Almost exactly a year ago I wrote this article chronicling the early season struggles of the Detroit Tigers’ bullpen. Well, here we are again. Fresh off of the Twins (the TWINS?!) dropping an 11-spot on the Tigers last night and the bullpen allowing 5 earned runs in their 5 innings of work, fans are rightfully concerned.
The bullpen has been bad but certainly isn’t entirely to blame here. The offense has been suppressed for most of the season and the starting rotation has been decent, but couldn’t be categorized as world-beaters at this point. The defense has been predictably unsuccessful but ranking 21st in fielding % is probably more than what most expected. Although the fact remains that it’s hard to create an error on a ball your range doesn’t allow you to reach.
But man that bullpen is frustrating! By the numbers it might actually be even more troubling.
Across all of Major League Baseball the Tigers’ pen ranks dead last in ERA at 5.17. Worse than even the horror show on the north side of Chicago.
As an entire staff, the Tigers are doing a decent job not walking the opposition, but as a bullpen, only 2 teams have walked more. In 116.2 innings of combined work, the ever rotating 7-man pen has walked 58 hitters. Teams are hitting .270 off of Luke Putkonen and company, which ties them for 4th worst in the bigs.
Add 122 hits allowed (more than a hit/inning) to the ugly walk rate and we have ourselves a legitimate problem. The collective WHIP of the bullpen in Motown is a head-shaking 1.54.
The Tigers were money in 2011 when taking a lead into the last 2 innings. This year they have been coughing up leads and likely wins with regularity. Detroit’s bullpen arms have a win-loss record of 8-8 on the season. Only 1 other team’s such unit has lost more.
Part of the problem has been continuity. The Tigers have already trotted out 11 relievers on the season. Doug Fisters’ injury and Daniel Schlereth’s ineffectiveness kick started a whirlwind of roster moves that haven’t seen their end date. Collin Balester has been very bad, yet has been getting a free pass thus far. His rope, while still intact, is frayed.
The door might be partially cracked open for a Putkonen or Balester demotion as the Tigers brought back Brayan Villarreal to fill in as an extra reliever today. Villarreal has already been in Detroit this year and is probably here to stay for a while this time. He had a 1.29 ERA for Toledo and 22:7 K to walk ratio in 14 innings of work.
There are a few other names lurking at AAA Toledo that are sure to be called on at some point. One arm the Tigers have liked for a few years now is Jose Ortega. His 3.60 ERA and 25 K’s in 20 innings is enticing until you scan the old “BB” column. He has walked 20 hitters, or 1 per inning, including 8 in his last 5.2 innings. The Tigers simply cannot afford to bring on another erratic bullpen guy.
Zach Miner is also trying to work his way back to relevance in the Tigers’ system. Two other players have been creating a nice resume that will make the Tigers take notice soon. Chris Bootcheck and lefty Darin Downs.
Downs boasts a sparkling 15:1 K to walk ratio in 13 innings to go along with his 2.08 ERA over 13 innings. With Phil Coke and Duane Below currently entrenched as the lefties, Downs will likely need an injury to get his shot, but he’s waiting in the wings.
Bootcheck is a guy the Tigers liked a lot this spring. His downside is that he’s already 33 years old so he certainly isn’t the future, but we might see him regardless. The bottom line is the Tigers need production. Bootcheck has a 2.95 ERA for Toledo and 16:10 K to walk ratio in 18.1 innings of work.
When a starting rotation and even an offense can’t rely on their pen to shut the door at the end of games it adds pressure, which generally adds a lack of productivity. At 18-19 the Tigers clearly haven’t hit their stride. A year ago, the bullpen eventually fell into a good rhythm and pitched very well down the stretch.
Senor Slider, Al Alburquerque, is due back in early July, and that should help, assuming he can find the strike zone upon his return. To me, the best the bullpen could look would be with Jose Valverde, Joaquin Benoit, Coke, Octavio Dotel, Alburquerque, Below, and probably Villarreal.
It may not be pretty right now but the arms are still in place to get the job done at the end of games. Stay strong Tiger fans, it should only get better from here. But in the meantime, turning off your tv in the 9th inning of a tight game might add some longevity to your lifespan.