Even when the Detroit Tigers were competing for the playoffs and winning the division, the bullpen always was a challenge. Since the team has entered the rebuilding phase over the past few seasons, the carousel of relievers has been even more difficult to figure out. The Tigers have certainly put effort into their bullpen at times, but the number of successful relievers on the roster over the last decade has been alarmingly low.
Buck Farmer has often been included in this blob of arms trotting out of the bullpen in the middle innings. He appeared in 43 games from 2014 to 2017 (most of those starts, to be fair), sporting a 6.80 ERA and 5.66 FIP. While there was not a whole lot to build from, the Tigers had the benefit of a cheap contract and a non-competing team, so giving Farmer more innings over the past couple seasons had very little downside.
Farmer made the most of the opportunity in 2018, posting average results but appearing in 66 games throughout the year. He carried this usage into 2019, hoping to at least keep pace among his mediocre cohort. Given the chance to take a step forward, the righthander ran with it, cementing himself as one of the top bullpen arms on the roster heading into 2020.
What went right in 2019?
Pick almost any metric and Farmer had his best career season in 2019. His 3.72 ERA and 3.88 FIP were great, as was his 25.4 percent strikeout rate. He appeared in an astonishing 73 games over the course of the year and saw plenty of seventh and eighth innings, demonstrating his reliability in key situations.
Strikeouts were definitely the biggest area of improvement this past year. Farmer upped his slider usage and found some good success with the pitch, and his overall swinging strike rate increased to 12.8 percent (also a career high). During every single month of the season the righty had a strikeout rate of at least 20 percent.
Farmer led the Tigers with 0.8 fWAR and was second to only Shane Greene in ERA and FIP. He ranked third in the bullpen in leverage index, behind just Greene and Joe Jimenez, further emphasizing his high-stress, late-inning usage. On a team with very few reliable back-end arms, Farmer was an important presence in 2019 despite his modest results in previous years.
With Detroit unlikely to seriously compete for the playoffs in 2020, Farmer should be able to carry this momentum into next season. There is not a ton of competition for high-leverage spots in the bullpen, so look for him to continue to rack up the holds — or saves, if Joe Jimenez falters as the team’s closer. In a perfect world, Farmer could even turn himself into a viable trade piece at the next deadline. He already drew some interest this past July, and another year of improvement would only further increase his trade value.
What went wrong in 2019?
The results were mostly positive for the 28-year-old this past season. There is a chance that Farmer sees some regression, as his hard hit rate increased for the fourth straight year, up to 40.9 percent, showing that batters could find some success when they actually did make contact with the ball.
Like many pitchers, Farmer saw his home run numbers higher than desired thanks to the baseball, and his 13.3 percent home-run-to-fly-ball rate (HR/FB%) is in line with his career average. There is always the possibility that his high innings count will negatively impact his next season and while his 2019 results were great, they do look like an outlier over the past five years.
The hope is that Farmer can build on this success going forward, but it would not be a huge surprise if this was his high-water mark. He did not make a ton of big tweaks to his game, and while his strikeout numbers took a leap, this is not necessarily that unique in the current environment. Farmer was a great reliever prior to 2019, and it will take more than one season to prove this change is actually real.
Farmer is eligible for his first of three arbitration years, so he should be in Detroit for a while longer given his low cost. He may never be the closer or even a relief ace — though he showed flashes of that potential this year — but if he can continue to competently pitch in the seventh and eighth innings, he will have a secure place in the Tigers bullpen.
Out of all of the team’s relievers, Farmer was probably the best surprise in 2019. His strikeout numbers were very encouraging, and he has earned himself the opportunity to grow on them next season.