If you’re a Detroit Tigers’ fan, you’ve seen the narrative 100 times by now. They hit well, pitch well and avoid mistakes for two thirds of the game. But then the sixth or seventh inning roles by, and a reliever enters the game.
Suddenly, you hold your breath and prepare for the bombardment.
The Tigers have a lot going for them in 2017. They have a lineup to kill for. Even with slow starts from Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez and Ian Kinsler, the bottom of the batting order has provided enough pop to propel Detroit to a 8-5 record.
Overall, the starting pitching has been solid. The Tigers have had three rough starts, one from Matt Boyd, one from Jordan Zimmermann and one from Justin Verlander. But for the most part, the pitching rotation has been good, if not superb.
The Tigers are not known for defense or base running. But even in these regards, Detroit has been decent.
Lastly, there is the bullpen. With all of the Tigers’ strengths, they would need only an average bullpen to make a deep run in the playoffs.
But that isn’t the case. Not by a long shot.
The same logic applies to baseball. Six innings of quality baseball is useless without a strong ending. In fact, this is one reason why closers are so coveted. The game changes as it nears the end. Batters whose livelihood depends on winning feel desperation and play their best in the most clutch of times.
This is Detroit’s problem. Their bullpen’s ERA was 6.96 after their first ten games. This was the fourth worst in the MLB. Once the starter is replaced, fans can only hope the Tigers have built a large lead. If not, the game’s already over.
Take the Tigers’ game against the Cleveland Indians on April 14 for instance. Daniel Norris pitched a gem for six innings, allowing zero runs. Five relievers later, the Tigers barely clung on to a 7-6 victory.
It’s incredible to fathom—Norris pitched six shutout innings, yet the relief pitchers could not allow less than six runs in only three innings.
On April 15, the Tigers’ bullpen was not much better. Justin Verlander had an uncharacteristically awful start, allowing nine runs in four innings. The Tigers made a roaring retaliation, climbing within three runs only for Anibal Sanchez to allow a four-run eighth inning, destroying any chance of a comeback.
This bullpen puts Tigers’ manager Brad Ausmus in unique position. Many were surprised when he was granted another year in Detroit, after missing the playoffs a year ago. In fact, some Tigers’ fans would like nothing more than for Ausmus to take a hike.
However, Ausmus has a chance to save his job. Amid speculation that Detroit would clear the house and rebuild with a younger lineup over the offseason, Detroit has managed to retain an expensive, but veteran lineup with the evolution of key young players.
Ausmus has a chance to send Detroit back in the playoffs. But he must figure out his bullpen. An ERA of 6.96 is not going to cut it.
The good news for Ausmus is that he does not have to maintain this bullpen forever. He merely needs to stay competitive until the trade deadline, where Tigers’ GM Al Avila will likely trade to build up the bullpen provided that the Tigers are still relevant by then.
The bad news, however, is that if Ausmus cannot find a way to get something out of his bullpen, it will likely be his funeral.