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How good have Tigers bullpens been recently?

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Blowing a lead is the most frustrating part of baseball, but Tigers and their fans have suffered less grief than any other team.

Duane Burleson

The Detroit Tigers have fewer blown saves than any team in the American League over the past five seasons, including this season.

It’s a good thing, too. Judging by the fan reaction whenever Joe Nathan, or the set up man du jour, blows a lead in the late innings, life would be a living hell for Tigers’ fans if their late inning relief corps had been merely average in recent years.

Losing a game in the late innings, and in the ninth inning in particular — when you’ve mentally got the game in the win column, counted it in the standings and calculated the magic number for the season — only to have the cruel thief of defeat reach down your throat and rip your heart out, is the worst feeling in baseball.  The blown save just plain blows, every time it happens, and someone needs to catch hell for it.

In the grand scheme of things, though, Tigers fans have been fortunate. Actually, extremely fortunate that they have not had to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous bullpen work that most other baseball fans have had to endure. Over the past five baseball seasons, from 2010–2014, the Tigers have blown just 71 games. That’s an average of only 14 blown saves per season. No team has fewer blown saves than the Tigers in that span. The league median is 89 blown saves over that five year period.

The Detroit bullpen has been nothing if not consistent. The Tigers totaled 16 blown saves this season, last season, and 16 two seasons ago when they went to the World Series not knowing who their closer would be. That's 16 heart-wrenching losses per season over the past three years, but things could be worse. Much worse.

The blown save accounts for every time that a team has the lead in or after the seventh inning, the bullpen is summoned, and they lose the lead. They don’t even necessarily lose the game — as we’ve seen a couple of times this season — as the team could rally and take the game back, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. It is not a true measure of a bullpen's value, but it is a pretty good grief metric.

Over the past five seasons, Tigers fans have been treated to the most efficient bullpen in the major leagues, in terms of saving games. While none of these teams has boasted a bullpen that has an earned run average that even cracks the top half of teams in the American League, the late-inning relief corps has held true, and delivered the victory at a higher rate than any other team.

Much of the credit in recent seasons goes to Jose Valverde, who recorded 110 saves, more than any relief pitcher in the majors, against only eight blown saves over the three year period, from 2010–2012. El Papa Grande, as we know, was benched for the World Series, given a tryout on the cheap after no team would sign him as a free agent, and summarily dismissed at the start of the 2013 season when his audition for his old job failed. But for three strong seasons, he was the king among closers. The Tigers blew just 10 saves in 2010, and 13 in 2011, leading the league both seasons.

Valverde was replaced, eventually, for one season by his set-up man, Joaquin Benoit, who deserves much of the credit for the bullpen’s success during those same years. While Valverde was shutting teams down in the ninth, Benoit was doing the same in the eighth inning until he was "promoted" to closer. For another season, he was nearly perfect in the role, at least until October.

Every season closers are changed all around the game. Koji Uehara in Boston, Vincente Romo in San Francisco, Jason Grilli in Pittsburgh, multiple closers in Oakland and Baltimore, all have lost their jobs after falling on hard times. It's just part of the game. That Detroit has gotten so far with so few in the ninth inning role is a testament to their consistency, notwithstanding the grief and anxiety that comes along the roller coaster ride.

Relief pitchers have come and gone through the Detroit bullpen like shoppers through a shopping mall. Octavio Dotel was the Tigers’ most efficient relief pitcher in 2012. Drew Smyly held that honor in 2013. Even as the closer was piling up saves and Benoit was racking up "holds," the Tigers managed to piece together a trio of relief pitchers who rarely failed once they had a lead in the late innings. To look at the numbers for their bullpen as a whole, be that ERA, FIP, WHIP, or whatever numbers you like, their success in the late innings defied logic, year after year.

2014 is no different. The Tigers have 16 blown saves this season. The big difference is that seven of those are attributed to their closer, Joe Nathan. Yet, of the seven blown saves, the Tigers have lost just four games when Nathan pitches in a save situation. The other five are divided among Joba Chamberlain (4), Ian Krol (3), Blaine Hardy, and Phil Coke. Al Alburquerque has not blown a save in 17 opportunities, recording a hold each time.

Those 16 blown saves are the fourth-fewest in the American League among 15 teams. The Kansas City Royals have blown just 12 saves this season, but over the past two years, even they have blown more save chances than Detroit. Contrast this with the fact that the Tigers rank 13th out of 15 teams in ERA, 12th in fielding independent pitching, 13th in bullpen fWAR, and 13th in WHIP, and the Tigers come out looking very fortunate that they have relatively so few blown games.

Add to that, the fact that the Tigers’ bullpen has taken a loss only 17 times, adding a few games where they lost a tied game and rescuing a few where their offense rallied to win the blown save, and the net amount of pain suffered as a result of late-inning bullpen work is relatively minor. Only the Royals have fewer losses by the bullpen, with 16. Run support and defense are factors, but you get the picture.

This is not to say that the Tigers’ bullpen is just dandy. Far from it. The Tigers bullpen sucks. All the signs point to an accident looking for a place to happen, just as it did in Fenway Park last October, when four Tiger relief pitchers in succession took turns each giving up a run to blow a four run lead in the eighth inning and blow their Championship hopes in the process. The signs are still there, and they are still ominous. Things can’t go on like this. Or can they?

While the bullpen gets a great deal of scrutiny when a lead is blown, and defeat is dealt when a win seemed to be on it’s way, the reality is that any bullpen, no matter the names of the players and no matter their experience, are all capable of imploding at the worst possible moment. Likewise, any major league pitcher can rise to the occasion on a given night, or for a given fortnight, and walk off the hero.  A pitcher can get the ground ball, or the fly ball, but the defense still has to make the play. A pitcher can shut down the opposition, but he still needs some run support if the team is to pull out a victory. The Tigers and their fans have experienced all of the above over the past few seasons.

Captain Obvious tells us that the chances of winning increase as pitchers who have been more effective over the course of a recent season, pitch in the higher leverage situations. A manager can mix and match, lefty on lefty, or save a pitcher who doesn’t do well when throwing on consecutive nights. But relief pitching is a crap shoot no matter what you do, and that is the unsettling part of baseball.  The best of plans can go awry. For the Detroit Tigers, holding a precious lead in the late innings is something they have been very good at, relatively speaking.