Understanding the Tigers Bullpen

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

If you follow me on Twitter or have spent a lot of time on this site (here, also here) you know that I’m not a fan of how most managers use their bullpens. Primarily, I think “saves” are worthless and utilizing a one inning-saves only closer, even if that closer is excellent, is not the right way to use your bullpen.

This idea is simple and it’s explained in the links above, but I’ll summarize. You should use your best relievers when the game is most on the line. That does not always happen in the 9th inning. Your relief ace should pitch when he is needed, not when he can accumulate saves. The 9th inning is not “a different animal” that requires special skills. Many pitchers have moved into the 9th inning role without any problem and a high number of saves does not mean you have pitched well.

In general, I’m a fan of rethinking bullpen usage so that the best pitchers pitch in key situations. I’ve routinely mentioned that Jose Valverde is not a good MLB reliever anymore, but even if he was, the Tigers are using him incorrectly. Let’s explore.

Fangraphs furnishes a statistic that measure the average leverage index each pitcher enters the game during. Leverage index measures how much the game is “on the line” at every moment, so this captures exactly what we’re after. On average, how critical is the moment that Leyland brings in each reliever:

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Obvious, some of these guys have fewer appearance than others, but you’ll note that Phil Coke, Jose Valverde, and Darin Downs have been called on during the most critical moments with Joaquin Benoit coming in 4th among pitchers who have a decent chunk of innings. What you should also notice is that Drew Smyly is effectively dead last because Reed and Porcello have hardly pitched at all.

Yet it’s Benoit and Smyly who are actually the team’s best relievers. If we look at Win Probability Added (WPA) which measures the the change in win expectancy from a pitcher’s entry into the game until their removal, Smyly and Benoit are the best the Tigers have:

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And if you’d rather consider WPA in conjunction with LI:

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What we see here is that Smyly and Benoit are the pitchers who are performing the best out of the Tigers bullpen but they aren’t getting place in the high leverage situations. Leyland is going to Coke, Valverde, and Downs more than Benoit and Smyly when the game is on the line even though those guys are worse.

We can look to other numbers like FIP and ERA, among Tigers relievers with more than 8 IP, Smyly and Benoit reign:

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Put very clearly, Smyly (who is 8th in MLB in reliever WAR) and Benoit are the Tigers best two relievers by pretty much every objective measure, yet they are not getting the call when the games count most. Until yesterday (June 9th), Smyly had pitched to just 15 batters in the previous 2 weeks despite being the team’s best reliever. That just isn’t acceptable.

The way to fix this is simple. First, managers need to stop valuing “proven closers” and should not be afraid to go to closer by committee. Jose Valverde leads the Tigers in “Saves,” but by every other measure, he’s nowhere close to the team’s best pitcher. Second, managers need to accept that the most important time in the game is not always the 9th inning and should bring in their best reliever to face the other team’s best hitters or when the other team is threatening. If you go to your best guy with the bases empty against the 6-7-8 hitters, you’re wasting them.

The flaws were on display in Baltimore (5/31) when Jose Valverde came into the game in the 9th inning up by 2 against the Orioles’ best hitters and blew the game, but on the next day, Leyland went to Smyly for two innings up by 7 runs. The opposite should have happened. Valverde should not pitch when the game is on the line and Smyly shouldn’t pitch in garbage time. You need to align your best relievers with the most important moments in the game.

Now certainly you can’t see the future and I won’t begrudge someone for going to Smyly in a tight spot only to find the game gets tighter in a future inning. But when Leyland doesn’t use Smyly for days at a time and then gets him work during a blowout, it’s maddening.

People complain about the Tigers’ bullpen, but it’s actually 7th in MLB in WAR, 9th in FIP, and 4th in K/9. It’s not elite, but it’s reasonably good. The problem is not the individual pitchers but rather how they are used. If Leyland was willing to think differently and go to his best guys in the tightest spots, the Tigers wouldn’t have these late inning issues.

The Tigers have far and away the league’s best staff and one of the best couple of offenses. Their only weaknesses are defense and the bullpen, but the bullpen isn’t really a weakness, it’s an inefficiency. And it’s one that can be fixed.

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6 responses

  1. […] for him now. I don’t support the use of a closer at all, but if you’re going to use one, they can’t be this bad. Coke came on in relief of Valverde and gave up a run in the 10th to end it. The Tigers have still […]

  2. […] Fister would handle the rest, retiring the first 11 batters he faced before allowing a walk and 15 of the first 16 before allowing a homerun to Dozier that broke up his no-hit bid (Dozier had both hits against Fister). He finished the day with a fantastic 7.2 inning, 2 H, 2 R, 2 BB, 7 K performance. It was classic, no drama, fast working Doug Fister. Hunter tacked on another with a 12 pitch AB that ended in an RBI double to help pad the lead for Benoit, who was called on to get the final four outs (!). […]

  3. […] taken part, offering criticism of signing Valverde, discussing why closers don’t matter, and explaining how I would use a bullpen. And I think we’re probably all on board with the idea that Smyly and Benoit are the Tigers […]

  4. […] Benoit being the Tigers’ closer. I don’t believe in the closer myth and would rather run the bullpen much differently. That said, good relief pitching is important and having and using good relievers is essential to […]

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