Has there ever been a team that entered an offseason more obviously in need of bullpen improvements than the Tigers? They finished 13th in the AL in bullpen ERA, ahead of only the Astros and White Sox; 14th in WHIP, ahead of only the White Sox; and 28th in all of baseball in FRA, which is park- and league- and era- and luck-adjusted. Notably, they managed that while throwing the fewest innings in the American League, a reflection of their strong starting staff but also a boost to their overall relief numbers—if they’d had to scrounge up an additional hundred innings to match the Angels’ total, most of those extra 100 would have come from even worse options.
And then came October, when the ‘pen turned a one-run deficit into nine, and turned a two-run lead into a loss. In all: 11 runs in 2 2/3 innings, if we except Anibal Sanchez’s anomalous relief appearance. In Tim Dierkes’ pre-offseason predictions, he put Andrew Miller on the Tigers. In R.J. Anderson’s, he shipped Luke Gregerson to Detroit. As it turned out, Randy the Random Number Generator knew better: The Tigers, Randy said, ain’t gonna do squat.
- White Sox: Added David Robertson and Zach Duke ($16.5M AAV)
- Astros: Added Pat Neshek and Gregerson ($12.75M AAV)
- Tigers: Added Tom Gorzelanny and Josh Zeid ($1.5M AAV)
And re-signed Joba Chamberlain for a million bucks, but only because Chamberlain "turned down more lucrative offers."
Here’s one: The Tigers had one reliever last year (Chamberlain) produce a FIP lower than 3.25 in at least 15 innings. The Angels had eight.
So, what the heck?
Possible Explanation 1: Last year was just a fluke.
Nah, not really. The Tigers’ bullpen was terrible in 2013, and their best reliever left as a free agent while their second-best rejoined the starting rotation after the Doug Fister trade. Their bullpen collapsed in the postseason in 2012, and by the end I swear to you that Phil Coke was closing games. Indeed, the last time Detroit finished in the top half of the AL in bullpen ERA, the staff included a healthy, 21-year-old Joel Zumaya, and a wild, 21-year-old Andrew Miller. The 2014 Tigers didn’t get unluckied to death, and they didn’t even have a bunch of guys underperform: Of the eight pitchers who threw at least 15 innings of relief for them last year, six had ERAs better than PECOTA projection. Now, maybe you think Joe Nathan bounces back and dominates anew. Okay. But overall, this was a staff that arguably overperformed, if you can believe it, which you shouldn’t, because they were garbage.
What you can say is that the postseason was pretty much a fluke. The difference between the Tigers bullpen and a good bullpen is maybe a run per series. That the Tigers very loudly, very visibly gave up 11 runs in three games is easy to draw conclusions from, but they’re likely to be the wrong conclusions. That was a freak occurrence and not proof of Joakim Soria’s inevitable failures.
Possible Explanation 2: No, I mean every year is just a fluke.Two years ago, I wrote an article called The Most Fleeting Way To Win, in which I supposed that teams with good bullpens were likely to have average bullpens the next year, and that teams with bad bullpens were likely to have average bullpens the next year. That it’s all an illusion.
A good bullpen is ephemeral, and the correlation from one year to the next is basically insignificant.
That’s not hyperbole. The correlation between AL teams’ bullpen ERAs in 2011 and 2012 is an insignificant .06. The correlation between teams’ bullpen ERAs in 2010 and 2011 was actually negative, slightly. That oversells the point a bit: the correlation varies greatly from year to year. But over the past 10 years, the average year-to-year correlation is a very weak .18. (Teams’ starting-pitching ERAs, by contrast, are much steadier. The correlation between 2011 and 2012 is .74, and the average correlation over the past decade is .58.)
In summary: there’s a lot of personnel turnover; there are small-sample successes that get un-small-sampled; there are BABIPs; there are fluctuating strand rates; there are injuries; there is aging; there are changing roles and short leashes; and there is, as always, all the periphery stuff (chemistry; catchers; confidence; concealed injuries, perhaps) that is either unmeasurable or only barely measurable. It's not that we should have expected the Angels' bullpen to falter; it's that we shouldn't have expected anything, despite the 2011 success.
Is this the Tigers’ strategy? Simply waiting for the inevitable bullpen regression to relump every baseball team’s bullpen into a sort of new pangea each year, from which teams will drift off toward positive or negative outcomes based on no factor we can anticipate? Should we expect nothing specific about Detroit’s bullpen going forward?
If it is the Tigers’ strategy, it’s probably not a great one. And we probably should expect something specific about Detroit’s bullpen going forward.
That original article looked at team ERAs from year to year, and limited itself to one league (because year-to-year ERA comparisons would be skewed by DH and league difficulties). It also had the convenience of running after 2012, a year that was an outlier for bullpen-quality shuffling. That year’s bullpens showed virtually no correlation, and that’s probably why the article got written. But most years showed some, and the years since have shown some. Let’s take another look, using not ERA but team bullpen FRA.
Last year’s bullpen FRAs showed a .26 correlation with 2013’s, which in turn showed a .26 correlation with 2012’s, which in turned showed a .46 correlation with 2011’s, and so on. If we go back a decade, we see a .31 correlation from year to year, which isn’t overwhelming but is much more compelling than the .18 we found for year-to-year ERAs. (Team success generally—as measured by wins—show a .47 correlation in the same timeframe.)
This is an even bigger difference than it appears, because ERA is heavily influenced by park factors that would promote stronger year-to-year correlations. We can deduce that the year-to-year variance of bullpen performance is strongly influenced by those factors that differentiate FRA from ERA: Strand rates and batted-ball luck. The skill aspects of pitching, however, persist a bit more durably, even in bullpens.
The Tigers’ issues were, largely, skill aspects of pitching. As noted, they were as lowly by FRA as by ERA. They were 14th in the AL in FanGraphs’ model of WAR, 13th in the AL in FIP.
So, yeah. Bullpens are less stable than any other part of a team’s roster. But up in that block quote where I said “that’s not hyperbole”? That was, as it turned out, hyperbole.
Possible Explanation 3: They did add awesome top-flight relievers.
If they hadn’t traded for Joakim Soria last summer, but had acquired him this year, am I writing this article? Soria had the 14th-best FIP in baseball last year (it was the best before he joined the Tigers in July). He was a top-five reliever before he had Tommy John surgery in 2012, and threw almost as hard and arguably as well in 2014 as he ever did before the surgery. He’d have been ranked around 20-25 on our pre-offseason free agent list—just behind Andrew Miller, a bit ahead of Gregerson and Neshek—if he’d been a free agent.
Doing your Christmas shopping early isn’t the same as not doing your Christmas shopping, obviously. The Tigers added Soria, and will add last year’s preseason closer candidate Bruce Rondon, who should return healthy from Tommy John surgery. Neither is so certain as Holland and Davis—or even Robertson and Duke—but they provide reasonable expectations of two innings filled.
Possible Explanation 4: They’re building a more sustainable model for bullpen success.
Rob Rogacki argues this at Bless You Boys, noting that the Tigers haven’t failed to add relievers; they’ve just chosen not to add high-profile relievers, depending instead of low-risk investments and the maturation of homegrown pitchers. Among the non-stars added: Alex Wilson, a strike-thrower tossed into the Cespedes trade; minor-league pickups Rafael Dolis, Omar Duran and Alberto Cabrera; waiver claim Josh Zeid; Thad Weber, a 30-year-old right-hander who spent 2014 in Korea; and Tom Gorzelanny, signed to a $1 million contract. Joel Hanrahan was re-signed, though his recovery has again stalled at the Rag Ball stage. Writes Rogacki, after counting 22 pitchers competing for seven bullpen spots,
Despite the relative lack of big names, this is how bullpens are built. Alburquerque and Hardy were both minor league free agent signings and they contributed 2.9 rWAR out of the bullpen last season. Joba Chamberlain was another buy-low signing and he was the team's best reliever for nearly all of 2014. …
Don't get me wrong, Dave Dombrowski deserves blame for failing to address the bullpen in previous offseasons. He has relied on overpaying closers and assuming that the rest of the pen will fall into place before, and has gotten burned repeatedly in the postseason. Even last year's failures can be partly attributed to his over-reliance on a select few pitchers.
But he seems to have learned from his mistakes, even if he isn't going out and spending top dollar on the best arm on the market. By signing so many relievers at various levels of the system, Dombrowski is building a solid foundation for the Tigers to create a bullpen from within for years to come. All it takes is for one or two of the arms he has acquired to pan out, and the Tigers could instantly jump from having one of the worst bullpens in baseball to league average or better. This wouldn't be a safe bet if the Tigers had only signed two or three arms, but 11?
I’m not sure 11 is really all that many—you have to draw a line somewhere on who gets counted, and minor-league free agents might be on the wrong side of that line—but, sure, the point stands. After 20 years of this site’s authors criticizing big-dollar reliever contracts, it’s hard to get mad at the guy who doesn’t. Still, it brings to mind Jerry Dipoto, who also has famously eschewed offering closer-type contracts and preferred to gamble on numbers. It didn’t work at first, then last year it did. So where did he find his guys?
- Notable Trade: Huston Street, Jason Grilli
- Minor Trade/Trade Throw-In: Fernando Salas, Cory Rasmus, Joe Thatcher, Vinnie Pestano
- Multi-Year Free Agent Signing: Joe Smith, Sean Burnett
- Minor-League Free Agents: Yoslan Herrera, Drew Rucinski,
- Late-Round Draft Pick: Mike Morin, Michael Roth
- Already Hanging Around: Kevin Jepsen, Michael Kohn, David Carpenter
- Waivers/Purchased/Rule 5/etc: Rich Hill, Brian Moran
- Reclamation Project: Ryan Madson
Two things to note: It’s not all plankton Dipoto scooped up. Even he was willing to give up C+ prospects in trade or spend $5 million a year on a reliever, whereas the Tigers this offseason did not. And the best performances did come, usually, from the guys who cost something. Not always—Mike Morin was awfully good, and Yoslan Herrera produced a little something—but otherwise every name that produced for the Angels last year was a name you’d heard of already. The Tigers’ strategy, if it is one, involves a lot of pitchers you haven’t.
Possible Explanation 5: They’re broke.
Plausible, except that Dave Dombrowski was pretty clear very early in the offseason—long before every dollar was spent, or before he knew how it would be spent—that he wasn't going after relievers. Tony Paul, Detroit News:
But, as it turns out, Dombrowski, the Tigers tight-lipped president and general manager, might actually have been dead serious when he told local reporters earlier this month that the Tigers bullpen could really be all set.
That's a bullpen, mind you, that has finished, statistically, in the bottom half of Major League Baseball teams every year for the past eight, capped off by a disastrous showing in 2014, on the heels of a postseason meltdown in 2013.
Yet, stunningly, there's not one notable reliever who's been tied to the Tigers in all the rumors and rumblings that have hit the Internet since the season ended.
That includes such seemingly good fits as Andrew Miller, Pat Neshek and Sergio Romo, none of whom have the Tigers inquired about whatsoever — not even with a text message to an agent — sources told The News.
It always—always—comes down to Possible Explanation 6: A Little Bit Of All Of These, and so it probably is here. The Tigers avoided overreacting to two bad October games and had faith that their bullpen wasn’t as bad as the commemorative DVD of the 2014 postseason will imply. They knew they had already started improving their bullpen as soon as Bruce Rondon began his rehab, and that they had added a relief ace already at the trade deadline. They learned from the Joe Nathan signing and, instead of spending half their bullpen budget on one guy, they spread it among a bunch of different guys with various strengths and risks. And they were probably less aggressive than they’d like to have been because they are already pushing a $170 million payroll, with huge commitments to older players extending for the next half-decade and beyond. They made do with what they had, and the result was… well, it was underwhelming. The Tigers bullpen will probably be bad again, but the Tigers probably won’t be.
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