Let’s face it: the Detroit Tigers bullpen has been a complete dumpster fire in 2014. But as the Tigers prepare for the playoffs, the bullpen situation may not be as bleak as it seems:
– Thanks to a good starting rotation that pitches deep into games, Tigers relievers have thrown the least innings in the league. The Tigers will likely lean even more heavily on their starting pitchers in the postseason, further minimizing the number of outs that will be required out of the bullpen.
– Anibal Sanchez’s injury may have been a blessing in disguise, assuming that he’s now fully healthy. Without enough time to get stretched out to return to the rotation, Sanchez’s extended layoff takes a difficult question out of the Tigers’ hands. Had Sanchez been healthy all year, the question at this time would be whether it would be Justin Verlander or Rick Porcello who would be demoted to the bullpen in the playoffs. While moving Sanchez to the bullpen might cause a bit of an overall downgrade to the starting rotation, Sanchez has the tools to be a strikeout weapon out of the pen, unlike Porcello and this current incarnation of Verlander.
The Tigers have gone with a seven-man bullpen in the playoffs the past few years, and it seems unlikely that they’ll deviate from this number this year. Here’s what that bullpen should look like (but probably won’t, thanks to Brad Ausmus’ misplaced loyalties), in order of ideal usage:
1. Anibal Sanchez
Key stats: 125 IP, 3.46 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 102 K
Strengths: 2013 AL ERA champ, could see his velocity tick up a bit as a reliever, offsetting his drop in K-rate in 2014.
Weaknesses: Has not pitched a game in relief since 2006, his rookie year.
Description: Last year, Porcello was the starter that moved to the pen for the playoffs, and he was both criminally underused by then-manager Jim Leyland (only three batters in the entire postseason) and ineffective in his transition (gave up hits to all three batters). Let’s hope that Sanchez can adjust quicker to relieving and that Brad Ausmus can figure out how to use him.
Usage: Ideally, Sanchez should throw around 25% of all bullpen innings (for example, in a five game series, I envision perhaps two 2-inning outings). Avoid (1) pitching him on consecutive days and (2) bringing him in mid-inning with runners on base. Subject to those two restrictions, Sanchez should be the first guy out of the pen and allowed to pitch multiple innings.
2. Joakim Soria
Key stats: 43.1 IP, 3.32 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 48 K
Strengths: Fast recovery. Soria’s numbers over the past few years are actually better when he’s pitching with zero days rest.
Weaknesses: Inconsistent workload. Soria has an ERA of 5.40 and a WHIP of 1.50 with the Tigers so far in only 12 appearances.
Description: Granted, part of the lack of usage was due to a DL stint, but Ausmus hasn’t been able to figure out a way to get Soria into high-leverage situations with regularity, much less in back-to-back games, with the starters often working through the seventh inning and the eight and ninth rigidly committed to Joba Chamberlain and Joe Nathan, respectively. I am really hoping Ausmus can become more flexible in the playoffs; if Soria isn’t getting a high percentage of high-leverage innings, it’s a huge waste of the expensive price the Tigers paid to get him.
Usage: 25% of bullpen innings. Do not hesitate to use on consecutive days. Note that Sanchez and Soria together should ideally account for 50% of all bullpen innings.
3. Al Alburquerque
Key stats: 55.1 IP, 2.60 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 61 K
Strengths: Strikeouts. Sadly, Alburquerque projects to be the only member of the Tigers bullpen that has struck out more than a batter per inning in 2014 for the Tigers. This is not good, given today’s strikeout-rich environment.
Weaknesses: Walks. Alburquerque looked to have a potential future as a closer a few years ago if he could only get his walks under control. In 2014, the walks number (21) is finally manageable, though it appears he had to sacrifice a few strikeouts to do it.
Description: He’s still erratic, but he’s probably been the most consistent member of the bullpen all season, which says more about the state of the other relievers than it does about AlAl. In the 2012 postseason, the Tigers were scrambling for help when Jose Valverde imploded, and Jim Leyland for some reason turned to guys like Phil Coke and Octavio Dotel instead of Alburquerque and his impressive strikeout rate. I have a feeling Alburquerque could get overlooked again this year and remain behind Nathan and Chamberlain in the postseason pecking order, but he shouldn’t. If you need a big strikeout, this should be Ausmus’ guy.
Usage: 15% of bullpen innings. Use in high-leverage situations where a strikeout is needed (e.g. runner on third and less than two out).
4. Phil Coke
Key stats: 56.2 IP, 3.81 ERA, 1.48 WHIP, 41 K
Strengths: Getting out lefties. Lefties hit .238/.294/.366 against Coke this year.
Weaknesses: Getting out righties. Righties hit .325/.388/.463 against Coke this year.
Description: This left/right split has persisted for years now, but believe it or not, this is actually one of Coke’s better years against righties, and they’re still hitting like freaking superstars against him. Leyland simply didn’t get this in 2012 or 2013, and for the love of God, I hope Ausmus can figure this out in 2014. Coke should not face any right handed hitters in any important situation EVER, and that includes switch-hitters who hit worse from the right side.
Usage: 11% of bullpen innings. Ideally, Coke should be used for a single at-bat (against the opposing team’s best left-handed hitter) each game.
5. Joba Chamberlain
Key stats: 61.1 IP, 3.67 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 58 K
Strengths: Beard growing; not giving up homers (only 0.44 allowed per nine innings).
Weaknesses: Fatigue. After a good first half (2.63 ERA), Chamberlain has been Nathan-esque in the second half, posting a 5.32 ERA and seeing an increase in walks and a decrease in strikeouts. His velocity is trending downwards as well. He seems to be tiring; or perhaps there’s an injury in play?
Description: Joba has earned a lot of trust with Ausmus as the 8th inning guy, but I’m not sure it’s warranted at this point; I hope to see Sanchez, Soria and even Al Alburquerque picking up more of the workload in the 8th. Joba hasn’t had to deal with many inherited runners, usually always starting the 8th inning, and I’m not sure now is the time to start bringing him in mid-inning.
Usage: 10% of bullpen innings. Use in lower leverage situations or for home run suppression.
6. Joe Nathan
Key stats: 56 IP, 4.98 ERA, 1.59 WHIP, 52 K
Strengths: Making obscene gestures to the home fans.
Weaknesses: Old age; booing; men with bats in hands.
Description: It appears that Ausmus and the Tigers intend to stick with him as the closer even after the horrendous year he’s had. Sure, there’s always some luck involved in relievers’ numbers, given the small sample size, but the most alarming thing about Nathan’s 2014 performance is the 29 walks and embarrassingly bad 1.79 K/BB ratio. I expect that Nathan will get his share of ninth inning opportunities (hopefully protecting multi-run leads), but under no situation should Nathan come into a game with men on base.
Usage: 10% of bullpen innings. Use with extreme caution and only with the bases empty. OK to use in the ninth inning, but for the love of god, please have someone else warming up.
7. Blaine Hardy or Kyle Lobstein
Key stats: 37.1 IP, 2.17 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 30 K / 34.2 IP, 3.38 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 23 K
Description: The proper usage of Coke as a LOOGY necessitates the inclusion of another left-handed pitcher to complete the staff. Hardy has had a good year since he’s been called up, but has struggled this month with walks (five in 3.1 innings) while Lobstein has come on strong lately. The difficult question for Ausmus and his staff in making this decision will be whether they prefer to have a guy comfortable working as a second LOOGY behind Coke (Hardy) or a more versatile swingman who can potentially pitch deep into an extra inning game (Lobstein). I don’t think either rookie will get too many of the high leverage situations, unless Ausmus turns into the 2013 version of Leyland who overmanaged lefty-righty matchups, so I’d give Lobstein the slight edge here.
Usage: 4% of bullpen innings.