So hot, the takes; so bad, the bullpen


Unless you've been living the last three months as a fan of some baseball team other than the Detroit Tigers, you're well aware that the Motown fan base is ready to start lighting stuff on fire. Well, ok, that's usually the case, but here we are specifically talking about the "Bullpen Problem." 

We're all frustrated with the Tigers losing leads late in games, or seeing very beatable 1-or-2-run deficits suddenly balloon into 5-or-6-run deficits in the later innings. Frustration leads to brain cramps. Brain cramps lead to angry desperation. And angry desperation leads, tragically and finally, to Hot Takes, which are usually poorly thought out and very silly in hindsight.

K-Rod just blew his second save in as many days. We've had some time to think about it, get some sleep, rinse off the stink, and gear up for another week. The Tigers have an off day, so let's look back at some of those hottest of Hot Takes and see if they make as much sense as they did yesterday and the day before, when everyone was losing their minds.

Moving the Problem Back

This is probably the most popular one, right here. The thinking says, "Ok, K-Rod can't be closer anymore, but he's got to pitch somewhere! Taking him out of the closer role just means the Tigers blow games earlier!"

Actually, no, not really, not unless other teams have somehow figured out a way to walk off games in the seventh inning. (Or the eighth, or the sixth, or really, anywhere but the ninth.)

There's a thing called win probability, you see, and it leans harder to the side of one team or the other the later you get into the game. In the American League this year, here are a team's chances of winning the game when they take a lead into the sixth inning or later:

  • Leading in the 6th: 78% <---- fairly optimal place to blow a lead
  • Leading in the 7th: 81%
  • Leading in the 8th: 88%
  • Leading in the 9th: 95% <---- really bad place to blow a lead

Letting K-Rod pitch and possibly give the other team the lead in the ninth inning is absolutely not the same thing as having him do that in the seventh or even the sixth inning. Removing him from the closer role isn't just moving the problem back, it's moving the problem to a much, much less explosive place.

How to Get the Ball to Justin Wilson?

This is probably the second-most popular response I've seen. Take K-Rod out of the closer role, stick Justin Wilson and his super-sexy-magical 14.5 strikeouts-per-nine-innings ratio into that ninth inning slot, and we're good to go -- except that only Michael Fulmer and Justin Verlander have been capable of finishing six innings on a regular basis, so who's going to pitch the rest of the sixth, then the seventh, then the eighth?

Actually, now that I've read that question out loud, I feel kind of silly because is this even a serious question? You need to fill two innings and some change with pitchers not named Justin Wilson. You have Alex Wilson, Blaine Hardy, and Shane Greene, and two of those guys can go multiple innings. For that matter, Justin Wilson can also go multiple innings if you believe in him real hard (and maybe let him stretch out a little).

I realize, it stinks to have two guys (K-Rod and Anibal Sanchez) taking up two spots on your bullpen bench and just leaking earned runs all over the snack table, but it can be worked around. There's even an extra spot here that we're not addressing (formerly filled by Jimenez, Cuevas, Jimenez, Saupold, Bell, etc.), so dip into the Toledo Mud Hens stash and grab yourself a Buck Farmer or a Drew VerHagen to be a temporary band-aid while Joe Jimenez figures out how to throw sliders for strikes.

But on normal nights when you need to protect a lead for a few innings, there are arms to get the job done. (Did I mention you can use K-Rod as early as the sixth and minimize the danger?)

Fire the Pitching Coach!

LOL.

Bud Light salutes you, Internet Genius and Real American Hero.

Fire Al Avila!

Let me take you back on a journey into the distant past, all the way back to the end of 2015. We are talking about a whole 17 months ago, so I apologize for taxing everyone's memory.

But waaaaay back in those days, when Al Avila took over the team, his bullpen was in absolute shambles. Remember Al Alburquerque? Ian Krol? Tom Gorzelanny? Neftali Feliz? The only half-way decent arm of the bunch, Joakim Soria, had been traded away at the deadline.

Also he had no real starting rotation. And only half of a payroll to work with. Oh, and holes in the outfield. Hey, one more thing, his boss expected him to put together a World Series contender. (No trading away prospects either, cheater, you're supposed to accomplish all of this and start building a competitive farm system!)

Avila got K-Rod for Javier Betancourt and Manny Pina, with a team opt-out clause, and for roughly half the cost of what the Tigers paid Joe Nathan.

Yes, with what Avila had to work with in the first place, he was essentially building sand castles out of runny oatmeal, but he got one to stand up much longer than any of us could. This is not the guy you want to aim your guns at right now.

Give Ausmus a Break

This is the truly stunning take. For all of the anger at the blown saves and such, I expected much more grousing about Brad Ausmus. Yes, I know he doesn't have a "bevy of Mariano Riveras" to work with, because he says this out loud into microphones every four weeks. Still ... it's like 2014 all over again. Just because you don't have eight aces in the 'pen doesn't mean you have to play your worst cards when the stakes are the highest.

This is the old "leverage versus win probability" question, and Brad Ausmus has never been very good at it, because he deploys his bullpen arms based on what inning he's in, not on what makes the most sense. That strategy can work just fine if you have blackout wizards galore in the bullpen, but in the real world, that's not usually the case, and you have to be a bit more strategic than "NINTH INNING, LESS THAN THREE RUN LEAD, TIME FOR TO GO GET CLOSER MAN."

K-Rod has a Win Probability Added of -2.6 (i.e., he's actually increasing the odds that the other team will win), while his Average Leverage Index is 2.58 (i.e., he's pitching in the highest-pressure situations).

This is the opposite of good. There's a crazy assassin headed right for your camp, and for some reason the sergeant insists on sending out the sniper with poor depth perception and visible hand tremors. Who's at fault? It's easy: K-Rod is at fault for the -2.6 win probability score, but Ausmus is at fault for that 2.58 leverage score.

It's Still Early

Last one, and then I'm going to enjoy the Tigers' off day by not thinking about the bullpen.

K-Rod has blown up in roughly half of his outings this year, and it's only the second week of May. But maybe that's the silver lining, right? It's only the second week of May, it's still early, quit freaking out!

If this was 2013, I'd be totally on board with that. Get some chill, relax, look at that lineup and that rotation, this is a 90+ win team. It's early, baby, no need to freak.

This is not 2013.

This is 2017, and this is not the best rotation in baseball anymore. It's a good rotation, it's just not a juggernaut, just like it's a good lineup, but probably more like a 750-runs lineup, not an 800-runs lineup.

This is not a 93-win team that can afford to throw away two wins against the Oakland A's, this is an 86-win team that is absolutely going to need those two extra games when it's late September and there are still three teams blocking the way to a Wild Card spot.

Those blown saves matter a lot more now than they used to, back when we knew the AL Central title was ours before the season even started.

There will probably be news about this soon. Maybe K-Rod will get demoted within the bullpen, maybe not. Maybe they'll release him, but probably not. Whatever the news will be, it's not going to satisfy everyone, because there's no perfect solution to this mess.

But hey, at least we, the fans, have been through this a thousand times before, right? We're old pros at handling bullpen issues, and we know exactly what to do.

See you at the pub.
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