No relief: Bullpen struggles sink Tigers and Dodgers
Loaded lineups and great starters not enough to overcome biggest weakness
The Tigers lined up three former American League Cy Young Award winners -- Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander and David Price -- in their AL Division Series starting rotation. What do they have to show for it? A first-round exit, having been swept by the Orioles.
The Dodgers turned to expected National League Cy Young Award and MVP Award winner Clayton Kershaw in Games 1 and 4 of their NL Division Series against the Cardinals. Both times, Kershaw was close to dominant for the first six innings before having the game unravel.
Managers Brad Ausmus of the Tigers and Don Mattingly of the Dodgers both were politically correct in the moments after their clubs were eliminated, but the undermining of those two high-priced teams was a bullpen that couldn't provide relief.
Over the course of a 162-game regular season, the fatal flaws of a pitching staff can be masked. But in a short series in the postseason, there is no margin of error.
The Dodgers and Tigers can attest to that.
It wasn't because they had tight purse strings.
The Dodgers set a Major League record with a $235 million payroll, ending the Yankees' 15-year reign as the biggest spenders in the big leagues. The Tigers ranked fifth at $162 million.
Both teams have marquee players. The Dodgers have the 1-2 rotation punch of Kershaw and Zack Greinke, both of whom have Cy Young Awards on their resumes, and a lineup with the veteran bats of Matt Kemp, Carl Crawford, Hanley Ramirez and Adrian Gonzalez, and the potential of Yaisel Puig.
The Tigers have those three Cy Young Award winners, plus a threatening lineup with the bats of Ian Kinsler, Torii Hunter, Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez and J.D. Martinez sitting in the top five spots in the order
There was, however, little relief in sight, and it was costly to both in their bids for a World Series championship, which the Tigers haven't celebrated since 1984 and the Dodgers haven't won since 1988.
The Tigers ranked 27th in baseball with a 4.29 regular-season ERA for their bullpen, and the Dodgers were No. 22 at 3.80. And it didn't get any better in the postseason. Tigers relievers were a combined 0-1 with a 19.29 ERA (10 earned runs in 4 2/3 innings) while they were swept by the Orioles. The Dodgers bullpen had a 6.48 ERA, converting one of two save opportunities in four games against the Cardinals.
Well take a look at the four teams that are still playing -- the Orioles and Royals in the ALCS and the Cardinals and Giants in the NLCS.
The Giants (fifth, 3.01), Orioles (sixth, 3.10) and Royals (10th, 3.30) all ranked among the top 10 teams in bullpen ERA during the regular season. The Cardinals were 17th at 3.62. And all four had late-inning success in the Division Series, combining to convert 12 of 14 save opportunities.
In a game where starting pitchers averaged fewer than six innings per start in the regular season, the value of a strong bullpen cannot be ignored.
Tigers president, CEO and general manager Dave Dombrowski knows that all too well. His team has won four consecutive division titles, but he has advanced to the World Series only once, when his club was swept by the Giants in 2012. Dombrowski has been willing to shuffle the deck among his relievers each year, but hasn't yet found a winning hand.
In the past year, he signed free-agent closer Joe Nathan and setup man Joba Chamberlain, and he made the in-season acquisition of former All-Star closer Joakim Soria to reinforce the late-inning corps. He took a shot on Jim Johnson, who had 51 and 50 saves in back-to-back seasons in Baltimore but struggled so much earlier in the season that he was released by Oakland despite his $10 million salary. And Dombrowski gambled $1 million on a comeback by Joel Hanrahan that did not work out.
Setup man Al Alburquerque had a 2.51 ERA, and rookie Blaine Hardy had a 2.54 ERA, the only Tiger relievers with more than five appearances with an ERA of 3.50 or lower.
The Dodgers had three reliable relievers -- closer Kenley Jansen (2.76), J.P. Howell (2.39) and Brandon League (2.57), but no other regular bullpen member with at least 25 appearances had an ERA below 4.00.
The Dodgers' only significant relief investment last offseason was a $9 million deal to keep former star Giants closer Brian Wilson, who, in his effort to overcome career-threatening arm injuries, compiled a 4.66 ERA in 48 1/3 innings over 61 appearances. He faced only three batters (retiring one) in the NL Division Series.
Mattingly's concern about the ability to get the game from his starter to his closer was underscored in both of Kershaw's starts. Kershaw took a 6-2 lead into the seventh inning of Game 1, but he gave up six runs in the seventh inning and finally was pulled after left-handed-hitting Matt Carpenter's bases-loaded double.
Working on short rest in Game 4, Kershaw had a 2-0 lead after 97 pitches and six innings. He was back on the mound in the seventh but never got another out, giving up a three-run home run to left-handed-hitting Matt Adams before the bullpen got the call.
There was never any relief in sight for the Tigers or Dodgers.