The biggest concern that the Tigers have had during the 2014 season has been their bullpen. From any angle that you look at it, the numbers show that Detroit's bullpen has been one of the weakest in the American league. When analysts look at the team match ups, the bullpens give Tigers' opponents a big advantage every time. The upcoming series against Baltimore is no exception.
Recent developments, namely the return of Anibal Sanchez and Joakim Soria from the disabled list, give the Tigers bullpen a chance to have the shut down bullpen that they have lacked all season, and in fact, for the past several years.
Just how the Tigers will work Soria and Sanchez into prominent bullpen roles has been the subject of much discussion, and consternation among Tigers' fans. Manager Brad Ausmus has, at least recently, used the same struggling pitchers in the most important roles, while the best pitchers in the Tigers’ bullpen wait for an opportunity to pitch.
Specifically, Ausmus has stayed on board with Joe Nathan and Joba Chamberlain, and just about every other relief pitcher, while Joakim Soria and Anibal Sanchez have sat idly by. The fact is that Soria and Sanchez are far better pitchers who should be used in the most critical situations.
Joe Nathan has been, at best, a mediocre relief pitcher all season. He has a 4.89 ERA with a 3.96 fielding independent pitching average (FIP). His seven blown saves are the most among closers in the American league, and the most by a Tigers reliever in the past ten years.
In the past two months, Nathan has allowed 13 walks and 20 hits with just ten strikeouts in 19-1/3 innings, with a WHIP of 1.71. At least he has not given up a home run in that time. Only by the grace of divine intervention have the Tigers avoided being blown out of the division race by the implosions of their closer.
Warning alarms are the loudest when Nathan is called upon to work consecutive games. When working on zero days rest, he has allowed a batting average of .400, an on base percentage of .478, and a slugging percentage of .500. With a day of rest, Nathan has allowed a line of .219 .316 .344 .660. A rested Nathan is okay. Using Nathan on consecutive days is absolutely dumbfounding.
Joba Chamberlain was pretty much the only effective relief pitcher that the Tigers had during the first half of the season, with a 2.63 ERA, a 2.47 FIP, striking out 9.5 batters per nine innings and blowing just two leads. That was just too good to be true. In the second half of the season, Chamberlain has posted an ERA of 5.11, and his strikeout rate is under 7 K/9. He has allowed 1.54 base runners per inning (WHIP).
Chamberlain has also struggled when pitching on consecutive days. With no rest, he has allowed a line of .246 .356 .328 .684. With a day’s rest, those numbers drop to .146 .196 .229 .425. That’s 100 points batting average, 160 points on base percentage, and 100 points slugging. Yet, Ausmus continued to robotically call on Chamberlain in the eighth inning when the Tigers have a lead, and he has better pitchers in the bullpen.
Somehow, the Tigers have managed to retain a lead in the seventh inning or later about 71% of the time, or just above the league average, despite the second highest bullpen ERA, FIP, and WAR in the league. The damage could have been much worse in the loss column, and if the same performance continues, greater losses against playoff teams are very likely.
All season long, we have looked for reasons. Ausmus is not to blame for the lack of bullpen options, as he hasn't had much to work with. Ausmus is still in his first year, still learning to manage and learning his own players. Cut him some slack, and he'll figure it out, eventually.
Fortunately, the Tigers traded for one of the better relief pitchers, and closers, when they gave up their best relief pitching prospect in Corey Knebel, and their best starting pitching prospect in Jake Thompson, for Joakim Soria. Upon arrival, Soria was immediately cast aside in favor of Nathan and Chamberlain. After a couple of weeks on the disabled list, he returned to action, to the delight of Tiger fans, only to be cast aside again by Ausmus.
Soria has not allowed a walk since July. He has not allowed a hit or a walk in his last three outings, and has retired the last 14 batters he has faced. He has a 3.25 ERA, 2.09 FIP, 0.41 HR/9, only 1.22 walks per nine innings, and has struck out more than a batter per inning. Yet, Nathan and Chamberlain are summoned in the eighth and ninth innings, to the exclusion of Soria and Sanchez.
What is Ausmus doing? There’s an elephant in the living room and, either Ausmus doesn’t see it, or he’s been told to ignore it by someone who doesn’t want to admit an obvious mistake in giving Nathan a $ 20 million contract to pitch in the ninth inning. If that's the issue, the net cost for Soria was just as high.
The Tigers have also managed to survive the loss of Anibal Sanchez, the American league’s reigning ERA champion, who has returned to the team and is ready for action. But, it seems, Ausmus was not ready for Sanchez. Although he admits that Sanchez has the best stuff among all the pitchers in the Tigers’ bullpen, he doesn’t have a role.
Ausmus has said that he has Nathan as the closer, Chamberlain as the eighth inning set up guy, and Soria as the seventh inning guy, or closer if Nathan is not available- though lord only knows when that might be. So where does that leave Sanchez?
Anibal Sanchez is a better pitcher than the entire group that the Tigers have been using in relief all season long. He could be the first option out of the bullpen, and take the ball from the starter to the finish. Forget the predetermined roles that have been set aside and guarded for pitchers with predefined roles.
If Sanchez is not healthy enough to pitch, or if the Tigers think that they’re risking a more serious injury by using him, then he should be on the disabled list and not in the bullpen. But that’s not what we’re being told, either by Nathan or by Sanchez himself.
After Saturday’s 12- 3 blowout against the last place Twins, with a chance to clinch the division title gone, Ausmus addressed the media and explained that he didn’t use Sanchez to replace Rick Porcello because he wanted to use Sanchez when the score was closer. Maybe we should be encouraged by those remarks, although Sanchez has yet to pitch a high leverage inning from the bullpen.
We can only hope that Ausmus realizes that Nathan and Chamberlain are ineffective when working consecutive days, and will use Soria and Sanchez in high leverage situations.
Brad Ausmus is a smart man with a cool demeanor and a ton of baseball experience, especially working with pitchers. He is learning on the job, but the Tigers don’t have time to watch him grow. He has not had the talent in the bullpen all season that is needed, but now the talent is there. Use it wisely.