I don’t know if you’ve heard, but the Red Sox are undergoing a massive change in their front office. I’m sure this is the first you’ve heard about this, so let me tell you about it in excruciating detail. Dave Dombrowski is in. Another person will soon be in, working under him as the general manager. Ben Cherington is out. You have now heard this news for the first time. You’re welcome.
Of course, this happened a few days ago and just about every angle has already been covered. Just about the only thing we know at this point is that things will be different now. Dombrowski has certainly done a lot of good. He’s pulled off tremendous trades and developed phenomenal talent that led to a great run by the Tigers, even if it ended without a World Series ring. He also has some short-comings. He’s not the best at building farm systems (at least not in Detroit, where other factors likely came into play) and he’s given out some poor contract extensions to aging players. There is one specific shortcoming I wanted to look further into today, and it’s arguably been the shortcoming that’s been brought up the most. You’ll be shocked to hear that I would like to talk about bullpens today.
If there’s one common thread that has killed all of those good Tigers teams over the years, it’s been a poor bullpen. Dombrowski managed to build deep and star-powered lineups and rotations, but he’s never been able to bring that kind of success to his relief corps. His track record is….not so great in this department. Just going by memory, it seems like Detroit has had a bad bullpen ever year. Of course, I went by more than memory for this. What follows is a table showing how all of his bullpens have performed relative to the league, as well as how Detroit fared in total from 2002-2015.
|Year||ERA (Rank)||K/9 (Rank)||K/BB (Rank)||FIP (Rank)||OPS Against (Rank)||Ground Ball % (Rank)|
|2002||4.82 (7)||5.9 (30)||1.67 (25)||4.79 (3)||.816 (3)||40.8 (25)|
|2003||4.69 (8)||5.6 (30)||1.43 (30)||4.83 (3)||.764 (10)||40.8 (26)|
|2004||4.91 (4)||6.6 (27)||1.67 (25)||4.90 (4)||.802 (4)||42.2 (23)|
|2005||3.82 (19)||6.6 (22)||2.01 (9)||4.59 (3)||.733 (13)||41.2 (26)|
|2006||3.55 (27)||6.7 (25)||1.89 (18)||4.29 (17)||.694 (26)||43.9 (13)|
|2007||4.40 (8)||6.9 (22)||1.76 (24)||4.39 (9)||.736 (11)||43.8 (12)|
|2008||4.69 (3)||6.8 (28)||1.45 (29)||4.63 (4)||.786 (1)||41.0 (25)|
|2009||4.34 (9)||7.0 (26)||1.52 (28)||4.66 (3)||.747 (9)||43.5 (13)|
|2010||3.96 (17)||6.3 (30)||1.65 (28)||4.15 (9)||.723 (15)||45.7 (6)|
|2011||3.93 (6)||8.0 (11)||1.83 (28)||3.98 (10)||.704 (12)||42.7 (20)|
|2012||3.79 (13)||8.5 (13)||2.47 (11)||3.77 (14)||.714 (8)||39.2 (30)|
|2013||4.01 (7)||9.2 (5)||2.50 (17)||3.61 (18)||.709 (9)||44.0 (17)|
|2014||4.29 (4)||7.8 (24)||2.01 (29)||4.09 (4)||.752 (2)||49.1 (5)|
|2015||4.33 (5)||7.4 (29)||2.14 (29)||4.18 (4)||.774 (3)||44.0 (21)|
|Total||4.26 (2)||7.0 (30)||1.82 (30)||4.37 (1)||.748 (2)||42.9 (25)|
*The rankings all go highest-to-lowest. So, you want to be high on the K/9, K/BB ratio and GB% rankings. You want to be low on the ERA, FIP and OPS Against leaderboard.
** ERA, K/9, K/BB and OPS were used using Baseball-Reference's Play Index tool. FIP and GB% were found on Fangraphs.
There are a few things that jump out at me from this table. First and foremost: Good lord Detroit has been bad in the bullpen for a long time. There are maybe a few decent groups in there, but in every other year their relievers have basically been the Red Sox's 2015 bullpen. That is very much not a compliment. Based on the rankings in the stats included in that table, the only team that has arguably been worse is Colorado, and they have Coors to deal with.
Besides the across-the-board badness, though, there was one specific thing that jumped out at me. Dombrowski has never been able to build a bullpen that blows batters away. In this new era of baseball where bullpens are becoming more and more important, that becomes so much more important. Being able to strike guys out at a high rate can cloud a lot of other shortcomings. Aroldis Chapman has been arguably the best reliever in baseball, and he's done so while consistently walking more than four batters per nine innings. The Dombrowski-era Tigers, however, only finished out of the bottom third in K/9 three times, and they finished in the top third just once. Looking at it from afar, it appears this hasn't been a big focus for him, which is concerning given where Boston's bullpen currently stands.
As these things so often are, however, this is a bit more complicated than Dombrowski simply not caring much about strikeouts. Looking back at some of the major pieces he's brought in to help in the bullpen, many of them came with strikeout pedigree. Unfortunately, many of their skills dissipated after heading to Detroit. Some of that is bad luck following sound process, and some of that was bad process being played out as many of us expected. Guys like Joe Nathan, Todd Jones, Troy Percival, and to a lesser extent Joba Chamberlain and Octavio Dotel were signed as veterans and their eventual steep declines weren't overly surprising. However, Dombrowski hit on some good relievers, too. Namely, Ugueth Urbina, Joakim Soria, Joaquin Benoit and Jose Valverde all pitched very well for a time in Detroit. Even Kyle Farnsworth kept striking batters out, although the rest of his game was terrible. While Dombrowski certainly doesn't have a perfect track record in bringing in relievers from outside the organization, it hasn't been all bad.
The same can be said with guys developed within their system. It seems like it was forever ago, but Fernando Rodney got his start with the Dombrowski-era Tigers. Even if he's had an uneven career, overall it's been a damn good one. Joel Zumaya was one of the most feared relievers in the game when he's been on the mound. Al Alburquerque also looks like a fine up-and-coming bullpen arm. Of course, there's also the Phil Cokes and Dan Schlereths of the world.
All of this brings us to Dombrowski's new situation. Obviously, there are a lot of holes to fill in Boston right now. The rotation needs major upgrades, and the lineup needs retooling. However, if you've watched the Red Sox this year, it's obvious that the bullpen needs a complete overhaul as well. It's a scary situation for a front office led by a man that has struggled putting bullpens together in the past. It's especially scary when that man has struggled finding relievers who can strike batters out, and that's an area in which Boston's bullpen has especially struggled.
There's been a lot of talk about how badly Dombrowski has struggled to piece bullpens together, and most of it is warranted. His bullpens in Detroit were extremely bad, and while he had some good moves in that area, it never really added up to a cohesive unit. It's especially troubling given Boston's huge need in the late innings. However, the Red Sox have the money and the young arms to make it work. If Dombrowski is going to reverse this particular legacy of his, he's in the right situation to do so.