For starters, let’s make sure we frame the question properly. The Tigers as it stands today, and as it stood a week ago even before the Joakim Soria trade, have a strong enough team to win the AL Central. Could the Royals (or the Indians) put together a strong second half and give the Tigers a run for their money? Of course – its baseball, anything can happen. But the Tigers have a five game lead with roughly two months to go, and their playoff odds are sitting in the 90% range (92% as of Sunday). If the Tigers fail to make the playoffs, there will be far more to blame than a bad bullpen.
That means that what we’re really talking about here is October and the playoffs. There are a couple key differences about a pitching staff in October. One, you only carry four starting pitchers, so your fifth starter, most likely left-hander Drew Smyly, will head to the bullpen. Second, with travel breaking up a series with off days, depth isn’t as important – your go-to guys will be rested and available, except in rare circumstances (like if you only have one reliable reliever and have to have him throw 25-plus pitches on back to back days).
Of course, the Tigers bullpen has been bad. Their 4.31 ERA is good for 26th in MLB, and their FIP isn’t any better, good for 25th. But in October, your bullpen gets short, and except for a blowout where you’d need someone to eat some innings, you need a few high leverage outs from your bullpen, not a ton of outs.
" A shaky closer with runners on, two good setup men, your fifth starter, and a few specialists doesn’t sound ideal for a bullpen in October."
In the Tigers case, the average start from their starters has gone about 6 1/3 innings. That’s the longest of any team in the AL, and it means that for all intents and purposes, the Tigers’ bullpen needs to get about eight outs.
Three of those, for better or worse, are likely going to come from Joe Nathan. It’s been a disappointing season for Nathan, however, he has shown signs of improvement as of late. His July FIP is a miniscule 1.27 and he last blew a save over a month ago, on June 21. Nathan’s struggles this season thus far have come down to difficulty once runners get on base – when the bases are empty, Nathan posts a very strong .283 wOBA against, which encompasses 98 batters faced, for what it’s worth. But as soon as someone is on base, the wOBA jumps over 100 points to .393 against. Some of that is BAbip influenced (.290 with bases empty, .395 with men on), but his K:BB ratio plummets from 4.50 to 1.50 and his ISO against jumps from .13 to over .16.
Perhaps what this will mean for manager Brad Ausmus come October is that you can keep Nathan closing, but if he allows a baserunner, be ready with a quick trigger to yank him.
Luckily, with landing Soria, the Tigers now have options for that. Between Soria and Joba Chamberlain, the Tigers have two very good setup men, to use in a variety of situations. I won’t go through their credentials, but Ausmus can now be versatile in deploying them, whether that’s as a second closer (i.e. bring one in midway through the seventh to face the heart of the order), or in a traditional eighth inning role. And if a starter goes deep enough, you’d likely have the ability to keep one of them in reserve in the event Nathan struggles in the ninth.
More or less, that trio is taking care of six outs for you, every time you’re in a close game and need your best relievers. So, no matter who you add into the mix, they’re probably not cracking that trio of guys for the end of the game.
Given that, you basically need the rest of your crew to get two outs.
For starters, you’ve got Smyly. The Tigers have gotten good mileage out of Smyly in the fifth starter role this season, as he’s given the club just over 100 innings at a 3.77 ERA. Both his FIP and xFIP are right around four, and he has a solid 2.8 K:BB ratio.
So, he’s been solid overall, and the Tigers could likely use him in a variety of circumstances, but he’s been especially good against lefties. His K:BB ratio skyrockets to 8.5, his WHIP is a miniscule 0.68 and his FIP/xFIP are both in the low two’s. The Tigers have the option of using him to get multiple outs, but he would also likely excel in a left-handed specialist role.
In addition, while Ian Krol and Phil Coke have been much aligned, they too have been good against left-handed hitters. Against lefties, Krol has a .316 wOBA against with a 3.3 K:BB ratio, while Coke posts a .307 wOBA against and a 3.2 K:BB ratio. It would be difficult to trust either of them in a multi-out situation facing a right-hander, which isn’t ideal, but if deployed properly, they can be more than effective at getting one or two of those eight outs. Coke also has the benefit of postseason experience – that’s a tough thing to quantify, but he’s closed out games for the Tigers in the postseason in 2011 and 2012. That doesn’t mean I’d trust him to a close out a game in 2014 in the ALDS, but you also feel more comfortable that he won’t get the wide-eyed look that can strike some in big moments.
Finally, we come to the guy who would likely be the last man of the seven man unit, and that’s Al Alburquerque. With his devastating slider (that he does overuse, but is effective nonetheless), he has a .273 wOBA against right-handers.
Basically, you can create a three-headed relief monster between Coke, Krol and Alburquerque good enough to get two outs for you. That leaves you with your primary late game trio, along with Smyly. If the game is a blowout in either direction, you could use Smyly to eat multiple innings – and Coke and Alburquerque have a history of going for longer outings as well.
A shaky closer with runners on, two good setup men, your fifth starter, and a few specialists doesn’t sound ideal for a bullpen in October. But if used properly and in the right situations, the Tigers can hold onto games late with this group, and don’t have to give away more prospects from an already depleted farm system to do it.