Bullpen and Top of the Order Costing Tigers so far in 2011

As the Tigers came north from spring training, I wrote that the key to the Tigers 2011 season would be the performance of the back end of their starting rotation. A month into the season the #3-5 starters have done their jobs: Brad Penny, Rick Porcello, and Phil Coke don’t have many wins to show for their efforts, but for the most part the trio have kept the Tigers in games.

Penny, Porcello, and Coke have made 16 starts, and combined they’ve produced eight quality starts. A quality start is defined by at least six innings while allowing three earned runs or less. That 50% rate needs to inch up a little, but there’s reason to believe it will, and when combined with the other two starters, Justin Verlander (6-for-6) and Max Scherzer (4-for-6), the team has 18 quality starts in 28 games, ranking them third in the league in that stat.

The starters are logging their innings too, averaging 6 2/3 innings per start, meaning the bullpen has needed to just get seven outs per game. But that’s where the trouble starts for the 12-16 Tigers. While they’ve been in close games often in the ’11 season, the pen has given too many of them away. Brad Thomas, Enrique Gonzalez, and Ryan Perry have been ineffective in middle relief, squandering too many games where Detroit has had a legitimate chance to win. Free agent signee Joaquin Benoit has been miserable. The setup man has pitched in 13 of the Tigers 28 games, blowing two saves and losing two games in relief. While the 33-year old right-hander had a career year last season for Tampa Bay, he’s been getting slammed as a Tiger, especially of late. His ERA has ballooned to 8.18, he’s thrown two costly wild pitches, and he’s allowed 19 baserunners in 11 innings. Closer Jose Valverde has been gold, but too often his save opportunities have vanished when Benoit has been on the hill. Overall, the Detroit bullpen has allowed 17 of 37 inherited runners to score, the worst rate in the American League.

In order for the Tigers to compete for the division title, their bullpen needs a better performance from the middle innings guys and setup man Benoit.

Jim Leyland can make another conclusion after the first month of the season, and the Tiger skipper must share some of the blame for this one. The top of the Detroit lineup isn’t getting on base enough. Sluggers Miguel Cabrera and Brennan Boesch are doing their jobs in the middle of the lineup, but too often they’re coming up with no one on base because the top two or three guys in the lineup are taking the collar.

Leyland continues to cling to the notion of using slap-hitters at the top of his lineup. This is a philosophy I’m sure he learned as a young player in the Tiger farm system in the 1960s. Back in that era the rule was to put a speedy basestealer at the top and a hit-and-run guy in the next spot (usually it seemed to be a second baseman). Austin Jackson continues to be trotted out in the leadoff spot, despite his .269 OBP, while the cast of characters in the #2 spot have been just about as bad: Will Rhymes (now in Toledo) is hitting .221 with a .321 OBP with exactly one extra-base hit, Ryan Raburn has a .296 OBP, though he does rank second on the team with four homers. Magglio Ordonez has looked like he should have retired, and the rest of the #3 hitters have been pretty bad too. Overall, the top three slots in the Detroit lineup this season have a .289 on-base percentage through the first 28 games of the schedule.

Despite his fine performance last night, Jackson needs to get on base more often if the Tigers are going to win. Leyland may also consider promoting Boesch to the #2 spot or possibly Alex Avila, who’s having a strong start with the stick. To be fair, pickings are slim for the top of the order right now. When and if Victor Martinez gets going will have a lot to say about that.

A month into the 2011 season we’ve seen the best and worst of the Tigers: a stretch where they won 9 of 12, punctuated by a three-game sweep of the White Sox, a club that should be a prime competitor in the division; and a seven-game losing skid in which they’ve scored about three runs a game but still could have won two or three of them if the bullpen had held firm. That bullpen and the top of the order need to improve for Detroit to make any impact in the AL Central in 2011.