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How to fix the Tigers’ bullpen

The Tigers officially have the worst bullpen in the American League. Here is a way to fix that problem.

Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

The Tigers bullpen is now officially the worst in the American league with a WAR of just 0.4 wins above replacement level. To say that the Detroit Tigers’ bullpen has struggled this season would be a gross under statement. In fact, the Tigers have had difficulty with their bullpen in every season since 2006.

Not once since 2006 have the Tiger had a collective bullpen ERA below the league average. The bullpen FIP has been anywhere from middle to bottom of the league in each of the past eight seasons, including 2014. It’s a problem that has plagued them, no more prominently than in 2013 when, one by one, each Tiger relief pitcher took turns in blowing a four run lead in Boston that game that ended with the infamous grand slam that signaled the beginning of the end of their championship hopes. This, following the legendary bullpen meltdown of 2012, etc, etc.

While the Tigers have managed to be more efficient in holding leads in the late innings than most teams, there are also signs of trouble brewing in the late innings with the current bullpen. Joba Chamberlain, their one consistent relief pitcher during the first half of the season, has been a below replacement level pitcher in the second half, with a 5.03 ERA and a 4.70 fielding independent pitching (FIP). Al Alburquerque has also struggled, with a -0.3 fWAR and a 5.14 FIP.

On the bright side, Blaine Hardy has been the Tigers’ best reliever since being called up, but manager Brad Ausmus has been reluctant to give him a certified set up role, instead choosing to play lefty match ups with the rookie reliever. Joe Nathan is showing signs of regaining his old form- or at least ditching his new form- with a 3.44 ERA and a 3.17 FIP since the all star break. More to the point, he has just one blown save in the second half, and that was over a month ago.

The trade deadline has passed, and Dave Dombrowski made his bullpen moves, acquiring Joakim Soria from Texas, and picking up Jim Johnson off the scrap heap after he was released by the Oakland A’s and not claimed by any team on the waiver wire. The Tigers are counting on Soria to play a key role down the stretch and into October, although he also struggled since the All Star break in nine appearances between Texas and Detroit before going on the disabled list. Over that span, Soria has an ERA of 7.36 and an FIP of 6.94 with a WHIP of 2.32. That’s not going to help anyone. Johnson has simply been the worst pitcher in baseball this season.

The revolving door to the Tigers’ bullpen has been spinning all season. They have used a total of 21 pitchers in relief this season, half of those making their major league debut in 2014. After all that, they are still looking for answers. The Tigers bullpen has a combined -0.6 fWAR since the All star break, worst in the American league.

Getting Soria back healthy could be a big boost, but he might only replace the fading Chamberlain, who has yet to post one complete good season in the major leagues. Nathan will be the closer, for better or worse, barring injury. As for the rest, Hardy has been the best of a bad lot. He and Chamberlain are the only two Tigers relievers to pitch above replacement level for the season. Hardy and Nathan are the only two to do so in the second half.

Perhaps there is still a solution, if the Tigers play their hand correctly. Anibal Sanchez has remained on the disabled list since August 9 with a right pectoral strain, and is expected back about the end of the regular season. He would seem destined for the bullpen, if and when he returns to the team.

The Tigers have had success moving a starting pitcher to a struggling bullpen in the past. Drew Smyly was deserving of a spot in the rotation, but was the odd man out in a numbers game that sent him to the bullpen in 2013. He was one of the best relief pitchers in the league. Smyly often took the ball from the starting pitcher and gave the Tigers a couple of innings, sparing them from the soft underbelly of their bullpen. He led the league in relief innings pitched at the all star break, and was among the leading relievers in many categories.

Smyly was shifted to late inning duty and then, inexplicably, used more in lefty match up situations once the team acquired Jose Veras, the former closer from the Houston Astros. Smyly was relegated to partial inning duty and was much less effective. At the time, I had advocated giving Smyly the ball as the first option when available and when the starter left the game, and just let him finish, or at least let him get to the ninth inning, since there was no talking a manager out of his closer obsession.

What I propose now is to use Anibal Sanchez as the reliever extraordinaire, upon his return. Let him take the ball when the starting pitcher leaves the game, and don’t take it away from him just because the eighth or (shriek) ninth inning comes along. I may have to concede on the ninth inning because, well, everyone knows that the closer MUST pitch the ninth inning. When healthy, Sanchez is one of the best pitchers in the game. He is the reigning ERA champion and is simply a whole lot better pitcher than the cast of characters that have been coming out of the Tigers' bullpen this season.

If not Sanchez, then Hardy, who was a starting pitcher in Toledo before being converted to relief duty. Both pitchers should be able to work multiple innings, and more importantly, both have been light years better than what we’ve witnessed from the other pitchers in the Tigers’ bullpen this season.

How much of a load could you put on a relief pitcher extraordinaire?  A starting pitcher works every fifth day, with a lengthy bullpen session either one or two days before his scheduled start. With the breaks that are scheduled for television travel during a playoff series, they should be able to work three or four times in a seven game series, and two or three times in a five game series, for two to three innings each game.

The Tigers’ rotation has worked more innings than any other team in the league. Take the fifth starter out of the equation, and the average innings pitched per game is even greater. They have been masters of bullpen avoidance, which has contributed to their lead, as a rotation, in that all important category- wins.

There are days when the starting pitcher is ineffective and has to be removed early, needing either a patchwork job of relievers, or one guy to come in and give them multiple innings. That’s usually the low man on the totem pole in the bullpen, and I would not want to relegate Sanchez or Hardy to such a role if the team is trailing by multiple runs. We’re talking about completely replacing the mess that has been the Tigers bullpen prior to the ninth inning, whenever they have a lead, or I would add, are tied when the starter leaves the game.

The Tigers will be moving one pitcher from the rotation to the bullpen for the playoffs in any case. Normally, they might be just adding one man to the bullpen. I’d rather use that roster spot for a hitter, since they don’t have any hitters on their bench. All they need is one good relief pitcher to get the ball from the starting pitcher and get it to Nathan, for better or worse.