Ausmus has mismanaged the bullpen so far

Detroit manager Brad Ausmus removes Luke Putkonen from Friday's game against the Angels.

Detroit manager Brad Ausmus removes Luke Putkonen from Friday’s game against the Angels.

When is 7 not enough? When 8 will do better?

How many relief pitchers does a team need, and why have that many on your roster if you don’t use them all?

The Detroit Tigers are shuffling along early in the 2014 season with a number of things looking good. Ian Kinsler is off to a hot start at the top of the lineup, and it’s safe to say that this team is better off with his multi-faceted skills than they were with the one-dimensional Prince Fielder. The big three at the top of the rotation are as great as we thought they’d be, Victor Martinez just chugs along with key hits here and there, and the electrifying speed of Rajai Davis has been fun to watch. Nick Castellanos is quite obviously ready-for-prime-time, whether he wins Rookie of the Year or not, he’s showing he can hit the ball.

But the more things change, the more some things stay the same. The Tigers’ defense has been porous. There is no time machine that can make Alex Gonzalez a Gold Glove caliber defender again. The middle of the infield is pretty shabby at turning the double play, Gonzalez/Andrew Romine and Kinsler are a step or two slower than the average DP combo, and that has cost the team some outs. Torii Hunter has played right field like he’s trying to catch hand grenades with an oven mitt. A former All-World defensive outfielder, Hunter has misplayed a few balls and just plain dropped others. Austin Jackson has even committed two errors already this year. But it’s not just official miscues that reveal the mediocrity of Detroit’s defense, watch their inability to get to balls that other teams get to. Note the missed cutoff men and the double plays not turned. The Tigers still give the opposing team too many extra outs.

Fortunately, the Detroit starting pitchers have often been able to wiggle their way out of trouble caused by their defense. Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez, and Rick Porcello have combined for a 2.84 ERA thus far. If Detroit is to get to the postseason this October for a fourth straight year, that quartet will have much to do with it.

But the Tigers have proven before that they can overcome a poor defense and still win. They have freakishly talented offensive players and great top of the line pitching. No, the biggest problem on this team is the same as it was last season, and the season before that, and the season before that, and … it’s the bullpen. Adding to the problem, so far in 2014, Brad Ausmus, a former catcher used to handling pitching, has mismanaged his bullpen.

The Tigers came north with 7 relievers, not unusual in today’s game. Teams like to have a couple of 7th inning guys (Evan Reed, Ian Krol), a setup man or two for the 8th inning (Joba Chamberlain and Al Alburquerque), and of course a closer (Joe Nathan). Then there’s a long reliever in case a starting pitcher is smacked around early (Luke Putkonen), and a lefty specialist (Phil Coke). That makes 1-2-3-4-5-6-7 relievers. Phew!

But Ausmus used four starters for the first three weeks of the season, based on off days and a couple of rainouts that he couldn’t have foreseen. That left Drew Smyly out of the rotation and created a logjam in his bullpen, as Smyly was used in longer relief twice to say sharp. Meanwhile, Putkonen pitched in just one game through the first 19 days of the season. Then, on Friday at Comerica Park against the Angels, who were already slapping the ball all over the place, brought in a rusty Putkonen to throw mopup and he was predictably pummeled. Also seeing action in Friday’s game was Justin Miller, an 8th reliever (!) called up just for this series. 8 relievers! When is 7 not enough? When 8 will do better? Huh?

Look, I know big league managers are all trying to imitate Tony LaRussa’s success. They trot out a specialist to face one batter here, then proceed to send a string of 6th, 7th, 8th, and 9th inning arms out there. They tell you it’s because they need fresh arms on the hill, they tell you relievers like to know their role. They tell us that, but it’s bunk. Folks, if you can’t get enough work for 7 relievers, then 8 isn’t going to make it easier. If you have to call up a minor league pitcher to give your 7-MAN BULLPEN a rest, something is wrong. Not to mention, Smyly has effectively been a reliever for three weeks too.

Ausmus has mismanaged the bullpen. He’s given too many night off to some of his guys (Putkonen and Reed) and he’s used some of them too often when it wasn’t necessary because he was following the LaRussa Formula (see Al Al, Chamberlain, and even Nathan). How is it possible to mismanage 7 relievers so much that you have to call up an 8th just to get through a series?

Looking at the patterns of usage for the Tigs’ bullpen, there have been six games already (of 13 played through Friday) where at least one reliever has pitched less than an inning. Four times two pitchers have failed to complete an inning. We’re not through April yet, and Ausmus is trotting out relief pitchers like they’re the Von Trapp family children. So long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, adieu…

And what has this gotten the Tigers? Supposedly, relievers perform better when they know their roles, when they can anticipate when to warm up, and in what inning they will work. (Imagine Miguel Cabrera insisting he needs to know which inning he is going to bat with runners on base). But, the Detroit bullpen (not counting Smyly’s appearances) has allowed 57 baserunners in 33 1/3 innings, for an ERA of 6.48, the worst in the league. Nathan has blown two saves and the others have failed to hold leads in three games. Ouch.

Some of this is not the manager’s fault. Nathan has not performed well yet, Alburquerque has been hit hard, and Phil Coke just plain stinks (let’s blame Dave Dombrowski for keeping him on the roster). Last season, Coke stayed on the team all season even though the former manager “hid” him and used him for less than 40 innings.

Which brings me to an important point that I want to make: why have 7 or 8 relievers if you’re not going to let them pitch regularly? Does it really make sense to have Putkonen rusting on the bench only to wave him in and expect him to do well? How much more developed could Al Al be if he was given more innings? There was a time when relievers like Aurelio Lopez, Doug Bair, and Willie Hernandez were each tossing 90+ innings a season. As many “old-time” pitchers have pointed out, to become a better pitcher, you have to pitch more.

Ausmus and his managerial brethren are using relief pitchers like arrows in a quiver: pulling them out at crucial times and expecting each of them to find their way to the bullseye. The modern bullpen has become a Rube Goldberg Device, used by managers to divert attention from the fact that they are frightened to let throwers be pitchers. Bullpens today consist of a stable of arms, 98-mph tools that skippers pull out to try to stop the leaking, and to thwart second-guessing.

In a future article I’ll discuss why 7 or 8 relievers hinders a team in many other ways. (No room on the roster for pinch-hitters, pinch-runners, or defensive replacements.) But that’s for another day.

Ausmus is smart enough to see where adjustments can be made, I’m confident of that. Someone, somewhere in baseball needs to recognize that this has gotten out of hand. Every year, almost every team goes through a “bullpen problem.” Yet, every team has 7 throwers down there. Invariably, there are times over the course of the season when every man in the pen has some issues, and some of them are rarely used at all. It’s head-scratching. Ausmus spent two decades crouched only 60 feet from the pitcher, I think he needs to rely on some of that perspective and straighten the Detroit bullpen out.

3 replies on “Ausmus has mismanaged the bullpen so far

  • Bill Mason Sr.

    Your article doesn’t make sense. You critcise the manager about the bullpen and then mention how well the starters are doing which is going deep in the games. Only 9 innings in a ball game. The Tigers are in first place so far and the bats haven’t really warmed up yet. If you want to place blame on the defense, the Gonzalez deal was strictly on the advice of Omar Visquel. They released him today and I hope they give Danny Worth the chance that he deserves. He is the best defensive infielder in the organization since Iglesias was injured.

  • Larry

    I have to agree with Bill . It is very early in the season and yes the bullpen has has some problems . So has the offense in getting started .

    Ausmus is new and has a veteran pitching coach in the dugout. Gotta think Jeff Jones is making some decisions on the pens pitching .

  • Marvin Sonne

    I think (actually, I hope) that Ausmus is using April to learn who he can use (and trust) out of the bullpen and that by the end of May (or a couple weeks sooner) he will have figured out his relief pitching status. Once that happens Ausmus will know who can pitch and who cannot and then IF we need some additional help it will be up to DD to get it for us. Our bench IS weak and that is definitely an issue that could be a problem.

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