2011- 2014: The Downfall of the Rockies – Part 1 – Bullpen Blowout

As the 2015 baseball season begins, most of us have already resigned ourselves towards another miserable year, with playoff chances long-gone by May, and for most of us, with no ability to wait til next year (I assume all Cubs fans are either insane or simply enjoy pain).

 

What is really sad is that it wasn’t that long ago that we looked at each season with hope not just of a winning season but of playoffs and maybe even another return trip to the World Series. Did we get spoiled by a great 4 year run?

 

2007 – We all know about 2007

2008 – Wrecked by major injuries to Jeff Francis and Tulo

2009 – Playoffs (ruined by DLR’s injury and Tracy’s weird desire to use Street)

2010 – Within 2 weeks of making the playoffs (undone by a bad lineup aside from CarGo/Tulo)

 

That is a pretty good 4 year run. Even 2008 held a lot of hope as we entered the season, but if you remember, the opening day game was rained out, fortunately washing out Francis’s horrible start, but bringing the countdown to the end of his season (and really, the end of his career as a front end starter), and of course that was the season of Tulo’s bat-smashing cut hand and then the groin injury many now think has been the cause of all his leg-related injuries of recent years.

 

So after 4 years of prosperity, the Rockies entered 2011 with high hopes. I still have recorded on my DVR the 2011 30 Clubs in 30 Days program from MLB Network covering the Rox. They were the near consensus front-runner to win their first division crown (still waiting), and several folks sleeper pick to return to the World Series (Mitch Williams was particularly impressed, not least because of the Rox bullpen and the expected emergence of a power closer, lefty Franklin Morales…showing once again that baseball, and player development in particular, are rarely linear progressions). By August 1st of that year the Rox had officially entered the current period of baseball purgatory they reside in, their best pitcher in franchise history was gone, and the team had lost its sense of focus, direction, and really, identity.

 

We have now been through 4 years every bit as painful as those 4 years were hopeful. Alas, no one really believes that good times are here again. Oh yes, we all think we see good things coming eventually (how long???), with the coming of Jon Grey, Eddie Butler (assuming his shoulder is not seriously injured), Kyle Freeland, Tyler Anderson, Scott Oberg, David Dahl, Raimel Tapia, Ryan McMahon, Tom Murphy, and Trevor Story (all of whom may be here by 2018), as well as the emergence of Corey Dickerson, Nolan Arenado, and Tyler Matzek. But if it doesn’t come together til 2018, that would mark a dark period every bit as bad as the post-big contract period of the early 2000s.

 

I for one, not unsurprisingly, do not see the dark period lasting that long. While I still need to write my forecast for 2015, I think they could be a .500 team this year and potentially a contender in 2016 (and given the nature of baseball, that could even happen this year, though that is about a 10% chance). But that is the future. One of the questions I had is “What Went Wrong?” How did a team on a run of solid to very good season become the bottom of the barrel, especially with so much very good young talent.

 

Early into Spring Training I came upon what I thought was the primary issue – the destruction of the bullpen, one of essential strongpoints to every good Rockies team. This is a similar thesis to what Patrick Saunders offered up in the Denver Post March 1st. But what I realized after looking at several important different aspects is that the picture is not only more difficult to figure out, but that the 2015 Rockies team may actually be a surprise to fans…at least in one key area.

 

The Thesis – The Rockies Bullpen Implosion is the Reason for Recent Hideous Failure

 

Is the relief corp really the big issue? Look at the chart below, showing us the top 11 relievers from 2010 to 2014. In every year there is always a small group (the remnant) of solid to great relievers (guys like Betencourt, Brothers (before 2014), Belisle (before late 2013), and now Ottavino. But this team cannot survive with just a few relievers who can do their job well. In 2010 and 2011 the bullpen was deep and strong (with 2010 having 6 relievers with a sub 4 ERA and 5 with sub 1.300 WHIPs, and 2011 with 7 sub 4 ERAs and 7 with sub 1.300 WHIPs). The 2011 group of relievers, on stats alone, was the best bullpen in team history, sadly undone by a starting staff that took a big step back and a weak offense with only 4 players with an OPS over .800. So in 2011 we saw that where the Rox bullpen is great but the other 2 core areas of the team are poor they are limited in their ability to even be competitive (73 wins, a decrease of 10).

But starting in 2012 we see the relievers start a slide from bad to Guinness Book of Records bad in 2014 (2012 4 sub 4 ERAs and 1 sub 1.300 WHIP, 2013 2 sub 4 ERAs and 3 sub 1.300 WHIP, and 2014 with 4 sub 4 ERAs and 5 sub 1.300 WHIPs but the 2014 group got late season help from Brown and Friedrich, saving them from 100 losses but overstates how good the bullpen was as seen by group numbers).

Is the bullpen the key to the Rockies success? Of the 3 areas of the team (starting, bullpen, and offense), the bullpen has an outsized impact, but alone cannot carry the team, but alone can cost the team from 5-15 games in the loss category and add 5-10 in the win category when excellent (think how bad 2011 would have been without that bullpen). So, is my thesis correct? Well, you decide. But wait until I give you the numbers for the starters and offense.

 

The Reality ….

 

The bullpen has been on a long slide since 2011. The 2011 group was still a great group, part of the reason why we all had so much hope going into that year. The number of innings were still low, which helped, but they had 8 relievers below 4ERA and 7 with WHIPs below 1.300. A strong bullpen cannot just have a great top 2 or 3, it has to be deep. Starting in 2012 the bullpen has been imploding with only 4 sub4 ERAs (1 sub 1.300 WHIP), followed by 2013 with 2 sub 4ERAs (3 sub 1.300 WHIPs) and 2014 with 4 sub 4 ERAs (2 of which were late season pen adds with limited appearances in Brown and Friedrich) with 5 sub 1.300 WHIPs, though again 2 of those late season adds. As much as we focus on the rotation, and clearly the starters impact the bullpen, the steady decline of the bullpen explains at least 10-15 of the losses each of those seasons, though those added wins would not have made the team a winning team save for 2013, where the bullpen probably only cost the team around 5-10 wins still not enough to get then to the playoffs.

 

My thesis is therefore not completely right, but the decline of the bullpen meant there was in the end no hope for this team to even be competitive. The sole reason, no. Arguably the most important reason in 2014, yes.

The good news? The group that the team is running out opening day features a group where all have seasons of sub 4 ERAs (aside from current long-man in Christian Bergman), lots of Ks ability (aside from Hawkins), a lot of experience (two 40 year-olds), but a number of guys who are still under 3 years of service time. This group might be awful, but has the potential of being good-to-excellent.

 

DETAILS AND INDIVIDUAL PERFORMANCES

For those who want to see the horrifying details,

Below is the chart I created. To give a little definition:

  1. This list is the top 11 relievers in terms of appearances for the team each year. As a general rule a reliever had to have at least 15 appearances to qualify (the Rox only had 9 who did such in 2013) in this list. I have focused on 4 key stats for each reliever – ERA (not the best stat for a reliever), WHIP (which gives an indication of traffic for a reliever, a key stat as it speaks to trouble they encounter, pass along to a replacement, and pitch counts), ERA+ (which provides context for the pitcher relative to all pitchers that season and adjusting for park effects), and finally FIP (or Fielding Independent Pitching, which focuses on strikeouts, walks, homers – an often useful measure of pitching performance while trying to take out luck).
  2. The pitchers do not appear in order of appearances except for the first year as I tried to keep relievers who appear over multiple years on the same row so they are easy to compare year-over-year.
  3. Only stats occurred while performing as a reliever appear where available (I was not able to find ERA+ numbers split out for starting and relieving).
  4. The team stats at the bottom of each year are the batting average allowed, the OPS allowed, the relief corp’s combined ERA and WHIP (all relievers, not just the top 11).
  5. I have also included the total reliever innings to give a feel for how much the bullpen actually appeared during the season.

 

ERA/WHIP/ERA+/FIP ERA/WHIP/ERA+/FIP
2010 2010 2011 2011
Huston Street 3.61/1.056/129/3.37 Huston Street 3.86/1.217/119/3.88
Matt Belisle 2.93/1.087/158/2.68 Matt Belisle 3.25/1.264/141/3.07
Manny Corpas 4.62/1.412/101/1.412 Matt Lindstrom 3.00/1.222/152/3.30
Rafeal Betencourt 3.61/.963/129/2.49 Rafeal Betencourt 2.89/.866/158/2.53
Joe Beimel 3.40/1.356/137/4.59 Rex Brothers 2.88/1.303/159/2.88
Franklin Morales 6.28/1.814/75/6.29 Franklin Morales 3.86/1.286/121/5.03
Randy Flores 2.96/1.280/158/5.20 Egmar Escolona 1.75/.935/263/4.27
Matt Reynolds 2.00/.833/236/3.80 Matt Reynolds 4.09/1.303/112/4.68
Matt Daley 4.24/1.586/111/4.32 Josh Roeinke 3.78/1.260/123/3.80
Esmil Rogers* 5.88/1.574/76/3.46 Felipe Paulino 7.36/2.045/63/5.21
Manny Delcarman 6.48/1.920/74/4.64 J.C. Romero 4.32/1.800/109/3.50
Team Relief Totals .252/.724/3.99/1.290 .259/.734/3.91/1.280
Total Relief innings 487 innings 508.2
* ERA, FIP andWHIP for relief app only

 

ERA/WHIP/ERA+/FIP ERA/WHIP/ERA+/FIP
2012 2012 2013 2013
Adam Ottavino 4.56/1.392/102/3.85 Adam Ottavino 2.64/1.328/169/3.15
Matt Belisle 3.71/1.363/125/2.97 Matt Belisle 4.32/1.247/104/3.03
Carlos Torres 5.26/1.415/88/3.70 Manny Corpas 4.54/1.344/99/4.39
Rafael Betencourt 2.81/1.127/166/3.10 Rafael Betencourt 4.08/1.291/110/3.22
Rex Brothers 3.86/1.478/120/3.29 Rex Brothers 1.74/1.292/257/3.36
Josh Outman 6.91/1.326/57/3.09 Josh Outman 4.33/1.463/103/3.25
Edgmar Escolan 6.04/1.343/78/5.20 Edgmar Escolona 5.67/1.435/79/4.87
Matt Reynolds 4.40/1.430/106/4.70 Wilton Lopez 4.06/1.407/110/3.57
Josh Roeinke 3.25/1.444/143/4.72 Rob Scahill 5.13/1.470/88/4.97
Esmil Rogers 8.06/2.104/58/4.19
Will Harris 8.15/1.868/58/4.34
.274/.771/4.52/1.452 .270/.741/4.23/1.398
657 (incl. Piggback inn) 555.2

No other reliever had more than 9 appearances in 2013

 

And finally, the misery and possibilities.

 

ERA/WHIP/ERA+/FIP ERA/WHIP/ERA+/FIP
2014 2014 2015 Best Season Year
Adam Ottavino 3.60/1.277/119/3.10 Adam Ottavino 2.64/1.328/169/3.15 2013
Matt Belisle 4.87/1.438/88/3.74 John Axleford 1.95/1.140/202/2.41 2011
Tommy Kahnle 4.19/1.194/102/4.02 LaTroy Hawkins* 2.42/1.241/164/2.76 2011
LaTroy Hawkin 3.31/1.196/129/3.39 Brooks Brown 2.77/.962/156/3.71 2014
Rex Brothers 5.59/1.846/76/4.98 Boone Logan 3.23/1.179/125/3.82 2013
Nick Masset 5.80/1.778/74/4.33 Christian Friedrich 1.64/.545/XX/1.59 2014
Brooks Brown 2.77/.962/156/3.71 Rafeal Betencourt 2.81/1.127/166/3.10
Boone Logan 6.84/1.680/63/5.13 Christian Bergman First year in bullpen
Christian Friedrich 1.64/.545/XX/1.59
Chad Bettis 9.12/2.108/47/5.52 * – best season since age 35
Chris Martin 6.89/1.660/63/3.77
.276/.771/4.79/1.446
525.2
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