Examining the Colorado Rockies bullpen revival

Aug 18, 2021; Denver, Colorado, USA; Colorado Rockies relief pitcher Daniel Bard (52) reacts after a game against the San Diego Padres at Coors Field. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The Colorado Rockies had one of the worst bullpens in the league in 2021. 

The Colorado Rockies also had one of the worst bullpens in the league in 2020 and 2019.

Yet, very quietly and without a lick of fanfare, they may have turned a corner midway through last season.

In studying this, I came across a fact that is truly one for the Strange Files. Despite being in the bottom five in ERA, blown saves, WHIP, and all the other important stats by season’s end, almost every single pitcher in the ‘pen rated out above average.

How is that even possible?

To begin, it’s important to have an understanding of ERA+, a helpful statistic that adjusts for the league and the ballpark.

In theory, it should account for Coors Field’s high run scoring environment, how juiced the baseballs are or aren’t any given season, and the quality of hitters that year.

It works on a scale where 100 represents the league-average pitcher. A 90 ERA+ means that a pitcher is roughly 10 percent below league average and a 110 ERA+ means that a pitcher is roughly 10 percent above the league average. 

Much like its offensive counterpart OPS+, though, ERA+ can be a bit extreme in its adjustments, making things a little bit more complicated for the Rox.

For example, Daniel Bard had a bad season and everyone who saw it, including Daniel Bard, would tell you so. He pitched 65.2 innings last season with a 5.21 ERA and eight blown saves. But his ERA+ of 91 suggests he was not good but not terrible.

To be fair, Bard had several individual outings where he was good, especially in the second half (which we will get back to) but this number belies his true struggles a year ago. 

So it should be taken with a grain of salt when I tell you that when the 2021 campaign wrapped, the Rockies had eight relievers who posted an ERA+ of 100 or better. Salt or no, that’s pretty shocking.

Don’t worry, it gets weirder.

The Rockies actually traded their best reliever, Mychal Givens (174 ERA+) at the deadline, so he doesn’t even count in all of this.

So, what happened?

First, generally speaking almost everyone was much worse in the first half and much better in the second. Players like Robert Stephenson (152 ERA+) Lucas Gilbreath (141 ERA+) and Jordan Sheffield (141 ERA+) who missed time due to injury returned with good performances that were just too late to save the ‘pen’s overall numbers.

Tyler Kinley (100 ERA+) turned a corner thanks to some mechanical adjustments and small changes to his approach. Carlos Estevez (108 ERA+) added a quality change-up to the mix, Jhoulys Chacin (110 ERA+) was quietly steady for most of the year, and Ashton Goudeau (112 ERA+) emerged to pitch some quality innings.

Most of the rest of the poor numbers come from pitchers who are no longer on the roster like Yency Almonte (63 ERA+) and Chi Chi Gonzalez (73 ERA+) who had become the long man.

Meanwhile, Ben Bowden (72 ERA+) and Justin Lawrence (56 ERA+) struggled in their rookie seasons but got vital experience that the latter especially appears to have put to good use. Also, Lawrence only picked up 16.2 innings.

When Colorado added Alex Colomé in the offseason and made no other transactions for this bullpen that had such dreadful numbers, many fans and analysts, myself included, wondered if they had done enough to address the issue.

That question still stands but the early results in 2022 suggest that perhaps they were right to believe in what they have.

They’ve probably been unsustainably good so far, leading MLB ERA and saves. But there is also plenty of reason to believe that this isn’t coming completely out of nowhere. Rather, it is the continuation of an upward trend that stretches back to before the All-Star game in Denver last year.

As much as a bullpen is a unit and must be able to function as one, it is also composed of individuals who can only control themselves on the mound. Well, as much as possible anyway.

And the data tells us that each individual in the Rockies bullpen right now isn’t just working on a tiny 2022 sample size of good work. If we trust these numbers, and to a degree we should, then the bullpen revival mirrors the lineup’s whereby there might not be a superstar among them but everyone in the group should be able to produce at an above average level.

A bounce back from Bard here, an anticipated growth from Lawrence there, and voila! Suddenly they’ve got a decent ‘pen.

They won’t remain nearly perfect all year. No one should expect them to. There are going to be bad nights at the office. Especially in that office. 

But the Colorado Rockies bullpen is off to a good start not because of magic or voodoo or dumb luck or even just small-sample-size randomness.

Each man-in-relief has a resumé that tells us he is more than capable of having a good year. 

Of course, the numbers are one thing and reality can often be quite a bit different. There’s a long road ahead and the toughest tests of the grind are yet to come.

The good news for the Rockies in that case comes with the fact that two of their best relievers from a year ago, Gilbreath and Stephenson, were activated ahead of Tuesday night’s game against the Phillies.

Oh right, the bullpen has been doing all of this shorthanded.

Maybe these guys can pitch a little. Let’s find out.

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