Two weeks ago Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski was being hailed for masterminding a trade that many thought impossible: unloading Prince Fielder and his bloated contract for something serviceable, maybe even more than that. The move reinforced a growing sense that Dombrowski is one of the best in the business, regularly outfoxing opposing GMs and always thinking a few steps ahead.
Then the Fister trade happened. Tiger fans have yet to pull themselves off the mat. Nearly every baseball media source panned the trade. Dombrowski’s reputation definitely took a hit, rightly or wrongly. As if to calm everyone’s nerves, the Tigers signed Joe Nathan the very next day to man the back end of the their bullpen. Finally, a move made to improve the team’s prospects in 2014.
At least that is what Tigers fans hope. Nathan, however, arrives in Detroit with some wear on his tires. For starters, he’s 39. Not surprisingly his velocity is on the decline. More worrisome is that Nathan’s K/BB ratio is climbing; in two of the last three seasons he has posted his worst walk rates since 2006. Another troubling statistic is Nathan’s BABIP, which was the lowest of his career in 2013 at .228. The year before, in 2012, he posted a more typical .308 BABIP. A bump in Nathan’s BABIP and a continued rise in his walk rate could undermine his overall effectiveness next year.
There is some good news, however. Nathan’s strikeout rate seems to be holding steady. All in all, Nathan, even the late model, will probably end up as a plus for the Tigers’ bullpen. But what happens to the rest of the pen? If history is any guide, the Tigers bullpen will once again frustrate and perhaps torpedo their hopes of gaining that elusive World Series title. The reason: bullpen construction has proven to be Dombrowski’s kryptonite. For all his strengths, Dombrowski has really never really figured out this bullpen thing.
Since 2007, the year after the Tigers used a dominant bullpen to help them spring back to relevance, Dombrowski has failed to put together a bullpen that finished among the leaders in the AL in any significant category. Looking at a round spectrum of statistics (listed below) that measure pitching effectiveness reveals that the Tigers bullpen has only once finished in the top half of the American League in any of these important metrics.
These are the Tiger bullpen ranks in the AL for the following, working back from last year to 2006:
ERA: 12th, 10th, 11th, 8th, 10th, 12th, 11th, and 2nd
OPS against: 11th, 13th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 14th, 9th, 3rd
DIPS (defense independent pitching stats): 14th, 12th, 11th, 8th, 6th, 11th, 9th, 1st
BB: 9th, 9th, 13th, 10th, 14th, 12th, 9th, 6th
That’s eight seasons worth of data, and in the last seven years the trend is unmistakable. Tiger bullpens have been at best average, although well below that seems to be more the norm. These ugly numbers fail to comfort, if you are hoping for an improved bullpen in 2014. Perhaps lady luck will shine on the Tigers bullpen as it did in 2011, when despite posting fairly pedestrian peripheral numbers the back end of the pen managed to save every late lead. Or maybe Bruce Rondon will harness all of his immense talent and put together a season like Joel Zumaya did in 2006, the only year under Dombrowski the Tigers had a topnotch bullpen. The most likely outcome, however, is that the bullpen will continue to be a sore point, looming, as it has for years, as the Tigers greatest hurdle to notching their fifth World Series title.