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