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Detroit Tigers bullpen quietly outperforming expectations

The Detroit Tigers entered the 2015 season with serious concerns about their bullpen. So far, the team’s relief corps is performing better than expected.

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

When the 2015 season began, Detroit Tigers closer Joe Nathan was coming off a tough season in 2014, to say the least. Bruce Rondon was again being counted on by management to play an important role in the Detroit bullpen, but Rondon is again on the disabled list with no date set for his return. The team re-signed Joba Chamberlain at a bargain rate after he struggled in the second half of the previous season.

Questions surrounded the Tigers’ bullpen as the team departed spring training for Detroit in April. No left-handed relief pitcher stepped up to claim a roster spot as the second lefty in the bullpen. Rookie Angel Nesbitt was the only relief pitcher who looked even slightly impressive in spring training, and the Tigers’ fan base had its collective finger hovering over the panic button.

The 2015 season had barely gotten underway before Nathan threw out his elbow and required season-ending Tommy John surgery. Former set-up man Joakim Soria stepped into the closer’s role, and has been perfect ever since. But Soria, whose contract option was picked up after the 2014 season, appeared to be the only reliable relief pitcher on the staff.

Chamberlain was slotted into the primary set up role, almost by default. He managed to keep opponents off the board for a handful of appearances, but looked shaky in doing so. Finally, the accident happened and Chamberlain gave up six consecutive hits to blow a three run lead against the Chicago White Sox on May 6, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

Chamberlain’s blown save was just the second of the season for the Tigers, and remains the only game that the bullpen's misgivings resulting in a loss. The other blown save belongs to Ian Krol, the lefty du jour who has since been banished to Toledo in search of his command. Somehow, the rest of Detroit’s bullpen has held the lead whenever it has been handed to them during the first six weeks of the 2015 season. In fact, only one team (the White Sox, who have saved only six games) has fewer blown saves than Detroit thus far.

It’s a familiar pattern for the Tigers to have a bullpen with overall numbers that are among the lower half of the league while reliably holding the lead in save situations. The club currently ranks ninth in the league with a 3.63 bullpen ERA, and their 3.99 fielding independent pitching (FIP) ratio suggests that there may be some good fortune there. Detroit has not had a bullpen ERA among the top half of the league since 2006.

The Tigers’ 85.7 percent save percentage entering Wednesday’s game was third in the American League. Even the much lauded Kansas City Royals bullpen, which boasts a 1.65 ERA, has blown seven leads in the seventh inning or later. It would be fair to say that the results of the work of the Detroit bullpen has kept them close in the division race.

Not only has the bullpen as a whole performed when given a lead in the late innings, but individual relief pitchers have been trending upward recently as well. Nesbitt has stepped up and been given an increasingly important role, second only to Soria in number of relief innings pitched on the team. He holds a 2.71 ERA and a 2.41 FIP. Tom Gorzelanny has posted a 2.53 ERA with a 2.32 FIP. Blaine Hardy, now the resident second lefty in the pen, was off to a rocky start this season, but has not allowed a run in his last seven appearances dating back to April 18. None of the three pitchers has allowed a home run yet this season. When a pitcher can keep the ball in the park, they can survive a few base runners.

Alex Wilson, who was acquired from the Boston Red Sox along with Yoenis Cespedes in exchange for Rick Porcello, had a rough time in spring training and did not make the team. He stumbled upon his arrival in Detroit, allowing a home run on his first pitch of the year, but has settled down his last few outings. His ERA is down to 2.08 for the season. That gives manager Brad Ausmus five relief pitchers who appear to be more reliable than not at the moment.

Not every story in the Tigers’ bullpen has been encouraging in the 2015 season. Al Alburquerque, who figured to be next in line for a prominent role should Nathan or Chamberlain stumble, has been anything but effective. After taking a big step forward in 2014 by cutting his walk rate dramatically, the one-time bullpen strikeout leader has fanned just 4.66 batters per nine innings while walking 7.45 hitter per nine.  By cruel coincidence, he also has a 7.45 ERA for the season. None of those numbers is sufficient to keep a pitcher in the major leagues very long. Yet, Alburquerque has three holds without a blown save when given a lead after the seventh inning.

Relief pitching is always uncertain, to say the least. Few teams enter the season with no questions about how their bullpen will perform. Every season brings previously unheralded relief pitchers to the fore, while seemingly proven veterans fade into the past, and not always quietly or gracefully.

As we have seen with the Tigers in recent seasons, relief pitchers can be cruising along when they suddenly struggle at the worst possible time late in the season. Fortunately for Detroit, some relief pitchers who have struggled as the season began have settled down and are quietly getting the job done when it matters most.