As of June 8, the Detroit Tigers have the second-best bullpen ERA in baseball.
The same Detroit Tigers whose abysmal late-game pitching potentially cost them multiple World Series appearances and — potentially — wins? The ones who threw money at proven veterans with excellent track records only to turn into pumpkins in Detroit?
Yes, the very same.
How did we get here? How did we get to a team whose bullpen ERA, at 2.84, ranks second best in the entire MLB, and whose 1.10 WHIP is also second best?
First, let’s sing the praises of second-year pitching coach Chris Fetter, who has helped transform the entire staff — not just the bullpen — into an absolute machine. We saw how much better the bullpen was in 2021, and in year two they’ve taken it to another level. He’s helping turn everyone from former high end prospects to cast-offs and Rule 5 picks into quality major leaguers. Juan Nieves, the assistant pitching coach, also deserves a nice chunk of credit for his work prepping his relievers. Considering the long registry of injuries the staff has dealt with, their success is quite remarkable.
But of course most of the credit goes to the guys throwing the ball. A group that looked ragtag at worst and suspect at best entering the new season is chock full of guys out-performing expectations, with a handful pitching like legitimate lockdown guys out of the back of the bullpen.
Alex Lange, RHP
The most pleasant surprise out of the bullpen has been Alex Lange. The 26-year-old right-hander, who was acquired from the Chicago Cubs in return for Nicholas Castellanos and converted to relief back in 2019, was projected by both ZiPS and Steamer to post an ERA north of 4.00, and neither guessed he would break 0.1 fWAR.
All he’s done so far is pitch to the lovely tune of a 1.54 ERA, 2.37 FIP and 0.5 fWAR. His ERA is 16th best among relievers with at least 20 innings. He’s also caught the attention of Rob Friedman, better known on Twitter as PitchingNinja for his disgusting, vile, abhorrent and gorgeous two-seamer, which has become his primary heater after shelving his rather straight riding four-seam fastball this year.
Alex Lange, Ridiculous 98mph Front Door Two Seamer.— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) June 6, 2022
22 inches of run. pic.twitter.com/q5cmVwaiMe
That heater — along with his curveball and changeup — have been working overtime for Lange, helping get in the top 10% of the league in average exit velocity (84.8%), XBA (.200), XSLG (.295), XOBA (.230) and XWOBACON (.318).
Lange has also been phenomenal at cleaning up messes. Eighty percent of runners that he has inherited this season have been stranded, making him an ideal arm to pitch in high-leverage late inning situations.
Andrew Chafin, LHP
One of the team’s three major league free agent signings, Andrew Chafin, has been having himself a season, too. The eccentric lefty missed the first few weeks of the campaign with a groin strain, but has been a steady presence for AJ Hinch since returning. His ERA (2.77) is not as impressive as his FIP (1.91), suggesting that there’s been some bad luck involved for him, which suggests his numbers could look even better than they already do.
He has the second best BB% among Tigers’ relievers at 5.5% behind Jason Foley (3.0%), but his K% of 25.5% tops Foley’s by 13.4% points, suggesting that Chafin has arguably the team’s best combination of stuff and control. This is all the more remarkable as his low 90’s fastball does look like anything special at all. The slider, on the other hand, is pretty nasty.
He, too, has thrown some highlight-worthy filth.
Andrew Chafin sits 'em down (literally). pic.twitter.com/BV2Zfoy5Rm— Detroit Tigers (@tigers) May 4, 2022
That slider, which plays against both right and left-handed hitters, has a K% of 60% and Whiff% of 56.8%. He mixes it in well with his sinker and four-seam fastball to set the sweeper up to put hitters like poor Cole Tucker on their butts.
Gregory Soto, LHP
While we’re talking about lefties, let’s touch on Tigers’ closer, Gregory Soto. The Tigers’ All-Star representative in 2021 hit a snag early in 2022, but has not allowed a run since May 13 in 12 innings of work. Expectations were high for Soto, and after a little shakiness early on this season he’s largely lived up to the billing.
His 11 saves are seventh best in baseball, and his ERA has dipped to 1.80.
His FIP suggests he’s had some help, though, at 3.89. While the flamethrower is in the top 3% of all hurlers in fastball velocity, it’s led to some hard contact. He’s in the bottom 2% of average exit velocity and sits in the bottom half of the league in Barrel %, xERA, HardHit%, xwOBA, xSLG, K%, Chase Rate and BB%.
This could mean one of two things: either Soto is due for another major bump or he’s getting by without even throwing his best stuff. Whichever it is will likely come down to his slider, which currently has a hard hit % of 62.5% while the fastball and sinker are under 40%, and simply his ability to command the fastball and stay ahead of hitters.
Still, Soto has been a reliable presence in the back of the pen for Hinch, and though he can sometimes make things a bit interesting, like in the June 8 win over Pittsburgh, he’s getting results.
Will Vest, RHP
Speaking of results, how about Will Vest?
The former 12th round pick out of Stephen F. Austin was a Rule 5 pick by the Seattle Mariners for 2021, but they returned him after a rocky season out west.
It’s their loss — Vest has been a revelation in Detroit’s bullpen, striking out an obscene 36.8% of batters faced while walking only 7.4%. That dominance has led to a 1.89 ERA and 2.82 FIP.
Just how out-of-nowhere has Vest been? He didn’t even have projections from most major channels. Only FGDC had anything on him, who had him throwing a 4.19 ERA in 39 innings. His slider has been his primary put away pitch with a 44.8% K%. But it also has the highest xBA among his three-pitch repertoire at .202, with his four-seamer (.164) and changeup (.131) both keepings hitters off the board.
Those numbers have played. Among all qualified relievers, Vest has allowed the fourth-fewest hits with seven.
His excellent numbers, underdog status as a returned Rule 5 pick and mound presence have made him a recent cult favorite among Tigers fans, too.
Will Vest. Electric Factory. ⚡️⚡️ pic.twitter.com/TWE2UhbJYw— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) May 14, 2022
Wily Peralta, RHP
Peralta has followed up a good 2021 as a starter by being a great reliever in 2022.
His minuscule 0.89 ERA is seventh-best in the major leagues among relievers ahead of names like Ryne Stanek, Josh Hader and every single person we’ve already talked about.
Unlike many of the other Tiger hurlers, Peralta isn’t doing it with vomit-worthy stuff. Instead, the veteran is keeping the ball on the ground with 56.9% of contact made against him ending in ground balls. Of the 15 hits he’s allowed in 22 1⁄3 innings, only one has left the yard — his 0.44 HR/9 is bested on the team only by Lange, Chafin and Jason Foley, who have all been kept in the yard thus far.
Like Soto, Peralta’s FIP (3.67) suggests regression, and it’s fair to assume a sub-one ERA will be nigh-impossible for the 33-year-old to maintain. But for a pitcher who is inducing weak contact, can go multiple innings and has stranded 94% of inherited runners, Peralta’s veteran presence and versatility is huge for the Tigers.
Michael Fulmer, RHP
The Michael Fulmer experience thus far has been exactly that — an experience.
The former Rookie of the Year started the season by throwing 10 1⁄3 scoreless innings from April 9 to May 4 but followed it up with a five-game stretch where he allowed six runs in five innings, walking six batters in the span.
He’s seemingly — hopefully — settled back into being who Tigers fans have seen he can be. He hasn’t allowed an earned run in his last six appearances dating back to May 24 and has punched out 11 batters in that 5 2⁄3 inning stretch.
When Fulmer is on, he’s arguably the best arm out of Detroit’s bullpen. He’s in the top 10% of the league in xERA, Barrel%, Whiff%, HardHit%, xBA, xwOBA and xSLG, but his downfalls have been his 4.50 BB/9 and a chase rate that falls in the bottom three percent of all pitchers. His curveball has an expected batting average of .019 (!!), though he’s only tossed it 13 times, and his slider’s is at .138. He runs into problems with his four-seamer and sinker. His fastball’s average velocity is down to 93.6 MPH from 95+ MPH, where it’s consistently been for his entire career.
He’s also seemingly done away with his changeup, which was lethal in 2016, 2017 and 2018. He’s thrown just 26 of them this season compared to 179 sliders, and all but one have gone to left-handed hitters. They have a .333 batting average off the pitch.
That said, if his latest performances are indicative of what he could be for most of the rest of the year — and he can get the changeup back — Michael Fulmer is going to be a weapon.
The remainder of the bullpen is filled with arms who have been good-not-great and are primarily used in lower-leverage situations.
Right-handed pitcher Joe Jiménez — once a lost cause — is having his best season since 2019. He’s thrown to a 3.26 ERA while cutting his BB/9 in half from last season. He’s allowing home runs at just an 8.7% clip — the second best of his career. He’s also throwing his hardest four-seamer of his career at an average MPH of 95.6, up nearly a full mile from last season. Fetter has also helped him add movement and got him pitching more to the bottom of the zone rather than trying to live upstairs constantly with fastballs. That, in turn, has done wonders for the effectiveness of his slider, as hitters can no longer eliminate everything that starts down in the zone as a breaking ball.
Jason Foley, a 26-year-old righty, has an ERA and FIP below 3.00 at 2.70 and 2.54, respectively, in 16 2⁄3 innings. He’s walking a mere three percent of hitters, but he also has the lowest K% among all Tigers at just 12.1%. Still, with a relatively high BABIP (.304), there’s reason to believe what he’s done has been legitimate. He’s another one learning to get more run on his sinker, and has recently had more success throwing it inside to lefties and swinging it back onto the edge for called strikes.
Rony Garcia is in a different boat, as the 24-year-old has pitched a mix of long relief, leverage, and now has made three starts as well. His average exit velocity, barrel %, HardHit% and xSLG are all in the first percentile — seriously — but with a superb 5.9 BB% and 30.0 K% plus youth on his side — he won’t turn 25 until December — there’s still plenty to like and as, or if, injuries abate, they should eventually find the right role for him. The stuff is much improved, but the occasional lapses in command have made him a bit home run prone.
Lastly, there’s Harold Castro. Though he was hit hard in his last... er, only appearance, his 6.14 FIP is a lot better than his 9.00 ERA!