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As we greet you for the first first time in 2008, let us say to those Detroit Tigers fans who insist that, "It's still early," or, "It's too early to panic," let me say, "You are wrong."
When you are the only team in the game which has not won a game, when you have been through one complete circuit of a five-man starting staff which was supposed to be one of the best in baseball and that staff has gone 0-2 with an ERA of 5.72, 12th among the 14 teams in the American League, yes, it is time to panic.
Until I looked at the stats, I was prepared to argue that it was middle relief, specifically the lack of effective middle relief, which was the main reason for Detroit's inability to keep the opposition off the scoreboard with sufficient frequency to enable the Tigers to win consistently -- or in this case, to win at all. I suspect the image of Jason Grilli giving up three runs on three pitches when he came on to start the 7th inning versus Chicago Friday in a 5-5 tie that wound up an 8-5 Detroit loss is the reason for that perception. But it's a false perception.
The relief pitchers are, statistically speaking at least, doing their job. Except for the 0-3 record they have posted so far, that is. Detroit's cumulative bullpen ERA is 3.38. Not exactly sparkling, but not terrible, either. It's 6th best in the American League.
Last year, a 3.38 ERA would have been second-best among all American League bullpens, behind only the World Champion Boston Red Sox whose relief staff recorded an ERA of 3.10 in 2007.
Now, on the other side of the equation (when you are losing there are a maximum of only two things going wrong: you are a allowing too many runs, and/or you are scoring too few; this isn't quantum physics were are discussing here, you know) the big problem has a name: RISP.
Runners In Scoring Position. Batting Average with Runners In Scoring Position to be exact. Detroit's been awful when Detroit has had the chance to clear those ducks from the pond. In fact, the Tigers may own the most remarkable stat in baseball as the first week of the 2008 Championship Season wraps up today. Detroit is oh-for with RISP and less than two out! 0 for 18. Somewhat curiously, with RISP and two outs, when it's really clutch in other words, the Tigers have done better, much better, really, hitting .250 (6 for 24).
But it's still not good enough. You can get buried early in this game, buried too deep to come back and it can happen in a hurry. The Tigers know it, too. The question is, can they do anything about it?