Overtaxed, Detroit's bullpen has been regularly thrust into high-pressure situations despite a cumulative lack of major league experience.
But as improbable as it sounds, the Tigers employ the most effective pen in the majors.
Let's wrap ourselves up in numbers for a moment.
Through 43 games, the Tigers bullpen ranks first in MLB in earned run average (2.34), home runs surrendered (six), and slugging percentage against (.296). Of the seven contributors, only one posts an ERA above 2.90 (Phil Coke, 3.54).
Wasn't the strength of the pitching staff supposed to rest within the starting rotation?
Eddie Bonine, one of the most unsung relievers in the game, has surrendered a run in just two of his 17 outings. Emerging stalwart Ryan Perry ranks third in the American League in holds (eight) and strikes out roughly one hitter an inning. Meanwhile, Coke has collected holds in unlikely situations and proved reliable when the game is on the line.
With trusted mainstays Bobby Seay and Zach Miner shelved, unproven replacements regularly hand the lead to setup man Joel Zumaya and closer Jose Valverde. Atop the bullpen hierarchy, these two have achieved a dominance unseen in recent Tiger history.
Zumaya regained the mastery he left back in 2006, when he punched out 97 in 83.1 innings. In April, he posted a 1.23 ERA in 14.2 innings, punching out 16. Most impressively, perhaps, the fireballer didn't walk a batter all month, and he leads the AL in reliever strikeouts. The 25-year-old has yet to surrender a homer in 17 games, and despite heavy use, his shoulders, elbows, and wrists are healthy.
If Zumaya can be classified a late-innings leader, Valverde is an end of the game dictator.
Through 21 appearances, his ERA is closer to 0.00 than 1.00 (0.48). Valverde blew his first save opportunity as a Tiger but hasn't given up a run in 18 appearances since. "Papa Grande" holds the longest active scoreless streak among all pitchers—the opposition hasn't crossed home plate in 48 days. Under his watch, the opposition bats an embarrassingly low .117.
Valverde defines automatic.
The free-agent signee is slowly developing into a premier closer, and he is discrediting those who questioned his two-year, $14 million contract this winter. To keep Valverde polished, manager Jim Leyland refuses to pitch his closer more than an inning per outing.
But he is the only reliever Leyland is coddling.
High-yielding yet scarily fragile Zumaya has already appeared in 17 games. He has pitched more than one inning 12 times and averages 23 pitches per outing.
After him, Bonine, Valverde, Coke, and Perry have also thrown in at least 17 games. Early rotation troubles plagued Detroit starters to begin the campaign, which caused the overworking of Tiger relievers, but they've been stretching deeper into games lately, allowing the back end to catch their breath.
ESPN Baseball Tonight analyst Tim Kurkjian wrote, "A really good bullpen can keep you in a pennant race for the long haul. And that just might be the case with the Tigers this year."
A game behind Minnesota for first place, Detroit has only scored six more runs than its opponents this year. Most experts credit timely pitching, mainly from the bullpen, for their proximity to the mighty Twins.
Twenty-eight teams have received more production from their starters, but as Justin Verlander and Rick Porcello continue to trend upward, the secondary staff should keep fresh.
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