The Tigers bullpen is in sad shape. Though they’ve only blown four save opportunities, a 4-9 record and last in the league WHIP and ERA make the Tigers’ faithful extra glad that relievers have been needed so rarely. The bullpen can’t be blamed for the Tigers frustrating losses to the lowly Pirates the past two days, since they never scored enough runs to make things competitive, but they pitched badly nonetheless.
Who’s to blame? Everybody except Valverde. Despite his irrelevant implosion on Friday, when it has counted Valverde has been both reliable and dominating. As for the rest… as far as I’m concerned, John was a little too gentle with his assessment of the bullpen at the quarter pole. If we go by headline stats alone, it might appear that there are a couple more bright spots: Dan Schlereth with his 3.21 ERA and Al Alburquerque with his 3.95. I’m not convinced. Alburquerque has an amazing strikeout rate, but if he can’t throw more strikes it won’t matter once teams have the scouting report. Schlereth has lost velocity and strikeouts without losing the walks, his success has been due to a BABIP hovering around .200 and the magical ability to strand runners on base. No pitcher, even a great one (which I don’t think Schlereth is) can sustain a 95 percent LOB%. I feel no confidence when either of those two enters a tight game, I feel a sense of dread – and again they have been our most consistent quality performers after Valverde.
Why? It’s not all Brad Thomas. Let’s get that clear once and for all. Brad Thomas has not done good things this year, as his 9.00 ERA can attest. He has been knocked around all year, but he has the lowest average leverage of any Tigers reliever. I’m glad Thomas is going to be out for a while, and glad to see Furbush take his place, but if Furbush just takes those same garbage innings it won’t matter how well he pitches. We sort of expected Brad Thomas to be mediocre (at best), his mediocrity can’t really explain why a ‘pen that should have been decent has been anything but. The guys we had the highest expectations for, Joaquin Benoit and Ryan Perry, have been unsettlingly ineffective. John explained the details there, and there isn’t a lot more to be said. The two of them do not seem, for the time being, fit to pitch in high leverage situations. But then who is? Alburquerque, Schlereth and Villarreal, apparently. Ultimately Perry and Benoit are going to have to get things figured out, or someone is going to have to show hitherto unseen consistency and ability to nail down the roles they’ve forfeited, but in the meantime Leyland needs to get creative just to stop the bleeding.
Jim Leyland is a manager who likes defined roles, but he’s also a manager who likes to ride the hot hand. The first technique isn’t going to work well for this bullpen. Everyone, even your best options, has been terrifyingly inconsistent. There is no reliable second-best ‘setup man’, and now there’s no obvious worst pitcher to be the garbage man either. To me that seems to leave two options, neither of which seems to mesh very well with Leyland’s style. The first is a heavier reliance on LR splits and the second is a shorter leash. When a reliever is bad overall, he tends to be mediocre against the guys he’s supposed to get out but downright dismal against the guys he isn’t. Take Ryan Perry as an example: he’s walking too many righties, 5 BB/9, but that’s nothing compared to what he’s given lefties – 10.8 BB/9. Put Perry in to face two righties, then pull him. Go through 5-6 relievers every night, but get the best matchups you can until somebody shows consistent stuff and consistent control to claim an inning of their own. The second option would be my pick: it seems that your inconsistent reliever, the likes of Perry, Alburquerque, Schlereth, etc… either has it or doesn’t. Be prepared. Never have anyone (except Papa Grande) warm up alone and be ready with the hook if your guy can’t find the strike zone much less the corners or if his breaking ball isn’t biting. Don’t give him the rope he needs to hang himself. 5 of Ryan Perry’s 7 walks and have come in two outings, along with 6 of his 8 earned runs – before yesterday’s game anyways. If they guy has it, do not take him out. Let guys get an old-fashioned 3 inning save. We’ve seen Leyland do it with Alburquerque once already, I don’t see why it can’t become a regular theme.