Detroit — Entering Saturday’s game in Oakland, the Tigers starters had allowed two runs or fewer in six straight games. As a unit, they’ve posted a 3.68 ERA while holding opponents to a .228 batting average.
Conversely, the bullpen has scuffled — 7.24 ERA, .266 opponent average, 1.6 WHIP with an untenable 31 walks in 51 innings.
You’d have thought it would be the other way around.
“It’s just the execution has not been there,” Tigers manager AJ Hinch said. “We just haven’t caught a rhythm in the bullpen yet to have some consistency.”
The two primary back-end relievers, Gregory Soto and Bryan Garcia, have performed well. But five veteran relievers, four of whom comprised the heart of the bullpen last season, have gotten off to rough starts.
►Buck Farmer: 6-1/3 innings, seven earned runs, four home runs, five walks.
►Tyler Alexander: 6-1/3 innings, six earned runs, three home runs, three walks.
►Jose Cisnero: 5-1/3 innings, four earned runs, two home runs, three walks.
►Derek Holland: 7 innings, nine earned runs, two home runs, four walks.
►Daniel Norris: 4-2/3 innings, six earned runs, one home run, two walks.
“There is going to be some of these stretches, there is on every team in every year,” Hinch said. “When it happens in June when we’ve piled up a lot of successes, then it doesn’t feel as bad. But when you enter the season that way, you’re playing catch-up and as a reliever, those are some big numbers on the board and it takes a while to overcome.”
Hinch spends a good portion of the team’s batting practice in the outfield talking with the relievers while they are shagging balls.
“Confidence-wise, I think they are fine,” he said. “They’re in a good place. I have a lot of confidence in those guys. We’re going to perform better because we’re going to throw more strikes. That in itself will correct a lot of issues we’ve had so far.”
The early struggles are a bit confounding, given how well all of those relievers performed in the spring. Norris, for example, was spotting his four-seam fastball at 93 and 94 mph and he was expertly mixing his change-up and slider off that.
So far in the season, the velocity is down close to 2 mph on average and the spin rate on his slider is down. The result: Where he got 35% swings and misses on his secondary pitches last year, he’s gotten just 10% on his change-up and 20% on his slider this year.
Opponents were 8 for 14 against those two pitches this season.
“I’m working hard every day, trying to get back to what I was feeling in spring training,” Norris said. “I’m not really sure what changed overnight, but I am working on it.”
Hinch believes there is a mechanical component to Norris’ struggles.
“His release, his delivery, his energy coming down the hill — there are things we can do mechanically to produce the results we want,” he said. “But if we just focus on the results of the pitch and the pitch characteristics, that eliminates a lot of things that are important in the sequencing and delivering of a pitch.”
In other words, stop obsessing on the data and get back to competing. That message has been delivered not just to Norris but to the entire bullpen.
“I want our guys to compete, whatever their stuff is, whatever their spin is, whatever their axis is and give it your best chance inside the strike zone,” Hinch said. “Mechanically I think we can clean up some stuff with Daniel and others that will allow them to get inside the strike zone.
“You can get outs with bad data.”
Staying with 14 pitchers
Hinch said on Friday that Spencer Turnbull could return early next week, which will trigger a decision on whether to commence a six-man rotation. Hinch said that decision hasn’t been made yet, but regardless, he plans on keeping an eight-man bullpen.
“When you look at our schedule and look at the last few games for us, even the games we won in Houston we used a lot of resources in the pitching department,” Hinch said. “After the day off (Monday) we play 13 straight days before the next day off.
“I would like to protect the innings and free up playing time for other position players. It’ll be a little more complicated when Miggy (Cabrera) and Nomar (Mazara) come back, but I’m more comfortable right now anticipating an extra pitcher rather than an extra hitter.”
Hinch said that he expects outfielder Mazara (strained left abdomen) to be out longer than the 10-day minimum stay on the injured list. But he hopes not much longer.
“We won’t really know until he gets ramped back up and back to doing baseball activity,” Hinch said. “It’s hard to put a timeline on it. But it won’t be 10 days and back. It’ll be a little longer.”
Hinch said it’s hard to predict how an injury like that will impact the rotational aspect of hitting.
“You don’t know how he’s going to tolerate that until you reintroduce that to him and you can’t reintroduce it until he’s ready to hit,” Hinch said. “It’s a fine line. But it’ll be a couple of weeks.”
As for Cabrera (left bicep strain), he’s been back on the field taking ground balls and hitting in the cage but he may still be at least anther week away from being cleared.
“He’s doing well,” Hinch said. “He keeps asking for more and more and anytime a player does that, it’s not just talk. It means he’s feeling good physically.”
After the off-day Monday, Hinch said he expects Cabrera to start taking batting practice on the field.
“That’s the next step and once he does that for a few days, then we will make an assessment on what’s next for him after that,” Hinch said. “He won’t be in the Pirates series (at Comerica next week). We’re going to go series by series with him.”
Day off for Baddoo
Hinch gave Rule 5 rookie Akil Baddoo Saturday off. Might not have been the best day for the left-handed hitting Baddoo to face Athletics’ lefty Cole Irvin. Baddoo is hitless in his last 10 at-bats with eight strikeouts.
“He’s had a couple of tough at-bats,” Hinch said. “This is a tough league. I don’t think anybody is expecting him to continue on that pace he was on. This is a very good pitching staff (A’s) and a very smart organization. They are going to seek out areas to try to get him out and they’ve been successful so far.
“You’re always just one at-bat away from ending any negative momentum.”
Hinch said Baddoo would be back in the lineup Sunday.
Around the horn
On Friday night, the Tigers announced that right-handed pitcher Rony Garcia had been taken off the injured list and was transitioning to the alternate site in Toledo. Garcia, the Tigers’ Rule 5 acquisition last year, had missed all of spring training after he had an appendectomy.