With a clear lack of free agent bats at prices and positions the Detroit Tigers would be interested in, this offseason was always going to center around pitching. The front office struck right away to land a nice little offensive upgrade in Mark Canha, but with Eduardo Rodriguez and then Spencer Turnbull out of the picture, the pitching staff needed reinforcements just to get to a modest improvement over the 2023 edition. The addition of Kenta Maeda to the rotation and now Andrew Chafin to the bullpen has the pitching staff on more solid ground.
As the post-Winter Meetings offseason extravaganza takes shape in the wake of Shohei Ohtani’s record-setting free agent deal with the Dodgers, and the Juan Soto trade to the Yankees, let’s take a look at the Tigers bullpen and see how Chafin could turn them into a very strong unit in 2024.
The ZiPS projection system pegged the Tigers bullpen for 3.9 fWAR next season. In 2023 the group was worth 3.2 fWAR. Andrew Chafin is only projected to be worth 0.3 fWAR in 2024, but there are plenty of reasons to believe he could have a bounceback year in Detroit next season. We’ll get to those reasons shortly. If he could recreate the 0.9 fWAR he produced for the Tigers in 2022, suddenly the Tigers bullpen looks more like a 4.8 fWAR caliber pen in 2024, which would put them right about 10th overall most years.
That’s not going to win them any awards, and of course these are just projections. WAR is less useful for relievers than any other type of player considering the year to year volatility, and the greater weight that must be given to high over low leverage situations. We’re just ballparking figures here to consider the bullpen as a whole.
Still, a bullpen of Chafin, Will Vest, Jason Foley, Tyler Holton, and Alex Lange, with Beau Brieske, Brendan White, and Miguel Diaz backing them up, with potential contributions coming from the farm system, sounds like a pretty good pen overall. The Tigers have shown the ability to find additional help from internal development and small additions each of the past few seasons as well. They’re still lacking that one dominant arm that could take them into the top tier of league bullpens, but whether they’re in play for a Josh Hader, or at least a Jordan Hicks, or likely not, the bullpen now looks to be in good shape for the 2024 season.
The key detail in the Chafin signing is the addition of another lefty to a pitching staff that had lost both Eduardo Rodriguez and Chasen Shreve, but Chafin is also an overall upgrade in quality for the bullpen. Maeda isn’t an upgrade from Rodriguez, but is at least a fairly solid replacement. Chafin does have a chance to be a significant upgrade from Shreve, or Tyler Alexander, for that matter. Whatever other teams do this offseason, Tyler Holton and Andrew Chafin is about as good a pair of lefty relievers as you’re going to find around the league, and gives AJ Hinch plenty of matchup options.
The trick is getting Chafin back to that 2022 level of production.
Andrew Chafin 2021-2023
The first thing to realize about his 2023 numbers, is that just about all the negatives came in August right after Chafin was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers. His numbers absolutely cratered in the wake of that trade, and it wasn’t until September that he got back on track.
Chafin posted a 4.19 ERA and 3.11 FIP with the Diamondbacks. He did show a significantly elevated walk rate there, but his strikeout rate was actually up to 32.7 percent under Arizona’s legendary pitching coach, Brent Strom, and his home run rate was essentially unchanged from Chafin’s year in Detroit. In Milwaukee, Chafin struggled to adapt to his new team, and his numbers there, a 5.82 ERA and 5.84 FIP over 17 innings and 20 appearances, illustrate where it all went wrong last season.
Before we look into his raw stuff and data, it’s worth noting that Chafin was on the paternity list from July 18 to July 22. It’s also worth noting that for two years straight, Chafin hunted for a two-year deal, citing stability for his family as a key reason for not wanting to bounce around any more than necessary. He returned to action with one solid outing on July 22, but was then rocked for five runs by the Cardinals in his next appearance on July 24. To that point, Chafin had been pitching quite well even if the walks hurt his results a bit. Then suddenly, a pitcher who looked like a key piece of a contender’s bullpen found himself in a surprise trade at the deadline for right-handed reliever Peter Strzelecki.
Probably Chafin would publicly dismiss this line of thinking, but the fact is that’s a lot to deal with and major league baseball players are ultimately just guys with jobs. It’s worth considering that this was a just a difficult stretch for Chafin and his family, and perhaps his results suffered from having more than his usual attention on family matters. That he posted a 12.79 ERA with an 8.78 FIP in August, before closing out the year with a 1.69 ERA and 4.10 FIP in September/October, pairs pretty neatly with that argument.
As for Chafin himself, he chalked most of his issues up to nibbling too much for strikeouts when he should’ve been taking advantage of favorable counts to attack the hitter. His strikeout rate did go up a good bit in Arizona, but so did the walks and the home runs. He was throwing about the same rate of first pitch strikes there as he did in Detroit, so it’s not as though he was just falling behind first pitch more often either.
In terms of stuff, Chafin looks basically unchanged from his time in Detroit. His velocity is unchanged, and he actually gained a couple of inches of extension in 2023. He still throws the sinker as his main offering, and while he lost a half inch of average horizontal move on it in 2023 as compared to 2022, that’s too small a difference over the 405 sinkers he threw in 2023 to mean anything. Chafin continues to get above average horizontal movement on both the sinker and the fourseam fastball, with the fourseamer mainly used to tie up left-handers and occasionally go in hard on the hands of right-handed hitters. Against right-handers it’s still mainly a sinker-slider heavy approach.
The slider has above average depth, but far less horizontal movement than most. It’s basically a near 12-6 breaking ball at 83 mph that continued to rack up a huge whiff rate of 55.8 percent in 2023. That mark was 60.4 percent whiffs in 2022 under Chris Fetter, but he threw it 12 percent more often in 2023, which likely explains the drop in whiffs.
So, under the hood, everything looks at least as good as it ever did.
In terms of catching, the Tigers should be able to help Chafin out more than Arizona’s catchers could. Carson Kelly isn’t an upgrade, but Jake Rogers is significantly better than the Diamondbacks combo of Gabriel Moreno and Jose Herrera. It was a big enough problem for Arizona that they picked up Seby Zavala off waivers in September to give them a better framing catcher for the stretch drive as Moreno’s backup. Chafin should benefit some from better catching in 2024.
In terms of coaching, you can’t do much better than Strom, so I’m not going to suggest that Chris Fetter is an upgrade. However, Strom is much more a guy who likes pitchers who work up with fastballs and down with breaking balls and who hunt for the strikeout rather than attacking the zone while ahead for weak contact. His pitchers tend to produce higher fly ball rates with him than they might elsewhere, and seeing Chafin’s ground ball rate go from 51.3 percent with the Tigers, to 38.5 percent in 2023 at least gives some credence to the idea that the fit wasn’t ideal for him in the desert. Rogers, Fetter and the friendly confines of Comerica Park should be some help to Chafin in terms of getting back on track next season.
The Tigers look to have landed a pretty good bargain in getting Chafin for $4.25M after he made $6.25M in 2023. The incentives in the deal could take that to $5.5M, and while we don’t know the exact kickers that would earn those bonuses, there’s a very good chance he gets there assuming no health issues. Even so, this looks like a bit of a steal, and if he rebounds, the Tigers rather than Chafin have the option card to play this time around.
If Chafin gets back to roughly his usual self, he’s arguably the best lefty reliever on the market not named Josh Hader or Aroldis Chapman. There seem to be plenty of reasons to believe he can. Should that work out, the Tigers look to have an upgraded bullpen over the 2023 edition, with another good southpaw reliever with some closing experience in the mix. Hopefully the Tigers have at least one more upgrade in store for fans, but this is a very nice move to support the bullpen.