DETROIT – The Detroit Tigers’ bullpen has been a pleasant surprise through the first 10 games of the season, but that performance has largely been spoiled by ice cold veteran hitters.
Tuesday night was the latest in an already growing list of examples. After Tyler Alexander and Rony Garcia recorded just four outs to start the game, six Tigers relief pitchers combined to allow just one run in 7.2 innings, striking out 10 batters.
But it wasn’t enough, as the Tigers got shut out in eight of nine innings, only scoring when New York Yankees starter Gerrit Cole issued four walks across five plate appearances in the second inning. The rest of the night, the Tigers’ bats managed barely a peep.
It’s no surprise that Michael Fulmer and Gregory Soto are off to strong starts after cementing themselves as legitimate back-end relievers in 2021. Fulmer has tossed five shutout innings already, allowing just two hits and striking out seven batters.
Soto, meanwhile, has held opponents scoreless since serving up a solo home run on Opening Day. Overall, he’s allowed three hits and two walks in four innings, picking up a pair of saves.
Alex Lange and Joe Jimenez stepped up in a big way to fill in for injuries to other high-leverage relievers. They’ve combined to allow just three runs in 9.1 innings, with 12 strikeouts. Of their 10 combined outings, Lange and Jimenez have delivered scoreless frames eight times.
The biggest reason for the bullpen’s success, though, has been unproven players coming through.
Jacob Barnes has logged 4.1 scoreless innings, allowing just one total base runner in four outings.
Drew Hutchison owns a 2.57 ERA in a long relief role, while Garcia hadn’t allowed a run before his aforementioned outing against the Yankees.
Will Vest gave up two runs Saturday in Kansas City, but each of this other three outings have been scoreless. He got four outs against the Chicago White Sox on April 9, and five outs Tuesday night, giving A.J. Hinch valuable versatility.
Even though he’s yet to record a strikeout, Jason Foley is holding his own, tossing a scoreless frame against Boston last week and two one-hit innings in Kansas City.
In his first action since signing a minor-league deal this offseason, Wily Peralta went 1.2 innings Tuesday without allowing a run, at a time when the Tigers desperately needed outs.
Only Elvin Rodriguez (since demoted to Triple-A) owns an ERA north of 4.15 among Tigers relievers.
Detroit’s bullpen owns a 2.85 ERA, which is good for 10th in MLB. Tigers relievers own a 1.14 WHIP and .211 batting average against -- both in the top half of the league.
For a shorthanded group that’s been asked to cover 54% of the team’s innings, those numbers are fantastic.
In 10 games, Tigers starting pitchers have logged just one quality start -- a six-inning gem by Matt Manning against Boston. Starters have had five outings of four innings or fewer, including a two-inning start from Manning (due to injury) and a one-inning start from Alexander.
Detroit’s new ace, Eduardo Rodriguez, has lasted four innings and 3.2 innings in his first two starts, respectively.
As a result, the bullpen has been asked to handle 47.1 innings over the first 10 games -- the fourth-most in baseball on a per-game basis (behind the Rays, Yankees and Rangers).
The total number of innings doesn’t even take into account that the Tigers are without three of the relievers they were planning to rely upon most heavily. Jose Cisnero (67 games, 61.2 innings), Kyle Funkhouser (57 games, 68.1 innings) and Andrew Chafin (71 games, 68.2 innings) would have been top five on the team in both games and innings, if healthy.
So, if anything, the increased workload should have further exposed an already shorthanded bullpen. But it’s hard to put too much blame on the starting staff, since spring training was cut short and they didn’t have as much time for buildup.
This offense is a different story.
So far, the revamped Tigers’ lineup hasn’t yielded the results fans were expecting. Only two teams -- the 2-10 Cincinnati Reds and 3-8 Arizona Diamondbacks -- have posted a worse OPS than the Tigers.
Check out Detroit’s offensive ranks in some of the most common offensive categories:
- Home runs: 29th (out of 30 teams)
- Hits: 29th
- Doubles: 29th
- Batting average: 28th
- On-base percentage: 22nd
- Slugging percentage: 27th
- Stolen bases: T-26th (the Tigers have one stolen base -- only the Red Sox have zero)
- Strikeouts per game: 23rd
Some of the counting stats might be a bit better if the Tigers hadn’t been rained out Sunday, but the point stands: This is one of the worst offenses in baseball through the first 10 games.
The struggles run pretty much up and down the lineup, with the exceptions of Javier Baez (now on the 10-day IL) and Austin Meadows. Spencer Torkelson has been solid, but the strikeout rate is high and his batting average is low. Miguel Cabrera is sporting a solid, but fairly empty, batting average.
The main culprit of this team’s early struggles is its slumping core of veteran hitters.
Jeimer Candelario, Detroit’s best and most consistent player each of the past two seasons, is 5-for-37 with 11 strikeouts and a .409 OPS. The league leader in doubles last season has just two extra-base hits to this point.
Jonathan Schoop is off to another slow start, going 5-for-38 with a .458 OPS. He isn’t striking out much, but his .195 OPB is crippling at the heart of the order.
Though he’s been better since missing three games with injury, Robbie Grossman is still struggling overall, going 3-for-23 with a .406 OPS.
New starting catcher Tucker Barnhart is 2-for-16 with a pair of singles and nine strikeouts in 20 plate appearances. Detroit wasn’t expecting much from him offensively, but the numbers have to improve from here.
Off the bench, Harold Castro and Victor Reyes are both 3-for-16 with a combined eight strikeouts and one extra-base hit.
It’s almost impossible to win games with these types of offensive numbers. The Tigers strike out at a high rate without posing a power threat. That’s a bad combination.
Sure, injuries have played a role, and the offense might heat up as temperatures do, but it’s not too early in the season for these games to matter. The Tigers can’t keep losing games because the offense isn’t competitive for seven or eight innings at a time.
Fighting for a playoff spot was always going to be an uphill battle for the 2022 Tigers, but if they want to do so, they can’t afford to handicap themselves by digging even half the hole they did last season.
The bullpen is doing its part, for now, but there’s a good chance that won’t last. It’s time for established hitters like Candelario, Schoop, and Grossman to start contributing, or their at-bats in August and September might not even matter.