How Bad is the Detroit Tigers September Bullpen Really?


Sep 16, 2013; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Tigers relief pitcher Joaquin Benoit (53) pumps his first after the last out against the Seattle Mariners at Comerica Park. Detroit won 4-2. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The Detroit Tigers bullpen ERA has ballooned to 6.00 in the month of September – second worst mark in baseball this month – but is the awful mark a sign of impending doom as the club looks forward to the postseason?

Justin Havens listed the poor bullpen ERA as a point of concern for the Tigers in the latest Baseball Tonight podcast, but I’m not convinced the 6.00 ERA is that big of a deal going forward. Sure it would be nice for the Tigers to have a lock down bullpen from top to bottom, but they haven’t had anything close to that all season, and they’re not going to have it now. What’s important is that the guys at the back end – the guys they’ll be counting on to hold onto leads in the playoffs – have still been performing well lately.

Bruce Rondon hasn’t pitched much this month – a concerning point – but he’s thrown a bit the last couple of days and has been reportedly pain free. He’ll need to throw a bullpen session and get back into the groove of game action, but, barring a setback, he looks to stand a good chance of being ready to go come October. Anyway, including him in the group of four primary late-inning relievers, we see that the Tigers have been fairly good this month. Joaquin Benoit, Drew Smyly, Jose Veras, and Rondon have combined for a 3.86 ERA in 16.1 innings. That ERA is higher than you’d like – I’ll admit that out front – but it comes on a 1.04 WHIP and 2.73 FIP. That’s pretty much what you want your back-end guys to do.

The big problem has come with the fringe guys*. Phil Coke, Jose Alvarez, Al Alburquerque, and Luke Putkonen are probably all in contention to make the roster, but certainly none of them are locks. This group has combined for a 5.02 ERA in 14.1 innings with a matching 5.05 FIP and 1.33 WHIP. Alvarez and Putkonen have the better monthly numbers, but both started from behind, and neither have much of a high-leverage history. Alburquerque has been good his last few times out, but he’s been so hit or miss this entire year that his trust level can’t be high.

*Actually the biggest problem was in Evan Reed and Jeremy Bonderman combining to allow seven earned runs in 2.3 innings (a third of the month’s runs allowed), but they’re both out of the picture.

The good news is that Rick Porcello will join this group come October. He’s not like to dominate, but he has the ability to fit in between this group to bridge the middle-to-late innings. And because of the extra travel days scheduled in, there’s never really a time in which Jim Leyland will enter a game with one of his late-inning guys unavailable (barring injury). It will be a rare short start by a Tigers’ starter – the team with the most starting pitching innings on the season – to need contributions from some of those fringy relievers.

Would we like the bullpen to be better? Of course. Does it still scare the pants off us most nights? Heck yes it does! But Leyland will have enough trustworthy pieces back there to get him through games that it’s not going to be the automatic downfall that some are making it out to be. It’s not a great bullpen, but it’s a good-enough bullpen given the strength of the rotation and lineup.