MLB: Evaluating the Colorado Rockies’ offseason

The Colorado Rockies have spent big on relievers, but don’t get too excited

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(Photo Credit: Keith Allison)

In an interview with The Denver Post in early December, Jeff Bridich stated that fortifying the bullpen was the top priority. One month on, the Colorado Rockies have spent big on Bryan Shaw, Jake McGee, and Wade Davis. Instead of just improving the bullpen, Bridich has released a waterfall of cash into it, giving the Rockies a potentially lockdown bullpen if all of its members pitch at their highest level. But there are some flaws in the Rockies’ plan to build a super bullpen.

The value of a bullpen

To start, let’s look at a table and analyze the relationship between a bullpen’s strength and usage. The table below is sorted by bullpen FIP, with the best bullpen FIP team, the Cleveland Indians, on top. The “% Total Batters (TB) Faced by Relievers” column is conditionally formatted. Red shows a team in the bottom third of bullpen usage. Green shows a team in the top third of bullpen usage.    

As expected, the correlation between the teams with top line bullpens and the teams that made the playoffs is strong. Seven of the top ten bullpens’ FIP came from playoff teams. The Cubs ranked just outside the top ten at 13th and still had a bullpen FIP better than the league average bullpen FIP of 4.16. The Washington Nationals’ bullpen ranks at 17th but after posting a 4.91 bullpen FIP in the first half of the season, second worst in the majors, the Nationals acquired Sean Doolittle, Ryan Madson, and Brandon Kintzler to improve their bullpen FIP to 3.41 during the second half. The Twins, meanwhile, are the outliers, ranking 23rd in bullpen FIP.

But another tendency emerges from the table: playoff teams used the bullpen less. Five of the ten playoff teams, the Nationals, Indians, Red Sox, Diamondbacks, and Yankees, were in the bottom third of bullpen usage in the 2017 regular season. Only two playoff teams, the Twins (unexpectedly) and the Dodgers, were in the top third of bullpen usage, and they ranked ninth and tenth in usage.

The Rockies have spent a tremendous amount of money to improve an area of the team that is necessary to make the playoffs, but it cannot stand alone. Heavy bullpen usage is not a strategy used by most of the best bullpens, yet the Rockies invested as if they will use the bullpen heavily. Having a top bullpen is almost a necessity for a playoff team, but it does not push a team into the postseason. The purpose of having a good bullpen is not to lose a game that is being won.

The above table shows the accumulated WAR from the bullpens, starters and position players for the 2017 playoff teams. Even the best bullpens by WAR, the Yankees’ and the Indians’, do not come close to the starter and positional player WARs for each of the teams. For most playoff teams, the aggregate starter and position player WAR is better than 35. The bullpen is important to get to the playoffs. But since the average start lasted between 5.1 and 5.2 innings in 2017, and eight other position players play for nine innings, the bullpen is useless without quality production from the starters and position players. Investing in a bullpen makes sense when the other players can win games, but the Rockies do not have those other players.

The Rockies produced the fifth-best bullpen WAR among playoff teams and sixth best in the majors overall., but Colorado also ranked second to last in accumulated starting pitcher WAR and last in accumulated position player WAR among playoff teams. League-wide, those marks are ranked 11th and 22nd, respectively. Of the Rockies’ starters and position players, only Jon Gray (3.2), German Marquez (2.4), Charlie Blackmon (6.5), and Nolan Arenado (5.6) recorded a WAR above two, the WAR baseline for what is considered MLB starter quality. 

With the current team structure, the 2018 Rockies are looking similar to the 2017 Los Angeles Angels, who relied on the efforts of a few individuals. Mike Trout (6.9) had an MVP quality season and Andrelton Simmons (4.9) had a superstar campaign but apart from those two, only Kole Calhoun (2.2) recorded a WAR above two. Unlike the Rockies, the Angels had less starting pitching, but the Angels also had a sturdy bullpen with a 3.66 FIP, the highest among teams to not make the playoffs, and a bullpen WAR of 6.6. Meanwhile, the Angels’ starters and position players had only a 5.5 and a 16.6 accumulated WAR, respectively. The 2018 Rockies, like the 2017 Angels, have a top-heavy lineup that relies on two players to make all the plays. The Rockies might have better starting pitchers but if they perform at the same level as last year, they might not be good enough to make up for the lack of depth within the position players, especially with the Milwaukee Brewers and the St. Louis Cardinals both making offseason improvements to overtake Colorado.  


Ways to improve

The Rockies especially need more production from the position players and in many spots, the current pieces need to meet expectations. Raimel Tapia (.322 wOBA, 81 wRC+ in 171 plate appearances) and Tony Wolters (.274 wOBA, 49 wRC+ in 266 plate appearances) need to break out if they get more playing time. Trevor Story (.323 wOBA, 81 wRC+) and Ian Desmond (.305, 69 wRC+) need to play more like their 2016 selves. The Rockies also have two prospects, outfielder David Dahl and first baseman Ryan McMahon, who could directly step into the spots left by Carlos Gonzalez and Mark Reynolds. Dahl, however, missed most of last season with a back injury and has not swung a bat since July. McMahon, even though just in a tiny sample size of 24 plate appearances, hit for only a .158/.333/.211 slash line with the Rockies in September. Believing and working with the present talent is a strategy, and if the Rockies have confidence that any or all of them will step up, then they might not need to sign another player.

The Rockies could still pursue a position player in free agency. First baseman Logan Morrison is still available and could find success in Colorado if he repeats his 2017 approach that saw him hit 38 home runs and produce a fly ball rate (FB%) of 46.2%. Eric Hosmer could still be an option if the market for him stays relatively dry, though the Padres have offered him a seven-year deal. In the outfield, Jay Bruce remains available, and he could fit nicely into the Rockies lineup with his 118 wRC+, 36 home runs, and 46.7% FB% from 2017.  

The young Rockies starters German Marquez, Kyle Freeland, Jeff Hoffman, Antonio Senzatela, and Tyler Anderson need to take the next step. Even though they all had solid seasons, only Marquez recorded an ERA, FIP, and xFIP below 4.60, so all of them must build on the promising entrance into the league. The Rockies probably need not add to their starting rotation unless someone suffers an injury, but they have to work to ensure that their young pitchers contribute even more in the upcoming season.

A team usually needs a good bullpen in the regular season to make the playoffs, but having a great bullpen instead of having valuable starting pitchers or valuable position players hinders a team’s chances of making the playoffs. With the current team, the Rockies either need to see improvement from who they already have, or they need to add somebody else. If neither happens, the Rockies might not a team built for April through September while having a team built for October.