Ausmus is bucking current trends in his use of the bullpen

Brad Ausmus has his team in first place again in the American League Central.

Brad Ausmus has his team in first place again in the American League Central.

Going into 2015, most observers felt the Detroit Tiger bullpen was the team’s biggest weakness. The first three weeks of the 2015 season have provided some initial clues as to how manager Brad Ausmus is going to deal with the puzzle of the pen — and the evidence so far is intriguing. Something new is afoot.

The news that Joe Nathan needs a second Tommy John surgery clarified a lot. Few shed any tears upon learning that Nathan is through. After last season’s nightmare, most fans heaved a sigh of relief that they won’t see Nathan summoned in the ninth inning of any more games. It’s likely that Ausmus was relieved of any uncertainty about how he would employ the washed-up closer.

Truth be told, Nathan had already lost his job to Joakim Soria. There’s nothing wrong with Soria as the closer. He’s experienced, has a good track record, and has been almost perfect so far — through games of April 26, he allowed just one walk, three hits, and two runs in eight and two-thirds innings, converting all seven of his save chances. There’s no reason to believe he won’t continue to be dependable. The Tigers could do far worse for a closer.

Not that Ausmus has a choice: Bruce Rondon is still recovering from shoulder tendonitis. He should be back in May, but the Tigers would be foolish to do anything other than baby him. Joba Chamberlain is the only other possible closer candidate. Joba’s been fine in very limited use so far this season: four scoreless innings in five total outings, no walks, three strikeouts. Ausmus has used him only twice in close games. He’s handling him very carefully — like a dangerous toy that could blow up at any time.

The longest-serving member of the bullpen, Al Alburquerque, has blown up. He was OK the first two weeks — five appearances, all short. Then he walked both batters he faced in an outing against the Yankees and was lit up in two blowouts. His ERA has ballooned to 11.37. He’s walked six batters and given up eight hits in six innings. Ugh. The Tigers know Al Al well — he’s not reliable, and Ausmus will use him judiciously. Cross your fingers.

Other right-handed options are largely untested. Alex Wilson was just called up from the minors, so his grade is incomplete. Angel Nesbitt has looked promising. Until his fifth outing in a blowup against the Yankees, he hadn’t allowed a run. Then in his next outing, on Sunday against the Indians, he coughed up two more. The jury is still out.

Until they sent down Ian Krol, the Tigers were carrying three left-handers, and, notably, Ausmus was using each of them unpredictably. Blaine Hardy and Krol have done poorly, but veteran Tom Gorzelanny has been mostly reliable.
So far, Ausmus has been willing to use almost any reliever except Soria in different situations — for a particular match-up, but sometimes for more than one inning. It looks like Ausmus is challenging the standard paradigm, making it clear that a reliever won’t be limited to an inning or part of an inning. He isn’t messing with the closer job, at least not so far — and he has no reason to. But he hasn’t settled on other roles — and maybe he isn’t going to. Maybe he doesn’t need to. Maybe, in his second year at the helm, Ausmus is willing to break the mold.

Even though the results haven’t always been good, at least Ausmus is showing flexibility in his approach. He’s used Nesbitt and his three lefties in a total of 24 appearances through April 26. Six were for less than an inning, eight for a full inning, six for an inning-plus, and four for two full innings or more. That’s 10 times he’s gone beyond the current comfort level for most relievers on most clubs.

Should we worry about overuse? Hardly. Gorzelanny is on pace to throw more than eighty innings at this rate. But he can handle it: he used to be a starter and was converted to full-time reliever only last season.

Perhaps Ausmus’s use of his relievers for multiple innings has been forced by circumstances. Necessity is the mother of invention. But it looks like there’s more to it than that.

There are some stirrings throughout baseball, finally, of a backlash against the statistically indefensible assignment of relievers to set, unchanging roles that spiral backward from closer to set-up man, seventh and even sixth inning relievers, match-up lefties and righties. Outside of Soria, there are no bullpen roles thus far on the Tigers. Is Ausmus joining this still very tentative movement towards a more innovative and flexible use of relievers? At the least, he’s dipping his toes in the water.

Watch and see what happens next. The bullpen — and Ausmus’s handling of it — remains the key to the 2015 Tigers. There are few important questions about the team otherwise.