How the Detroit Tigers' bullpen will change under AJ Hinch

Evan Petzold
Detroit Free Press

Detroit Tigers reliever Buck Farmer has already earned a nickname from manager AJ Hinch.

Hinch, announced Oct. 30 as the team's manager, informed Farmer of significant changes coming to the bullpen in 2021. The 46-year-old manager is throwing out concrete labels and defined roles, meaning Farmer isn't his set-up man, as some would have expected.

As for the nickname? Elder statesman.

"I've never felt like a veteran before," Farmer said in response, laughing. "But I guess I have to."

[ Tigers' Buck Farmer has matured to the point of asking Casey Mize for advice ]

Farmer, who's spent parts of seven seasons in the majors, most recently worked as the eighth-inning pitcher, giving way to closer Bryan Garcia for the ninth. The seventh inning belonged to either Gregory Soto or Jose Cisnero.

But that's not how Hinch plans to steer the bullpen moving forward. 

"Roles and how I see it all factoring in, we're so far away from that, but I like soft roles more than I like defined innings," Hinch said Thursday. "Don't get too rigid in the use of your bullpen because whoever you name closer you might need in the seventh or eighth inning. I've shown myself to do that in the past."

Detroit Tigers reliever Buck Farmer pitches in the fifth inning against the Oakland Athletics at Comerica Park, Sunday, May 19, 2019.

Last season, the Tigers' bullpen was marred by inconsistency. The group finished with a 4.94 ERA, sixth worst in the majors. But despite the ugly collective performance, Garcia had a breakthrough second year with a 1.66 ERA in 21⅔ innings. Cisnero registered a 3.03 ERA and 34 strikeouts in 29⅔ innings, and Farmer (3.80 ERA) was steady for his second season in a row.

From 2020 season: Detroit Tigers feel 'most comfortable' with Bryan Garcia as closer

Soto touched 100 mph with his fastball on 22 occasions, but his command faltered down the stretch. He had a 4.30 ERA, 29 strikeouts and 13 walks in 23 innings.

"We have good arms," Hinch said. "We have some prospects that need to take a step forward. We also have some breakthrough guys. Again, I think there's some opportunity to add to that depending on how the winter goes."

If there's one message Hinch wants to make clear, it's that he believes in using one guy for multiple innings. In 2020, the three-batter rule was implemented, meaning all pitchers must face a minimum of three batters per outing unless the inning ends.

"It's important for you to be able to get through that pitch count and that growing pitch count," Hinch said, "or the matchups that happen when I can leave you in a game."

There's another thing, too: Hinch pays attention to rest periods, so he doesn't want to force relievers to warm up in the bullpen unless they're going to be used in the game.

When Hinch first started managing, with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2009, veteran managers gave him the scoop on the best practice for managing a bullpen: "AJ, don't blow your bullpen out in the bullpen."

"It's the last thing you do when you build a team and the first thing you ask your general manager for when things aren't going well," Hinch said. "It's like, 'Give me another bullpen arm, give me another bullpen arm.'"

Solving Joe Jimenez

Hinch remembers meeting reliever Joe Jimenez, the Tigers' ex-closer (as of last season), at the 2018 All-Star Game. At the time, Jimenez was a rising star in the organization and known as the closer of the future.

It was only a matter of time before he broke records, the franchise thought.

"He was so excited to get to pitch in that game and feel like an All-Star with his peers," Hinch said. "In the world of setting the bar high, how much higher can you get than being named an All-Star?"

[ Tigers' Joe Jimenez was an All-Star. Where it went wrong and how he can fix it ]

American League pitcher Joe Jimenez of the Detroit Tigers pitches in the fourth inning in the MLB All Star Game at Nationals Ballpark on July 17, 2018 in Washington, D.C.

Jimenez's fastball sits at 95 mph but rides up to 98 mph, and his wipeout slider is a tough task for any batter. But when Jimenez loses control, which happened quite often in 2020, his opponents turn him into batting practice.

Despite seven scoreless innings to finish the year, Jimenez ended with a 7.15 ERA. He gave up seven homers in 22⅔ innings. For a brief stretch, former manager Ron Gardenhire didn't know when to put him in games.

No matter what he tried, Jimenez crumbled. This happened in 2019, too.

[ Why Joe Jimenez is angry with Twins' Miguel Sano: 'He was wrong' ]

Detroit Tigers right-handed pitcher Joe Jimenez's 2020 MLB percentile rankings from Statcast.

Hinch hopes pitching coach Chris Fetter and assistant pitching coach Juan Nieves, who will work primarily in the bullpen, can unlock the closer of the future the Tigers have banked on for years.

"Feds and Juan are going to have to attack the differences between 2018, 2019, 2020 in the different performances that he's had," Hinch said.

[ What makes Detroit Tigers pitching coach Chris Fetter the perfect hire ]

Don't forget that Jimenez is only 25 years old.

"I think Joe is still a good, viable pitcher going into the future," general manager Al Avila said last month. "At the end, you saw the velocity spike up and the sharpness of his slider getting better and, of course, he's got the changeup. I think he's still a guy that you can count on as we move forward."

Evan Petzold is a sports reporting intern at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.