By: Will Burchfield

For the past decade, and especially since 2011, the Tigers have defied baseball logic.

Their bullpen has been a continual liability yet they’ve endured as one of the most successful teams in the league.

Tigers relievers have finished no higher than 10th in the A.L. in ERA each of the past six seasons, posting an average mark of 4.11. In that same time span, the team has captured four division titles, made three appearances in the ALCS and won 54.2 percent of its games, one of the best marks in the league.

If it’s true that you need a good bullpen to succeed, the Tigers have proven the exception to the rule.





4.22 13



4.38 14



4.29 13



4.01 12



3.79 10



3.93 11 .586

The numbers for the bullpen don’t get much better if you move further back in time. Tigers relievers posted a single-season ERA lower than 4.00 just three times in the first decade of the century, with just one top-five finish among their A.L. counterparts (2006).

So the team’s fans have every right to shudder at the thought of the bullpen.

Former manager Jim Leyland isn’t one of them.

“I disagree with a lot of people about the bullpen. I don’t know why they keep harping on it in Detroit,” Leyland told the Jamie and Stoney Show on 97.1 The Ticket. “(Jose) Valverde was 52 for 52 one year (including the playoffs), Todd Jones was fantastic, (Joaquin) Benoit came in and did a great job, (Fernando) Rodney did a great job, (Joel) Zumaya did a great job.”

Sure, the Tigers have had some throwers in the recent past, but as a unit the relievers have been an untreated wound. The bullpen has featured too many weak links in too many seasons to pretend otherwise.

“There’s been some holes in the bullpen, don’t get me wrong, it’s not like it was perfect. But that one year, 2006, my god, we had Rodney, Zumaya and Todd Jones,” Leyland said. “I don’t know why everybody keeps harping on the Tigers have never had a bullpen. I totally disagree with that.”

What made the 2006 bullpen so great was depth. (Not coincidentally, the Tigers advanced to the World Series that year.) It’s the same thing, of course, that the bullpen has lacked just about every season since. Never was that clearer than last year when Brad Ausmus had one, maybe two arms in the bullpen he could consistently rely on. After Francisco Rodriguez and Alex Wilson, deciding between relievers was more or less like choosing between gasoline and lighter fluid to put out a fire.

Unfortunately for the Tigers, it’s hard to imagine things being much different this season. The bullpen personnel is almost exactly the same. That instantly puts pressure on the starting pitchers to work deep into games, an uncertain proposition for such a young rotation. In a combined 57 starts last year, Michael Fulmer, Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd pitched past the sixth inning just 18 times.

Are there reasons for hope in Detroit’s bullpen? Sure. Shane Greene showed some flashes in his first season as a reliever, Justin Wilson is probably in line for a bounce-back campaign, Kyle Ryan has considerable potential as a lefty specialist and the duo of Bruce Rondon and Joe Jimenez has the makings of something special. A combination of Rondon, Jimenez and Rodriguez could make for a sturdy bridge in closing out games.

But those are all unknowns. In all likelihood, Detroit’s bullpen will be the same below-average unit that it’s been since the turn of the century. Fortunately, the Tigers – with their big bats – know how to defy the odds.


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