Rockies problems deeper than Ottavino

The Colorado Rockies just can’t catch a break.

Earlier this week, Rockies fans everywhere were finally delivered the news that they’d feared since the club suddenly put Adam Ottavino on the disabled list last week and dropped ominous hints regarding ever since: The team’s newly minted closer will likely require Tommy John surgery and miss the remainder of the 2015 season, presumably along with a sizable chunk of 2016, as well.

Understandably, fans are taking it pretty hard.

Ottavino has been the team’s best pitcher by far in the young 2015 season, with a 0.00 ERA in 15 appearances. With a fastball up four miles-per-hour from just two seasons ago and three near-unhittable sliders in his repertoire, the 29-year old was quickly becoming the shut-down reliever that the club had been sorely missing since Rafael Betancourt was in prime form from 2010-12.

Even in the media, pundits have cited many stats associated with the rise of the bullpen (thank you, 2014 Kansas City Royals) as prophecies of doom now that Ottavino will be out of commission for the foreseeable future.

But as unfortunate as it is for Colorado to lose their most electric and entertaining pitcher, and even more unfortunate for Ottavino himself, objectively, the Rockies’ bullpen shouldn’t be devastated by the injury.

John Axford and the aforementioned Betancourt both have had extremely successful runs as closers in the past, and are both currently healthy and pitching pretty good baseball for the Rockies (1.14 ERA in 15.2 IP). Plus, there’s no reason to believe that a healthy LaTroy Hawkins can’t return to the form we saw last season, which was at the very least serviceable (3.31 ERA, 1.20 WHIP), though admittedly not ideal closer material.

In other words, the Rockies are at least within the realm of having things break the right way with their bullpen.

But there’s a saying in baseball: The best bullpen is the one that’s not getting used. Those words are true, and the Rockies are using theirs extensively. In fact, Colorado is one of the worst three teams in the league in terms of innings pitched by a bullpen per game. And the reason for it is simple: The Rockies don’t have any starting pitching. Knowing that, it should also come as no surprise then that Colorado’s five quality-starts through 24 games ranks them last in baseball, almost half the number of the next closest team.

Here’s another fun fact about baseball: The best reliever in the world will only be able to have an effect on your team for around 80 innings per season. A reasonable starting pitcher should be able to have an effect on your team for 200 innings per season.

Adam Ottavino, even as the most devastating pitcher on the roster, isn’t worth much to a team whose starters consistently fail to make it through the sixth inning with the game still in doubt. His job is very much dependent on the events in the eight innings preceding his appearance. Take Aroldis Chapman, the closer for the Cincinnati Reds who just may be the most devastating pitcher in the game, for example – Chapman owns only five saves this season, good for a seven-way tie for 15th in baseball. The game has to get to him with a lead for his considerable skill set to have its maximum value.

The Rockies know this, which is why they acquired Kyle Kendrick. But Kendrick, like Jeremy Guthrie and Jon Garland (need I go on?) before him, has been anything but the innings-eater as advertised. Sure, he leads the club in innings, but they somehow seem marginalized by the 8.73 ERA they carry. While other starter ERAs may be better, the efficiency doesn’t get much better after Kendrick.

Down at AAA, the club’s “depth” at pitcher includes eight pitchers 27 years old or older versus just five under that age. Even with the experience that should bring, the best candidate to come up and start if needed is 26-year-old retread Chad Bettis, who’s sporting fairly underwhelming minor league numbers. At AA, the best current starter is – you’re going to want to sit down for this – erstwhile media punch line Yohan Flande.

Obviously, the state of starting pitching in the Rockies organization is not pretty. And unfortunately, as much of a shame as it was to see Ottavino go down for the year, in the grand scheme of things, it won’t matter much until Colorado’s starters can start gutting their way through more innings, or the club finds better starters.

I, for one, hope they can figure it out quick. It would be an even bigger shame to see more of the club’s top relievers go down with injuries because of gross overuse.

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