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.