It's no secret that Brad Penny is now the least effective starter in the Tigers' rotation. Always a back-of-the-rotation guy in Detroit, that fact is emphasized now more than ever when compared to trade deadline acquisition Doug Fister.
Penny's season has been up and down in Detroit. After a hiccup or two, he settled into a string of strong outings in early May. After another hiccup, he cruised through June by allowing more than three runs just once while going deeper into games. He entered the All-Star break with a 4.50 ERA. Compared to Phil Coke and Andy Oliver, Penny's performance at the time looked solid. It wasn't always pretty, but it was what a back-of-the-rotation pitcher looks like.
That ERA has grown to 6.49 in the second half. Penny gave up four-runs-or-more in six of his last eight starts. He gave up 15 runs his past two starts alone. If you're looking for a bright point, Penny makes it through five innings most of the time so the bullpen isn't taxed too much.
With a 7.5-game lead in the division this morning, the question of Penny is not a pressing one. Certainly they can afford to carry him a bit through the end of the regular season and shelve him in the playoffs. However, if they plan to use Penny out of the bullpen in the playoffs would it be wiser to get him adapted to it in the coming weeks while allowing someone else like Duane Below to pitch in the rotation?
Before we get to those questions, I'd like to explore if Penny is wearing down. He is on 161 innings this season. In the past two years combined, he threw for just 97.1. This obviously is a tough topic to tackle. Penny's not going to tell you he's worn down. He's a professional.
Looking at his velocity -- standard PitchF/X disclaimer about pitch identification applies -- Penny's four-seam fastball has averaged 93.7 mph since Aug. 1 with 9.09 vertical and -3.71 horizontal movement. In the past two games, that four seamer has averaged 94.1, although the horizontal movement is a bit less at -3.09. The velocity is actually up from the 92.5 average through July 31. So no clues there.
Looking deeper, there are a few stats to look at, via FirstInning.com:
Brad Penny Peripherals
So what jumps out the most to me its Brad Penny's dropoff in ground ball percentage. When he was more effective, he was forcing them half the time. In recent weeks, he's not. His strikeout rate and walk rate bounce around a bit, and the K:BB ratio isn't wonderful. However those numbers haven't changed greatly. He's obviously not a dominant pitcher at this point of his career. Looking at recent results, you can see Penny has been getting hit pretty hard up in the strike zone. (He was also getting hit even when he kept the ball down.) So not keeping the ball down as well could be a sign he's not totally on his game.
Beyond that what might be going on with Penny? He gives up contact, obviously. So he's reliant on his defense making plays behind him. For instance in the Chicago game, four of the eight runs were unearned because of an error by Carlos Guillen on what should have been an inning-ending double play. You can't put it all on Guillen or the infield. Penny allowed home runs, too. But Penny needs defense and hasn't always had it.
The sequence of events matters to Penny as well because he's a contact pitcher. What does that mean? Essentially, if Penny scatters hit hits and gets the right kinds of outs in between, he's not going be hurt too badly. If he stacks up some hits or gets the wrong kinds of outs in between (think: fly ball with a runner on third) he's going to allow runs. So when you look through Penny's game logs, you can find games where he allows a lot of hits, even of the extra-base variety, without allowing a lot of runs.
That was all a long-winded way of saying Penny has had a few problems lately but it's unlikely he's dramatically different than the pitcher you've seen all year. That doesn't make him any less frustrating, of course.
So getting back to the original questions, I don't know that you have to pull Penny from the rotation due to ineffectiveness. That leaves the question of whether to pull Penny to help him adjust to the bullpen. He has pitched out of the bullpen just eight appearances during his career. Four of those have been during the playoffs. None of those have been since 2008. During the regular season, he allowed six runs in 3 2/3 innings -- allowing runs in three of four outings. In the playoffs, he allowed runs in just one appearance, with totals of 2 ER in 4 2/3 innings. During spring training, reporters told us Penny took longer to warm up and wasn't real comfortable appearing in spring training games out of the bullpen.
But he's not going to be a starter in October. That much is certain. So if Penny hopes to contribute on the field in the playoffs, he's going to have to work out of the pen. Bullpen innings have been hard enough to find as is, but it seems to me getting Penny comfortable would be a benefit to all. Between Penny's recent ineffectiveness as as starter and the 7.5 game lead in the division, the Tigers have a little bit of line to play with as well.
So to answer that headline: After Penny's next start, put him in the bullpen and prepare someone else to make the rest of his starts this year. That should only amount to three anyway.