Detroit Tigers: The bullpen is smoke and mirrors

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The starting rotation for the Detroit Tigers has not gone deep in games this season, which means we have seen the bullpen arms more. Which arms have been the most reliable?

The Detroit Tigers start a critical stretch of games as they head to Minnesota to take on the Twins starting tomorrow.  They are coming off a tough loss on Wednesday night to the Brewers with the bullpen struggling with command issues. While the Tigers came into yesterday winners of six in a row, it has been mainly the offense that has been carrying the ballclub with some clutch performances from the pitching staff.

However, the Tigers struggled to throw strikes last night, with 192 pitches thrown and only 102 for strikes. OK, that’s one game, and I’m not going to nitpick one bad outing, but in a season where we have already seen Detroit lose nine games in a row, we need to examine how we got here. Roles have changed and players have stepped up we did not see coming.

Sure, there are several players on the offense side we have already done articles on (Victor Reyes, Jeimer Candelario) but let’s take a deeper dive on the bullpen by looking a few key stats, which will be tested against a very different Twins lineup that had Josh Donaldson and Byron Buxton return to from the IL this week.

(Clint Sodowsky and Heath Murray are former Tigers, by the way). Joe Jimenez has struggled this season, and his struggles have been well documented. If you feel like his innings take an especially long time to complete, you are not alone.

According to FanGraphs, reliever average 16.7 pitches per inning pitched. Jimenez averages 20.0, which is the 9th most among all relievers. The team as a whole is right at the league average, at 16.73. Here’s how the rest of the bullpen looks in that category:

  • Gregory Soto: 14.9
  • Bryan Garcia: 15.1
  • Tyler Alexander: 16.2
  • Jose Cisnero: 16.3
  • Daniel Norris: 16.4
  • Rony Garcia: 17.0
  • Buck Farmer: 17.2
  • John Schreiber: 17.4
  • Kyle Funkhouser: 18.2

Now, back to Jimenez for a moment. A sign of things to come was his 2019 barrel %, which at 10.8% put him among the league’s worst according to Baseball Savant. This year, it has risen to 12.1%, and the average exit velocity against Jimenez this season has jumped to 93.2 MPH after sitting at 88.3 last year. He’s not the only one giving up hard contact.

The Tigers’ bullpen as a whole have the highest exit velocity given up as a team at 90MPH and the 28th worst K per 9 at 7.97. Only the Giants and Marlins are worse. But, what has helped Detroit is they have the best walks per 9 at 2.75.

While Daniel Norris has looked solid out of the bullpen, when teams make contact against him he gets into trouble. His exit velocity is at 93.4, and hard-hit rate is at 49% but he is limiting his walks (just 3 in 17 innings pitched) and has increased his whiff% from 12.9% last season to 20.3% so far this season.

Also, something else I noticed. He threw his curveball 6% of the time last year, but he has only thrown the pitch once this season, going exclusively with his four-seamer, changeup, and slider. His most successful pitch? Like Matt Boyd, his changeup, which teams are hitting .056 against (1-for-18)

As a whole, Tigers relievers throw the changeup 16.7% of the time, just behind the Yankees. I throw that out there because it is a 3% increase from last season, and they have gone away completely it appears, from the curveball. As a whole, they threw 9% in 2019 and this season, just 2%. It appears there is a change in philosophy on how Tigers relievers throw.

Soto and Cisnero have been the most consistent relievers for the Tigers. Despite Soto’s roller-coaster innings, he still has been very effective. They need another reliever to step up during this stretch. Everyone expected Buck Farmer to fill the gap in the 7th or 8th inning, but in his five games since he trurned from the IL his numbers do not look pretty: 5IP, 6R, 6H, 6K 1BB, 2HR, and teams have an OPS of 1.018 against him.

Manager Ron Gardenhire will continue to put on a magician’s hat instead of a ballcap to navigate these final weeks. While the bullpen has surprised us, as Detroit is just one game back of .500, you would like to see the run differential number go down (currently at -13) in order to stay within a playoff berth.

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