing Al, who generally walks a lot of hitters is walking under three batters per nine innings? On top of that, Al is also maintaining his usual high strikeout rate. While it’s the lowest mark of his career in the majors, 10 K/9 is still really good, and his K/BB ratio is the highest of his career.
Again, this doesn’t make any sense. Al Al’s peripherals say that he should be pitching much better than what his 5.00 ERA and 1.56 WHIP would indicate. Again, BABIP rears its ugly head. Opposing hitters have a .370 average on balls hit in play off of Al Al. That mark is nearly a full point higher than his career BABIP of .287. Al Alburquerque is also posting a HR/9 mark of 2. His career HR/9 is 0.55. Al Al’s slider is also rated a -0.9 according to Pitch F/X. Al Al’s slider is never negative.
So once again it appears that opposing hitters are posting unsustainable numbers against a Tigers bullpen arm.
I can’t blame BABIP for Krol’s underwhelming performance. Opposing hitters have a BABIP of .174 against ½ of the hall that Dave Dombrowski brought in in exchange for Doug Fister. Krol’s case of why he hasn’t been as good as his peripherals would indicate (WOW, HE HASN’T WALKED A BATTER YET) is that gnarly 3.38 HR/9. He’ll have to work things out with that curveball of his. It’s worth -1.7 runs above average according to Pitch F/X this early into the season.
But again, I have a hard time believing that a HR/9 rate of over 3 is going to last at all, especially considering Krol’s peripherals.
There’s not much else to say about the rest of the bullpen. Phil Coke is dead man walking. Justin Miller is a mystery. Evan Reed is fairly average. Joe Nathan has had his struggles, but numbers show that Nathan will be fine as the year progresses past April (Not to mention, he’s pitched really well in his last few outings anyway).
So, bottom line- yes, the Tigers bullpen has been a dumpster fire that shaves years off our lives as we watch it implode, but the performance from our most important arms has largely been the stuff of incredibly bad luck. I strongly believe that if we have patience, a lot of our troubles with the bullpen will solve themselves through regression to the mean or unsustainable hitting performances dying off.