Feb 14, 2014; Lakeland, FL, USA; Detroit Tigers relief pitcher Drew Smyly (33) during the Tiger

Should The Detroit Tigers Move Drew Smyly To The Bullpen?

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“If you seek a pleasant relief pitcher, look about you.”

With apologies to the state of Michigan’s motto, which extols the beauty of its two great peninsulas rather than relief pitchers, the Detroit Tigers might consider the advice.

The issue, of course, is the ongoing state of the team’s relief pitching, which was dismal last year and is even worse this year. The Tigers’ relief corps currently sits 29th out of 30 MLB teams with an ERA of 5.37, ahead of only the lowly Houston Astros.

Despite the pen’s struggles, of course it’s early. Things haven’t firmed up yet, and there are some encouraging signs of note.

After a precarious start, Joe Nathan (5.06 ERA) seems to have settled in comfortably as the closer.

Also on the positive side, re-cycled Joba Chamberlain (4.35 ERA), late of the New York Yankees, has re-discovered his vaunted swing-and-miss slider, which nicely complements his 94 mph fastball. He can currently be found holding court in the eighth inning and has yielded earned runs in only two of his ten outings.

Other righties, though, have posted nondescript results.

Al Alburquerque (4.50 ERA) and Evan Reed (3.86 ERA) have been inconsistent, while Luke Putkonen (now on the DL) and Jose Ortega have pitched minimally and ineffectively. Justin Miller, called up from Toledo last week, has pitched well in four brief appearances (1.69 ERA).

Overall the right-handed side of the pen greatly misses fireballer Bruce Rondon, who was felled in spring training and lost for the year with Tommy John surgery.

Which brings us to an assessment of the left handers in the bullpen. (Gee, mister, do we have to?)

I’m afraid so. Let’s start with the good news.

In eight innings of work, Ian Krol hasn’t walked anyone and has yielded only seven hits. The bad news? Three of those hits have been home runs.

Krol turns 23 in a week, throws hard, and is still developing. The early returns, however, suggest he’s a left handed specialist, at least at this point of his career.

As one of two left handers in the bullpen, that creates a problem and places higher expectations upon the other wrong sider.

Unfortunately, that other pitcher’s name is Phil Coke.

A lot of water has flowed under the Mackinac Bridge since Coke has pitched well, but that didn’t prevent him from making the team out of spring training. His numbers are once again garish in 2014, with an ERA of 8.10 and a BA against of .345.

One gets the sense Coke is one outing away from his release. Whenever that happens, there will be hordes of investigative journalists ready to explore the unsolved mystery of why it took so long.

On the whole, it’s patently clear the Tiger bullpen has problems and at this juncture does not contain the stuff of which champions are made.

So what to do?

One solution, short of a trade or free agent signing, is elegant in that it’s internal and thus involves players already under team control:

Return Drew Smyly to the bullpen.

Though admittedly radical and not without serious side effects, Tiger fans should understand this elective surgery is brought on by a potentially fatal condition–the aforementioned seriously under-performing bullpen.

To date the squad has avoided outright disaster because it has compensating strengths, but over an extended period bullpen woes will consume a team. It nearly kept this team out of the playoffs last year and if not solved could easily do the same this year.

Let’s break it down.

The Upside

The migration of Drew Smyly to the bullpen following the return of Anibal Sanchez from the DL would be an immediate upgrade and would enhance manager Brad Ausmus‘s late game maneuverability. If Smyly performed along the lines of his 2013 season, where he pitched 76 innings out of the pen and posted sterling numbers (2.37 ERA/1.04 WHIP), the late game angst among the Tiger hierarchy and fans would be significantly reduced.

It’s important to note in this context that an analysis of Smyly’s numbers reveals he is more effective as a reliever than a starter. In his career as a starting pitcher, Smyly has allowed hitters a BA of .244, along with a WHIP of 1.25. These are certainly stout numbers and justify a slot in any major league starting rotation.

As solid as these numbers are, though, they don’t stand up to Smyly’s glittering performance out of the bullpen, where he has pitched to a WHIP of 1.08 while holding opponents to a miniscule BA of .208.

His superior performance as a reliever is due largely to one factor – he faces far fewer right-handed hitters in a relief role, as his entry point into the game can be targeted to left-handed hitters.

As a full – time reliever in 2013, for instance, Smyly pitched to right hand hitters 57% of the time. Conversely, as a full-time starter in 2012, he faced righties 69% of the time, as managers routinely stacked their lineups with right-handed hitters against the southpaw.

Independent of his starting pitcher/reliever splits, Smyly’s career splits against right and left-handers are as follows:

Right hand hitters

BA: .258
WHIP: 1.33
SLG%: .441

Left hand hitters

BA: .196
WHIP: 0.92
SLG%: .307

Clearly, Smyly’s effectiveness is inversely related to the percentage of right-handed hitters he has to face. This in no way suggests he’s not a solid starting pitcher – he is. The numbers merely reflect the fact he is more effective in relief, where his exposure to right-handed hitters can be reduced.

Another factor which supports the case for Smyly’s service in the bullpen is that another reliable arm would reduce the stress on the remaining starters by minimizing their workload.

Instead of allowing the starter to throw extra high-stress seventh inning pitches, for instance, the manager could call on Smyly or Chamberlain a few outs earlier, thereby decreasing the starter’s pitch count. This could pay dividends in the form of fresher arms in the postseason, should the Tigers make it that far.

The Downside

Solid starting pitchers are hard to find, especially left-handers, and it appears the Tigers have a prized one in Drew Smyly. Though his reassignment to the bullpen would address an acute team need, his development as a starting pitcher would be retarded.

This is neither in his nor the team’s long – term interest.

There are also personal considerations attached to any move, as most pitchers, including Smyly, prefer to start.

After all, that’s where the money is – just ask Max Scherzer.

It goes beyond that, though, into the realm of personal pride and familiarity with the role, as virtually every pitcher at the major-league level began as a starter.

Though Drew Smyly appears to be a consummate team player, on a personal level his reassignment to the bullpen would have to be handled delicately.

The Bottom Line

Obviously, the overriding issue is who would assume the fifth slot in the starting rotation vacated by Smyly?

It’s a short list.

It starts and ends with Robbie Ray.

Ray, the 22-year-old Tennessean obtained from the Washington Nationals in the controversial Doug Fister trade, has pitched nicely at Triple-A Toledo. In 28 innings, he sports a 1.59 ERA, with 27 strikeouts and a WHIP of 1.13.

With Anibal Sanchez on the 15–day DL, Ray will be promoted to the big club on Tuesday for a couple spot starts, which will doubtless be studied very closely by the Tiger brass.

Despite his high-profile resulting from the Fister trade, Tiger fans should temper their expectations. Due to his youth and paucity of high minor-league experience, it’s probable Ray will start off slowly as a major-leaguer, at least at this point.

In which case he’ll promptly be returned to Toledo for further development and Drew Smyly will remain the fifth starter when Sanchez returns.

This is the most likely scenario.

But what if his level of performance (whether now, in June, or whenever) suggests he can hold his own at this level?

Things then become interesting.

As argued above, this would allow Smyly to bolster the bullpen without a dramatic drop off in quality from the ranks of the fifth starting slot, which would be held down by Ray.

Though perfect scenarios such as these don’t often materialize, they are possible.

If this is one of those occasions, it would be a most pleasant sight indeed.

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