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Breaking down a broken bullpen

After a sluggish start, the Tiger bullpen seemed to be getting on track, and then imploded. What is the problem?

Leon Halip

We knew this could happen. When the Tigers bullpen started the season without the three relief pitchers who provided them with the most late inning work on their pitching staff, there could be trouble.

Sparky Anderson said you need 40 games to see what kind of team you have.  But then, Sparky said a lot of things to keep the media at bay.

After 20 games, the Tigers find themselves right where they are expected to be, atop their division. But their lead could be even bigger if their bullpen had been even adequate instead of blowing games that were seemingly in the bag. Even league average would look good at this point, but that hasn't been the case.

The Tiger bullpen currently has the highest ERA in the league, at 5.63. They have been no better than replacement level as a group, according to fWAR. Seemingly none of the relievers chosen for key bullpen roles have performed well in those jobs so far this season.

Joaquin Benoit was lost to free agency, but was replaced by Joe Nathan. No problem there, right? Probably not. Nathan had a couple of blown saves early, but the Tigers won both of those games, handing him a couple of vulture wins, and he has bounced back to slam the door when needed recently.

Drew Smyly was one of the most efficient relievers in the league in 2013, and he moves to the rotation.  He is replaced by... nobody.  Ian Krol has yet to show that he's anything better than a LOOGY. His issues with the home run ball have carried over from last year, making him undependable against a right handed hitter in the late innings of a close game.

Jose Veras was acquired at the trade deadline last year and filled one set up role. The Tigers declined his option, and decided to let Al Alburquerque or Joba Chamberlain fill a late inning role (along with Bruce Rondon, who will miss the entire season due to surgery). The problem there is that Al Al and Joba ranked first and second in the league last year in walks per nine innings, and neither was a dependable late inning reliever. They both have shown signs of being able to get hitters out, and both can be dominant at times. While their respective walk rates are down, they have been far too inconsistent so far this season.

As a whole, the bullpen has been good about not giving away free passes. The have only allowed 16 walks, by far the fewest of any relief corps in the American League. The two lefties, Krol and Phil Coke, have allowed just one walk between them. However, that has not been their issue.

The problem with the Tiger bullpen in the early going this season has been that they have been too hittable. They have allowed a .272 batting average, third-highest in the league. Their home run rate is also third-highest in the league. It is a good thing that they have not walked many hitters, or things could be a lot worse.  But then, if they could just keep the ball in the park, things could be a lot better.

Prior to this season, I had the task of profiling every pitcher on the Tigers' 40 man roster, as well as a couple who were not yet on the roster.  We cannot draw any conclusions based on the small samples that the 2014 season has provided thus far, but it's useful to look for trends. After all, managers tend to go with the hot hand when it comes to selecting pitchers from the bullpen for duty, and the Tigers are still in the process of looking for a couple of key relievers for high leverage work.

The Tigers are used to having a bullpen that is below league average overall. They haven't had a bullpen ERA below the league average since 2006. But they have managed to have solid results in the late innings when they need to hold a lead. The last couple of postseasons have been disastrous for the Tiger bullpen, and yet they rolled the dice that they could replace their key relievers with pitchers who have not been successful in the late innings in recent seasons, if ever.

The first step to recovery is to find a couple of relievers to work the late innings along with Nathan. I'll present these stat charts with 2013, 2014, and career numbers so that we can look for trends in the early going, and follow them as the season progresses.

Joe Nathan
2013 67 64.2 1.39 2.26 10.16 3.06 0.28 0.90 3.32
Career 714 858.2 2.76 3.33. 9.56 3.26 0.83 1.09 2.93
2014 9 8.2 6.23 5.47 10.38 5.19 2.08 2.00 1.62

It's not surprising that Dave Dombrowski made a priority of signing a free agent closer. Nathan was the best and the most expensive free agent closer available. A couple of untimely home runs have hurt Nathan, but it's not uncommon for him to start slow and then get locked in when the weather gets warmer. HIs walk rate is uncharacteristically high, but he has allowed just one walk and one run in his last five outings. He will be fine. If not, just pray.

Joba Chamberlain
Chamberlain G IP ERA FIP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 WHIP K/BB
2013 45 42.0 4.93 5.64 8.14 5.57 1.71 1.74 1.46
Career 260 444.2 3.85 3.83 7.90 3.87 0.95 1.38 2.85
2014 10 9.1 5.40 0.89 12.96 2.16 0.00 1.56 6.00

Joba had a fine season in the Yankee bullpen in 2011 before going under the knife for Tommy John surgery, then broke his ankle to delay his comeback. His ratios are great. He has cut his walk rate and has not allowed a home run, but a BABIP of .500 has pushed his ERA well above his FIP. Something has to give. He has had a lot of ground balls go through the infield and he has a 54.5% ground ball rate. Joba is the best chance the Tigers have of finding a good setup man. Dombrowski rolled the dice on him, and the risk of failure is high if he craps out. He leads the Tiger bullpen with an 0.3 WAR.

Al Alburquerque
Alburquerque G IP ERA FIP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 WHIP K/BB
2013 53 49.0 4.59 3.72 12.86 6.24 0.92 1.49 2.06
Career 102 105.2 2.98 2.86 13.20 6.05 0.43 1.30 2.18
2014 11 7.2 4.70 3.96 7.04 2.35 1.17 1.57 3.00

Al Al gave up 25 earned runs last year, a majority of those coming in the four games where he allowed a home run. Four of his five homers allowed came off fastballs, while two thirds of his pitches were sliders. This year, 77% of his pitches have been sliders. That won't work. He needs to locate his fastball to set up his nasty slider. Batters hit just .158 against the slider last year, but are hitting .348 against his signature pitch so far this season. His strikeout rate is also down sharply. On the sunny side, his walk rate is down, and he has allowed just one homer. He leads the Tigers with eleven appearances and is still trusted with late inning work.

Evan Reed
2013 Majors 16 23.1 4.24 3.86 0.77 3.09 6.56 1.54 2.13
Career Minors 216 408.1 4.24 - 0.4 3.8 8.4 1.33 2.29
2014 8 8.1 3.24 3.05 0.00 3.24 6.48 1.44 2.00

Evan Reed, who was thought to be the last man to make the team out of Spring Training, has probably been the most pleasant surprise of the relief corps. After bouncing up and down between Detroit and Toledo last year, Reed has pitched fairly well for the most part, being entrusted with some set up duty. He has not allowed a home run and has kept the walks to a minimum. If Alburquerque can't handle a late inning role, it would appear that Reed is next in line.

Ian Krol
2013 Majors 32 27.1 3.95 4.69 7.24 2.63 1.65 1.32 2.75
Career Minors 90 274.1 3.48 - 8.1 2.1 0.7 1.31 3.90
2014 11 8.0 3.38 6.80 6.75 0.00 3.38 0.88 Inf

The numbers in Krol's partial season last year suggested he could be a LOOGY type, and the Tigers certainly hope he's not. He has not done anything to show otherwise in the early part of this season. Equally of concern is that his home run rate was very high last year, and is easily his biggest concern this season thus far. As the only decent left-handed reliever on the roster, he needs to be able to get right handers out. Even a lefty specialist will see at least 50% right handed hitters. Most importantly, he needs to keep the ball in the park. On the plus side, he has yet to issue a walk, and has stranded every runner he has inherited or put on base. has a 100% LOB rate (gulp, 4 of 8 have scored) The numbers suggest he has had some good fortune thus far.

Phil Coke
2013 49 38.1 4.24 4.14 7.04 4.93 0.70 1.67 1.43
Career 321 340.1 3.90 3.67 7.03 3.36 0.66 1.40 2.09
2014 6 4.0 13.50 6.05 4.50 2.25 2.25 2.25 2.00

Not much needs to be said about Phil Coke, who continues to baffle Tigers fans merely by remaining on the roster. Coke has allowed a .400 batting average and a 13.50 ERA. We have covered the alternatives, and none are particularly attractive. At least Ausmus limits him to the lowest of low leverage situations.

Not much can be said about Luke Putkonen, either, who was invisible for the first two weeks of the season and when he finally saw action was ineffective being used in meaningless situations, only to wind up on the disabled list. He was replaced by Justin Miller, who has yet to allow a walk or a home run in 5 1/3 innings of work.

So the Tigers need a few good men for late inning duty. Nathan has to be one, and Joba Chamberlain seems to be on track for a set up role, despite some hiccups. From among the rest, the Tigers need another to step up and they can suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous relief with the rest. There is nothing so inconsistent as relief pitching in baseball.