The story remains the same for the Detroit Tigers, as another year has come with the bullpen struggling to survive. A team ERA of 4.96 and a FIP of 5.03 both sit at third to last in the majors, and only one team sits lower than their -0.7 fWAR. While the month of May brought some positive signs, the overall feeling is the same.
As pessimistic fan bases tend to do, Tigers fans have let the problems of the bullpen cloud over the few bright spots that exist. The overall numbers make be bleak, but they do not represent the whole picture. There may only be a few reliable arms at the end of the game, but those arms have done their part this season.
The three main relievers carrying the torch are Alex Wilson, new closer Justin Wilson, and Shane Greene. This trio has combined to pitch 43 percent of the Tigers’ bullpen’s innings, while surrendering less than 20 percent of the runs and homers. These three pitchers have totaled 1.2 fWAR this season. The rest of the bullpen? -1.9 fWAR.
Though the Wilsons have been impressive this season, it is Greene who really jumps off the page. Now in his third season with Detroit, it appears that his starting days are over for the time being. His first two seasons were rocky, to put it lightly, but 2017 has been a revelation. If he can sustain this performance, the Tigers are in for a huge boost.
The results for Greene have been great so far. His 1.82 ERA ranks 20th among relievers with at least 20 innings pitched, and his batting average against, WHIP, and FIP are all career bests. There is likely some regression coming with an elevated hard contact rate and a below-average BABIP, but his 10.2 strikeouts per nine innings are way up from last season and his home run rates are below his career norms.
Because of this early success, manager Brad Ausmus has been able to utilize him in multiple ways. Ausmus is typically the type of manager who likes to define set roles for his relievers, but Greene has been deployed in a more diverse manner this season. The majority of his entrances have come in the seventh inning, which is to be expected, but this accounts for less than 40 percent of his appearances. Greene has been used anywhere from the fifth to the 10th, and he has pitched in multiple innings over a third of the time.
Traditional metrics show that Greene deserves this special treatment, but advanced metrics hammer the point home even further. Among 178 qualified relievers, Greene ranks 16th in Fangraph’s Clutch statistic. This metric demonstrates how effective he can be in higher-leverage situations. But even in normal scenarios, Greene has been one of the best; his RE24 of 9.76 is the fifth-best among qualified relievers. When it comes to adding tangible value to his team, the numbers point clearly to Greene’s strong effect.
Greene will need to prove that he can last the course of a whole season, but the Tigers need to continue using him in a dynamic position as long as he is finding success. Having a reliever that can be utilized in this way is essential for any team, and especially for one like the Ausmus-managed Tigers. With the Wilsons locked into the eighth and ninth, Greene’s home will change on a nightly basis. So far, he looks more than up to the task.