There are a lot of superlatives that one could use about the Tigers bullpen in 2014. "The worst thing I've ever seen in my life", "trainwreck", "nightmare", and "terrifying mess" come to mind, along with some words I'm not allowed to write on this blog. The group — mostly some combination of Joba Chamberlain, Joakim Soria, Joe Nathan, and Al Alburquerque — was comically awful and cost the Tigers a postseason run.
In the Orioles' ALDS sweep, the only time the Tigers even came close to stealing a game was in game 3, when David Price pitched a complete game loss, meaning the bullpen was never even resorted to. In the other two games, the bullpen was entirely at fault. In Game 1, a manageable 4-3 deficit became a nightmare 12-3 loss after an 8 run inning pitched by Soria, Chamberlain, and Phil Coke. In game 2, Joba Chamberlain and Joakim Soria combined to turn a 6-3 lead into a 7-6 loss in the late innings. It wasn't pretty.
This wasn't just a "postseason is dumb, small-sample sizes are crazy" type thing. In terms of fWAR, the Tigers bullpen was dead last. Take your pick of other indicators, and I'll guarantee you that the Tigers were right around the back of the pack. They were 29th in strikeouts, 26th in FIP, 25th in xFIP, 3rd highest BB/9, and , weirdly enough, first in balks. I'm not sure if the balks sunk the bullpen, but I suppose it didn't help.
After an offseason with no major additions — the only significant change in the bullpen was the subtraction of Joe Nathan — it was reasonable to expect that there would be a repeat in horror. Instead, the Tigers have been miraculously, surprisingly, incredibly, average. As of today, they rank 17th in fWAR, 12th in ERA, and 17th in FIP — all massive improvements.
And this is with their best reliever in 2014 — Joba Chamberlain — putting up a 5.63 ERA (0.0 fWAR).
This isn't the story of an incredible turnaround, a miraculous comeback, or a completely different look. This is the story of marginal improvements from marginal players, and that's okay. Changes don't need to be overwhelming to be noticeable and important.
Primarily, three players have been the driving engines behind the turnaround.
The biggest reason for the Tigers' improvement is that Joakim Soria looks like, well, Joakim Soria. It's easy to forget after his terrible two months with the Tigers, but at one point last year Soria was the best reliever in baseball. With the Rangers, Soria put up an unbelievable 1.06 FIP/2.26 xFIP. He did... less well with the Tigers. Chalk it up to exhaustion or a new environment or injury or the ancient curse placed on the Tigers bullpen by an evil wizard or whatever, but he absolutely failed in his 11 innings in Detroit. A 4.91 ERA/5.22 FIP is not a good look for anyone — and remember to add in his two spectacular postseason blowups.
This year, he finally picked up where he left off in Texas. A 1.13 ERA with 11 saves is amazing by traditional standards, and his advanced stat line looks fantastic as well. A .128 BABIP and a 92.1% strand rate are bound to normalize, of course, but normalization does not necessarily need to be devastating. His 2.89 FIP/3.30 xFIP point toward regression, but not a terrible one.
Potentially the biggest indicator in favor of Soria's continued dominance is that his pitches are simply better. His average fastball velocity has increased from 90.88 to 92.11 MPH. This is mainly explainable by Soria's continued rehabilitation from his second Tommy John surgery — you expect pitchers to gradually gain velocity as they recover.
The abandonment of his changeup could also explain some of this. His changeup was very marginal in 2014, with hitters slugging .458 off it. He threw it 9.9% of the time — not great for a marginal pitch. This year, he's only thrown the changeup 8 times in total (3.5%), opening up more room for his improved fastball and his excellent breaking stuff. I mean, if you've got this in your arsenal, why would you even fool around with a changeup?
The real surprise of the bullpen isn't Joakim Soria, though — we knew he would be good, and the only question was how good he'd be. The surprises are the guys like Angel Nesbitt, the random minor leaguers who have been called up and have excelled out of the gate. The 24-year-old right-hander out of Venezuela is currently sporting a sterling 2.70 ERA/2.39 FIP/3.22 xFIP and has forced himself into a setup role after being called up from AA to start the season.
Nesbitt really has a starter's repertoire — PITCHf/x detects a four-seamer, sinker, changeup, slider, and cutter. I'd take this with a grain of salt: the four-seamer and the sinker seem to be variations on the same pitch, and he's only thrown the slider 15 times. For the purposes of this article, let's call him a fastball/changeup/cutter guy.
The fastball is absolutely electric. He's maxed it out at 97 MPH this year, and there are reports of him throwing 99 in the minor leagues. But his real strength is his ability to get ground balls — his cutter has a 60% ground ball rate, and his changeup has an incredible 100% ground ball rate. This leads to a 61.1% ground ball rate overall, good for 19th in the majors. The 97 MPH fastball is nice, but Nesbitt's bread and butter is the grounder.
I find it absolutely incredible that Tom Gorzelanny is still pitching. The fact that Tom Gorzelanny is pitching well leads me to believe that the world is merely a simulation by an alien entity with a sick sense of humor.
The guy came up with the terrible mid-2000s Pirates teams and wasn't good enough to stick. Ten years later, he's back as a lefty relief-ace with the Tigers. The world is a strange place. He's pitching incredibly well: 2.31 ERA/2.45 FIP/3.65 xFIP. His HR rate is unsustainably low (0.0%), but his BABIP is unsustainably high, so he's not a huge regression candidate. The only skill Gorzelanny has been able to reliably show at the MLB level is that he can outperform his xFIP (4.24 ERA vs. 4.46 xFIP), so, fine, Tom Gorzelanny. OK.
Going through his video, I was struck by how not bad he looks. He's always had stuff, but he's had some trouble putting it all together in the past. And now that he's putting it together, the stuff is seriously impressive. My personal favorite:
I've always been a sucker for a big, sweepy lefty slurve, and Gorzelanny has it in spades. Combine that with plus command of a decent sinking fastball and a pretty good changeup, and you've got a plus reliever. Tom Gorzelanny. Okay.
The most common criticism of Dave Dombrowski has been his inability to put together a serviceable bullpen. This is fair: It seems like we've talked about the Tigers' bullpen struggles every year, all the way back to the Jose Valverde disaster of 2012. But bullpens are the most ridiculous and impossible part of constructing a baseball team. No other players randomly break and randomly emerge quite like relievers. Bullpens are super dumb.
If anything, the emergence of the Tigers' bullpen lends credence to that. Dave Dombrowski spends all his years in Detroit spending money, trying to put out the dumpster fire. Eventually, he gives up, sits back, has a beer, spends the winter in the Bahamas, and doesn't even think about bullpens. And suddenly random AA player Angel Nesbitt and Tom friggin' Gorzelanny swoop in and save the day. Such is life.