The Tigers have been trying to build a good bullpen for quite some time. This isn’t news to anyone reading this site so I’ll spare you the history. Relievers were a weakness in the Dombrowski era and the team suffered a number of high profile meltdowns that cost them chances at meaningful autumn wins.
In the first year After Dave, Al Avila added three relievers: Francisco Rodriguez, Mark Lowe, and Justin Wilson. K-Rod has been very solid, Lowe has been…uh…unimpressive, and Justin Wilson has been excellent. Two out of three is a pretty good success rate for a Tigers bullpen, but that also ignores the other great bullpen success of the season, Shane Greene.
It’s no secret that the Tigers have long sought a lights out closer who could solidify the 9th. Various arms came and went through the organization, but no one really grabbed the title with much clarity. Todd Jones. Fernando Rodney. Jose Valverde. Joaquin Benoit. Joe Nathan. Joakim Soria.
Previous relievers have had success, but there was rarely dominance in the pen and that dominance was often short-lived when it surfaced. K-Rod has been an effective 9th inning reliever this season, but the true success story of this season is the setup monster cultivated in laboratory of Comerica Park.
Justin Wilson and Shane Greene are the relievers the club has always wanted.
Since 1969, the year the dreaded “save” became an official statistic, there have been 359 reliever seasons of 20 innings or more in a Tigers’ uniform. Using park-adjusted Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP-) as our guide (see inserts for more info on FIP and FIP-), Wilson (39) and Greene (41) aren’t just having good seasons, they are having the two best reliever seasons for a Tiger since 1969. Combined with the fine work from K-Rod, this is the best Tigers bullpen by FIP- since 1984.
To give you a sense of context, Cody Allen, Zach Britton, Andrew Miller, and Aroldis Chapman were the best qualified relievers in terms of FIP- last season and none of them cracked 45. Put another way, if Wilson and Greene continue to pitch the way they’ve pitched for the rest of the season, both will finish with better park-adjusted FIPs than every reliever in baseball last year. Only Dellin Betances is better this year.
A couple of caveats apply. First, we’re only a little past the halfway mark and regression is likely. They won’t maintain quite this pace. Second, FIP is one tool to evaluate pitching performance. It grades pitchers based on their strikeouts, walks/HBP, home runs, and balls in play. It doesn’t care about sequencing and it doesn’t provide any insight into platoon issues. It doesn’t control for any context other than park and league average. For my money it’s the best single number we have to summarize a pitcher’s performance that can also be searched effectively back to 1969 (sorry DRA!). In other words, it’s not a perfect tool, but it’s a fine proxy. Wilson and Greene are having elite seasons not seen in Detroit during the current era of reliever usage.
The second caveat applies for the historic nature of things, but Wilson has a .254 wOBA against and 2.78 DRA and Greene has a .222 wOBA against (as a reliever) and 3.75 DRA (includes his bad starts, can’t split them out at BP). Even if they aren’t actually two of the best three relievers in the game or the best two relievers in Tigers history, they are absolutely crushing it.
Wilson’s case wasn’t that hard to see coming. He was excellent last season for the Yankees, although he’s cut his walk rate, homer rate, increased his ground ball rate, increased his pop up rate, and increased his strikeout rate. His swing rate is up three percent and his contract rate is down about five percent. He’s gone from very good to great, and has done so across the board. He also features essentially no platoon split, making him equally useful in all situations. He’s increased usage of his cutter and been willing to attack hitters up in the zone.
Greene’s case is a bit different because we’ve never had a chance to see him go all out as a reliever. He’s back on track with his 2014 K% and BB% and he’s yet to allow a home run. He’s getting more swinging strikes and is leaning on his cutter much more. He’s also had success against righties and lefties.
I wouldn’t say I’m confident the pair will remain the two best relievers in team history or that they’ll content with the game’s very best arms for the full season, but it’s a very weird feeling to completely trust the back end of the bullpen. The middle relief has had its issues and the manager still can’t quite figure out how to use his pitchers, but the performance has been there for the first four months of 2016. Imagine telling 2013 Tigers fans that the bullpen is great and the rotation is the problem. Imagine!
Wilson and Greene, and K-Rod are all under contract for next season. Even if the Tigers don’t make the playoffs this year, they’re on track to have the first winter in a while in which they don’t need to shop for a high end reliever.