The position players have been set, the starting pitchers have been established, and during an offseason of exciting, new changes
one weakness has been ignored, the same as most years before: the Tigers have fell prey to the siren song of the Big Bullpen Arm.
The allure of the Big Bullpen Arm has been something that Dave Dombrowski has given in to for years now, starting with the trade of Jeff Weaver for Jeremy Bonderman, Carlos Pena, and Franklyn German. German, who weighed in a massive 6’7” and 260 pounds, had an arm like a thunderbolt, but the control of a toddler dipped in Kool Aid. His career walk rate is 6.75%. His K/9? 6.47. Woof.
Since then Dombrowski has made it known how deeply he loves a good flame-thrower, acquiring (via draft or trade) Ugueth Urbina, Kyle Farnsworth (twice!), Joel Zumaya, Andrew Miller, Jason Grilli, Ryan Perry, Jose Valverde, Phil Coke, Dan Schlereth, Joaquin Benoit, Al Alburquerque, Brayan Villereal, and Bruce Rondon among others. Recently, he’s picked up Joba Chamberlain and Eduardo Sanchez to add to this long, strange list. The unfortunate thing that most of these gentlemen have in common (aside from Benoit), is that they all had walk rates that would hit four and above during their team in Motown.
Dombrowski has done a mythical job of transforming this franchise from a league laughingstock to a perennial World Series-contender, and he’s shown the ability and gumption to give his squads different looks, as evidenced by his approach to speed and defense in the last year. Yet, despite these efforts to find a formula that will lead to a ring, why hasn’t the bullpen creed changed at all?
It really feels like the bullpen has been a panic attack waiting to happen, where these guys that come in can either strike out the side on nine filthy pitches or walk in a run after coming in with no one on and two outs. The Tigers stuck with guys like Todd Jones and Fernando Rodney as closers, and then passed the torch (at 95 mph) to Jose Valverde.* The change to Joe Nathan, a guy with a live arm and great control, is a very welcome sight for sore eyes, but the end of the game isn’t the problem: it’s the lead into the end.
Right now, the Tigers will be relying heavily on Chamberlain, Alburquerque, Coke, Rondon, and perhaps even Sanchez. Granted, these guys can throw a baseball through a cement-covered elephant, but what good is that kind of stuff when it’s low and outside? Having Benoit lead into Valverde was strange because Joaquin was so good and Papa Grande could be so erratic. This time around, with guys all sporting 2013 walk rates that could curdle milk (5.57, 6.24, 4.93, 3.45, and 7.11), why keep pursuing this path?
It’s befuddling, really. Yes, having a guy who can get a clutch K is a huge boost to a bullpen. Having a guy like 2006 Joel Zumaya come rumbling in and absolutely emasculate an opposing batter will bring a stadium full of fans to their feet in a frothy frenzy. However, having a guy who comes in, mucks up a lead, and leaves the Tigers standing ankle-deep in doo-doo doesn’t benefit anyone. Again, Dombrowski has shown the ability to adapt to almost anything, but his reluctance to change his bullpen strategy is astounding.
Dave Dombrowski is, arguably, the best GM in the majors today, but his habit of collecting the Big Bullpen Arm has come at the cost of a couple games and millions of white hairs from a fan base that can’t bear to watch another ill-timed walk. Maybe this season will finally show an end to the trend.
*Even though watching him handle the ninth inning was an exercise in ulcer-cultivation, I loved Todd Jones. Both his stints with the Tigers provided immense entertainment, not just for his prowess on the field, but for his personality off it. I wish we would see more of the Human Roller-coaster.