As is traditional, there was much concern about the Detroit Tigers’ bullpen coming into the 2017 season. The Tigers’ bullpen has been the consistent weak point throughout the era that began with their 2006 World Series appearance.
During that time the relief corps has largely featured a revolving door of young pitchers who could never figure it out, or veterans the Tigers acquired right as their skills fell off a cliff. Even when they managed to briefly put together a credible setup man and closer, they never had that perfect bridge from starter to closer. The bridge where there’s no doubt if they’re leading they’re going to win. So far in 2017, at least since the recent rearrangement in roles, things are finally trending in the right direction.
Since moving Francisco Rodriguez out of the closing spot following an awful April, the Tigers back end of the bullpen has really never looked better. The back end of the bullpen is defined as the three most important relief pitchers in a bullpen. They tend to pitch the seventh, eighth and ninth innings, although that’s not always the case. Some teams assign these roles loosely or have guys share roles depending on who is in their bullpen and how many high quality relievers they have.
However, they’re the three guys who come in the highest leverage situations to keep a close lead and secure the victory when the pitcher exits the game. They’re often labeled the middle reliever, the setup man and the closer based upon which inning they come in the game since a starting pitcher will often pitch five or six innings on average and then give way to the bullpen. Sometimes only two or one of back end guys are needed depending on how deep in the game the starter goes, that’s why the roles are loosely defined.
With Shane Greene filling the seventh inning role or middle reliever, Alex Wilson as the eighth inning setup man, and Justin Wilson closing, that is a solid 1-2-3 to anchor the relief corps. And not just in comparison to past Tigers bullpens. Currently, all three sit among the top 30 qualified relievers in earned run average and top 50 in batting average against.
You might not realize it, but the trio holding leads in the Tigers bullpen is among the best in the league this year. To illustrate the point, let’s compare to four of the top bullpens in the game this year in terms of holding leads. I picked the Yankees, Indians, Cubs, and Astros and picked the top three guys who pitch the most often when leading by three runs or fewer. The back-end of the Yankees’ pen consists of Tyler Clippard, Dellin Betances, and Aroldis Chapman, three of the biggest names in relief pitching. The Indians have Bryan Shaw, Andrew Miller, and Cody Allen forming an excellent trio holding leads for the reigning American League Champions. The Cubs have Carl Edwards Jr., Koji Uehara and Wade Davis; I left off Pedro Strop and Hector Rondon since they haven’t been used as much in close games as Uehara and Edwards Jr. have been especially as of late. Finally, the Astros have Will Harris, Chris Devenski and Ken Giles to round out their bullpen.
Those four bullpens as a whole rank among the top in almost every category while Detroit’s bullpen as a whole ranks almost at the bottom in every stat. Even with those skewed stats, the back of the Tigers’ pen stacks up pretty well against the best in the league.
Backend Bullpen Stats
While the stats look good for the Tigers, the percentages look even better. The Tigers lag in strikeouts, but this is largely the fault of Alex Wilson, who has been a very effective reliever for years without racking up a lot of strikeouts. Shane Greene punches out his fair share, and Justin Wilson has mowed down an exceptional 45.5 percent of hitters faced this season, so this isn’t so much a Tigers’ weakness as it is a strength in the other four teams’ bullpens.
When you’re comparing yourself to highly priced and finely tuned bullpens like the Astros and Yankees have, or those who have been close to or won the World Series as the Cubs and Indians, you’re going to find the some pretty outrageous numbers. Which makes it difficult to be disappointed in what the Tigers have done.
Tigers manager Brad Ausmus does deserve some credit for how well the Tigers’ unit has performed. He seems to know when to bring these guys in and when to take them out as the Tigers’ corps has only blown three saves this season. The Yankees have blown three as well, and the Astros have blown four. The Indians have blown two saves and only the Cubs have blown one so far this season. Now if you’re looking for standard metrics like earned run average, WHIP, and field independent pitching, I have you covered on those comparisons as well.
Backend Bullpen Metrics
The field independent pitching may initially jump out at you but this is largely from the five home runs the Tigers’ trio has surrendered, three of which of come off Justin Wilson. In addition to the number of hit by pitches, since they are treated the same as walks. The Tigers have four hit by pitches, and without those or the additional two home runs from Justin Wilson, the Tigers would be sitting at a 2.48 field independent pitching. Which is great for a team that strikes out under 30% of the batters they face.
Not only do the Tigers compare favorably now, they also appear to be getting progressively better as the season goes on. Greene has only walked two batters so far this month and increased his strikeout rate 10 percent. He walked eight batters last month in fewer innings. Alex Wilson has only allowed one unearned run this month in 1-1/3 fewer innings pitched, while allowing half as many hits and walks versus the previous month. Justin Wilson has even slightly improved on a stellar first month walking only one batter in eight and a third innings while also moving into the closing role.
After two months of the season this is something to be excited about. The Tigers finally have a solid foundation in the bullpen they can now work around. This can include guys who otherwise struggled earlier in the season such as Bruce Rondon and Joe Jimenez as well as guys currently on the roster like Rodriguez and Warwick Saupold.
This gives Ausmus the flexibility and reliability he never really had before as manager and he’s really taking advantage of it thus far. If the starting pitching and offense can get back on track watch out for the back end of this bullpen to take leads and slam the door shut when they’re called upon going forward.