- David Schoenfield, SweetSpot blogger
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Ken (Palo Alto, Calif.): Has there ever been a championship caliber team (barring last year's Tigers) where the fall off between rotation and pen was so great? The Tigers' rotation is phenomenally tough. The Tigers' pen, while not incompetent, is pretty pedestrian. Unusual combination for a championship team?
I didn't have time to look at all the championship teams, but I was able to look at playoff teams since 2009, 44 teams in total. Only 12 of the teams had a staff where the relievers had a worse ERA than the starters. Which shouldn't be too surprising, in general, because relievers often have lower ERAs than starters. Here are the five biggest ERA differences between starters and relievers among playoff teams since 2009:
1. 2011 Phillies: minus-0.58
2. 2013 Tigers: minus-0.57
3. 2010 Phillies: minus-0.47
4. 2011 Rangers: minus-0.46
5. 2009 Rockies: minus-0.43
The 2010 and 2011 Phillies had those phenomenal rotations. The 2011 club had a 2.86 rotation ERA, 3.44 in the bullpen. Despite the difference, the bullpen wasn't actually that bad: The 3.44 ERA ranks 19th out of the 44 teams. The 2010 bullpen wasn't very good and did end up losing two games in their NLCS loss to the Giants (Roy Oswalt, pitching in relief, and Ryan Madson got the losses.) The Tigers had a 3.44 rotation ERA this year and 4.01 bullpen, which ERA ranks 40th out of the 44 teams.
So Ken is right. The Detroit bullpen is pedestrian. Now, those are season totals; it speaks more to the depth of a pen and not necessarily about the guys who will pitch more often in the postseason. Joaquin Benoit and Drew Smyly were very effective this year. But we've now seen the Detroit bullpen lose two games late -- one to the A's and then the blowup in Game 2 against the Red Sox. In both games, Al Alburquerque played a key role in the loss. If he's become Detroit's de facto No. 3 reliever, then maybe the lack of depth has become an issue.
Here's another bullpen note. Of those 44 teams, only four bullpens had a losing record in the regular season:
2012 Cardinals: 17-27
2013 Tigers: 17-25
2011 Rangers: 22-26
2011 Cardinals: 28-30
There are factors that go into that, of course, such as how the offense does in extra-inning games, but clearly nearly all playoff teams have winning records from their bullpens. You'll note that the 2011 Rangers and Cardinals met in the World Series. The Cardinals, after early-season struggles, had remade their bullpen by October, with Jason Motte assuming closer duties, Lance Lynn getting called up and Marc Rzepczynski and Octavio Dotel coming over in a trade. So the bullpen that Tony La Russa employed so effectively in the postseason wasn't quite the same group that went 28-30. The 2012 bullpen wasn't the reason the Cardinals blew a 3-1 lead in the NLCS to the Giants -- the starters got blown out in 5-0, 6-1 and 9-0 losses. The shaky Texas bullpen in 2011 did end up playing a pivotal role, blowing 7-4 and 9-7 leads in Game 6.
So, yes, the Detroit pen isn't very deep, especially with Jim Leyland seemingly demoting Smyly to LOOGY status. It won't necessarily be the reason the Tigers fail to win the ALCS or the World Series ... but it wouldn't surprise me. I realize that's not an answer, but you know the saying: You can't predict baseball.
What do you think?
3dJim Caple, ESPN Senior Writer