Detroit Tigers: Is Their Bullpen Costing Them World Series Titles?

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Detroit Tigers: Is Their Bullpen Costing Them World Series Titles?
Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

The Detroit Tigers possess one of the most enviable rosters in Major League Baseball. Their starting rotation boasts quality from top to bottom, including three former Cy Young award winners—Max Scherzer, David Price and Justin Verlander. Their offense is not too shabby either. Led by former Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera, it contains a balance of power and speed which has compiled an average of 4.56 runs per game (third in MLB). The missing ingredient for this ambitious but unfulfilled franchise remains conspicuous: A lock-down bullpen.

Detroit’s relievers rank 13th in the AL in ERA (4.37) this season, and have been getting worse as noted on their recent road trip.

The squad lacks a proven lefty-killer, and often seems to have a strike-throwing allergy (3.69 BB/9). Closer Joe Nathan exemplifies their struggles with a bulging 5.20 ERA and six blown saves. His frustration even manifested in a disrespectful gesture to Detroit fans last week.

This is a relief corps in tatters, which unlike AL rivals Seattle and Oakland, fills their fans with butterflies more than any degree of confidence.

The Detroit faithful still sport unhealed scars after last year’s postseason exit, and many blame the bullpen. A 5.11 ERA in the AL Championship Series, including a momentum-swinging game 2 capitulation, was instrumental in their defeat to the Red Sox.

In contrast, Boston’s relief pitching was excellent, especially their closer, Koji Uehara. He iced three games in the series, including some multiple inning outings. Demonstrating the importance of a quality bullpen, the Japanese closer may have been the difference between the two teams.

Detroit’s struggle to find the right relief mix has been a feature of the Dave Dombrowski era. The Tiger’s general manager/president deserves credit for building the team around the Verlander-Cabrera nucleus, but bullpen issues have been endemic during his tenure. As the table below shows, Detroit’s ERA has ranked 10th or worse the AL 10 times since 2002.

Detroit Bullpen ERA and Rank
Year ERA AL Rank
2002 4.82 10
2003 4.69 10
2004 4.91 13
2005 3.82 8
2006 .3.55 2
2007 4.40 11
2008 4.69 12
2009 4.34 10
2010 3.96 8
2011 3.93 11
2012 3.79 10
2013 4.01 12
2014 4.37 13

Fangraphs

In an attempt to rectify this weakness, Detroit’s front office explored the market last offseason and made some notable acquisitions: Nathan, Joba Chamberlain and Ian Krol. Joakim Soria was also picked up this July in a trade with Texas. Veteran Jim Johnson is the latest addition to the mix.

However, the Tigers’ bullpen has been even worse this year. Their impotence may even have persuaded Dave Dombrowski to trade for David Price. The lefty’s ability to pitch deep into games may reduce the influence of Detroit’s relief pitchers through the remainder of the season. Jason Catania from Bleacher Report recently quipped that all Detroit starters may have to pick up the slack.

Some people have questioned Dombrowski’s decision-making regarding the bullpen. On a recent Bless You Boys Podcast, HookSlide suggested that Detroit should have re-signed Joaquin Benoit after last season and considered other areas.

“Dombrowski addressed the wrong issue. We didn’t need a closer. Go back to the middle relief spot and let’s get some good guys there. Now we have a problem at closer that we didn’t have before because Benoit was okay there—In addition to still having the problems at middle relief."

Chamberlain is the only one of the new relievers to have had a positive impact this year. Meanwhile, Benoit is having an outstanding season with the Padres—1.64 ERA, 0.85 WHIP.

One would assume that a team with Detroit’s talent should be coasting in first place, especially in a relatively weak division. But with a quarter of the season remaining they trail Kansas City in the AL Central, as well as LA/Oakland (currently tied) and Seattle in the wildcard standings. It could be argued that the bullpen is the biggest factor putting their season in jeopardy. The rotation and offense remain blameless—Detroit’s hitters (.273 avg.) and quintet of starters (52 wins) both rank first in the league.

Uncredited/Associated Press

If the Tigers make the playoffs it will be their fourth consecutive year competing in October. This season may be their last opportunity to earn a ring with this current crop of players. Verlander and Cabrera appear to be on the wrong side of their prime, and players such as Scherzer and Victor Martinez could depart via free agency at the end of the season. The time to succeed is now.

With the non-waiver trade deadline having passed, what options do the Tigers have?

One radical move that has been suggested is shifting Justin Verlander from starter to reliever in the postseason. In an ideal world this transition could pan out similarly to the role played by Tim Lincecum for the championship-winning Giants of 2012.

Otherwise, they will have to wait until the existing crop turn things around—if they ever do.

Perhaps Soria will usurp the closer role from Nathan and succeed there when he returns from the disabled list. Maybe Johnson will rediscover the form he had in Baltimore where he saved more games than any major league player in 2012-13. There remain more questions than answers for Detroit’s beleaguered bullpen. But, whatever happens, they will either sink or swim with their current roster.

The likelihood of October baseball without the Old English D increases the longer they sit adrift of the Royals. Without getting improved results from the bullpen, the finger of blame will be mostly pointed their way. The butterflies will then turn to dread  as the reality of a bare trophy cabinet and a longer-than-normal offseason hits home in Detroit. 

All stats in this article are courtesy of Fangraphs

To talk baseball and other sports, please find me on Twitter: @jdunc1979

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