By:  Kurt Snyder & Holly Horning

Today’s topic is centered on the age-old problem of the Tigers – the dreaded bullpen. How do you explain it? Well, our writers take back Tuesday to answer this one.

As is the norm, Kurt and Holly have not shared their answers to the following question; the best way for our readers to get the best bang for their buck. So here we go.

On Saturday night’s nationally-televised game, the announcers said it “boggles the mind” as to how the Tigers have historically had such bad bullpens for such a long period of time.  How would we explain the rationale for why the Tigers have had one of baseball’s worst bullpens year after year?


It starts with ownership. It would be easy to pin it all on Dave Dombrowski over all these years.  But it’s been the Ilitch family who have made the bullpen a lesser priority, when in fact it is proven time and again that you can’t win without a good, if not a great, pen.

Pitching and defense will always rule the day. But when you build a pitching staff, the strength must be built equally from the star-studded fireballers to the guys who do the dirty work and finish the job.

Bright and shiny stars always got Mr. Ilitch’s attention first. But relief pitchers hardly ever found his gaze.  The bullpen has been historically pushed to the back burner, when it’s the one element that finishes off victories.

Well, they have finished off victories alright. The pen has routinely turned victory into defeat for much of the last 10 seasons.

Dave Dombrowski has been a master at piecing together a bullpen after all the money has been spent. He was a master at trading away minor leaguers, potential bullpen pieces, for veteran relievers who didn’t always pan out.

The Tigers always need the name.  The veteran with previous success, but on the wrong end of the career.  They never looked to groom talent meant to stay and help form a formidable back-end.

Despite season after season of failed opportunities, the Tigers organization never got the clue, that even a star-studded lineup could not overcome the ineptitude of poorly-built bullpens.

And here we sit in 2017, with a Tiger team alleging they are playing for Mr. I., still sitting at the bottom of the league with the worst bullpen.

It has always come down to priorities. Offense, starting pitching and then scraps for the pen. The Tiger bullpen has been like dogs under the table waiting for food to fall; whatever they ended up with might have been good earlier, but not after it hits the floor.


Let’s file this one under “Money, Mike and Marketing” instead of the “bad luck” some have used to describe the decade-old pattern.  And the majority of the blame should be given to Mike Ilitch and Dave Dombrowski with a small side serving of Al Avila.

First is the understanding that every team in MLB has a marketing department that helps form the team identity and has the power to influence ownership as to which types of players should be signed.  Mr. I always liked his stars and he leaned towards big, powerful hitters and ace starting pitchers.  Let’s face it – flame-throwing starters and HR hitters are way sexier than the guy who comes in to pitch one inning.  And these are the guys who fill the stadium seats – not your 7th inning reliever.

Add to this the Tigers’ long-term reputation as being one of baseball’s most conservative teams.  They have consistently been one of the very last to adopt the new trends in baseball for decades going all the way back to integration.  They never saw the rise of the bullpen since those early playoffs days a decade ago – and still don’t.

It also didn’t help that Dave Dombrowski was (and remains) a staunch non-supporter of analytics.  He didn’t understand the correlation between winning (including stats about increased success against pitchers going into the third time through the batting order) and lockdown bullpens, especially when it came to playoffs.  Dave’s m.o. was almost completely focused on assembling baseball’s top starting rotation for many years and ignoring the relievers.  Maybe he figured that if your starting pitchers were superb, you didn’t need consistent firemen.

He also ignored the increasing trend of teams working the pitch counts of starters in order to reach the relievers who were often easier to hit – and in the case of the Tigers, their Achilles’ Heel.

It also appeared that Dombrowski may have disregarded the stats regarding the older relievers he signed or simply had no idea how to build a bullpen.  How else to explain the closers who were given expensive contracts but clearly had already started on the downside of their careers.

But I’d also add in the sheer amount of payroll that was spent on stars like Miggy, JV, Fielder, Upton, VMart, Price, etc.  After signing these guys, there was little money left to spend and just maybe, the budget for relievers was exhausted by the time the bullpen roster was considered.  Potentially, maybe even Mike Ilitch simply didn’t want to spend the money on guys with little star power.

Let’s hope that Chris Ilitch, with a different and younger set of tools and analytical skills, brings a new mindset – and water cannon – that puts out this dumpster fire once and for all.



19 thoughts on “TOPIC FOR TUESDAY

  1. Joe Nathan was anything but declining . He was an all star and the best reliever on the market . Lowe was an all star . I think he did try but it’s not guaranteed to work out


    • Rickover50 – I 100% agree with you. I would also include Valverde, Benoit, and KRod. And how about “grooming” Rondon. I think the problems is two-fold.. 1- They have been unlucky with free agents as I believe relief pitchers are always a crapshoot at best, and 2-Their scouting and development is awful.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Hardly ever TOTALLy dispute Kurt and Holly’s viewpoints. But on the BP subject, I emphatically protest! DD and Mr I did everything in their power to bring a world title to Motown. The list of NAMES and MONEY spent on potential “aces” can not be disputed. Monday morning analytical and blaming “sexy” marketing is a “swing and a miss!”


      • Hi, Jerry – We never said that Mr I and Dave didn’t do everything they thought they could to bring a title. Trying your best can also mean that you didn’t understand or grasp what needed to be done. And sexy marketing is used more often than everyone thinks. It was directly responsible for the mass exodus of Epstein, Francona and the entire Front Office from Boston. Thanks for continuing the dialog! – Holly


  2. Holly this one’s for you. Was watching the nats game on MLB at 1055 to get tigers pick. The announcer said the nats are starting to remind him of the tigers great teams. Both teams pretty much best teams in the game. Except they over looked the pen. ‘how could they do that in today’s game! Added Tigers shoulda won multiple title’s. ‘. Just like Bobby Cox’s braves.


    • Hi, Mike – I was watching that game, too, and heard the same comment. It is interesting just how similar the two teams are even beyond the bullpen issues. Thanks for keeping the dialog going! – Holly


      • Maybe the simple fact that Dusty is considered by most to be Leyland’s equivalent as far as BP (and game) management might explain most of the Nat’s BP woes.


  3. It has become a national joke/gag on the Tigers’ ineptitude on building solid bullpens much like the Cubs of old when people found out someone was a Cubs fan knowing their championship drought and knowing they were not going win or a Red Sox fan of old knowing they couldn’t beat the Yanks.


  4. The capstone moment of bullpen neglect was the 2014-15 offseason, when Mr. I insisted on giving V-Mart four more years at $17 million per, thereby precluding the signing of Andrew Miller for four less expensive years. This occurred AFTER the Benoit and Nathan meltdowns.


  5. 12 years with two managers that are/were totally clueless as to the strengths and weaknesses of the personnel they have/had in the BP. Brad has been Leyland lite for 3.5 years in most aspects of managing and Leyland was generally clueless when it came to in-game decisions, particularly the BP. It is not a mystery.



  6. Splitting the teams into 1/3’s with the top 10 representing the best, the Tigers have finished the regular season in the top 10 in save % 6 times, middle 1/3 twice and bottom 1/3 3 times from 2006 – 2016. The overall average was 13th. Currently in the bottom 1/3. In playoffs, they finished 3rd out of 8 in 2006, tied for 1st of 8 in 2011, 4th out of 10 in 2012 & 2013 and 7th of 10 in 2014.


  7. Another piece of the puzzle is dysfunction in player development. Every year the Tigers draft a bunch of kids who can throw a fastball through a brick wall. It seems that with competent coaching and training, it should be possible to teach at least a few of them to throw the pitch where they are aiming it and to throw a plausible secondary pitch. Yet somehow, it never seems to happen.


  8. Anyone remember a kid, drafted by Dombrowski in 2002, named Joel Zumaya? He was groomed strictly as a reliever and had it not been for “Guitar Hero” he might still be the Tiger’s bullpen ace at his current age 32. And as for Mr. I, when he played pro ball in the 50’s, closers were nothing more than former starters, trying to hang on. Thus, possibly, his lack of closer interest!


  9. It hasn’t been just the bp. The Tigers could have had a starting rotation starring Scherzer, Porcello and Robbie Ray. Instead, we have Zimmerman and Sanchez. The downward slide in the last 3-4 years can be traced back directly to the day they let Scherzer walk. He knew Verlander was always going to be the golden child in Detroit i.e our manager starting Ver the opening day after Max won the Cy Young.


  10. Every year it seems the Tigers draft pitching first, just like they did this year. But these pitchers rarely make it in the majors. Why is this? I blame the scouting department for the bullpen woes. The Tigers just don’t seem to ever draft a starting player of any position. If not for free agency or trades, the Tigers would be really horrible.


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