In a season of positive memories for Detroit, there was one point in June (the 28th and 29th to be exact) that particularly stood out in my mind. Tigers pitching gave up 30 runs over a span of 2 games against the Mets. Rick Porcello, Daniel Schlereth, Phil Coke, Al Alburquerque, and David Purcey were among the worst offenders during these two games and spurned a tirade from the excellent Dan Dickerson from Tigers Radio that he summed up with the words, “Championship teams do not allow these things to happen. Plain and simple.”
Those two games culminated a first half of the season that saw very irregular pitching from the club, most notably the bullpen. Being a club that historically fell apart under Jim Leyland during the second half of each season, the reality of a 49-43 record at the half with 413 runs scored vs. 421 runs against was that the Tigers would once again collapse and allow the Cleveland Indians or Chicago White Sox to take over 1st place.
But then something happened. July, August, and September came and went and the Tigers went 46-24 and scored 374 runs while allowing only 290, for a run differential of +84. A winning percentage of .657 was otherworldly and propelled the Tigers into Game 6 of the American League Championship Series where their Cinderella season finally ended (that, and the fact that the A.L. Central is one of the weakest divisions).
But what was the reason? The offense? Sure, but the offense which scored a total of 787 runs (or 4.85 per game) was no better or worse than the 2010 club which scored 751 runs (or 4.63 per game).
The pitching, rather the second half pitching, was the difference between 2011 and 2010, and more specifically the first half of 2011 and the second half.
For example, the Tigers were 48-38 and had a run differential of +11 in the first half of 2010. The second half ended with a 33-43 record, a -3 run differential, and a .434 winning percentage. The pitching allowed 353 runs to score, an increase of 63 from a year later.
In the first half of 2011 the Tigers run differential was -8. In the second half it was +84, but the offense remained relatively the same. It was the pitching that significantly improved their run prevention (and don’t even get me started on team defense. I can’t stand trying to look at and decipher defense stats).
So what happened? Why was the 2011 second half team so much more efficient than the first half? Execution is one explanation, but one big change occurred from the 1st half to the 2nd half and that was Phil Coke. This simple move by no means was the only reason that the Tigers succeeded in the second half last year. Doug Fister and Justin Verlander had a lot to do with that as well, as well as a division that collapsed around them, but what Coke’s move from the starting rotation to the bullpen did was relieve pressure from Jose Valverde, Joaquin Benoit, and Al Albuquerque.
Phil Coke was a starter from April-June. He didn’t belong there, that was simple enough to see. In 14 first half games (all as a starter), Coke was 1-7, with an ERA of 4.82. In 74.2 innings he allowed 81H, 30BB and had a 4.5 SO/9. In the second half, in what I consider a promotion to the seventh/eighth inning role, he threw in 34 games, pitched 34 innings and had an ERA of 3.71. His WHIP was still high with 37H and 10BB in those 29.1 innings, but his SO/9 was a much improved 8.5.
With the signing of Octavio Dotel earlier this week, the Tigers have now added a significant arm to the bullpen core of Valverde, Benoit, Coke, and Albuquerque. Given that they will also get a full season out of Doug Fister, it may be safe to assume that the 2012 Tigers pitching staff may be in a position where they can be even better, and more importantly more consistent, than in previous years. The last one which saw them in the ALCS, two wins away from a World Series berth.