One hundred and six million dollars. That’s how much the Colorado Rockies invested in free agent relievers this offseason. That’s over six times what they spent on position players. This extreme approach will, unavoidably, dominate the rest of this preview. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
The Rockies had a successful 2017, despite their disappointing wild card loss. The fact that they made it to that game, and pushed the Dodgers for the division lead for much of the first half, constitutes a fairly large improvement over their 75-win 2016 season.
Nonetheless, there were plenty of areas for the team to address. While the team led the National League in runs scored, that masks the fact that their lineup was fairly woeful. Coors Field will do that for you. By OPS+, they were tied with the Phillies at 91 for the fifth-worst offense in baseball. Charlie Blackmon and Nolan Arenado were great; Mark Reynolds was fine (although most of his positive production came in the first half); the rest of the team ranged from below-average to downright awful.
Six months ago, a reasonable expectation for the new additions to this team would therefore have been a productive bat or two, and perhaps a more experienced starter to supplement the group of rookies that performed surprisingly well in 2017, and potential ace Jon Gray. There was also the expectation that highly-regarded prospect outfielders David Dahl and Raimel Tapia would be able to find more playing time with the departure of Carlos Gonzalez, who was truly dreadful for five months before going on one of his patented hot streaks in September.
Instead, the Rockies brought back Gonzalez to muddle that playing time situation once more, signed Chris Iannetta on a low-cost two-year deal, and spent over $100 million on relievers. As BttP’s Brandon Lee pointed out yesterday, the Rockies are in the top half of the league by FanGraphs’ positional power rankings at just four positions, and only barely at starting pitcher. For a team hoping to be in the wild card mix, this is not good.
One of the few areas in which the Rockies are rated very well is that expensive bullpen. (The other is third base, which you do not need me to tell you about, so please watch this highlights video if you need reminding why.) Many attempts have been made to deal with the extreme altitude of Coors. This super-bullpen appears to be the latest effort to ease the load on Colorado’s rotation, which may not be the worst idea in the context of a group that barely has more service time combined than top free agent signing Wade Davis has by himself. It also makes sense within a league that is more conscious than ever of the times-through-the-order penalty and the benefits of bringing in relievers earlier than at any previous point in baseball history.
What’s less clear is why the Rockies chose this particular area to spend almost all of their resources when they did also have a questionable offense and an inexperienced rotation. It may simply be a case of this being the easiest area to upgrade. Behind Adam Ottavino and Mike Dunn, the team didn’t have a whole lot of obvious options in relief coming into the offseason. Greg Holland and Jake McGee were free agents. Even Ottavino and Dunn, who had previously shown excellent skills, struggled with unsightly walk rates and were far from the elite options desirable at the back end of a bullpen. Chris Rusin put together a very handy season yet is not overpowering and does not have a long track record.
ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick spoke to Jeff Bridich and Bud Black earlier this month for an article ostensibly about why the Rockies spent $106M on this bullpen. It’s unlikely Crasnick wrote the headline himself, which probably makes it more forgivable that it’s still incredibly difficult to answer that question after reading the piece.
Black talks about the “unevenness” of relief careers and seems to cast doubt on the idea that it is a good strategy to simply take shots on young or unproven arms based on the volatility of relievers. He also refers to how “demoralizing” the failure to prevent runs at Coors can be for the team, and how good the team feels when they can close out a victory or come from behind late in a close game. Quite why it is worse at Coors than anywhere else is unclear, as is any rationale for why the team couldn’t just as easily address the problem by scoring more runs.
Did Colorado lose a disproportionate number of games in this fashion? The Rockies were second in percentage of saves converted in 2017, at 76 percent, and led the league in holds. They did have slightly more blown leads than comeback wins, at 30-29, and 8 walk-off losses to 5 walk-off wins. Those blown leads were actually a huge improvement on 2016, when they surrendered 48. Black has only been manager of the Rockies for a year, of course, but his experience with the Padres in 2015 was very similar in terms of these statistics. Colorado was much better late in the game than that team too, going 74-6 when leading at the start of the seventh, compared to 48-6 in San Diego.
In fact, the Rockies had an outstanding bullpen overall in 2017, as Eno Sarris documented at FanGraphs last September. Repeating that success, rather than trying to do anything new, may be the goal here. As a team that was comfortably over .500, it may also have felt like the Rockies were punching a bit below their weight in the later innings. Although nothing about this is particularly predictive, it might help to explain why the team placed a high priority on acquiring multiple relievers they felt they could rely on to hold a lead.
Both Bridich and Black refer to confidence and mentality. Bridich talks about Jake McGee having to “figure it out” after being traded to Colorado – “it” presumably being the challenge of pitching at Coors. McGee, also interviewed for the piece, discusses the fatigue element of a long homestand. Bryan Shaw’s durability is referenced, and Shaw himself states the importance of “being smart, knowing my arm and my body”, making sure the coaching staff know when he needs a day off.
Let’s talk about the additions in this light. McGee returns to the team for a third season after re-signing in free agency. His first experience with Coors was not a positive one, as he experienced a huge drop in strikeout rate and allowed 11 hits per nine on his way to a 4.73 ERA and 1.58 WHIP. Those numbers improved drastically to 3.61 and 1.10 in 2017, as McGee’s strikeout rate ticked back up above 25 percent. As Sarris notes, McGee is an incredibly fastball-heavy pitcher and has adjusted to the differences in movement he experiences at Coors, ensuring he doesn’t leave the pitch out over the middle of the plate. Combined with Black and Bridich’s comments about the value of having those players with the mentality and ability to make those adjustments, it’s not surprising that the team wanted him back.
Unlike McGee, Shaw and Davis don’t have that lengthy experience of making adjustments to Coors. What Shaw does have is an almost unmatched combination of experience, durability, and relative youth. He’s still just 30 and has made at least 70 appearances in each of the past five seasons. The former Cleveland reliever has essentially never missed time in the majors. How much that relates to his comments about knowing his body and asking for days off is impossible to know. Far clearer is the fact that Rockies management places great value on that durability and willingness to communicate. It also helps that Shaw has been very good, never failing to be an above-average pitcher since he made the majors, or posting a K-BB% below 13 percent.
If those two moves had been the only two relief additions, this offseason might have seemed a little less extreme. Colorado then went out and spent the same amount of money as they did on both McGee and Shaw to acquire Davis. No reliever has ever received a higher per-year salary than Davis will from the Rockies. In some respects, that’s justified: Davis has some of the finest relief seasons in recent memory under his belt. In 2014, he struck out nearly 4o percent of batters on his way to a 1.00 ERA. He somehow improved that in 2015 to 0.94, and even if the peripherals didn’t quite support it, they were still exceptional.
Then there are the red flags. Davis missed a chunk of the 2016 season with a forearm strain that seemed to sap his velocity. While his return in 2017 with the Cubs was largely successful, it wasn’t the Davis of 2014 who emerged. A walk rate spike to 11.6 percent was concerning and the 32-year-old actually started giving up home runs. For Davis, that still means at a below-average rate, yet his six in 2017 doubled his total from the previous three years combined. The fastball was still at or above 95mph on a regular basis, but it seems he can no longer get to triple-digits as peak Davis used to. As I wrote at BP Wrigleyville in November, he has also seen worse results with the pitch despite apparently being more cautious with its placement.
Putting aside those concerns, Davis has still largely been what the Rockies seem to be prioritising: a dependable, durable, experienced bullpen arm with a track record of success, particularly when it comes to not giving up leads. Davis has blown just five saves in 81 chances since becoming a full-time closer in 2015. Reading Black and Bridich’s comments, as well as between the lines a little, this does all seem to be about mentality and confidence as much as it is the performance itself. That’s not just the confidence in, or of, the relievers in question, but also from the starters and position players, who – if Black’s comments are to be believed – are a bit tired of saying “here we go again” when another lead is blown. How do you value the psychological or social benefit of the bullpen not blowing the game as often?
This is veering dangerously into the territory of clubhouse chemistry and player motivation. We can’t know how much extra value the Rockies think a shutdown bullpen has beyond simply the outs they get on the field. They just had one in a year in which they did fairly well, so perhaps that’s all the evidence they need. The emphasis placed on the value of experience also lends some weight to the idea of signing these multi-year deals. If the team really believes that has a significant impact, and recent acquisitions like McGee and Boone Logan suggest it might, then this unit could be exceptional in 2019.
The Rockies would really like it to work in 2018, of course. McGee was a good reliever in Tampa Bay who took at least a full season to adjust to Colorado. Neither Shaw nor Davis has tried to make that adjustment yet. Presumably the Rockies think that they have the right players and staff to make that change as smooth and effective as possible. Holland certainly seemed to perform well despite his injury layoff and no prior experience of the environment. Neither Ottavino nor Dunn has shown they can bounce back from their poor seasons. No matter how much the free agent trio can pitch, they will both be needed on a regular basis too.
If it doesn’t work, there isn’t much flexibility here. This influx of free agents combined with the experience already on the roster means that the top six in the bullpen – Davis, Shaw, McGee, Dunn, Ottavino, and Rusin – can no longer be sent down to the minors easily. The first four of that group are locked in until at least 2020. If players are getting tired and overworked, especially if that inexperienced rotation isn’t going much beyond four or five innings, some judicious use of the disabled list might be required to bring in fresh arms, because Colorado isn’t going to be able to rotate two or three spots amongst players who have options.
Although you might not know it from the bullpen emphasis in this preview, or the comments of the manager and front office, the relievers may also end up playing a less significant role than the investment suggests. If the lineup is as mediocre as last season and the rookie starter success doesn’t translate, Wade Davis and company will be the ones saying “here we go again”.
Adding to the bullpen was logical given what the team had going into the offseason. It’s clear why the Rockies targeted relievers. It’s not hard to explain why they targeted these relievers. It’s still difficult to figure out why they signed all three and almost exclusively focused on this area. It’s hard to keep a lead you don’t have in the first place.
Prediction: 83-79, just missing the second wild card.
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