Watching the Tigers send out recently DFA’d Texas reliever Neftali Perez in the 8th inning, only to give up a grand slam in their July 21st loss to the Seattle Mariners, was emblematic of the awful state of the Tigers bullpen in 2015.
But a good chef can make a stew out of even the worst ingredients. Unfortunately for the Tigers, in two seasons at the helm manager Brad Ausmus has stubbornly refused to deviate from the recipes in his beginner’s cookbook. As such, he has routinely used the worst pitchers in his bullpen for the highest leverage situations.
Tom Tango’s leverage index measures the relative importance of the situation a pitcher faces when he enters the game (see here for a full explanation). According to Fangraphs, “An LI of 1 is average. We officially classify anything below 0.85 as low leverage and anything above 2.0 as high leverage.”
As you would expect, closer Joakim Soria pitches in the highest leverage situations for the Tigers, coming in with a gmLI (average when he enters the game) of 1.85. So far, so good. Ausmus’s use of the Tigers bullpen breaks down as follows (all stats courtesy of Fangraphs):
While these guys aren’t exactly Aroldis Chapman, you would expect that the higher a pitcher is on the list, the better he is compared to his contemporaries. Unfortunately, that has not been the case for the 2015 Tigers:
Of the four Tigers relievers who pitch in above-average leverage situations, three are below average pitchers according to RE/24. The worst of the lot is Chamberlain, who has been awful since the all-star break in 2014, but was still the Ausmus’s go-to pitcher in the 8th inning until literally the night before he was designated for assignment. He was replaced in the 8th inning by Feliz, who has a RE24 of -6.68 on the season.
Nor was this an aberration caused by a bullpen relying on rookie Angel Nesbitt in the beginning of the season and suffering through an awful start by Alburquerque (batters hit .324/.439/.618 off of Al-Al in 10 games in April). The same pattern was present in 2014, where Ausmus stubbornly relied on completely ineffective Joe Nathan to close when he was the second worst reliever in the bullpen.
*Soria’s RE24, ERA, FIP, and WPA are with both Texas and Detroit. gmLI is only with the Tigers
Even Chamberlain’s success is deceiving. According to Baseball Reference, Joba was dynamite in the first half, turning in a 2.63 ERA in 37.2 IP and a WHIP of 1.14. But after July, batters started teeing off on him. In his last 25.1 IP, he turned in a pretty awful 4.97 ERA with a 1.50 WHIP. But he remained the 8th inning guy even after the Tigers traded one of their few good prospects to get Soria.
In comparison, the 2013 Tigers under Jim Leyland pitched their two best relievers, Joaquin Benoit (21.26 RE24) and Drew Smyly (18.39 RE24) in the highest leverage situations. Though, even Leyland stuck with Phil Coke (-9.63 RE24) in high-leverage situations despite having a less-bad left-handed option (Darin Downs, -0.62 RE24).
Simply put, the Tigers are making the worst of an already bad situation in the bullpen by putting their worst relievers into the game in the highest leverage situations. And unfortunately for Tigers fans, this does not seem to be a trend likely to change under the Brad Ausmus regime. In her excellent article on the state of the Tigers bullpen, Bless You Boys beat writer Catherine Slonksnis asked Ausmus about his decision to leave Feliz in the game with the bases loaded and Soria and Wilson available in the bullpen. His response does not generate a lot of confidence:
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“We were running short on pitchers as it was,” Ausmus said. “We can get into the second guessing based on results, but the truth is I would do nothing different at all in that game. You try and put the players in the position to succeed, you try and get through the game. We were running short on pitchers from early on in the game. But quite frankly that’s exactly how I would do it again.”
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