Detroit manager Brad Ausmus and catchers Alex Avila and Bryan Holaday all agree that it hasn’t been tough handling this year’s pitching staff.
That’s impressive, just on sheer numbers alone. The Tigers have matched a franchise record by using 30 pitchers this year, a high number for any team, much less one that is in a pennant race.
"There were some injuries and some performance issues, especially early in the season, and we ended up making a lot of moves," Ausmus said. "After that, we made a few trades, and then we brought up some guys in September. There have been a lot of guys, but we’ve found a good balance of guys in the bullpen. That has made easier."
How unusual is it for a team to use 30 pitchers? Well, the 1996 Tigers had one of the worst pitching staffs in history, losing 109 games with a 6.38 ERA. Omar Olivares led the team with seven wins, Gregg Olson had the most saves (eight) and Brian Williams had a terrible season as a starter, as a closer and in middle relief. Six pitchers finished the season with double-digit ERAs, including Jeff McCurry’s 24.30 and current Red Sox manager John Farrell’s 14.21 in the last two games of his career.
It is hard to imagine a major-league team worse than the 2003 Tigers and their 119 losses, but skipper Alan Trammell only used 20 pitchers that year. The results still weren’t great — Mike Maroth led the team with nine wins while losing 21 games, and Franklyn German and Chris Mears tied for the team lead with five saves, but the worst ERA was only 7.12 by Shane Loux.
Thirty only matches the record set by the 2002 team, but that was another terrible team. Phil Garner was fired after an 0-6 start and an overmatched Luis Pujols went 55-100 as his replacement. One has to be a hardcore Tigers fan to remember some of the pitchers who came through the bullpen that year — Terry Pearson, Kris Keller and Erik Sabel, anyone?
This year’s team, though, should be different. They had a starting rotation that boasts the last three AL Cy Young Award winners and the defending ERA champion. They have three proven closers in Joe Nathan, Jim Johnson and Joakim Soria, plus Joba Chamberlain as a stable presence in the eighth inning.
Somehow, it hasn’t worked. Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello have been outstanding, and Anibal Sanchez was equally as good when he could stay healthy, but Justin Verlander hasn’t been himself after offseason core-muscle surgery and the Tigers have struggled to find a replacement for Sanchez during his lengthy absences.
The biggest issue, though, has been the bullpen. Nathan has struggled as the closer, Soria got hurt soon after joining the team and middle relief has been a huge problem all season. That’s led to 25 pitchers coming out of the ‘pen, including shortstops Danny Worth and Andrew Romine and one game each from Melvin Mercedes, Kevin Whelan and Jose Ortega.
That’s the biggest reason that Detroit has struggled to pull away from Kansas City in the AL Central, and one would think it would be a headache for Avila and Holaday. They both have to keep a mental file on every pitcher the team uses in order to call the right pitches at the right time, and with the constant turnover, that would seem nearly impossible.
Not at all, though.
"It’s really not a big deal," Holaday said. "I’m sure Alex would agree with me. We know most of the guys that have come up, because we’ve worked with them in spring training, and it is just a matter of talking to the guys who have come over in trades. It takes a little while, but it isn’t hard."
As Holaday predicted, Avila did agree.
"I’m not losing any sleep over it, that’s for sure," Avila said. "Like Bryan said, we both know most of the guys from the organization, and it isn’t that hard to learn how to catch David Price or Joakim Soria. When a new guy gets here, we sit down with them, discuss which pitches they have and when they like to throw them. It’s not complicated."
Getting them to pitch well, though, has been a lot tougher. That’s the reason that Detroit has tried so many bodies, and why they will only take a half-game lead to Kansas City on Friday.