Sep 16, 2013; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Tigers relief pitcher Joaquin Benoit (53) is an important part of the team’s bullpen. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
We’ve read a number of series previews over the 100 days (oh, it only feels that long?) between the end of the regular season and today, the start of the ALDS, and one of the points highlighted in (seemingly) every one of them is the big advantage that the Oakland Athletics hold in the bullpen.
And, I mean, yeah the A’s had a team bullpen ERA of 3.22 (third in the AL) during the season and the Tigers struggled to patch together a 4.01 mark (12th in the AL), but I don’t think the popular narrative of “Detroit’s bullpen can’t hold leads and it’s impossible to score against Oakland’s” is even close to correct.
No, the Tigers’ bullpen wasn’t very good in general, but the guys who Jim Leyland hands the ball to in the seventh, eighth, and ninth (the post-Jose Valverde ninths, that is) have been pretty darn good. Like really, really good. The overall numbers look bad because of some of the blowups of guys like Phil Coke and Jose Valverde, but they’re not on the playoff roster. The guys who are on the roster have combined for a 3.14 ERA out of the bullpen.
Here’s a comparison chart between the Tigers’ seventh-eighth-ninth relievers and the guys from Oakland who might be considered to fill similar roles. (The bottom line in each chart is the totals for each team’s group of three.)
(Veras’ numbers include his time with the Houston Astros)
The trio of Balfour-Doolittle-Cook has actually been less effective on the year than Benoit-Veras-Smyly. I’m fully willing to admit that the A’s bullpen goes deeper than does the Tigers’ and that they’re probably better able to mix-and-match their way through late innings (so probably their pen stacks up better than the chart indicates), but depth of bullpen probably doesn’t win playoffs game as much as the strength of the back-end of the bullpen does.
We are, of course, going to panic when the bullpen takes over the game with a lead – we’re Tigers fans and that’s what Tigers fans have been conditioned to do – but the bullpen disparity is one-quarter as bad as we’ve been made to believe. The Tigers have a starting rotation full of pitchers who should be able to go six-plus innings just about every time out, and if they do, the soft underbelly of the bullpen won’t be exposed.