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The Tigers' bullpen has been an upgrade in 2016

The Tigers' relief corps has held leads well despite poor overall statistics.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

How good has the Detroit Tigers bullpen been in 2016? The answer depends on how you measure the performance of a team’s relief pitchers. On one hand, the Tigers bullpen has some brutal overall numbers which rank among the worst in the American League. However, they don’t lose a lot of games, and tend to hold the lead better than most teams.

The Tigers’ relief corps was statistically one of the worst in the American League in 2015, particularly after they traded their closer, Joakim Soria, at the end of July. In just about every category, Detroit’s bullpen ranked at or near the bottom of the pack. Gone now are Soria, Joba Chamberlain, Tom Gorzelanny, Al Alburquerque, Neftali Feliz, and Ian Krol. Blaine Hardy and Drew VerHagen are in Toledo. The bullpen has been completely overhauled this season.

Here is a look at how the Tigers’ 2016 bullpen compares to other teams in the American league, and how they compare to last year’s relievers at the midpoint of the season.

Category 2016 2016 AL Rank 2015* 2015 AL Rank
ERA 4.56 13th 3.96 12th
FIP 3.83 6th 4.28 12th
WHIP 1.39 11th 1.40 14th
K/9 7.65 13th 6.85 14th
BB/9 3.00 7th 3.28 9th
HR/9 0.88 4th 1.03 11th
Opp Avg .271 14th .266 15th
Save Pct 71% 5th 68% 10th

*2015 numbers are through 81 games

The 2016 bullpen has an even higher overall ERA than last year’s brutal bunch. They have the second-highest batting average allowed, and the fourth highest WHIP in the league. Their bullpen ranks 13th of 15 teams in the league in ERA. Their FIP suggests that some bad luck or bad defense is in play, but the latter remains part of the team going forward. Detroit's bullpen ranks sixth in the league in fWAR.

As bad as the bullpen looks in traditional statistics such as ERA and WHIP, they have only blown the lead 10 times this season, the same number of leads as the much heralded Kansas City Royals bullpen has blown. The Detroit bullpen has only had 10 losses pinned on them, a record that is bested only by the Royals and the Baltimore Orioles.

In fact, four of the 10 blown saves charged to the Tigers’ bullpen belong to Mark Lowe and Bruce Rondon, two pitchers who have not been a regular feature of Brad Ausmus' formula for holding leads in the late innings. When he sticks to Francisco Rodriguez, Shane Greene, and Justin Wilson, the formula works

The next tier of Tigers’ relief pitchers, Kyle Ryan, and Alex Wilson, have combined for an ERA of 3.48 in 67 2/3 innings of relief. Even Anibal Sanchez has worked well in the bullpen, with a 2.84 ERA, and no home runs allowed (so let’s leave him there).

The bullpen's numbers are skewed by gaudy performances from Lowe, Bobby Parnell, and the revolving door of minor league relievers that have been called up during the season. VerHagen has not panned out as the Tigers had hoped, but the damage from this group has been limited to the unfortunate decisions made by Ausmus to use them in higher leverage situations.

Detroit's bullpen has otherwise performed poorly when inheriting runners, allowing 39 percent of inherited runners to score. They have faltered when entering the game while the team is behind, and when Lowe or Parnell are pitching. Hopefully, the team has figured out what works and what hasn’t worked for them, so they can continue to win the games when they carry a lead into the later innings.