How Detroit Tigers set foundation for playoff-ready bullpen around diverse roles, innings

Detroit Free Press

Detroit Tigers manager AJ Hinch surely misses the agony of postseason decisions.

Every choice is magnified.

Watching the American and National League Championship Series, Hinch analyzed the moves made by four managers: Alex Cora (Boston Red Sox), Dusty Baker (Houston Astros), Dave Roberts (Los Angeles Dodgers) and Brian Snitker (Atlanta Braves).

The Astros and Braves have reached the World Series.

“Seeing this thirst for winning and this rebirth for doing things that a winning culture does lends itself to looking towards .500 and above. That’s the next plateau,” Hinch said Oct. 5, after the Tigers finished 77-85 in his first season as manager. “I think we have to set our bar extremely high. You should set out every year to make the playoffs.”

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One of the most fascinating aspects of this year’s postseason is the way managers have handled their pitching staffs. Managers are typically scrutinized for the results as opposed to the process, although the latter is almost always driven by chasing the best matchups throughout a game.

This year, managers are pulling starters earlier than ever.

Entering Friday, the Astros and Braves have each played 12 games this postseason. Atlanta’s starters have averaged 4.28 innings per game and Houston’s starters 3.75 innings per game, meaning both teams have relied heavily on their bullpens.

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The shortened starts are happening, in part, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which trimmed the 2020 season to just 60 games. The normal 162-game schedule in 2021 forced many teams to monitor young arms to protect their health. Some veterans sustained injuries in pursuit of increasing their workload.

But the biggest reason for the short starts is exploiting the matchups, as well as the concern of pitchers going three times through an opposing team’s lineup. (For example: When facing Tigers rookie Casey Mize this year, hitters registered a .697 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in their first plate appearance, a .688 OPS in their second appearance and an .821 OPS in their third appearance.)

To attack matchups, managers must combine what they see on the field with the analytical reports about their team and their opponent. And once the bullpen door opens, it doesn’t shut for the rest of the game, which forces managers to continue looking for matchups they can cash in on.

Before leading the Tigers, Hinch spent five seasons (2015-19) managing the Astros. He took them to the World Series in 2017 and 2019, beating the Dodgers in ’17 and falling short to the Washington Nationals in ’19.

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In 2017, Houston’s starters averaged 5.55 innings in the regular season. That same year, the starters averaged 5.41 innings over 18 games in the postseason. In 2019, Hinch’s rotation averaged 5.60 innings in the regular season, then 5.76 innings in the postseason.

The way Hinch manages his pitching staff, both in the regular season and the playoffs, depends on personnel, instincts and analytics. Even then, the roles of starters and relievers in the postseason have recently shifted because one pitch — or one swing — could be devastating.

On the right track

Since the Tigers hired Hinch in October 2020, the progressive skipper has avoided defined roles and stressed multiple innings.

That’s why he didn’t officially name left-handed flamethrower Gregory Soto the closer — despite often using him in save situations — until the season had ended. He wanted his relievers to understand that when operating with a matchup mentality, job titles don’t matter.

For the Tigers to be successful, relievers must be conditioned to pitch at least two innings at any moment in the game.

“The fact that we believe in multiple innings is very key,” Hinch said in September. “We’ve built these guys to stand up for it and do it. Anybody that’s on this staff has the capabilities of going one-plus. That’s going to help us now when we’re trying to talk about how many innings we need and the ability to do it at a high level. Mentality wise, I think all these guys understand.

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“If we need any validation on the fact that multiple innings or multiple roles work, we should look across the field at the Tampa Bay Rays. … We can just look across the field and tip our cap to how you can be successful having an unselfish yet dominant ‘pen.”

Detroit’s starters averaged 4.82 innings per game this season, primarily because of innings limits to Mize and fellow rookie Tarik Skubal and injuries to veterans Matthew Boyd and Spencer Turnbull. The relievers worked 638⅓ innings, the sixth-most in MLB, and ranked 22nd with a 4.50 ERA.

To continue Hinch’s example, the Rays finished third with their bullpen’s 3.24 ERA in 703 innings. Tampa Bay’s starters averaged merely 4.64 innings in the regular season, then 2.83 innings over four games in the playoffs. (The Rays — 2020 World Series runners-up — were bounced by the Red Sox in the this year’s ALDS.)

“The Rays have perfected it,” Hinch said in June. “It’s incredible how many quality arms they bring at you out of the bullpen. Doesn’t matter whether they go to the bullpen in the third inning or in the seventh, eighth and ninth. They’re just dynamic. The more weapons you can have, the more guys in your arsenal, you can keep guys healthy, keep guys fresh, match them up with the type and style of hitters in which they can handle. …

“When you manage in the playoffs, you manage these matchup-style bullpens.”

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Entering the 2022 season, the Tigers believe they have the foundation for a playoff-ready bullpen, but it’s not a finished product. At the beginning of spring training, the high-leverage roles should belong to Soto (a left-hander) and right-handers Jose Cisnero, Michael Fulmer, Kyle Funkhouser and Alex Lange, with an expectation that righty Jason Foley will emerge.

“This is going to be a really, really deep ‘pen,” Lange said in September. “I think that’s how a lot of people are going to look at the Tigers moving forward. We just got dudes. We got guys that can pitch in any situation and consistently get outs. … I just think the depth of our ‘pen is going to help us in a playoff run in the future.

“In a playoff series, if you’re playing seven games, you could give a guy a day off and he’s fresh the next day. When you got the hot hand, you roll with it. Giving AJ the opportunity and the confidence that he can leave a guy out there and get six outs, it’s what makes a bullpen good. It’s what sets us apart from other teams. There’s just a lot of diversity down there and a lot of guys that can get the job done in multiple situations, which is exactly what you need.

Contact Evan Petzold at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.

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