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The Tigers bullpen improved in 2018, but they still have a long way to go

A modest investment in bullpen could pay off in the win column in 2019.

Minnesota Twins v Detroit Tigers Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The Detroit Tigers had the worst bullpen in the American League in 2017. Detroit’s relief corps had the highest ERA, the highest walk and home run rates, the highest fielding independent pitching (FIP), and the third-lowest strikeout rate in the league. Their relievers combined for -1.3 wins above replacement (WAR) as a unit for the 2017 season.

The Tigers bullpen showed improvement in almost every statistical category in 2018. The lone exception was strikeout rate, which held steady at 7.92 strikeouts per nine innings. Despite the improvement in so many categories, the Tigers’ bullpen still suffered gut-wrenching losses when they were given a lead to protect, blowing almost 40 percent of save opportunities and taking 31 losses when they took the ball while winning or in a tied game.

Here is how the Tigers bullpen compares with their 2017 relief corps, and how they stacked up against other American League teams.

Tigers bullpen league ranks

Metric 2017 Tigers 2017 AL Rank 2018 Tigers 2018 AL Rank
Metric 2017 Tigers 2017 AL Rank 2018 Tigers 2018 AL Rank
ERA 5.63 15th 4.52 12th
FIP 5.11 15th 4.29 10th
WHIP 1.57 15th 1.38 11th
K/9 7.92 13th 7.92 14th
BB/9 4.07 15th 3.43 9th
HR/9 1.53 15th 1.12 8th
GB% 41.2 14th 41.1 13th
BAA .279 15th .255 10th
WAR -1.3 15th 2.1 12th
Save Pct 58.18 14th 60.66 12th

Some of the improvements are significant. Most encouraging are a full 1.11 earned runs per game, 22 points in batting average allowed, and a substantial reduction in walks and home runs allowed. A bullpen that was below replacement level in 2017 was at least a couple of wins above replacement in 2018, although they were still behind the league median of 3.9 WAR. If it’s any consolation, the Cleveland Indians’ bullpen posted just 0.4 WAR in 2018. The four other AL playoff bullpens posted 4.9 WAR or better.

There is a notable difference between the Tigers’ 4.52 ERA and their 4.29 FIP. This could be attributed to poor defense, bad luck, or pitchers serving up more hittable pitches. Defense is not the likely answer, since Detroit’s starters posted the opposite ratio with the same fielders behind them.

The Tigers’ BABIP of .300 is right near the league median of .299. The 2017 Tigers bullpen recorded an even larger difference — over half a run per game — between the two numbers. With over 579 innings thrown by the bullpen, one would tend to rule out coincidence or bad luck.

Joe Jimenez was Detroit’s lone representative in the All-Star Game, although even he struggled in the second half of the season. He led the team with 1.4 WAR, which ranked 15th in the American League. Drew VerHagen, who finished strong, posted 0.9 WAR, and was the only other Tigers relief pitcher with more than a half win above replacement level. Tigers closer Shane Greene recorded a 5.12 ERA, allowed 1.71 home runs per nine innings, and was 0.1 wins below replacement level. That’s a problem that needs to be addressed.

All of the Tigers relief pitchers who were not already cut from the roster are eligible to return in 2019 if the club wants them back. Victor Alcantara, Drew VerHagen, and Blaine Hardy showed some promising results, particularly in the second half of the season.

Saves are not the greatest measure of an individual relief pitcher’s performance for many reasons. We get that. But there are few things in baseball more frustrating than having a late lead and losing the game. Blown saves and losses taken by the bullpen, as a unit, are one indicator of the pain felt by fans and players alike. They can also be an indication of some low hanging fruit when it comes to making a relatively modest investment in players that would pay immediate dividends in the team’s win-loss record.