The Detroit Tigers have had one of the weakest bullpens in the American league in every season since 2006, judging by the number of runs allowed. Looking at the percentage of time that the bullpen holds the lead when one is given to them has put the Tigers' relief corps in a much more favorable light the past several seasons.
In 2014, Detroit's bullpen was true to form, posting the third highest bullpen ERA in the American league, but ranking in the top third of the league in save percentage.This season's cast has allowed fewer runs, but has been less effective in holding the lead. They have an overall WAR of 0.4 runs below replacement level, which is last in the league. In fact, six of the eight Tigers' relief pitchers who have worked at least ten innings have a WAR below replacement level.
Here is a look at how the 2015 bullpen stacks up against the 2014 crew, and where they rank in the American league through 81 games:
||2014 AL Rank
||2015 AL Rank
The club entered the 2015 season with big question marks about their bullpen, mainly centered on closer Joe Nathan but also focused on the uncertainty in finding another good arm or two to work with Joakim Soria in the late innings.
Some of the questions were answered quickly, when Nathan was lost for the season after facing one batter- striking out Torii Hunter on a questionable call. Soria was inserted into his rightful role as the closer. Manager Brad Ausmus went with the veteran, Joba Chamberlain for the eighth inning. He had performed well in that role the year previous, before falling apart the last two months of the season as Ausmus stuck with the veteran.
Soria has been mainly effective, at least in save situations. He has 18 saves and two blown saves for a 90 percent ratio, to go with a 2.45 ERA and 0.95 WHIP. He has been victimized by the home run ball to the tune of a 1.93 HR/9 ratio, but several of those have come in non save situations.
Chamberlain's time as a Tiger is done, as he has been designated for assignment. Why Ausmus stuck with him in the eighth inning so long is a mystery. He had the ability to keep the ball in the park, and disaster resulted when he failed in doing that. Along with Chamberlain, the Tigers cut left handed veteran Tom Gorzellany, who was a reasonable bet to fill a role out of the bullpen, but didn't have the stuff to get hitters out this season.
The two most effective pitchers, other than Soria, have been Alex Wilson and Blaine Hardy. Wilson was acquired from Boston in the trade that brought Yoenis Cespedes to Detroit and sent Rick Porcello to the Red Sox. In 38 innings, he has a 2.58 ERA with a WHIP of 1.15. Ausmus has slowly been giving Wilson more high leverage duty, but inexplicably has not used him often when the team has the lead in the late innings. That should change in the second half of the season.
Hardy was the best relief pitcher in Detroit's bullpen for much of 2014, before they acquired Soria. In 44 innings this season, he has posted an ERA of 2.06 with a WHIP of 0.96. He has not allowed a home run this season, and only allowed one homer in 2014. Hardy should also be seeing more late inning duty in the second half of the season.
Bruce Rondon has returned from the disabled list, apparently with the same high expectations of being able to fill a late inning role as the club has always had for him over the past three years. He brings a fastball in the upper 90's, but had all of 13 innings of work in the major leagues prior to this season. He could prove to be a big asset to a struggling bullpen, or he could prove that the club was wrong to count on him for the third season in a row.
Al Alburquerque is a wild card who is no longer trusted in high leverage situations, and for good reason. After cutting his walk rate in half in 2014, he is back to walking 4.8 batters per nine innings, and has been inconsistent this season. He is a risky play in a close game, but has strikeout ability to get out of jams on occasion.
The Tigers have spun the revolving door to Toledo to fill the vacancies left by Gorzellany and Chamberlain. Ian Krol is back up with good numbers in Toledo, but disastrous results in the major leagues thus far. The Tigers will need help from outside the organization if they hope to have a reliable bullpen down the stretch.