Detroit Tigers have 6-1 record in bullpen-only games: ‘I think we’ve broken that stigma’

Detroit Free Press

DENVER — The Detroit Tigers have a 6-1 record in seven bullpen games this season, not including two in which a relief pitcher opened for an inning before getting replaced by a traditional starting pitcher.

Five of the seven games were planned; two were forced because of in-game injuries.

“A lot of teams would pick this method if you could sustain it,” Tigers manager A.J. Hinch said Saturday. “Giving different looks to every good hitter that the other lineup has can be an incredible strategy. For us, we have a versatile enough bullpen where we can do a lot of different things.”

The Tigers’ bullpen deserves credit for navigating an 9-18 record in June, which included a 9-9 record after a nine-game losing streak to start the month. The bullpen helped the Tigers (36-46) to a 1-0 start in July, earning a 4-2 win over the Colorado Rockies in Saturday’s bullpen game.

A relief pitcher started six times for the Tigers in June, with four of those bullpen games (the other two games saw “openers” used). The Tigers won three of the four, only losing 1-0 to the Philadelphia Phillies on June 6 at Citizens Bank Park.

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The days of one-dimensional, single-inning relievers are long gone.

“I think we’ve broken that stigma, certainly on this team but in the industry in general,” Hinch said. “That mentality shift over the last five years or so has been important for the players to make that adjustment. Maybe unpredictability is a better way to get guys ready to compete.”

Left-hander Tyler Alexander is one of the reasons why the Tigers found success out of the bullpen in June. He had a 0.96 ERA with three walks and 18 strikeouts across 18⅔ innings in eight games (one start).

Alexander struggled in April and May.

“I haven’t changed a thing,” Alexander said. “My velocity is up a little bit. That could be weather, that could be getting used a little more. I feel the same as I felt when I was getting hit around a little bit at the beginning of the year. I just stuck to the process. It’s trusting that my stuff is good enough.”

Six relievers were worth positive wins above replacement in June: Jason Foley (0.4 fWAR), José Cisnero (0.3 fWAR), Will Vest (0.3 fWAR), Tyler Holton (0.3 fWAR), Alexander (0.1 fWAR) and Brendan White (0.1 fWAR).

Alex Lange, arguably the Tigers’ best reliever, had a 11.57 ERA and was worth minus-0.3 fWAR.

“When you have eight or nine relievers down there, and at least seven of them are multi-inning guys, it leaves me a ton of options on how to attack the other lineup,” Hinch said. “We’re built that way, and we can really go after matchups appropriately because the guys can go out for a second inning.”

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The Tigers in June received 122⅔ innings from their relievers for an average of 4.54 innings per game. The innings total ranked first in the American League and second to the San Francisco Giants (129 innings) in MLB.

Hinch deserves credit for pushing the right buttons to take advantage of matchups.

“He finds our pockets,” Alexander said. “He has done a great job of finding the spots in the lineup for us to succeed.”

The Tigers were forced into two unplanned bullpen games and won both in the recent four-game series against the Texas Rangers, when left-hander Matthew Boyd exited with left elbow discomfort in the first inning Monday and right-hander Reese Olson exited with a left knee contusion from a comebacker in the second inning Thursday.

Boyd underwent Tommy John surgery.

The starters provided the Tigers with 115 innings during June for an average of 4.26 innings per game. Injuries and underperformance from the starters burdened the relievers. The starters posted a 5.09 ERA (26th in MLB) and the relievers logged a 4.11 ERA (18th in MLB).

Soon, the starting rotation will be healthy again.

Left-handers Tarik Skubal (left flexor tendon surgery) and Eduardo Rodriguez (left index finger pulley rupture) are scheduled to return from the injured list Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively, against the Oakland Athletics at Comerica Park.

Right-hander Alex Faedo, currently rehabbing from right middle finger discomfort in Triple-A Toledo, is expected to provide depth at the highest level of the minor leagues, along with recently demoted left-hander Joey Wentz.

The starting rotation will feature Skubal, Rodriguez, Olson, Michael Lorenzen and Matt Manning. Rodriguez and Lorenzen are expected to be shopped to contending teams leading up to the Aug. 1 trade deadline.

“Whatever limit Skubal is going to be on when he comes back, if he can give us five strong innings every fifth day, we’ll be more than happy with that,” Alexander said. “With Eddie, I don’t think he’ll be on a limit. As long as he’s feeling good, the way he was pitching before he got hurt, that’s such a load off of our backs.”

Rodriguez averaged 6.15 innings with a 2.13 ERA in 11 starts, before suffering the finger injury in May. Skubal averaged 5.6 innings with a 3.52 ERA in 21 starts, before undergoing flexor tendon surgery in August 2022.

The relievers are ready for the top two starters to return and bullpen-only games to end as the calendar turns to July and the All-Star break looms.

“If you talk to our bullpen, they’re ready for the starters to absorb some innings,” Hinch said, “and if you talk to our starters coming back, they’re certainly ready to do their lion’s share of the lifting for the beginnings of these games,” Hinch said. “What we’ve asked our bullpen to do is not normal, but everybody likes shaking hands at the end of the game if we do it right.”

Contact Evan Petzold at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

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