A great deal has been said and written about the Tigers and their bullpen struggles. I’ve 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 best relief pitchers, even if we don’t agree on how a team should use their best relievers.
Yet in all the madness, we’ve overlooked a very good reliever in the Tigers bullpen, likely because Jim Leyland doesn’t use him very much. I said this on June 15th when Downs came on to pitch:
Some of that comes from the Tigers having an incredible rotation and not needing much relief help, but the idea that Leyland didn’t use Downs for nearly two weeks when he was running Valverde out six times is a bit of an issue. Why? Because Darin Downs has actually pitched really, really well.
In 19 games, Downs has 25.1 IP and sports a 11.09 K/9, 2.49 BB.9, and 1.07 HR/9 rate which equates to a 3.22 FIP and 3.23 xFIP along with his 3.91 ERA and 0.4 WAR. Two things jump out about that line. First, his K and BB rates are very good (29.3% and 6.6% if you prefer) but also that his performance looks entirely sustainable in the sense that his peripherals are in line with his results. He’s faced only 106 batters, so maybe this is just the best stretch of his career, but if it is, the Tigers should at least be riding the streak.
Last year, he was good also, if not quite this good (3.48 ERA, 3.24 FIP, 3.82 xFIP in 20.2 IP). So this isn’t totally out of nowhere. He leads all Tigers pitchers in O-Swing% (getting hitters to swing at pitchers out of the zone) at 37.9% and only Alburquerque has allowed less contact. Only Evan Reed has thrown more first pitch strikes.
I’m fully aware that I’m walking on small sample size thin ice, but I’m going to press on because I think this gets interesting if you’re willing to stay with me.
Here are his K/9 and BB/9 over the last two seasons (K% and BB% look the same):
And he’s inducing more swings on pitchers outside the zone and fewer inside the zone:
Downs is getting hitters to chase more outside the zone and take more inside the zone, which goes nicely with the fact that hitters are making less contact outside the zone and more inside the zone this year:
And in a very boring visual, he’s also throwing more first pitch strikes than last year:
So if we’re willing to accept our hands are tied with small samples any time we analyze relievers, Downs looks good. He’s improved from last year to this year and his numbers are quite good this season. If we’re going to look at statistics for relievers at all, the statistics tell a good story regarding Downs. He’s good and he’s getting better.
So what’s different? It could be simple variation, but there is something else I want to highlight. It’s not just the results that are better, the pitches are better too. Let’s start with his pitches from 2012:
And here is Downs this season:
Notice how the changeup and fastball is moving more this season and notice how there is more separation between the fastball and the changeup. His pitchers are moving more and the separation has gotten a bit better. That’s generally a good formula for success. And I think Downs has figured it out. Here’s how he’s mixing his pitches:
He’s going to the changeup instead of the curveball more often, just like so many Tigers pitchers, and it’s becoming a better pitch for him. He’s throwing the changeup more and he’s getting more swings and misses on it, and also with the curveball, possibly because hitters now have to worry about a good changeup and can’t read the offspeed pitch as well:
And no, Darin Downs does not have a platoon split this season. In fact, he’s both faced more righties (58 vs 48) and done better work against them this season. Hey, aren’t changeups used to get opposite handed hitters out?!
So the story with Downs is this. He’s having a good season and by all accounts he has gotten better since last season, and that improvement is based on some actual differences in his pitches and pitch usage. When we dive into reliever stats, we can often get lost in small samples, but if we’re going to evaluate relievers, and clearly we are, everything is going in the right direction for Downs.
It’s about time he gets the recognition he deserves and maybe even some high leverage appearances.