The bullpen was the Detroit Tigers‘ Achilles heel during the club’s golden age last decade.
From the Grand Slam surrendered by Joaquin Benoit in Game 2 of the 2013 ALCS in Boston, to the constant search for a reliable closer, it was breath-holding time in the late innings.
It has been quite the opposite so far in 2022.
“Everybody is just doing their part and that’s credit to (manager) A.J. (Hinch) and (pitching coach Chris) Fetter,” reliever Michael Fulmer said Sunday. “They put guys in the right situations that put them in position for the best chance to succeed.
“They both do a good job of over-communicating to us saying ‘hey, you could be used in the sixth, could be used in the ninth … if these guys come up, this is your part of the order and we’re going to need you to get these big outs here.'”
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The early returns have been promising. Through 14 games and 61⅓ innings pitched, the Tigers’ bullpen ERA is 2.35, the fifth best mark in baseball. The team also ranks in the top 10 in WHIP (1.09) and WAR (0.7).
Compare that to 2021, when Detroit’s bullpen ERA, 4.50, ranked 22nd.
“The players are the ones who have to do it on the field, our job is to prepare them and communicate with them on what the expectations are,” Hinch said. “The pitch execution has been good, the pitch selection has been good and I think the competition is healthy.”
The Tigers optioned Jason Foley to Triple-A Toledo on Sunday to make room to activate Javier Báez from the 10-day injured list. Foley has appeared in five games, posting a 3.18 ERA and 1.24 WHIP without allowing a walk.
Hinch said it isn’t because Foley was underperforming. He wants him to work on getting left-handed hitters out, get more repetitions and continue to progress on working ahead of hitters and coming with his best stuff immediately.
“As we told Foley in the room today, (Fetter) and I were in there and (GM) Al (Avila), it’s not a matter of anything he did wrong,” Hinch said. “It’s a matter of a better team that’s more difficult to stay on.”
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What makes the relievers’ performance more impressive is the club remains without a number of key contributors.
Jose Cisnero is on the 60-day injured list and pitched in 67 games last year with a 3.65 ERA.
Kyle Funkhouser was moved to the same list Saturday — Hinch said he suffered a setback to his shoulder/lat injury while ramping up, so the team will dial him back — and emerged as the team’s “bridge” man last season, picking up key outs, posting a 7-4 record in 57 appearances with a 3.42 ERA.
Andrew Chafin, the left-hander signed to a two-year deal in March, shined in 2021 both with the Chicago Cubs and Oakland Athletics, throwing 68⅔ innings with a 1.84 ERA and 0.938 WHIP.
Hinch said Sunday that Chafin is on his way to rehab in Toledo and could return to the Tigers as early as this week’s series against the Minnesota Twins. But so far, none of them have been able to contribute.
“There’s a lot of up and down throughout the season,” reliever Will Vest said. “Guys get hurt, guys will struggle a little bit so you’re going to have to rely on a lot of guys you didn’t think you would have to at the beginning of the season.
“I think that’s what’s been awesome is that a lot of guys who weren’t expected to break with the club have been performing and it’s just kind of picking up their teammates backs and helping us win ball games.”
Hinch will downplay his role in setting up the bullpen, but Fulmer says it makes all the difference.
“It’s big for everybody, obviously having specific roles is good in a certain mindset, but then again being flexible is a thing in its own,” Fulmer said.
“We have big outs in the sixth inning and we have big outs in the ninth inning, we’re going to go with our best shot to win, that’s what A.J.’s done so far and I think it’s worked out.”
Mize and Manning head to Lakeland
Two of the Tigers young former first-round picks suffered injuries just days apart and now both are on the mend.
Casey Mize was placed on the 10-day injured list on April 15 with a sprained throwing elbow while Matt Manning was placed on the 10-day injured list days later with right shoulder inflammation.
Hinch said Sunday both will head south to begin working their way back into the rotation.
“Manning and Mize are both leaving today to go to Lakeland to continue their rehab,” he said. “Manning may be a little bit slower. He played catch (Saturday), he’s not going to throw a bullpen Wednesday, which was the key in getting the next start.
“It’s not a setback, it’s nothing that we’re overly concerned about, it’s just going to be a slower ramp to playing catch before we get him back on the mound.”
Hinch said if Manning does miss additional time, the team will consider a rehab start before he re-joins the club.
Mize is going to start throwing again once in Lakeland, which Hinch called encouraging news. Hinch says that is the best place for both so they can have “the complete attention of the training staff.”
Mize has made two starts this season, going 0-1 with a 5.40 ERA and a 1.50 WHIP.
Manning posted a 2.25 ERA and 0.75 WHIP in his two starts, though he left his second start in Kansas City after two innings, having given up one run and five hits.
Baez return provides a spark
Sunday marked Baez’s return, who had been on the injured list since April 12 after twice jamming his thumb.
It didn’t take long for the Tigers’ $140 million shortstop to make a splash with his new team, hitting a walk-off single on Opening Day. He has played in five games, batting 6-for-19 (.316) with one home run, four RBIs and a .350 OBP.
Baez provides depth to the lineup that has been missing.
“It’s no secret we’ve been starving for a little bit of offense, we’ve been just one or two big hits away in a lot of the games we’ve been losing,” utility man Eric Haase said. “Having Javy back I think makes everyone better, you know he’s going to be dangerous right in the heart (of the order) so that’s huge.”
Hinch said he was eyeing Baez’s return this series, but didn’t want to force him back because his thumb is still tender, and felt an off day Monday set up nicely to ease him back.
“Once you wind up and put Javy in a game, he’s going to go full throttle,” Hinch said. “I think anytime you put a marquee player, a star player back in your lineup I think the clubhouse wakes up.”