Detroit Tigers: The Buck Farmer era is over

Tigers reliever Buck Farmer pitches during the eighth inning: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports
Tigers reliever Buck Farmer pitches during the eighth inning: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports /

Buck Farmer was never an All-star. He wasn’t a high draft pick, or a top-100 prospect, or, truth be told, a terribly effective big leaguer.

But Buck Farmer was major-league pitcher. He spent parts of eight seasons with the Detroit Tigers, pitching in 241 games and throwing more than 320 innings. That’s something not many people can say.

It appears Buck Farmer’s 8th season in Detroit will be his last. Over the weekend he was designated for assignment for the second time this year, and yesterday he was given his unconditional release:

Buck Farmer isn’t the sort of player who typically gets a farewell paean. He was an unremarkable pitcher who spent the bulk of his career on terrible teams. But that’s the point of this piece.

Farmer was the second-longest tenured member of the Detroit Tigers. He arrived to witness the franchise’s last flailing attempts at a championship. He departs just as hope is beginning to return.

Buck Farmer stuck it out for all the darkness in between. That doesn’t make him a saint, but he accepted whatever role the team gave him, and he went out and competed until his best simply wasn’t good enough for the Detroit Tigers anymore.

Farmer doesn’t deserve any blame for this run of bad baseball in Detroit, but simply by virtue of being here for all of it, we will remember this tear down and rebuild as…

The Buck Farmer Era

Buck Farmer’s story is actually pretty impressive. He was ranked by Baseball America ($) as the 117th prospect in the 2012 draft, but was taken by the Milwaukee Brewers in the 15th round (one pick ahead of future Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston).  So Farmer returned to Georgia Tech for his senior season.

He performed well, posting a 2.78 ERA in 17 starts and 113.1 innings with the Yellow Jackets. This time Baseball America ranked him as the 98th prospect for 2013, while MLB Pipeline slotted him in at 100.  Farmer’s faith in his ability was rewarded when the Detroit Tigers drafted him in the 5th round and gave him a $225K bonus.

He got a small amount of work in pro ball in 2013, throwing another 32 innings for short-season Connecticut. But Buck Farmer’s 2014 season was one for the ages.

He began the season with Low-A West Michigan, where he produced an excellent 2.60 ERA and a nearly 5-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 18 starts. The club skipped him over High-A Lakeland and sent him directly to Double-A Erie, where he made two starts. Then he was called up to start for the Tigers.

Farmer debuted against the Pittsburgh Pirates, giving up four runs over five innings of work. It wasn’t a stellar performance by any means, but his meteoric rise to the majors was historic.

Back in 2015 I wrote a profile of Farmer over at TigsTown (RIP), and while that article is lost to history, I still have the original research I did about just how rare Buck Farmer’s climb was:

"Only about 33% of fifth rounders ever reach the bigs, so he has already cleared that hurdle. And while it isn’t unheard of for college pitchers to make their big-league debut quickly, they often do so in a relief role.It is exceedingly rare, however, to see a fifth-round pitcher start in the majors the year after he was drafted. So rare, in fact, that Farmer and Daniel Hudson are the only two fifth-round starters to debut that quickly since Dave Stieb did it in 1979."

For the next three years Farmer bounced back and forth between Detroit and Toledo, and between the bullpen and the rotation. He always had the stuff to start, with a solid low-90s fastball that could reach as high as 96 MPH, a changeup that would flash as a plus offering, and a high-spin breaking ball.

But Buck Farmer never quite had the control and command to consistently work his way through lineups. His delivery wasn’t terribly pretty, and he had one of the more pronounced head whacks you’ll ever see.

Buck Farmer
Seems kinda painful. Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports /

Buck Farmer permanently moved to the bullpen in 2018 and seemed to find a home. He didn’t post spectacular results that first season, but his stuff ticked up across the board, and he threw a career-best 69.1 innings.

The 2019 season was Buck Farmer’s best, which is sadly fitting, as it happened to be the worst season for the Detroit Tigers in the Buck Farmer Era.

The Tigers went just 47-114 that year, but Farmer led the team with 73 appearances. He also produced the best K-to-BB ratio (73-to-24) of his MLB career, and posted the lowest ERA (3.72) of any of the 13 pitchers who threw at least 40 innings for the Tigers that season. He appeared to be rounding into form as a solid setup man.

But the very unusual 2020 season was not kind to Buck Farmer. His ERA was a solid 3.80, but the underlying stats suggested trouble. His strikeout rate dropped by nearly 10%, and his velocity was down almost 2 MPH. There were definite signs of danger.

Though his stuff seemed to rebound slightly this season, his control abandoned him. He allowed 21 walks in just 35.1 innings, his highest rate since 2016. And crucially, he struggled to keep the ball in the park, with a career-worst 2.29 HR/9 rate.

With the Detroit Tigers suddenly boasting a solid bullpen, and desperately in need of starting pitching, they elected to release Farmer. For his part, Buck Farmer responded with a classy goodbye to the city:

The Detroit Tigers have drafted 57 players in the 5th round, and 13 of them have reached the Majors. By bWAR, Buck Farmer ranks 7th among those 13, which seems fitting. He was a middle reliever, caught in the middle of a sad stretch for the franchise.

His departure is a sign the Detroit Tigers are ready to put this forgettable era behind them. But that doesn’t mean Buck Farmer isn’t worth remembering.

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