Who needs strict roles? Tigers turning matchup-based bullpenning into a weapon

Detroit News

Detroit — Once upon a time, like last season, manager AJ Hinch talked about his “path to victory” bullpen. If the Tigers had a lead after six innings, most times he would call on Joe Jimenez, Alex Lange or Andrew Chafin to work the sixth or seventh, Michael Fulmer and Jose Cisnero to work the seventh and eighth, and then putting the game in the hands of closer Gregory Soto in the ninth.

There is no set path anymore.

“It can all line up if you can just get out of that traditional mindset that, ‘We’re in the eighth inning, we have to have an eighth-inning guy.’” Hinch said. “That just doesn’t exist around baseball as much as people want to believe it does.”

The Tigers do not have a set closer. Five different relievers have pitched in save situations in the first 17 games. Lange, Cisnero, Jason Foley, rookie Mason Englert, Trey Wingenter and Chasen Shreve have all worked in leverage situations from the seventh inning through the ninth and beyond.

“If you start looking at bullpens, 30 teams are going to do it in random ways,” Hinch said. “Based on how they built their personnel, how they build their strategies and what their philosophies are. We just try to get the outs where they are in the lineup and put guys in position to be successful.”

Hinch and pitching coach Chris Fetter have built a bullpen of pitchers with diverse repertoires. Some, like lefties Tyler Alexander and Tyler Holton and right-hander Englert, can work multiple innings, as well as in certain situations. Some have elite weapons that can be deployed to exploit specific matchups in a game — Wingenter with his power slider, Lange with his nasty sinker-curveball combination, Shreve with his splitter, Foley with his power sinker, Cisnero with his elevated four-seamer.

“The number of outs we have in the ‘pen are plenty,” Hinch said. “We feel good about the stuff we have to line up against the right pockets and attack the other lineup.”

Go back to April 4 in Houston. The game was tied 2-2 in the sixth and Hinch went to Foley to get four outs against a pocket of hitters that hit a lot of balls on the ground. Hinch then called on lefty Shreve to get through left-handed hitting Yordan Alvarez and Kyle Tucker, not worrying about Shreve facing right-handed hitting Jose Abreu in the middle because the splitter is effective against both sides of the plate.

And after the Tigers extended the lead, he used Wingenter to close it out.

In Game 1 of the doubleheader with Cleveland on Tuesday, Hinch brought in Englert in the sixth inning of a tie game and rode him for three innings.

“I didn’t want to take him out of that game,” Hinch said. “He’s pitching well. His pitch count is low. Those guys hadn’t seen him and he’s got a weapon against left-handed hitters.”

Which is why Hinch didn’t flinch when the Guardians sent up lefty pinch-hitter Josh Naylor against Englert with one out and runners on the corners. Naylor hits a lot of groundballs (50% of the balls he puts in play) and Englert’s changeup is the perfect pitch to induce a double-play ball.

And that’s what happened. Englert got Naylor to rollover on an outside changeup — 4-6-3, inning over.

“The key is getting guys comfortable in knowing (their work) is going to come in different ways,” Hinch said. “Jason Foley (who pitched the ninth inning to earn the save in Game 2 Tuesday) didn’t wake up knowing he was going to pitch anywhere from the fifth to the ninth inning or in which game.

“This is the biggest challenge you have in a bullpen that doesn’t have strict roles. You don’t roll out of bed that day knowing exactly who you’re going to send out for the seventh, eighth and ninth innings.”

Part of this borne out of necessity. The Tigers don’t have a proven closer like Cleveland’s Emmanuel Clase or Toronto’s Jordan Romano in their bullpen. But, so far, with a hat-tip to the game-planning acumen of Hinch and Fetter, it’s playing as a weapon.

The Tigers’ bullpen has pitched 15.2 straight scoreless innings dating to last Friday when the Giants plated the free runner against Cisnero in the top of the 11th inning.

“This is my third year here and we’ve done it the same way,” Hinch said. “It will evolve into more regular work for certain guys, but the goal is to come to the ballpark targeting some hitters I feel we can get out with certain relievers and rolling with some guys who are throwing well.”

If it ain’t broke …

On deck: Baltimore Orioles

Series: Three games at Camden Yards, Baltimore

First pitch: Friday-Saturday — 7:05 p.m.; Sunday — 1:35 p.m.

TV/radio: Friday, Sunday — Bally Sports Detroit/97.1 FM; Saturday — FS1, BSD/97.1

Probables: Friday — RHP Michael Lorenzen (0-0, 13.50) vs. RHP Tyler Wells (0-1, 3.86); Saturday — LHP Joey Wentz (0-2, 6.39) vs. RHP Kyle Gibson (3-0, 4.18); Sunday — LHP Matthew Boyd or LHP Eduardo Rodriguez vs. RHP Grayson Rodriguez (0-0, 6.91).

Scouting report

Lorenzen, Tigers: His delayed Tigers’ debut was marred by a couple of home run balls and some labor-intensive innings caused by some rusty command. But he punched out six in four innings, showing that his stuff is formidable when he can work in advantage counts.

Wells, Orioles: Hitters are 5 for 36 against his four-seam (93 mph) and cutter (89) so far this season. His changeup has been a good weapon for him against left-handed hitters. Righties have been a problem for him (.731 OPS vs. .534 against lefties). He’s gone to a traditional slider this season to combat right-handed hitters.

chris.mccosky@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @cmccosky

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