There is only one team in the major leagues that has scored more runs than the Detroit Tigers and only one team that has a higher OPS – the Boston Red Sox. We know that the Tigers rotation is pretty darn good – they lead both leagues in WAR and the AL in both wins and ERA. It logically stands to follow that the Tigers’ mediocre bullpen must be the sum of all their woes, right? Not necessarily. Might be a bigger problem that Tigers starters cough up go-ahead homers in the 6th and that one run down at the top of the 7th seems an insurmountable barrier for Tiger bats.
As has been pointed out here on MCB earlier, one reason for the terrible W-L ratio for the Tigers relievers and for the Tigers lack of success in extra innings, is that the Tigers just stop hitting in the 7th inning. In innings 1 through 6, this Tigers have hit with an .840 OPS – far away the best in baseball. Move to the 7th and the Tigers team OPS is .628, which is better than only the Marlins and Astros – two teams that don’t really hit in any situation. As a result, the Tigers have scored only 97 of their runs in the 7th inning or later. This was on display in the Tigers latest two one-run losses on Friday and Saturday. In both games, the Tigers starters left the game with the team one run down. The Tigers bullpen allowed no further runs, but the Tigers batters provided no more runs. This has been a less common scenario than the Tigers ‘pen entering tie games and and allowing one run for a loss, but it shows something very relevant: when you come right down to it, the Tigers ‘pen did their part or at least what could reasonably be expected of them.
When the games have been close, Tigers batters haven’t been at their best – with only a 2.49 Win Probability Added compared to a 4.92 leverage adjusted WPA. In situations defined by Fangraphs as “high leverage” (which are disproportionately likely to happen late in games as well as in close games and with runners on) the Tigers have a 26th best .632 OPS. The starters have done their share of struggling when it counts – their 9.34 ERA in “high leverage situations” is also 26th in the majors. Their 1.40 WHIP in high leverage situations is worst in the league. As far as “win probability”, Tigers starters have been even worse in the clutch than the hitters – with a 1.45 Win Probability Added compared to a 4.26 leverage adjusted WPA. Add those together and the Tigers would have an extra 5 or 6 wins right now, with their same crappy bullpen, if only the Tigers starters and batters were “average” in all situations instead of great when it didn’t count and poor when it did.
It’s never safe to assume anything in baseball, but nobody has ever been able to find proof that “clutch” hitting or pitching was a real thing. There doesn’t seem to be a special skill for hitting in tie games in the 8th inning or for hitting with runners on, etc… We would certainly like to see these guys do better in pressure situations, the Tigers playoff chances may hinge upon it, so that should at least be a little encouraging. Regression to the mean in these respects would do far more to get the Tigers actual record closer to their “expected” record than adding a bullpen piece would – but at the same time it isn’t something that a general manager can go out and get, it’s something you have to cross your fingers and hope for.