Part of this won’t come as a surprise. The Tigers weren’t set to have a good bullpen when the season started. But while Joe Nathan was always a risk given his age, an out and out collapse was a bit shocking. You could probably see Phil Coke’s struggles coming and Ian Krol falling on his face wasn’t terribly unexpected.
It’s a less than stellar group with only Joba Chamberlain and Blaine Hardy performing better than expected. There’s been so many problems, in fact that the Tigers have signed or traded for about 80 additional closers.
But just how bad is it? Are we dealing with a below average bullpen? One of the worst in the game? Or an outright disaster?
Let’s run through all of the many ways you can evaluate a group of relief pitchers and see how they stack up. There’s plenty of disagreement about how one ought to measure relievers, so let’s just use them all.
The Tigers bullpen is 28th in park adjusted ERA. Only the Astros and Rockies are worse and that isn’t good company. They’re 27th in park adjusted FIP. If you like xFIP, they’re all the way up at 24th in baseball!
Only six other bullpens issue walks more often and only four strikeout batters less frequently. Only four other bullpens allow home runs at a higher clip.
They rank 22nd in Win Probability Added (WPA) and 28th in RE24. If you don’t know about RE24, it’s all about changes in run expectancy. To that end, it’s usually a better gauge of reliever performance because it gives them proper credit for stranding other people’s runners and costs them for leaving the bases loaded even if the next guy bails them out.
The Tigers have a -34.67 RE24. Since RE24 is measured in runs above or below average that puts them around three wins below average. But RE24 isn’t the easiest thing to internalize if you don’t speak in runs and wins, so if you convert it to something on a per nine inning scale, it comes out to something like 5.00 runs per nine innings. That’s rough.
FanGraphs keeps stats called Shutdowns and Meltdowns which are reliever appearances in which win expectancy rose or fell by six percent or more. If you take a team’s shutdowns divided by their total shutdowns and meltdowns to form a shutdown percentage, the Tigers rank 25th with 61 percent. Only four bullpens have allowed a higher percentage of inherited runners to score.
The Tigers have used 23 relief pitchers this year. I’m not actually sure if that’s the most in the league, but it’s such a big number that it doesn’t make you feel better no matter what. We’ve seen Danny Worth and Andrew Romine (which was kind of fun), but also a parade of other guys you were hoping would help the Mud Hens close out games.
Some of this is a symptom of the organizational philosophy. The Tigers like hard throwers regardless of command and think less of guys with a track record of results when they don’t have a fastball that lights up the gun. They haven’t met a hard throwing lefty with command issues they didn’t think they could fix and there is no stopping them now.
Part of this is injuries, with Bruce Rondon needing Tommy John and Joel Hanrahan never getting up to speed. Some of it is bullpen usage and Ausmus’ unwillingness to plan beyond the hitter immediately in front of him.
The Tigers haven’t had a good bullpen, seemingly, in forever. In reality, the last couple of seasons were pretty average. This year, using a very rough estimate (fWAR), they’re ranked 234 out of 270 bullpens since 2006. Using RA9-WAR, which is based on runs allowed instead of FIP, they’re 250th out of 270.
There’s no way to put a positive spin on this. While it seems like the Tigers have had bad bullpens for a decade, this is actually probably the worst we’ve seen in the Motor City since the 2006 revival. This isn’t the worst bullpen in history or anything, but it’s one of the worst in the league no matter how you slice it and one of the least effective units of the decade.
Some of this is bad luck, but a lot of it is bad design and poor management. If the Tigers are going to survive this season and make a deep postseason run, they’re going to need a healthy Joakim Soria and a locked in starting rotation because the bullpen really is that bad.
Neil Weinberg is a Senior Analyst for TigsTown. He is also the Founder of New English D, a contributor to Gammons Daily, the Associate Managing Editor at Beyond the Box Score, and the Site Educator at FanGraphs. Follow and interact with him on Twitter @NeilWeinberg44