Detroit Tigers’ Relief Pitching; A Breakdown


Oct 17, 2013; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Tigers relief pitcher Phil Coke (40) throws against the Boston Red Sox during the seventh inning in game five of the American League Championship Series baseball game at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

This is the fourth and final installment of a series of articles reviewing the 2013 regular season Detroit Tigers. Preceding articles evaluated the defense, offense, and starting pitching. Today’s piece will examine the relief pitching.

Last week’s article reviewed the starting pitching and was effusive in its praise. Such language will be largely missing from this week’s piece, as for the most part the relief pitchers did not measure up to the high standard set by the starters in 2013.

Whereas the best relief staffs in baseball posted ERA’s under 3.00, the Tigers’ relief staff pitched to a 4.01. Similarly, the top WHIP’s (walks and hits per inning) earned by MLB teams were in the 1.20 range or lower. The Tigers checked in at 1.34.

In each case, whether considering ERA or WHIP, and regardless of whether the comparison is made to all MLB teams or confined to AL teams, the Tigers fell in the bottom quartile. Roughly speaking, three out of every four teams in baseball had more effective relief pitching than the Tigers.

Following is a breakdown of the Tiger relief corps in 2013, starting with the back end of the bullpen and moving down the line:

Joaquin Benoit

Though it took awhile, manager Jim Leyland installed Benoit as his closer in June following Jose Valverde’s inability to reclaim the position during his early season comeback attempt.

Benoit validated Leyland’s decision by enjoying a phenomenal season as the closer. He converted 24 of 26 save opportunities while posting an ERA of 2.01.

By all measures, Benoit had a stellar season and solidified the closer position for the Tigers in 2013.

Jose Valverde

Liberated by the Tigers in the offseason after his disastrous 2012 postseason, Valverde made an improbable comeback attempt in early 2013, as no one initially stepped forward to effectively close out games for the Tigers.

For awhile, it worked. Valverde actually saved nine games until flashbacks of the 2012 postseason re-appeared in mid-June. He was dispatched to Toledo at that point and did not return to Detroit.

Drew Smyly

The converted starter was relegated to the bullpen in 2013 because the Tigers’ starting rotation was set and a need existed for an effective left hander.

Smyly filled the bill perfectly. He pitched 76 innings, mostly as a late inning set-up man, allowing 62 hits. His ERA was 2.37 and his WHIP settled at 1.04 in 63 appearances. He had a 6-0 record, striking out 81, while yielding a .219 BA.

Clearly Drew Smyly was an invaluable member of the 2013 relief corps. More often than not he held the opposition at bay, resulting in either a win for him or a successful “hold” before the ball was handed to the Tiger closer.

Jose Veras

Veras was acquired in late July from the Houston Astros and pitched effectively for Detroit. He appeared in 25 games, pitched 19 innings, and allowed only 16 hits. His ERA and his WHIP were 3.20 and 1.22, respectively.

Al Alburquerque

Alburquerque struggled with injuries for much of the year but emerged in the second half to provide a welcome power arm in the Tiger bullpen.

There’s no questioning Al Al’s stuff. His mid-90’s heater is merely his second best pitch and is used primarily to set up his devastating slider, which is among the best in baseball.

When he’s locating, there are times he completely eschews his fastball. He just breaks off a series of unhittable sliders and watches the dejected hitter walk back to the dugout, bat in hand.

Alburquerque allowed 39 hits in 49 innings and posted an ERA of 4.59. He struck out a whopping 70 hitters, but issued 34 bases on balls, his Achilles heel. Though he held opponents to a low .213 BA, his WHIP was 1.49 due to his control problems.

All in all, Alburquerque gave Leyland another viable bullpen option. Unfortunately his lack of control and arm issues continued to prevent him from becoming an elite reliever.

Phil Coke

The hard-throwing lefty had a difficult time of it in 2013. Though his velocity remained in the low to mid-90’s, his command was spotty, resulting in 21 walks in 38 innings. Coke was 0-5 with an ERA of 5.40. He gave up 43 hits, finished with a lofty WHIP of 1.67, and opponents hit .299 off him.

His ERA split of 6.10 against left-handed hitters says it all. The lefty is supposed to dominate that cohort but got lit up by it instead.

Darrin Downs

Now an ex-Tiger, lefty Downs pitched better than Coke in 35 innings but was also inconsistent. He sported a 4.84 ERA and opponents hit .265 against him.

Luke Putkonen

The tall right hander of Finnish descent demonstrated progress in 2013, as he fashioned an ERA of 3.03 in 29 innings and a WHIP of 1.31.

He showed improved command of his mid-90’s heater and also got his breaking stuff over with increased regularity. Opponents hit .261 off him.

Bruce Rondon

Young fireballer Rondon was unable to nail down the closer spot out of spring training due to control issues, but was extremely impressive later in the year when his triple digit fastball and slider worked in tandem.

He gave up 28 hits in 28 innings for an ERA of 3.45. He struck out 30, had a WHIP of 1.36, and yielded a .259 BA to the opposition.


Other relief pitchers who toiled for the Tigers in 2013 were Jose Ortega, Evan Reed, Jeremy Bonderman, Octavio Dotel, and Brayan Villarreal.

Dotel was injured in April and did not return. Villarreal went to Boston in the Jose Iglesias trade after spending most of the year in Toledo.

Ortega, Reed and Bonderman pitched sparingly and unspectacularly at various points throughout the year.


Collectively, Tiger pitchers who answered the call to the bullpen in 2013 had a nondescript year. Although Joaquin Benoit and Drew Smyly pulled yeoman duty, the drop off in quality after them was pronounced.

Looking forward to 2014, improving the bullpen seems to be a top priority of the Tiger brain trust. If the bullpen can be constructed so it approaches the overall excellence of the starting rotation, Detroit’s chances to compete for the ultimate postseason prize will be greatly enhanced.