Two weeks into the Tigers’ season, something feels a bit different. The fret so inherently a part of watching the team’s late innings in recent years is being put to rest.
And while we’ve seen periods of success out of the bullpen before — the month of May last season comes immediately to mind — this time it’s different.
That’s because pitchers with track records before their arrival in Detroit are actually performing to their abilities.
That didn’t seem to happen so much under former GM Dave Dombrowski — for whatever reason. He was often accused of building bad bullpens, and that’s the truth when you look at the stats.
But it wasn’t for lack of trying. Recent examples like Joe Nathan or Joakim Soria were acquisitions that seemed to make good sense at the time.
They just didn’t work out.
New Tigers GM Al Avila didn’t quite follow in his old boss’ footsteps.
He passed up the flashiest reliever on the market, Craig Kimbrel, preferring to pursue a handful of pitchers a little lower down the board.
The result was the addition of 2014 and ‘15 All-Star Francisco Rodriguez in a relatively inexpensive trade, Mark Lowe at a fair price of $11 million over two years, and Justin Wilson stolen in a trade with the Yankees.
Of the three, Rodriguez has struggled the most, and that was mostly in the season opener. In the five appearances since then, he’s allowed just a hit and two walks.
His pitches may not be the quality the Tigers need them to be quite yet, but it’s reasonable to expect they will be.
Lowe may not have the ERA to show for it, but he’s pitched well in all but one of his six appearances. He has recorded five strikeouts while walking just one batter. The resulting FIP (fielding independent pitching stat, a good predictor that takes defense out of the equation) of 2.00 is a sign that over the long run Lowe’s going to find more success than problems.
His inning of work Saturday against Houston was a perfect example. While closers get all the glory, Lowe showed that often the work done earlier in the game is key. With the Tigers nursing a one-run lead, he was tasked with going through the heart of the Astros’ lineup: George Springer, Carlos Correa and Colby Rasmus.
The ball didn’t make it out of the infield, and the Tigers went on to win.
The Tigers’ typical seventh-inning reliever, Justin Wilson, has had the best start of all of them.
In six games, he has struck out eight batters while walking just one for a 0.67 FIP. On top of that, he has allowed just three hits.
The Tigers might not have the most dominant back end of the bullpen in the game, but it already seems much improved.
They have depth even beyond that, which is another statement we couldn’t make in the past.
The bullpen’s FIP (3.00) ranked fourth in the AL and sixth overall entering play on Sunday, and that includes the struggles of Logan Kensing and Drew VerHagen.
Alex Wilson, the team’s second-best reliever in 2015, made his season debut on Sunday after battling shoulder pain in spring training. He struck out two and retired all four batters he faced.
Blaine Hardy, who led all Tigers relievers with a 2.89 FIP last season, appears set to rejoin the team in Kansas City.
And again, while neither has electric stuff, both avoid getting themselves in much trouble while letting the defense take care of the rest.
With the Tigers’ strong offense in 2016, having a bullpen that keeps the team in games longer this season than last, and that doesn’t blow leads of its own, could keep Detroit in contention all season long.
So, yes, it’s early. You can be forgiven for not letting yourself believe just yet.
But if ever there was a season to have faith in Detroit’s bullpen, it’s this one.
Kurt Mensching is the editor of Bless You Boys, a Tigers blog (www.blessyouboys.com). He can be reached at email@example.com.