The Detroit Tigers did not enter the 2017 season expecting to win the World Series, but their performance to date has been both surprising and disappointing. The amount of talent on the roster figured to at least keep the team in the division hunt, but many key members have under-performed.
One area of the team that has been neither surprising not under-performing is the bullpen. Ranking dead last in the MLB with a 5.19 ERA and 4.91 FIP, the Tigers continue their quest to own the league’s worst relief corps each year. Singling out just one pitcher to blame is a fruitless mission, as 11 of these 15 pitchers own an ERA of at least 4.50 and 11 own a FIP above that mark as well.
The two best relievers to pitch for the Tigers this year are the ones who have occupied the ninth inning. By most metrics, Justin Wilson and Shane Greene rank anywhere from good to pretty good, which is on par with their preseason expectations. Identifying the team’s third-best reliever is a little trickier, but one name has quietly pitched himself into the conversation.
Warwick Saupold appeared in just six games last season when he made his major league debut, putting him on track to start 2017 in Triple-A Toledo. He made a couple of quick appearances in Detroit during the first month of the season before earning the call-up for good after posting a 2.90 ERA with the Mud Hens to start the year.
Since then, Saupold owns one of baseball’s more interesting stat lines. His 3.54 ERA and 1.26 WHIP are right about average among major league relievers, but his 5.04 FIP ranks just 145th out of 158 qualified bullpen arms. With his FIP landing 1.50 runs higher than his ERA, only nine relievers can claim a larger variance; no other Tigers reliever owns a gap this large.
Fielding Independent Pitching, or FIP, is an ERA estimator that considers just three factors: strikeouts, walks, and home runs. When a pitcher experiences a difference between their FIP and actual ERA as great as Saupold’s, it usually indicates one — or all — of these three factors contributing much less significantly to actual game results than expected. On average, relievers this year are seeing a different of 0.7 runs in either direction between their FIP and ERA.
FIP rewards pitchers who rack up the strikeouts and limit their walks, two areas where Saupold rarely succeeds. His 14.4 percent strikeout rate ranks fifth-worst among qualified relievers, and his 9.5 percent walk rate is not awful, but is below average. Combined these two statistics, Saupold owns a 5.0 percent K-BB rate, which is also the fifth-worst among relievers this season. While Saupold’s home run numbers are near the average mark, they do not do anything to help his FIP.
Other advanced metrics are right along these lines. Saupold lands around the average in both ground ball rate and fly ball rate, and his 13.5 percent soft contact rate falls in the bottom 10. His hard contact rate is not terrible, but it does sit higher than one might expect for a pitcher with his results. In totality, none of Saupold’s numbers point to him being a stellar pitcher, and if anything, he should be sitting much closer to his FIP.
Nevertheless, Saupold’s ERA is decent, and he ranks third on the team in both 0.31 WPA and 2.11 RE24. The fact of the matter is that he has been one of the better Detroit relievers this season when considering on-field results, even if a lot of the numbers suggest that he should not be. Watching him may not invoke a ton of excitement, but he gets the job done more often than not.
Because of this sizable distinction between actual results and predictive measures, Saupold may be in for a negative regression in the future. However, until that regression occurs, the Tigers should continue to utilize one of their most reliable relievers this season. Not every reliever needs to be a strikeout machine, and the Tigers should be desperate to find any productive pitcher to fill their bullpen.