Manager Brad Ausmus is right.
Wait, come back, hear me out first. Following the Tigers’ win in Cleveland this past Friday — where they narrowly escaped with a 7-6 victory, no thanks to a shaky eighth and ninth inning from the bullpen — Ausmus commented to the media afterwards:
“It was ugly. We can’t have a six-run lead in the eighth and the ninth and use our setup man and our closer. We’ve just gotta pitch better before that... We can’t be walking guys and getting behind guys. That just can’t happen. That’s not a formula for winning and if it continues, we won’t win... ”
He’s completely right. For one, they can’t expect to make it very far if they have to lean on the same two or three relievers every night just to avoid automatic runs whenever someone less reliable is used. To be frank, if you are pitching in the major leagues, you are expected to throw strikes and get outs. The Tigers have a shortage of pitchers capable of doing either of those things at the moment.
Last season, the average MLB bullpen logged about 530 innings in relief. The average full season of work by individual relievers was between 60 to 70 innings. The trio of Francisco Rodriguez, Justin Wilson, and Alex Wilson will only take up 210 innings, at most. This leaves 320 innings to be pitched, which amounts to more than half of the bullpen’s total anticipated workload. They need to find arms who can carry those innings, and not let the lead shrink or let wins get further out of reach.
The Tigers have a solid trio of late-inning relievers in Rodriguez and the Wilsons. They are far from the best relievers, but they have shown more often than not the ability to get an out when it’s needed. This isn’t to say they’re perfect. Rodriguez, for one, is showing early warning signs that he may be finally wearing down, including Wednesday’s blown save. Alex Wilson is still unreliable with runners on base, and also looked shaky on Wednesday. Justin Wilson looks every bit the part of the dominate setup man, giving the Tigers a relatively stable back end in the bullpen. Beyond this trio, however, the results drop sharply.
Shane Greene’s command continues to be shaky to start the year. He had as many walks as strikeouts in just 4 1⁄3 innings pitched coming into the series with the Rays. Last year, he posted a solid split of 48 strikeouts to 13 walks in 47 innings of work. He was lights out at the start of the year before getting rocked hard after the All-Star break as he struggled to adjust to a full season of relief. The Tigers need him to quickly return to his early 2016 form, as a second reliable arm in middle relief is much needed to extend the life of their late-innings arms. Greene has the most recent proven track record to do it. On Tuesday, he pitched 2⁄3 inning with two strikeouts and a walk, which is a step in the right direction. He must continue to show improvement.
Kyle Ryan has been, in a word, awful. Including his appearance on Tuesday, he has pitched 4 1⁄3 innings, allowed eight hits, six walks, and recorded just one strikeout. Even as a secondary lefty, these numbers are unacceptable. Adding to the problem is the fact he has been called on for more than just LOOGY situations, and has not gotten the job done.
Beyond this, there be dragons, and not the fun-loving, burninating kind. There’s the revolving “long reliever” role occupied by whichever unfortunate Mud Hen has been called up this week to create a buffer for Anibal Sanchez. Sanchez’s continued presence in the bullpen is a mystery. There isn't enough sugar in the world to coat his current 11.00 ERA, as it doesn’t even include four unearned runs also allowed. Through nine innings of work he has given up four home runs and six walks to eight strikeouts. If the Tigers’ long reliever is so bad they need to have a second one in place as a buffer for him, then they are handling the bullpen all wrong.
Hope is not lost. There is help available if and when the Tigers decide to call upon it. Young relief ace Joe Jimenez, who worked an impressive inning in his brief debut, is just days away from being eligible to rejoin the Tigers. Lefty Blaine Hardy has put up a spiffy 1.35 ERA in 6 1⁄3 innings pitched with six strikeouts to one walk.
At the end of the day, the Tigers have all the necessary pieces to build a halfway decent bullpen. In order for those pieces to get the job done, however, they need to execute when called on, or Ausmus will be forced to use the same trio of arms night after night, leading to potential injury and burnout. Ultimately, he said it best: they need to pitch better.