bullpen

Requiem for a Season

Yesterday, 43,013 people filed into Comerica Park to observe the Tigers end their season in miserable fashion, losing 2-1 to the Baltimore Orioles.  As noted repeatedly by the TBS announcers (who were terrible all series…yes, Dennis Eckersley, we are aware that you used to be a pitcher, you don’t have to keep reminding us), the crowd was eerily quiet.  On a gray, blustery Michigan afternoon, those in attendance were, as Mitch Albom put it, bearing silent witness to the potential end of an era.  After meltdowns by the bullpen in the first two games of the series, Detroit fans showed up to the party, but came empty-handed.  Sometimes, as fans, you bring the energy with you, but sometimes you need to be fed.  And these fans came hungry for any reason to hope, for any sign of life.  And they starved.

As the fans well know, the Tigers are not a team that comes back from the dead.  This is a team reliant on dominant starting pitching, building an early lead and holding on for dear life.  During the Tigers’ current run of four consecutive division championships, they have never come back to win a postseason game they were losing going into the eighth inning.  Not once.  Since 2011, they’ve been trailing after seven innings 14 times and lost all 14 games.  For that matter, the Tigers haven’t even won a single game where they were tied entering the eighth; they’re 0-4 in such games.  At the same time, the bullpen has registered five blown saves in the eighth inning or later.  Opposing bullpens have incurred a blown save against the Tigers in the 8th inning or later only once, in Game 2 of the 2012 ALDS, but even in that game, it was only after the Tigers’ bullpen had already blown a save.  The Tigers have only won a single game that went into extra innings in four opportunities, Game 1 of the 2012 ALCS, but again, that was only after the Tigers bullpen had already blown a save in the 9th.

Overall, the Tigers have played 38 postseason games since 2011, with a record of 17-21.  In those games, they were leading after seven innings 20 times, trailing 14 times and tied 4 times.  If they simply won the games they were winning, lost the games they were losing, and won half of the games that were tied, that would be 22 wins and 16 losses.  The difference between 22-16 and 17-21 is the difference between genuine hope and utter despair.

This isn’t all about the bullpen or performance in the late innings.  This is about knowing that crazy things happen in baseball, and sometimes, when the chips are down, all you can do is hope for a miracle.  And while Detroit fans still clung to that hope, they understandably felt like those miracles only happen in other places for other fans for other teams.  When you hope for the best but expect the worst, you’re never wrong.  And the Tigers never fail to disappoint.

Ausmus Not Awesome

The Orioles now hold a 2-0 lead in the ALDS over the Tigers.  It’s not over, but it feels over.  For the third straight year, the Tigers have been handicapped by severe bullpen management and managerial incompetence.  In 2012 and 2013, it was Jim Leyland bungling things from the helm.  There was some hope that changing to a younger manager in Brad Ausmus would help to alleviate these issues, but that hope has already been smashed to smithereens.

In Game 2, Ausmus made three decisions regarding pitching changes, and they ranged between questionable and outright terrible:

– Left in Justin Verlander to start the 6th inning, then brought in Anibal Sanchez after Verlander gave up a hit.  Verlander looked absolutely done in the 5th, but Ausmus sent him back out to the mound in the 6th since he had only thrown 95 pitches.  Having Sanchez as the first guy out of the pen was clearly the correct decision, but given his lack of experience as a reliever, it would have been optimal to have him start an inning or come in with no one on base.  There was no reason to bring Verlander back out with the heart of the O’s order due up.  Luckily, Sanchez escaped the 6th without any further damage and pitched a perfect 7th, so no harm was done.  But as much as Verlander was battling all game, he was clearly toast, and I don’t understand the hesitance to switch to a pitcher in Sanchez who had been better than JV all year long.
Decision rating:  1 out of 5

– Removed Sanchez for Joba Chamberlain to begin the 8th.  This is the decision that will haunt the Tigers and their fans all winter.  Sanchez is a starting pitcher by trade, and he was looking stronger the longer he pitched.  Sure, he’d only had a single one inning appearance since he’d returned from the DL, but if Ausmus was thinking he couldn’t handle three innings, whose fault was it that Sanchez hadn’t been handed more work to get a bit more stretched out before the season ended?  This was slavish obedience to Ausmus’ set bullpen hierarchy, plain and simple.  Joba pitches the 8th and Joe Nathan pitches the 9th, never mind that both have been terrible lately and that there were superior options available.  Joba proceeded to give up two hits and hit a batter while getting a single lonely out.  His postseason ERA actually went down from infinity to 108.00.  Even if Ausmus was resolved to remove Sanchez after he had pitched two innings, I would have preferred to see Soria get a chance to start the inning.
Decision rating:  0 out of 5

– Removing Joba for Joakim Soria with two on, one out in the 8th.  This decision is probably the most defensible of the three, simply because Soria was having a great season before he was acquired by the Tigers.  He proceeded to walk J.J. Hardy and give up a game-winning bases-clearing double to former Tiger Delmon Young of all people.  Soria hasn’t looked sharp as a Tiger at all, but his usage since acquisition has been extremely inconsistent.  It appeared he finally shook off some of the rust to retire the side after the damage was already done, but a less rusty option might have been Al Alburquerque, who has yet to appear in the series.  As I’ve written before, Alburquerque has had the best and most consistent season of any Tiger reliever this year, and is a good option with runners on base due to his strikeout ability.  Given the lack of the options in the Tigers bullpen, Soria was an acceptable choice, but it appears that Ausmus doesn’t view Alburquerque as an option in the 8th or 9th inning regardless of matchup or situation.  It’s that kind of closed-minded thinking that is killing the Tigers right now.
Decision rating:  3 out of 5

Perhaps the worst part of all of this is that the Tigers bullpen has completely imploded and that’s even without the negative contributions of the highly flammable Joe Nathan (who of course is being reserved exclusively for save situations and hasn’t yet appeared in the postseason).  Sure, a postseason series is a small sample size, and there’s no need to deviate from a sound plan if things go wrong, but that’s only if the initial plan was any good.  Ausmus entered the postseason with a rigid and moronic plan for his already struggling bullpen.  Going forward, he’ll either overreact in the worst way possible (perhaps asking Phil Coke to get through a full inning or calling Jim Leyland for advice) or do nothing at all.  Either way, there is very little hope in Tigertown.

Detroit’s Ideal Postseason Bullpen Usage

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.

The Terrible Tigers Bullpen

phil coke

The Detroit Tigers bullpen is a flaming wet turd. You may ask, how can something be both wet and on fire at the same time? Such is the seeming impossibility of this craptitude. The Tigers bullpen has a 5.65 ERA, ranked 29th in the majors. The only team that is worse so far is Houston at 6.05, but the Astros are not a real team. Well, they are real in the sense that they are physical objects and not illusions, but, according to reliable sources, the entire Astros roster is actually a barnstorming team from the 1890’s (people were generally smaller back then, so this explains the existence of Jose Altuve) that has been resurrected via Edo Tensei, which best translates as Impure Reincarnation Summoning Technique. In other words, the Astros are literally the walking dead. But…the Tigers’ aggregate bullpen numbers include 6 innings of scoreless “relief” thrown by Drew Smyly, a starting pitcher. Subtract Smyly’s innings from the total and the bullpen ERA rises to a spectacular 6.22. As mentioned in my season preview, the Tigers will likely struggle to create any space in the division all year, because the bullpen is the terriblest in the league. They are even terribler than a bunch of zombies.

Other thoughts this week:

  • Hitter of the year, to date: Who the hell is Charlie Blackmon? And what the hell is he on? He’s the #1 hitter in fantasy at the moment, hitting .402 with 5 HR and 6 SB. I’ve heard him mentioned in the same sentence as Mike Trout, and that sentence is usually “Let’s not get carried away and compare Blackmon to Trout.” But Trout hasn’t been running this year and has 31 strikeouts. Blackmon has struck out six times. SIX. I’ve always said that Trout, with his square head, blocky frame and red garb, looks like an Autobot, specifically Hot Rod (I’m talking about Transformers the Movie from 1986, not any of this Michael Bay garbage. If you have not seen it, you need to go see it immediately. I just made it a requirement for league membership). Blackmon, swathed in black and purple, may be Trout’s perfect Decepticon counterpart. Charlie Blackmon is Cyclonus




 Hm…looks like Mike Trout could use some more courage. 



So what is Charlie Blackmon on? A little energon and a lot of luck. Or maybe it’s a little luck and a hell of a lot of energon. And steroids. And HGH. I don’t know. But we know now, thanks to my connecting the dots, that he is definitely a bad guy. Because all Decepticons are bad guys. So nothing would surprise me. 

  • Pitcher of the year, to date: Adam Wainwright is the #1 pitcher in fantasy, and right now looks like he can do whatever he wants. He has not been scored on in 25 straight innings, and has only given up 9 hits in that span. Waino had two starts last week; he left the first start after 79 pitches and 7 innings because he tweaked his knee and left the second start after 99 pitches and 8 innings probably because of lingering concerns about that knee.  It looks like the knee will be a non-issue, but in normal circumstances, that should have been two shutouts. We are inundated these days with good starting pitching performances (ESPN reports that Sunday produced a record 10 pitchers throwing 7 innings with 3 hits or less allowed), but Wainwright still stands apart from the crowd. Despite my well-documented loathing of the Cardinals (I found a new reason this weekend, as I discovered their Hawk-Harrelson-esque announcers are audio vomit), this is not an attempt to jinx Adam Wainwright. I can be objective (sometimes), and I think Wainwright finishes the year as the #1 pitcher in fantasy baseball. It won’t even be close. 
  • Pitching line of the week #1: On Saturday: Danny Duffy, 0.0 IP, 0 H, 1 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 0 SO, LOSS, 3 batters faced. The mystery is in the line; if he faced three batters, how come his line is all zeros? This was a disaster for Duffy. Hit batter, then the next batter bunted and Duffy threw it away. Then the following batter bunted and Duffy threw it away AGAIN as the winning run scored. You’ve really got to watch it, it’s spectacular. For all that, Duffy still gets to have an ERA of 0.00 for the season. Sometimes stats make no sense. 
  • Pitching line of the week #2: Again on Saturday, Brandon Morrow: 2.2 IP, 0 H, 4 ER, 8 BB, 1 K. This is how you get pulled from a no-hitter in the 3rd inning. Thing is, he almost got away with it. Despite walking four batters in the first two innings, two double plays helped Morrow to enter the third inning unscathed. He then walked four batters to allow one run to score, got pulled, then the reliever came in and gave up a grand slam. I blame the manager for this. Only one run had scored at this point. Leave Morrow in and either let him work it out or go for the all-time walks record (16). No-lose scenario.