Ausmus views playoff bullpens as anomaly

Tigers skipper doesn't see relievers getting heavy workload in regular season

Ausmus views playoff bullpens as anomaly

DETROIT -- Like many managers, Brad Ausmus doesn't expect the heavy bullpen usage that transpired during the postseason to become a regular-season trend. With too many games and too few off-days, the Tigers' skipper believes relievers -- even great ones like Andrew Miller -- would break down.

"I don't know that you could throw that many innings on a regular basis," Ausmus said during the Winter Meetings earlier this month. "The playoffs are going to change the way a bullpen is used, even the way starters are used. Starters are often taken out earlier as a result, if you have a stronger bullpen. Just doesn't happen in a regular season because you [would] get to August and the bullpen would be shot."

Detroit has long been a club that leveraged its starting rotation to pitch deep into games. It was a dominant strength during the Tigers' run of American League Central titles, thanks to a rotation that included Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez and Rick Porcello. By the end, the Tigers went into the 2014 AL Division Series with three former Cy Young Award winners in Verlander, Scherzer and David Price.

The downfall in 2013 and '14 was the bullpen, not just the relative weakness of their own, but the strength of the opposition. In '14, Orioles starters completed six innings only once in their best-of-five AL Division Series, but swept the Tigers in three games with a 'pen that included Miller, who pitched in two of the three outings.

The O's and Royals both had strong, deep bullpens that postseason, and leveraged them accordingly in games. They still approached the regular season in a traditional manner. Two years later, Miller was the workhorse of the Indians' staff, tossing 19 1/3 innings while pitching in 10 of their 15 postseason games. During the regular season, however, Miller pitched 74 1/3 innings over 70 appearances, averaging an inning per appearance even in the final month.

Miller, of course, began his career with the Tigers -- first as a reliever almost straight out of the Draft in 2006, then joining the rotation for 13 starts the next year.

"A lot was made of Andrew Miller and how he was used multiple innings," Ausmus said, "and obviously [Indians manager Terry Francona] did an outstanding job with him. The one thing, people often look at that and say, 'Well, maybe that's going to be going forward, the style of reliever you want with a type of bullpen you want to build around.'

"Well, the problem with that is you've got to find an Andrew Miller, and they don't grow on trees. You know, [Francona] did a great job with his bullpen, but if you can find me another Andrew Miller, let me know. We'll stick him in our bullpen and see if it works. It's not that simple."

Tigers pitchers threw exactly 1,428 innings this past season, third-fewest among Major League teams. That was mainly the result of one fewer game played -- they never made up their Sept. 29 rainout at home against the Indians because it ended up having no playoff implications. If they had played that 162nd game and received just three innings from their scheduled starter, the Tigers would have been sixth in the AL. However, they received 918 2/3 innings from their starters, 13th most among MLB clubs and eighth in the AL.

What the Tigers haven't had, as Ausmus noted, is a dominant reliever to bridge the gap between starters and their closer. Bruce Rondon has filled that role at times, but not to nearly the same extent or regularity of Miller or his peers.

The last time the Tigers had a bullpen group that would compare to this year's Indians or last year's Royals was 2006, when rookie Joel Zumaya and Fernando Rodney supported then-closer Todd Jones. Rodney pitched longer than three outs twice that postseason, and Zumaya once. A decade later, it's interesting to wonder if either would have been used differently in this era.

Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for since 2002. Read Beck's Blog, follow him on Twitter @beckjason and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.