In a new series, called “Criminally Underrated”, we look back at former Detroit Tigers who may have had a season or several seasons of unsung play. The first one to kick this off this series is Doug Brocail.
Back at the beginning of June, Evan Woodbery of Mlive.com did an article on unexpected Detroit Tigers’ all-time list for ERA. One name that stood out to me was Doug Brocail. Brocail was one of those players in the late 90’s that could be forgotten because the Tigers’ pitching staff from about 1994 till about the early 2000s were forgettable.
Former GM Randy Smith knew he had his work cut out for him to rebuild the Tigers’ farm system. It was not producing arms as it once did. Coming off the worst season in Tigers’ history in terms of pitching with a team ERA of 6.38 and giving up over 1000 runs, Smith’s first big mega trade in December of 1996 would bring in Orlando Miller, Brian Hunter, Todd Jones and Brocail to Detroit.
Doug Brocail’s first season in Detroit came at the right time for bullpen help. He was originally started the 1997 season in the rotation. But with Todd Jones struggling with his mechanics, he would take over as the closer in early April 1997. While he only was just 2 for 9 in save opportunities that season, it was pretty clear early on whatever role Detroit needed him to play, he did, as he would be the setup man and long reliever. Manager Buddy Bell admitted a mistake after Brocail won his first game since April 19th, 1996 on July 11th, 1997.
“His mechanics got fouled up, but that’s probably my fault as much as anything” I wasn’t using him”.
The Tigers would finish 3rd in their last season in the AL East at 79-83. Considering the 1996 season, this was a vast improvement. The team would finished 6th in ERA in the AL and along with Todd Jones, and A.J Sager, Brocail was part of a solid bullpen. While his numbers in 1997 were ok on paper, (K/ 9 of 6.92, BB/9 of 4.15 FIP of 4.74) it was really a tale of two halves.
First half: 1-4 ERA 5.68 IP 38 H 49 SO 18 HR allowed 7
Second half: 2-0 ERA 0.90 IP 40 H 26 SO 32 HR allowed 3
He credited his success to the return of his knuckle-curveball. He actually traced a ball with his grip to make sure the pitch would continue to be effective. He also had a cyst that was in his right wrist that was drained at the All-Star break, which perhaps helped with his performance. It helped too that a year after his surgery while in Houston, his fastball returned to form, giving him a good two-pitch combo. for the bullpen.
The Tigers rewarded him, avoiding arbitration and gave him a two year deal for $1.65 million, providing he could make 110 appearances in the next two seasons. Another great sign was Detroit kept him protected during the expansion draft.
While starting pitching rotation struggled, which was a big reason why they were successful in 1997, Brocail and the rest of the bullpen had the 3rd best bullpen heading into the All-Star break in 1998. Brocail was effective, he has allowed less than one of every inherited runners to score. From June 1st until the All-Star break, he held hitters to just a .186 batting average.
Even a trip to the DL with an ailing elbow in August did not deter from his season. That elbow would come to play in a different way with Detroit but for now, here’s how his 1998 season ended: 62.2 IP SO 55 BB 18 K/9: 7.90 BB/9: 2.59 and his HR/9 was 0.29, down from 1.15 in 1997 with an ERA of 2.73 and a FIP of 2.71.
Under new manager, Larry Parrish, Doug Brocail, new third baseman Dean Palmer and Brad Ausmus were appointed captains as a way to motivate the team in June of 1999. His leadership showed among the team. He wasn’t afraid to speak his mind among the chaos during the last season of Buddy Bull and he would stick up for the coaching staff during the struggles in 1999 and judging by this quote, you had a feeling he wasn’t a fan of upper management.
” I hope the fans realize, and I hope (General Manager) Randy Smith realizes it, that is is a (bleeping) good coaching staff. Everyone in this clubhouse likes playing for Larry Parrish. He’s aggressive, but that’s just it. At times, we’re not an aggressive club as far as what we’re doing on the field”
Brocail was fined for throwing at Rickey Henderson the prior season so the quote came to no surprise for anyone following the team in those years. He didn’t want to lose and wanted Detroit to be competitive.
His strikeout numbers improved in 1999 and he would go throw 82 innings, the most since 1993 as a member of the Padres as his K/9 improved to 8.56. He would have 23 holds on the season as the team’s setup and in August of 1999, he signed a new contract, and actually deferred $600,000 of his salary so the Tigers could use that to make upgrades to the team. The future was bright as he and Todd Jones were the last two Tigers pitchers to throw at Tiger Stadium. He finished As Brocail would soon find out as they headed into Comerica Park, he would only see one year of that deal and have a strange situation with the Tigers that would affect his career going forward.
The Tigers took the value of Brocail and traded him along with Brad Ausmus and Nelson Cruz to Houston for Roger Cedeno, Chris Holt, and Mitch Melusky at the end of 2000. His quote was quite telling of a different take on the Randy Smith era, one from the player’s side of it.
He would feel a pop in spring training and would miss the following three seasons, working on getting collateral ligament repaired. He sued the Tigers following an arm injury he had in 2000. The link here explains the whole situation better than I can but the Supreme Court ruled he could not sue the Tigers for loss of pay. When he returned, he was still an effective reliever for the Rangers and Padres.
One of the few relievers that stood out during the late 1990s for the Detroit Tigers, Doug Brocail was vastly underrated. His numbers indicate that and his leadership in the clubhouse among the many changes to the roster that Randy Smith did to keep Detroit competitive should be noted. He is now a pitching coach with the Baltimore Orioles.