Tigers' bullpen showing signs of slowing by the numbers

Four-run eighth inning results in loss to Astros, spoils debut of City Connect uniforms

May 11th, 2024

DETROIT -- Andrew Chafin’s personality has made him a fan favorite during his stints as a Tiger, but his entrance music -- Garth Brooks’ classic, “Friends in Low Places” -- has turned his appearances at Comerica Park into a sing-along that continues after the music stops and his outing begins.

Fans were still singing the chorus on Friday night, when Jose Altuve’s first-pitch line drive landed in left field for a leadoff single to put Houston’s tying run on base in the eighth inning for Kyle Tucker and Yordan Alvarez.

“That’s a huge hit,” catcher Jake Rogers said. “They say hitting’s contagious. The first guy gets on and kind of makes things go.”

Had the song continued, it might have still been playing when Alvarez singled past a diving Spencer Torkelson and down the right-field line following Tucker's walk to tie the game and put the go-ahead run on third; the Astros’ rally happened that quickly. From that point on, the Tigers were headed for their own low point in a 5-2 loss.

At 19-19, Detroit is at .500 for the first time all season, having lost six of seven. On a night that the club debuted its Motor City-themed City Connect jerseys, the bullpen might be showing signs of running low on gas.

To be fair, Tigers relievers haven’t exactly been pounded. Jason Foley’s loss on May 3 at Yankee Stadium included three ground-ball singles, one a bunt against a shifted infield. David Fry’s game-tying home run off Chafin on Wednesday in Cleveland was a 334-foot drive with a .100 expected batting average that stayed fair, setting up extra innings for a Brayan Rocchio walk-off single off Alex Lange with the infield in.

Houston’s rally Friday included a go-ahead ground ball through the middle from Jeremy Peña and a Matt Vierling error on an Alex Bregman grounder through his legs.

“I think we’re still going,” Rogers said. “Kind of lacked some timely hits and a little luck. I mean, Foley came in, needed some ground balls and got some ground balls. They just hit it in the hole. I think we’re just missing this little piece and hopefully we can find a piece, put it back in the puzzle and get going.”

Tigers relievers allowed a .201 average in March and April, third-lowest in the Majors, and a .277 weighted on-base average (wOBA), sixth-lowest in the Majors, according to Statcast. Their .235 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) was an MLB best.

Those numbers haven’t completely flipped in May, but they’ve shown signs of regression: a .228 batting average, .285 wOBA and .298 BABIP. Their hard-hit rate has risen from 35.1 percent in March/April (sixth lowest) to 42.4 percent in May (fourth highest).

Detroit still ranks fifth among MLB teams with a 2.95 bullpen ERA for the season, and sixth with a .206 batting average. But for a team that has had to try to win a lot of close games, that thin margin can make a difference. Houston’s four-run rally meant the Tigers avoided another one-run loss, leaving the Astros alone atop the Majors with nine.

Chafin pitched for the fourth time in six days with the top of Houston’s order in mind, but his outing lasted just eight pitches, half of them on Tucker's walk.

On came Foley, who pitched in 14 of Detroit’s first 29 games, but had thrown just 20 pitches over two outings this month between last Friday’s blown save and his seventh-inning appearance on Wednesday. He kept the Astros on the ground aside from a Yainer Diaz sac fly.

Foley has always been a ground-ball pitcher, but he also hasn’t recorded a strikeout in 15 batters since fanning back-to-back Royals to finish off a save on April 28. His four-seamer, a pitch to change eye levels in April, has been used less in May in favor of the sinker, which had dropped in velocity from 97.3 mph in April to 96.5 in May entering Friday.

“I think his aggressiveness in the strike zone has been a tick off lately,” manager A.J. Hinch said. “Not by his own approach; I mean, he wants to pound the strike zone. And there have been some ground balls that have gone through. They’ve hit a few balls hard recently, and he’s been a little bit of a victim of circumstance other times.

“Such is the case sometimes with heavy sinker guys. Contact can hurt you from time to time.”