Tuesday postscript: Could Tigers’ bullpen debate impact starter debate?

Drew Smyly (AP)

Drew Smyly (AP)

It’s not often that Jim Leyland cites statistics in his pregame media session. It’s not that he’s anti-stats, but he’s not heavily reliant on them on his decisions, so it doesn’t come up a whole lot. It came up Tuesday when I asked him if the Tigers would be looking at their matchups over the season’s first week and take those into consideration when they have to decide at the end of the spring how they’ll go with their bullpen.

They know the matchups with other teams, and they know the pitching depth that other teams had last year.

“I know the six-starter thing will play out fine,” Leyland said. “I’m not really worried about that.”

That was during his pregame talk. After Drew Smyly turned in a performance that was better than the numbers suggested, Leyland sounded much the same message.

“It’s a good situation to have,” Leyland said. “We have six capable starters. If things play out normal, you usually use about 10 during the regular season. It’s nice to have six definites.”

He had an average behind the numbers, as a look at baseball-reference.com later confirmed. There were 304 pitchers used for at least one start in the Major Leagues last year. Divide that by 30 teams, and your average is just barely over 10 per team.

If you only consider pitchers who made more than one start, the total only drops slightly to 279, an average of 9.3 per team.

In other words, as mentioned on the site today, bullpen depth is important. I referenced those same stats there. Since there’s a little more room here, check out the breakdown by team. The first number of the total number of starters used. The second number is the number of pitchers used for multiple starts, if there’s a difference:

  • AL East: Blue Jays 12, O’s 12, Red Sox 9, Yankees 8(7), Rays 8(7)
  • AL Central: Royals 13(12), Twins 12, White Sox 12(9), Indians 10, Tigers 10(9)
  • AL West: Rangers 11(10), A’s 10, Angels 8(7), Mariners 7
  • NL East: Mets 13(12), Braves 10(9), Marlins 10(8), Phillies 9(7), Nationals 8(7)
  • NL Central: Cubs 12(11), Brewers 11(10), Astros 11(10), Pirates 10, Cardinals 8(7), Reds 6(5)
  • NL West: Padres 15(13), Rockies 14, Diamondbacks 9, Dodgers 9, Giants 7(5)

A couple points here:

  1. Different teams have different reasons for using the number of starters they used. The Blue Jays were devastated by injuries, but the Orioles were using a revolving door at times last season trying to find who could be effective. The Dodgers had nine, but they traded for two of them around the deadline, and they traded one of them away. The Tigers had a mix of injuries and trades. The Reds and Giants not only had very healthy rotations, they also had very good ones.
  2. You can look through the standings and see teams that made the playoffs with a high number of starters used, including the O’s, Rangers, A’s, Tigers and Braves in double digits. But while the numbers show how many different starters were used, they don’t show how well those extra starters performed, or what the teams’ records were when they had to go to eighth, ninth or 10th starters. The Tigers, obviously, got way more contributions out of their top five than they did out of Jacob Turner, Casey Crosby and Duane Below. But there’s also a case to be made that they might not have even gotten to the playoffs without Anibal Sanchez down the stretch. So while the numbers reinforce the point that teams need to have options at starter, it doesn’t necessarily mean that teams need six very good starters. In the Tigers’ case, though, you can make the argument.

Breaking down teams’ records when they had guys starting who did not begin the year in the rotation, of course, is a whole other project.

Rick Porcello (AP)

Rick Porcello (AP)

There’s a whole different depth issue to be made in the bullpen when you consider the closer by committee concept, which Leyland says is a possibility. The more relievers that are part of a committee, the less certainty in the roles behind the closer. If Joaquin Benoit has to be reserved on some days for a potential closing chance if a certain part of the Twins order comes up, that takes him out of consideration for the eighth inning. If Phil Coke is being held back for a potential ninth-inning matchup with Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau on Opening Day, then he isn’t available for another lefty-lefty matchup in the seventh.

It’s very difficult to see the Tigers going with a closer by committee and not taking at least a second left-hander. They could go with only Phil Coke and justify it by arguing that Al Alburquerque and Brayan Villarreal have the kind of arsenal that gets right- and left-handed hitters out, and they’d have a point, but there are situations where you want a left-handed batter seeing a left-handed pitcher.

The more potential matchup guys you have in the bullpen, as well, the less room you have for a long reliever. Drew Smyly, of course, could fill both roles. He essentially did that last fall.

GM Dave Dombrowski was quoted in the Detroit News last week saying both Smyly and Porcello “will be quality Major League starters this year, and both deserve to start.” But at some point, the depth of a bullpen that doesn’t have one set closer might make the case for Smyly to be used in the bullpen.

There’s a trade-off there, though, because it would be a case for keeping both Porcello and Smyly without having Smyly stretched out as a starter. If the primary reason for keeping both is to have insurance, one can make the case that it’s better to keep Smyly at Triple-A Toledo. If the primary reason is to have the best 12 pitchers possible on the staff, it’s tough to send Smyly to the Mud Hens.

10 Comments

Great article on the pitching situation here, but now the news will be the release of Boesch.

he only has 13 plate appearances this spring yet. wait for it.

well my bad – I now see he is released. Does someone else pay the 1/6th of his 2.3M if he is claimed on waivers? Why couldn’t we get anything – anything – for him?

Good info and nice analysis. Will be interesting to see how things shake out.

I was looking at those teams with the least amount of starting pitchers and several of them had better records than us ie, Rays, Giants, Yankees, so I’m not quite sure what it all means. But, now many other teams only have 1 lefty in their BP, let alone all righty starters?

That second sentence is supposed to say: “But, how many other tteams only have 1 lefty in their BP, let alone all righty starters?

absolutely! excellent point. To reaffirm that thought, Porcello faced more lefties than righties last year. it would be one thing if we had only 1 lefty in the pen or 1 (or 0) in the rotation….but we have BOTH problems.

Great article and analysis. I’d add a couple of things to this discussion.
1) Leyland actually has to manage the pitching in a game, especially in the late innings, instead of the automatic managing regardless of the situation.
2) Starters are more motivated mentally to squeeze out an extra inning with a closer committee than with a 6-7-8 team of relievers waiting in the wing. Of course, there are exceptions to this, namely Verlander, Fister and sometimes Scherzer. That to me is a good thing.
3) We’ve seen what moving a starter to the pen and back can do and vice versa. Now you add a young guy into the mix and it makes it even more difficult. Not saying it can’t be done, but the positive results are less than the negatives. Again, especially with a young pitcher. If it’s not Smyly in the rotation, which purely by the fact that he’s the sole LH starter on the staff and he’s showing that he;s worthy, Porcello could move to the pen and be the swing guy or trade him for a legitimate closer or someone waiting in the wings to close for another team.
4) I’d like to look at the teams that had success with their starters and see what the rotation makeup looked like RH & LH. I still believe that you have to throw some LH’s at teams coming into play 3-4 games to be successful.
Either way Leyland will have to show what he can do with a pen and yeah, he’ll make mistakes and be second guessed, early on but it makes the other team counter and potentially make mistakes too. Kind of like the National League.

If we are going to trade Porcello, we need to get more for him than just a relief pitcher. And if we send Porcello to the bullpen or Toledo, we devalue him in any trade market, in a way that doesn’t apply to the less experienced Smyly.

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