Tigers fans have mostly been uncomfortable with both the performance of the Tigers bullpen and with the organization’s approach to the crisis this season (and last offseason). The Tigers have the 13th best bullpen ERA in the American League. Closer Joe Nathan has a 5.79 ERA and 5 blown saves in the first half. In the face of injuries and ineffectiveness from some hard-throwers that the team had been counting on (and poor performances by relief prospects in Toledo) Dombrowski chose to give lots of innings to warm bodies named Chad, Pat and Blaine that frankly few had expected to see in Detroit this season.
Going by WPA (Win Probability Added), my preferred metric for reliever contributions – in roles where context means absolutely everything – the Oakland Athletics are in the neighborhood of two and a half wins better than Detroit through bullpen performance alone. The whole Oakland bullpen is doing what Joba Chamberlain and Al Alburquerque have been doing for Detroit. We saw in last year’s ALCS how important relievers can be in the postseason and we’d rather not be on the losing side of that again. It remains a possibility that the Tigers will add a top arm or two to the ‘pen soon, it also remains a possibility that the Tigers will do nothing that would increase payroll and simply hope for the best.
But maybe the second option wouldn’t be as bad as you’d think…
Really the Tigers bullpen has had two distinct problems: bad closer and lack of depth. Joba Chamberlain, Al Aburquerque and a rotating cast who’ve been either mediocre or highly suspect. If you look at the whole of the first half, that’s been the story. If you look at the last 30 days, on the other hand… I’m not sure the Tigers have one distinct problem much less two. Take Joe Nathan for example: if we look at first 10 weeks of the season, Nathan had an atrocious ERA with xFIP and SIERA* numbers that while not quite so atrocious were no better than mediocre. His strikeouts were down, as was his velocity, his walks were up. Over the last month it has been a completely different Nathan: 2.71 ERA with a strikeout rate over 12 and a walk rate under 2. THAT is what the Tigers were willing to pay $10 million a year for. A 2.71 ERA is good, by advanced metrics Nathan has actually been “better” – a result of his unlucky .370 batting average allowed on balls in play over the last month.
I’d say – at this point – that if you’re thinking about what trades the Tigers could make to add a closer to replace Nathan and his 5.79 ERA that there is no need. The Tigers have apparently already replaced “bad Nathan” with one of the best relievers in baseball: “good Nathan”. The Tigers strategy of “staying the course” and hoping that guys turn things around appears to have paid off – and it tends to do so more often that most people yelling at TVs in bars think. “Staying the course” seems as though it might be paying some dividends with another player too: Phil Coke. Few Tigers have endured more calls from all quarters for a DFA than Coke but despite some really poor pitching in April and May Dombrowski was unwilling to simply let Coke go. He might have been onto something in thinking that IF Coke could get straightened out, as it seems we’ve been hoping for most of his professional career, he’d be pretty darn good and finding a lefty with his stuff on the open market would be expensive if not impossible. Over the past 30 days, despite more bad luck with the BABIP, Coke has a 2.45 ERA (and significantly lower xFIP and SIERAs) with 11 Ks against only one walk. His velocity is back, his strikeouts are back, his slider is filthy again. Whatever else happens, do understand this: if Phil Coke reliably strikes lefties out the Tigers bullpen has key depth it had been lacking when he was buried in low leverage situations.
Phil Coke isn’t the be all and end all solution to the Tigers depth issues, but I should also point out that the warm bodies named Blaine, Chad and Pat haven’t honestly been that bad. McCoy likely won’t be needed so long as Ian Krol is healthy, but Chad Smith and Blaine Hardy may be both serviceable and major-league-ready fill ins while the Tigers wait on Joel Hanrahan (still rehabbing) and Corey Knebel (currently in Toledo). Smith has shown good command and a major league quality slider – though he looks a bit like a ROOGY to me. It’s fair to say that Hardy does not throw hard, but he features three plus breaking pitches in addition to that slowball and has so far had some success at frustrating major league hitters by throwing the pitches they’re trying to lay off for strikes. Like Smith, huge splits for the lefty Hardy suggest that how he’s used will be key. We are counting on Knebel, Ray and Hanrahan to strengthen the pen by September at least – but there really is no need to make sacrifices (either in terms of prospects or next season’s offseason payroll flexibility) to find stopgaps – the stopgaps the Tigers already have seem like they can do alright.
For the bullpen as a whole, on the season the Tigers DO have the 13th best (or 3rd worst, depending on your perspective) relief ERA in the AL but they have the 4th best xFIP and 4th best SIERA. To a certain degree you can take heart in that – and imagine that the Tigers relievers haven’t actually been as bad as it has looked. Clearly you’d rather have the bullpen with a great ERA, great xFIP and great SIERA (like the As or the Mariners) though. And over the past month, the Tigers ‘pen has looked more like that – with an ERA of 3.44, xFIP of 3.06 and SIERA of 2.84 – than we thought it would at the end of May.
* Earned Run Average is a good measure of what the pitcher actually contributed to the team’s efforts, not far from a pure stat. On the other hand, it’s possible to wind up with a low ERA due largely to “luck”… liners hit straight at the left fielder, spacing hits just right to strand a lot of runners, etc… xFIP and SIERA are both “black box” advanced metrics carefully designed to take the luck out of the equation and tell us “how well the guy pitched” rather than what impact how he pitched had for the team. If a guy has a low ERA but high xFIP and SIERAs, we’d say it doesn’t look like he has been as good as his ERA indicates, the opposite if he has a high ERA but low xFIP and SIERAs. Both current xFIP and current SIERA are considered better predictors of future ERA than current ERA is.