Under Dave Dombrowski, the Tigers enjoyed a tremendous amount of success that the organization hadn’t experienced since the 1980’s. And all that happened in spite of a bullpen that was consistently a weak spot for the club during his reign. Fans likely remember the struggles of many go-to relievers over the years, but the numbers paint a pretty grim picture.
From 2002 until 2015, the Tigers relievers are dead last in WAR, at 16.3 fWAR in that 14-year stretch. They were also dead last in FIP at 4.38, and second to last in ERA (better than only the Rockies). Dombrowski was a wizard at building a ball club, identifying emerging talent and getting it cheap, and pulling the plug on players on the decline to get the Tigers off the hook. But he consistently struggled to put together a quality bullpen.
Conversely, this year’s group has been a consistent strength for the club. They’ve already accumulated 3.3 fWAR, tripling the 1.1 fWAR averaged under Dombrowski, with almost two months of the season left to go. They currently sit with a 3.85 FIP, good for the 7th in MLB.
How did things get so much better, so quickly?
GM Al Avila went into the off-season knowing he needed to completely remake the bullpen, and that’s exactly what he did. He didn’t just try and add one reliever to solve the problem (a frequent tactic of Dombrowski), but instead added three new late inning relievers to the mix. Avila used a key piece of wisdom to construct his bullpen – he knew relievers were volatile, and any one pitcher may pitch well, or may struggle.
The group that they acquired was largely a mixed bag – Francisco Rodriguez has been mostly good in closing games for the club, converting 32 of 34 save opportunities with a few heart stopping moments along the way. Justin Wilson has been outstanding as the club’s setup man, with a 10.5:1.3 K:BB ratio, and a 1.92 FIP. Mark Lowe has been a massive disappointment and is dragging down the group’s fWAR as he currently sits at -0.7.
Complementing that group, the team shifted Shane Greene to the bullpen – a move that traditionally would not have happened in the Dombrowski era, shifting a talented arm into relief. Greene has been outstanding as well, teaming up with Wilson for a very solid late inning tandem.
K-Rod, Greene, and Justin Wilson now form the core of the Tigers bullpen. Add that group to Alex Wilson, the lone reliever from 2015 that was reliable, and suddenly the Tigers are in position that if they can get through five innings with a lead, they have a quartet of relievers to take the game on from there.
And pitchers that traditionally would have been relied upon; Bruce Rondon, Kyle Ryan, Bobby Parnell, Drew VerHagen, Lowe… they all make up in some grouping the last of the bullpen, not frequently coming into games in close and late situations.
So in just one year, Avila has turned a consistent weakness into a strength for the club. There was nothing magical done to make it happen, either – a couple of trades, a free agent signing, and a willingness to move a couple pitchers around and suddenly that league worst bullpen is among the better ones in baseball.
For a team that no longer has a rotation that is far and away the best in baseball like in 2013, or a dominant offense like the club had in 2011 or 2013, they will need to have strong contributions from all its units. And the bullpen has more than been up to the task, and that could well be the difference between the Tigers making it into the postseason this October.