Don't look now, but the Detroit Tigers have actually been getting much better results out of their bullpen over the last month of the season. We all know the story of the Detroit relief corps- two consecutive seasons at below replacement level performance, second worst ERA and FIP in the American league, over 40 per cent of save opportunities blown when they're given a lead to protect. It's been one sad story from start to finish, but perhaps there is some light at the end of the tunnel.
When we examined the bullpens' work at the beginning of September, they had a collective 4.75 ERA for the season, with a WAR at -0.4 runs below replacement level. Maybe we woke them up, because the Detroit bullpen has an ERA of 3.75 for the months of September and October, one full run lower than it was for the full season when we last checked. It's not the biggest sample, but 115 innings is more than an individual relief pitcher will work in a season, so it's not insignificant.
More encouraging than the overall numbers is the fact that the Tigers have seven relief pitchers with an ERA under 3.00 and ten with an ERA under 4.00 over the past month. Two more pitchers may have at least a partial alibi- but we'll come back to that. Of particular interest:
Neftali Feliz, has worked 11.1 innings with an ERA of 2.38, and FIP even lower, and has struck out eight batters while issuing just one walk while not allowing a home run.
Tom Gorzelanny has made nine appearances totaling 9.1 innings, with an ERA of 2.89 and a nearly matching FIP of 2.82. He has allowed one home run, but has struck out ten batters against two walks. This is more like what the Tigers had in mind when they gave him a million bucks.
Alex Wilson has continued his stellar work, pitching 8 innings with an ERA of 2.25, surrendering one home run and no walks.
Others have nice, shiny earned run averages, but some peripheral numbers that make you wonder if it's legit.
Drew VerHagen has thrown 14.1 innings with an ERA of 1.84, although he has issued five walks while striking out six batters, and that is reflected in his 3.55 FIP. He also has kept the ball in the park, but one has to wonder about sustaining success with a K/9 ratio of 3.69.
Kyle Ryan has worked 15 innings with a 2.40 ERA, also with some iffy K/BB ratios, but just one home run allowed, working mostly in long relief.
Jose Valdez, 9 innings, 2.00 ERA, 4 K, 3 BB, one home run.
Ian Krol, 5.2 innings, 3.18 ERA, four walks, four strikeouts, but get this- no home runs allowed. This is the pitcher who led the world in home run ratio in the early part of his career.
Bruce Rondon has a 3.12 ERA in 8.2 innings, but his strikeout rate has plummeted as he struck out just four batters while walking eight. Then, there are the issues of "effort".
Two pitchers have not fared well, at least in terms of their ERA.
Al Alburquerque has an ERA of 8.64, but there's some misfortune in those numbers as his FIP is just 3.02, and he has not allowed a home run. Ironically, his K/9 ratio is identical to his 8.64 ERA, but the Tigers' most inconsistent relief pitcher can get away with a lot when he keeps the ball in the park.
Blaine Hardy has been arguably the most effective reliever in the Tigers' bullpen over the past two seasons. Manager Brad Ausmus converted him into a LOOGY specialist in 2014 once he got some more right handers up from the minor leagues. He worked just over five innings last September and was ineffective.
This season, Ausmus has done the same thing, with the same results. In just 5.2 innings, but 11 appearances, Hardy has given up 11 hits and three walks against five strikeouts. One might argue that he is wearing down, in which case getting him some help in the form of a left hander to take some of the load would help. It may also be that he is better suited to work complete innings. His left/ right splits do not indicate a big difference.
These numbers for individual pitchers can be misleading with the small samples provided, especially when the manager is frequently changing pitchers every other batter. It is concerning that the Tigers' bullpen has a combined K/9 ratio of just 5.70, and the walk ratio is very average, but the reduction in home runs has been significant.
One should not conclude by any means that all is well with the bullpen. The Tigers still need a closer and an eighth inning set up man. None of the above pitchers have demonstrated enough to entrust the team's pennant hopes for 2016 to them. But in the pile of rubble that has been the Detroit bullpen, any sign of progress has to be encouraging.