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Can the Tigers really win with this bullpen?

A couple of weeks ago, I was asked on the radio if I thought any team could challenge the Oakland Athletics for the AL pennant.

According to the AL standings at the time, I should’ve named the Tigers as a rightful challenger. Detroit had the second best record in the league at 27-15, a five-game lead in the AL Central and a +49 run differential. Though the Tigers were in the midst of a four-game losing streak (after winning six in a row), they were playing good baseball and seemed to have a comfortable division lead.

But I couldn’t say “Tigers” when I was asked who could challenge the A’s. Well, I actually did say the Tigers, but not without qualifying that opinion.

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No one in the AL East looked like a suitable contender at that point. The Blue Jays hadn’t flexed their muscles and separated from the pack yet. (Though they swept three games from Oakland days later.) To me, the Orioles looked like the team that could emerge with star players coming back from injuries.

So I chose Detroit by default. But it was through clenched teeth. I just wasn’t a believer in the Tigers.

That surprised radio host Chris Cox, who knows I grew up rooting for the Tigers and am still a big fan. (Those who have followed my baseball writing career know I began as a Tigers blogger.) I take teasing for that — along with occasional accusations of bias from emailers and commenters — but that fandom doesn’t mean I can’t view Detroit objectively. Sometimes, it means I look at the Tigers more harshly than perhaps I should.

I just couldn’t give an enthusiastic endorsement of the Tigers on the radio because I didn’t think their bullpen was good enough to get to the World Series, let alone win it.

Last year’s relief corps finished with a 4.01 ERA, ranking 12th in the AL. Opponents compiled a .709 OPS, the fifth-worst mark in the league. This year’s edition is worse, which was apparent during spring training, if not the offseason. Opponents have a .731 OPS against Detroit’s bullpen. Its collective ERA is 4.32, third-worst among AL clubs.

But at least this year’s Tigers bullpen had a real closer in Joe Nathan. That was the thinking going into this season. No more delusions over Jose Valverde. No taking a chance on an unproven arm like Bruce Rondon. No closer-by-committee nonsense. Nathan was the man. Those middle innings could be trouble, but the ninth wasn’t going to be a problem for Detroit.

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Yeah… we need to talk about that.

In Tuesday’s 5-3 loss to Toronto, Nathan lasted only one-third of an inning, allowing four of the five batters he faced to reach base. He gave up two singles and two walks, eventually resulting in four runs. When Nathan entered the game, the Tigers and Blue Jays were tied 0-0.

Granted, Toronto had a 1-0 lead when he was replaced. Ian Krol and Al Alburquerque subsequently poured gasoline on the fire Nathan started. But there’s a reason they call Nathan the closer, right?

Every closer has a bad game. What distinguishes the good ones is the ability to shake those poor outings off and come back the next day. But Tuesday wasn’t an exception for Nathan. This wasn’t the anomaly that will get lost among a bunch of scoreless appearances and saves for the Tigers.

Nathan has allowed two runs or more in three consecutive outings, giving up a total of eight runs, seven hits and three walks. Oh, and he’s only struck out one batter during that span.

This was the fear with signing a 39-year-old pitcher. The Tigers thought Nathan could keep putting age on hold, as outfielder Torii Hunter has (poor defense notwithstanding). But the numbers portray a grisly picture.

Nathan’s rate of 8.6 strikeouts per nine innings is currently the lowest of his career, nearly two fewer than he was striking out last season. His fastball velocity is averaging 91.5 mph, also the lowest of his career. He’s getting fewer swings-and-misses on pitches in the strike zone and opposing batters are making more contact than they ever had before. Perhaps because of that, Nathan is also posting a career-worst walk rate, averaging 4.7 per nine frames.

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None of this is encouraging. Nor is Nathan’s insistence that his arm feels fine. He told reporters on Tuesday that he feels like he’s throwing the baseball well. When he struggled early in the season, that was attributed to a “dead arm” phase that a pitcher typically develops during the spring. OK, Nathan’s an older guy; his arm doesn’t recover like it once did.

But we’re into June now. If Nathan says he feels fine, yet these are the results he’s offering, the Tigers should truly be concerned.

The quick fix for manager Brad Ausmus would be to move Joba Chamberlain to the ninth inning for now. He hasn’t allowed a run in his past 10 appearances. His 2.59 ERA is best among Tigers right-handed relievers and he’s striking out 10.7 batters per nine innings. Only Alburquerque has a better rate — and just barely at 10.9.

But even if Ausmus makes that change, what’s to be done about Nathan? Does he need a rest or does he actually need more work? If it’s the latter, pitching low-leverage middle innings probably isn’t the way to get him right.

Yet can the Tigers trust him with a lead at this point? Will he waste more excellent starts, such as Anibal Sanchez’s scoreless seven innings (with only two hits allowed) on Tuesday? Is this just a bad stretch for Nathan or do advanced metrics tell the real story, that he’s suddenly shown his age and deteriorating right in front of us?

Perhaps general manager Dave Dombrowski has already provided the Tigers with a safety net in Joel Hanrahan, signed in early May. But it’s been a month since then. Hanrahan is expected to throw from a mound this week after dialing back to a long toss regimen to build up arm strength a couple of weeks ago. That doesn’t sound like a pitcher who’s ready to make a meaningful contribution very soon. But perhaps the strengthening program will yield positive results.

Hope seems like the best the Tigers can depend on at this point. Hope Nathan gets better. Hope Hanrahan is almost ready. Hope the rest of the team’s relievers can pitch well. Those hopes could eventually work out, and maybe I can definitively endorse the Tigers the next time I’m asked about them. Until then, however, hope seems like a rather intangible concept for a bullpen that needs tangible results.

Ian Casselberry

About Ian Casselberry

Ian is a columnist for The Outside Corner and the editor of The AP Party. He has written for Yahoo! Sports, MLive.com, Bleacher Report and SB Nation, and provides analysis for several sports talk radio shows each week. He currently lives in Asheville, NC.

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