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Tigers bullpen news: Better usage could lead to better results

Tiger bullpen is average by most stats, worse in the late innings, but could be better utilized.

Drew Smyly has been the most effective Tiger reliever, but is used in low leverage situations
Drew Smyly has been the most effective Tiger reliever, but is used in low leverage situations

On a team with the best rotation in major league baseball, and a lineup that ranks second in the league in runs scored per game, much of the criticism of the Tigers this year has been directed at the bullpen. The master plan to replace their veteran closer with an unproven rookie failed miserably. Their response was to bring back the veteran who failed them at the most critical time last season.

Tigers president and general manager Dave Dombrowski deserves some criticism for the failures of the bullpen this season, as much as he deserves credit for putting together such a powerful rotation and lineup. Last year’s bullpen ranked tenth in the league in bullpen ERA, and he did nothing to fix it. Nothing, that is, other than to hope that some of the pitchers they had improved and stayed healthy.

In fairness, the Tiger bullpen has taken some hits in the personnel department this season. Octavio Dotel, their most effective reliever last season, and a critical seventh inning set up man, has been injured and may be out for the season. Al Alburquerque has taken a walk on the wild side and been demoted to the minors where he still puts runners on base at an unhealthy rate. Brayan Villarreal , Jose Ortega, and Bruce Rondon also have been erratic in their short time with the Tigers, and are back in Toledo.

The Tiger bullpen has actually performed better as a unit this season than they did last, relative to the rest of the league. The bullpen ERA, however, is up from 3.79 in 2012 to 3.93 this season through Sunday's games. Their WHIP has remained steady at 1.31. The BB rate is up, despite removing the wild and crazy guys, from 3.49 to 3.79 per nine innings. The strikeout rate is also up from 8.50 to 9.59 per nine innings, same as their starting rotation.

The home run rate, despite the well documented struggles of Valverde, has dropped as Joaquin Benoit has corrected the issues that made him the most homer happy reliever in the league last season. Nothing stands out in the ground ball rate, nor the home run per fly ball ratio, as being much different from last year.

Sabermetrically speaking, Tiger relievers rank sixth in the league in FIP, third in xFIP, and fifth in WAR. Those numbers, together with a BABIP of .301, might suggest that they have been somewhat unfortunate, and that 3.90 ERA might be due for some adjustment in a favorable direction.

One number that jumps out at you is the decline in save percentage from 71% to 61%. We don’t really need to go into why that is, do we? The reason that the bullpen is drawing a lot of ire from fans is the same reason that they’ve blown more saves this year. After all, there is nothing more frustrating than letting a game get away that you thought was in the bag. Never mind the lack of run scoring in the late innings. When a save is blown, fans will blow up and the bullpen, especially the closer, will get the blame.

So, we have the best rotation in the world, and a lineup that produces plenty of runs, even if they’re not evenly distributed, but we have a bullpen that was mediocre last year, and hasn’t seen much improvement as a unit this year. Where can the bullpen be improved? Where does it need to be improved?

A look at the individual performances year to date, using Fangraphs, shows that Drew Smyly and Joaquin Benoit stand out as the most valuable members of the Tiger bullpen. Smyly takes Dotel’s place among the top ten relievers in the league, ranking eighth in WAR. Benoit is close behind at No. 11, both with a WAR rounded off to 0.8. Smyly also has the best FIP among Tiger relievers.

Smyly’s splits show that he has pitched 24.2 innings in low leverage, 9.2 in medium, and only 4.1 innings in high leverage situations. He strikes out one of every four batters, just over one per inning. He holds hitters to an average of just over .200 in all situations, and actually has pitched better with men on base. It’s pretty clear that he should be given a more important role in the bullpen.

Despite their wild streaks, Bruce Rondon and Al Alburquerque did not allow a home run, and that is a trait that both pitchers have taken with them from the minors to the majors, and back down again. There is a lot to be said for that. If a pitcher puts runners on base, but doesn’t let them score, then who cares? In fact, Al Al is right behind Smyly with an FIP of 2.36 to Smyly’s 2.31, and he has a WAR of plus 0.4 in just 14 innings of work. Not bad for a wild thing.

Phil Coke is has been worth half a win, despite being frequently misused in general relief as opposed to his ideal role mainly as a LOOGY. Coke’s LOB percentage is just 53.1%, meaning that almost half of the runners that have been on base have scored. That’s an indication of misfortune.

Darin Downs also has a positive 0.3 WAR and some good numbers, except that he has allowed three home runs. Those mistake pitches are what kill a relief pitcher, regardless of the role in which he is cast. FIP doesn’t like home runs. Downs actually has pitched 25.1 innings to Coke’s 19.2. Both have made 19 appearances thus far. Doesn’t seem like it, does it?

Luke Putkonen, Evan Reed, Ortega, Villarreal, and Rondon have all pitched less than ten innings this season, but suffice it to say that all but Reed are walking too many hitters to be considered for anything but a middle relief role thus far.

Alburquerque and Rondon were issuing free passes at the rate of about 8 per nine innings. It’s a good thing they kept the ball in the park with all those runners on base.

And then, there’s the closer. Jose Valverde has been one of the worst relievers in the league, with a WAR of 0.4 runs below replacement level. We broke down his performance using Pitch f/x here, and it’s pretty clear that the problem is that his split fastball is getting killed when he throws it in the strikezone. His fastball is still effective, but how effective a one-pitch closer can be is questionable. If he is used at all, and I suggested that he not be, then he has to ditch the splitter.

So what the numbers and the rankings show,
in this limited sample size, is a bullpen that could be in the top third, but because the worst relief pitcher has been used in one of the most high leverage roles, and one of the best relievers has been used in relatively unimportant roles, the actual runs scored (as indicated in ERA) are in the middle of the pack, and the save percentage is near the bottom of the league due to Valverde’s implosions.

We’ve analyzed (and over-analyzed) Valverde’s performance and his role as the closer, to the point where that horse is dead and turned into glue. He remains in the role that draws the most attention, and the most ire when things go wrong. It’s something that has to be addressed.

Until Dave Dombrowski addresses the closer issue by either addition or subtraction, and he will, and as long as Jim Leyland continues to use his relief pitchers in roles that they are not ideally suited for, then the bullpen will continue to perform at a less than optimal level. Valverde should not be closing games. Smyly should play a more important role. Coke should be used mainly as a LOOGY. We hold these truths to be self evident. But to the one guy that matters, apparently they’re not.

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