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Section 313, Seat No. 4: Some burning questions I cannot figure out

Section 313

seat no. 4

Welcome to Section 313, seat no. 4. This week we’re going to look at a few questions I have been asking myself since the Minnesota series. If you want to catch up on previous week’s thoughts, click here.

So the Tigers sit at 8-7 after a devasting sweep

Detroit Tigers, Section 313
Apr 19, 2017; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Detroit Tigers shortstop Jose Iglesias (1) lays on the ground after an apparent injury and second baseman Ian Kinsler (3) and trainer comes to check on him after they lost to the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field. Tampa Bay Rays defeated the Detroit Tigers 8-7. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

at the hands of the Tampa Bay Rays. This coming after their great weekend performance in Cleveland last weekend. Their defense, offense, starting pitching, and bullpen were all to blame for the non-showing down south.

Here’s the thing, I do not think it is time to panic yet. However, if the first 12 games were their kind of lightning in the bottle early, and this series is the true mark of this team, I won’t be surprised. Yet, like I’ve said from the beginning, I refuse to give up on a team until they are mathematically eliminated from contention. Even if they were in a position to sell at the deadline, I’d be behind it but still optimistic. Call it the hopeless romantic in me, but I’ll stand by my words.

Here, however, are some things that do bring me pause as I look at this team:

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Why must we (continue to) suffer through bad bullpens?

There is no doubt that the bullpen is a problem for the Tigers — it has been for a while. What’s worse is the fact that it has gone largely overlooked (or ignored) for years, even decades.

This year alone the Tigers bullpen has driven fans closer to the edge of pure insanity more

Detroit Tigers, Section 313
Aug 28, 2016; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Anibal Sanchez (19) pumps his fist as he walks off the field after the first inning against the Los Angeles Angels at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

than once, and the team has only played 15 games. A 4-0 lead against the Boston Red Sox, was quickly erased when Michael Fulmer left the game after six innings in the home opener. Two days later — yes, 48 hours after — they blew another 3-2 lead, that the Tigers couldn’t recover from. And, of course, there was the debacle tht was Wednesday night. Yet, maybe even more precarious, if a Tigers starter has gotten into trouble this year, which we saw Tuesday night against the Rays, the bullpen continuously fails to keep the game close to give our hitters a chance to come back.

To take this point further, the Tigers have 7 losses on the season, one of which they were within striking distance (2 runs) of. And, what do you know, it was a game the bullpen gave up a lead — but I digress. What I’m trying to show here is this: a decent bullpen (when starters struggle) will do their damnedest to keep the game where it is, but not the Tigers.

Starter and Runs given up Bullpen runs given up Tigers offensive runs after SP left game.
Matt Boyd v. CWS (5) 6 (2 earned) 0; lost 11-2
Daniel Norris vs. BOS (3) 4 (4 earned) 2; lost 7-5 (blown save)
Jordan Zimmermann vs. MIN (5) 6 (6 earned) 3; lost 11-5
Justin Verlander vs. CLE (9) 4 (4 earned) 3; lost 13-6
Michael Fulmer vs. TB (3) 2 (2 earned) 0; lost 5-1
Jordan Zimmermann vs. TB (5) 3 (2 earned) 0; lost 8-7 (blown save)
Daniel Norris vs. TB (5, 4 earned) 3 (3 earned) 0; lost 8-1

Stats via Baseball-Reference.com

What the chart above doesn’t tell you is this: the bullpen was responsible for ruining a well-pitched game from Daniel Norris, they blew that hold and save; and, what’s more, against the Tribe, in arguably JV’s worst start of his career, the team was within three runs, twice — 7-4 and 9-6 — before the wheels came off. We again saw it Wednesday night with a disheartening loss to the Rays. So not only is the bullpen not keeping leads intact, they aren’t even giving the offense a chance to catch up.

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Now before we get too far into this, we must admit that we have had some decent closers, based on job description, over the last few years. Yes, they have been aging; and yes, Joe Nathan was not (perceivably) good, but Jose Valverde and Francisco Rodriguez did exactly what you want a closer to do, close games. According to Fangraphs.com, Valverde

Detroit Tigers, Section 313
Apr 19, 2017; St. Petersburg, FL, USA;Detroit Tigers relief pitcher Francisco Rodriguez (57) reacts after they lost to the Tampa Bay Rays in the ninth inning at Tropicana Field. Tampa Bay Rays defeated the Detroit Tigers 8-7. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

was given 130 opportunities to save a game for the Tigers and converted 119 of them, that’s 92% — or pretty good. Likewise, Rodriguez has been given 56 chances to close games out and has converted 49 of them, that’s an 87.5% conversion rate.  For reference, the Major League Baseball save percentage for 2017 is 62.09% per ESPN, and in 2016 it was 67.52%. Why do I bring this up? Because we’ve had good closers. Even Joe Nathan had an 83 % conversion rate in 2014 (35/42). Maybe our disdain for them stems from something much deeper?

I was born in December of 1986, why is that relevant? It is relevant for this reason: since I was three-years-old the Tigers bullpen has been an issue. Don’t believe me? Believe these numbers:

Detroit Tigers, Section 313

Stats via Fangraphs.com

If you’re wondering what qualifies as “Above Average to Great” all the way down to “poor”, look at this chart from Fangraphs:

Detroit Tigers, Section 313
Click the picture to read a great article on ERA from Fangraphs

According to those stats, from 1990 the Tigers bullpen has been generally “poor.” Only twice, 1990 and 2006, was the bullpen “great” (1990, 3.26 ERA) and “above average (2006, 3.55 ERA). Only a handful of times were they considered “average,” generally dwelling in that below average to awful category.

The problem with our relievers runs much deeper than just our closers. No one has solely blamed them, nor should they, because that would be unwarranted. But they are a small microcosm of a much bigger issue. And the question begs to be asked, why has nothing been done about this?

Unfortunately, I don’t think that question can be answered.

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Why can we not settle on a lineup?

The Tigers this season have used 11 different lineups, according to Baseballpress.com. I completely understand that this is a sport where 162 games in 180 days is a complete grind and guys need a day off. I will never argue that. But what I will argue is why so many different lineups? Sometimes leaving guys that were in the Opening Day lineup, out of back-to-back games.

It’s early in the season, and I hate to question manager Brad Ausmus this early, but there seems to be a mental problem with some of these guys, exasperated by the fact they never know when they will be in the lineup or not. Baseball, much of the time, is a game of confidence –just look at what Eric Thames is doing in Milwaukee — and the shuffling of the lineup, with multiple platoons (it seems), is hurting the lineup overall. Two guys that I’m specifically talking about are JaCoby Jones and James McCann.

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Tampa Bay Rays
Apr 19, 2017; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Detroit Tigers center fielder JaCoby Jones (40) bunts during the sixth inning against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

JaCoby made the club out of Spring Training and started the first handful of games in centerfield. Then he was held out in lieu of Andrew Romine, missed the lineup again against Boston, and then was held out two straight days against the Indians. I can’t imagine the blow to the confidence, even though he had been performing quite decently for a rookie with barely any Major League experience.

There is no doubt that with rookies there will always be a learning curve when the jump from Triple-A to the Majors is made. Unless you’re a talent like Mike Trout, it’s never that smooth. Forgetting the Tampa series for a second, defensively JaCoby has been pretty good in center field. His pure athleticism has been on display and he has the ability to cover the far reaches of Comerica Park much like an old friend, Austin Jackson, did. But, more so than with the glove, for the first handful of games, Jones was swinging a decent bat. Before his first off day, Jones was carrying a .250/.400/.583 slash line, one home run, four RBIs, and three walks. What is even more impressive, he only had two strikeouts in 12 at-bats.

Then he sat a day.

After coming back from the day off, Jones has gone 3-24 (0-11 with 7 Ks, since being out two days straight), with 12 strikeouts and only one base on balls. I think that it is safe to say, the confidence of making the team out of camp and swinging the bat well has officially been crushed.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Detroit Tigers
Apr 8, 2017; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Tigers catcher James McCann (34) hits a home run in the fifth inning against the Boston Red Sox at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The other player that has had a number of days off, some directly in a row, is James McCann. McCann was touted to be the number one catcher, and still is the catcher of the future. I also understand that there is no other position in the game of baseball that deserves an off day like a catcher. Yet, though deservedly he has sat for rest, there was a stretch of three days before the Tampa series that McCann wasn’t in the starting lineup.

McCann began the season with an apparent swagger. I really enjoyed seeing that too. He caught the first four games for the Tigers and carried in those games a slash line of .273/.467/.818 with two home runs, three RBIs and four walks in four games. Then he took a scheduled day off and went 0-3, not surprising, nor alarming. He rebounded nicely in the next game going 1-3 with a home run (3 for the season) and 2 RBIs. Since that game, McCann broke into the starting lineup in four of eight games. Sitting two in Cleveland, before the team’s off-day on Monday and still being held out in Tuesday’s opener with the Rays. So if you’re doing the math, in six days (April 13th-19th) McCann played in a total of two games for the Tigers (April 15th and 19th), with one day being a team day off. How can one expect to get into a rhythm like that? What kind of message does that send to the young catcher?

There is no doubt in my mind that McCann’s recent offensive lull is due to the time off. Since these “rest” days, McCann’s average has dropped to .133, he’s 2-20, with just one extra-base hit.

It’s probably time we start giving the guys who we believe to be our future their chance to actually prove their worth.

What is the h-e-double-hockey-sticks is going on with Victor Martinez?

The last question burning in the back of my mind is what is wrong with Victor Martinez?

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Cleveland Indians
Apr 16, 2017; Cleveland, OH, USA; Detroit Tigers designated hitter Victor Martinez (41) singles in the eighth inning against the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Currently, Victor is slashing .204/.286/.204 with 2 runs scored and 6 RBIs. What concerns me the most is not his average; He’s perennially a .300 hitter. What concerns me is his lack of solid contact. Last week I said that I thought Miggy, Victor, and J-Up would all come around; Miggy has proved me right, J-Up is driving the ball, but Victor I’m starting to second guess myself on.

Victor is at the tail end of his career, of that there is no doubt; but what’s worse, he’s getting to the point where he’s a statue on the bases. Just last weekend, he drilled a ball up the right-center-field gap, all the way to the wall, and got a single. I’m not trying to call anyone out here, but what the hell?

People have suggested moving Victor down in the lineup. I am starting to agree with them, but only when J.D. Martinez returns. And, I would do it with the thought in mind that you cannot drop him lower than seven. Here’s why: Victor is slower than molasses on a cool winter morning, which means that he cannot hit lower than seven because then he plugs the bases for the top of our lineup. I don’t know what the solution is, I just know it’s not what has been happening over these last 15 games.

So there you have it, my burning questions that I need answered. Will I get them? Sure probably in time; of course, with the bullpen one, I hope I’m not waiting another 27 years.  All in all, the team is 8-7 sitting tied for the American League Central lead. Could this all go to hell-in-a-handbasket quickly? Yep, sure could. But it also might not. I’m betting on the latter.

Twitter: @ajreilly_DSN


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AJ Reilly
AJ Reilly
A.J. is a lifelong baseball fan and an avid storyteller. His debut novel, The Askren Boys, won the Literary Classics Gold Medal and Seal of Approval in November of 2018. When not writing, he is spending time with his wife Jessica, son Jack, daughter Nora, and new arrival Teddy. A.J. lives in Metro Detroit.

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