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Dave Dombrowski’s Bullpen Strategy Has Failed

Dave Dombrowski thought he had it all figured out.

The Detroit Tigers’ general manager knew that the bullpen posed the greatest problem in his team’s quest for a fourth straight American League Central division title. Dombrowski did what he could to directly address the issue without panicking by acquiring Joakim Soria from the Texas Rangers, but soon recognized that the market for serviceable relief pitching was too risky and too expensive.

So he turned to his starting rotation, already strong with reigning AL Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer, 2011 winner Justin Verlander, 2013 ERA champion Anibal Sanchez, a young and extremely underrated Rick Porcello in the midst of the best season of his career, and token lefty Drew Smyly. The Tigers starters had put together a stellar first half outside of a bumpy week and a half in May, and was generally seen to be the strongest aspect of a team ready to challenge for a World Series.

It could be reasoned that with a capable offense scoring runs and the starters pitching deep into games, the bullpen wouldn’t have to enter many high-pressure situations with little margin for error. The Tigers lineup was one of the strongest in the AL for the first half of the season, and the starting staff was providing solid innings—the formula was working, and the Tigers’ playoff train was chugging.

With that in mind, Dombrowski decided that the best way to fix his bullpen was to minimize their chances at failure. Enter David Price.

By adding the best lefthanded pitcher in the American League (and losing Smyly), Dombrowski assembled arguably the best starting rotation in baseball, and a group more than capable of dominating opposing hitters while letting a strong lineup build enough of a lead to reduce the risk of a bullpen collapse.

So then why have the Tigers put together a dismal 8-9 record entering play August 18 in the team’s 17 games since acquiring Price, and lost their lead in the Central to the Kansas City Royals?

For starters, the offense has underperformed all month. An offense that once topped the American League in team batting average has topped five runs in a game just three times in August, and have been held to two runs or less on seven occasions. Individually, the Tigers’ hitters have failed to produce the numbers that are expected of them. Miguel Cabrera has hit at a decent .288 clip but has hit just one home run and driven in just five RBIs. J.D. Martinez has put up a .224 average, Torii Hunter has hit .208 with two RBIs, Nick Castellanos has hit three home runs but at a .236 mark, and Eugenio Suarez has hit an abysmal .178. In short, the offensive half of Dombrowski’s formula has failed.

The second issue has come in the form of unfortunate injuries to the pitching staff. Both Sanchez and Soria hit the disabled list for core muscle injuries on August 10, and Verlander has been dealing with shoulder inflammation that kept him out of his last scheduled start. Soria anticipates rejoining the bullpen when he is eligible to return, and Verlander plans on starting against the Twins on Friday, but Sanchez will be out at least until early September. Rookies Robbie Ray and Buck Farmer have filled the gaps that the starters have left, but two rookies will not be able to get this team into October.

Finally, the biggest and most glaring problem has been the fact that the bullpen has continued to struggle, and no one more than the guy who should be the most consistent arm in the pen—Joe Nathan. Between his less-than-friendly gesture to the Tigers faithful and his overall ineffectiveness throughout the season, the final piece of Dombrowski’s formula has also failed. Since the team acquired Price in the hopes of lessening bullpen appearances, Nathan has allowed seven hits and eight walks in seven games, while striking out only three batters. In those seven appearances, Nathan has retired the side in order just once, and has put at least two baserunners on in five of the seven.

Dave Dombrowski thought he had found his winning formula—a strong starting performance coupled with necessary offense, finished off with as little bullpen intervention as possible. With the trade for David Price as his solution to a shoddy bullpen, Dombrowski doubled down on his theory and has only seen in backfire. There is still plenty of baseball left to play before the playoffs, but as of now, it seems as if ignoring his team’s problems has only made them worse.

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