Tigers’ bullpen making, not breaking, so far in 2016

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The use of bullpens has evolved over the last handful of seasons or so. That has been highlighted most by the Kansas City Royals boasting the league’s best collective set of relievers each of the last two seasons.

Detroit has been hindered by the success level of their bullpen in recent years. In 2015, their relievers compiled a 4.38 ERA, which ranked 27th in baseball. They held that same ranking in 2014 with a 4.29 ERA and 24th in 2013 with a 4.01 ERA.

The offense has been the strength of this club over the last handful of seasons but so far in 2016, that honor can go to the bullpen.

After 24 games played, the Tigers’ bullpen is posting a 2.68 ERA, good for 7th best in Major League Baseball and 6th in the American League. Even though opponents are hitting .258 against Tigers’ relievers, the brand new core is getting it done and in a lot of different ways.

Closer Francisco Rodriguez had a team debut to forget, getting tagged for three earned runs in one inning on Opening Day, blowing his first save opportunity. He has settled down since then, giving up two earned over 8.2 innings. The ERA still sits a sketchy 4.66 ERA but that’s more than a run down since he returned from a family emergency leave.

Francisco Rodriguez2

Another veteran, Mark Lowe, has been been very effective, especially as of late. He’s allowed just one walk over his last 4.2 innings pitched and the ERA has dropped from 5.06 to 2.76 during that stretch.

A couple youngsters who got off to blazing starts, Drew VerHagen and Kyle Ryan, have come down to earth a bit, particularly VerHagen.

Drew didn’t allow an earned run in his first 4.2 innings this season, but has been tagged for eight earned over his last 6.1 innings logged. VerHagen has appeared in 12 games already, most for a reliever in the bunch, and compiled 11.0 innings already, the second most.

Ryan on the other hand has been superb, arguably the unsung hero of this arsenal of relievers. Kyle has logged 12.2 innings and outside of one outing where he pitched 3.2 innings and gave up three earned in mop-up duty of a blowout loss, he is virtually unblemished.

Justin Wilson2A. WilsonThen there is the newly created law firm of ‘Wilson & Wilson’ – Justin Wilson and Alex Wilson have combined to throw 19.0 innings, giving up just 11 hits, two walks and striking out 23 batters. Without question, the two biggest standouts in the bullpen early on in 2016.

Not to be forgotten are Blaine Hardy and Buck Farmer. The former was a late addition after starting the season on the DL, while the former has been up and down between Detroit and Triple-A Toledo early on. Those two have combined to throw 11.2 innings of relief, yielding four earned, striking out 12.

So many of the ‘black and white’ numbers for the Tigers’ relievers have been quite impressive. When you dig in a little bit more, we see why the Tigers are four games over the .500 mark and not treading water or perhaps under .500.

The bullpen has only been responsible for two decisions, both of them victories. The closer Rodriguez has nailed down his last seven save chances after blowing the first one.

One of the bigger categories to look at for relievers is inherited runners – when relievers enter a game with traffic on the bases and how many of them come around to score in that inning. Any of those that score are charged to the pitcher before them because they entered the game in that situation, but for relievers, it shows how well they perform in high-leverage situations.

So for the Tigers relievers in particular, they have inherited 39 total base runners so far this season. Of those 39, 13 have crossed home plate. That 33 percent rate ranks 20th in baseball. However, the league average through Sunday’s games is 30 percent.

Individually speaking, the trio of J. Wilson, Lowe, and Rodriguez have inherited 12 runners, and none of them have come around to score.

In case you’re wondering, the Oakland Athletics bullpen has inherited 42 runners, only four of them have come around to score. That 9.5 percent rate is the lowest in baseball. Conversely, Toronto Blue Jays‘ relievers have inherited 38 runners, half of them have plated, the worst ratio in the sport.

For all you analytical people out there, another stat one can follow is the ‘Average Leverage Index.’ The aLI is “the pressure a pitcher or batter deals with in a given game or season.” An index of 1.0 is considered average, anything higher is considered a high-pressure situation, and below 1.0 is low-pressure.

To put it more simply, it adds another wrinkle as to how well a pitcher or batter is performing in certain situations.

When looking at the aLI of Tigers’ relievers, Justin Wilson (1.357) has the highest such rating, followed by Rodriguez (1.344) and then Lowe (1.270).

On the flip side, for the great numbers he boasts early on, Kyle Ryan has an aLI rating of .205. That is the sixth-lowest such rating for all 200+ qualified relievers.

So basically, if a very analytical-driven person wanted to, they can argue Kyle Ryan’s numbers are flawed because he has not been in enough high-pressure situations, where some could say that K-Rod has been better than his initial numbers would suggest. The league average aLI is .985, Detroit’s relievers have a collective .854 rating.

Getting back on track though. It’s not the best bullpen in baseball, not yet at least. But considering the fact that that aspect of the Tigers has been borderline treasonous in the last few seasons, it is a vast improvement and a breath of fresh air to see a group not making fans sweat profusely.

For even more perspective on the past bullpens, Detroit last year allowed 32 percent of inherited runners to score, but the 96 runners scored was the most in baseball. The 299 runners inherited was second-most to only the Giants, which speaks to the pitching staff’s ineffectiveness entirely. 80 inherited runners scored in 2014 was fifth-most.

The .957 aLI in 2015 was sixth-lowest in baseball, in case you were wondering in that department.

Having said all of that, Tigers fans by and large should be encouraged by what they are seeing from the back end of the pitching staff early on in 2016. They don’t need to be aces, but if the offense keeps doing its job and the starters can garner some more consistency, the bullpen could, and would, become the key cog in what is hopefully a successful 2016 campaign.