Series Recap: The Rockies Bullpen Isn’t That Bad

Coors Field Water Main Break

Series Recap: August 14-17, 2014

Cincinnati Reds at Colorado Rockies (Series Preview)

(Before we begin, since others on the site have already done a marvelous job covering the Todd Helton portion of this weekend, I hope you’ll forgive me for taking a bit of a different angle to this series.)

On Friday Night, August 15th, Franklin Morales was set to take the mound for the Colorado Rockies against the Cincinnati Reds in the second game of a four game series. He was a late scratch, however due the impending birth of his child. You’ll notice there was no national outrage like there was for Ian Desmond of the Washington Nationals or Daniel Murphy of the New York Mets (I get it, New York media, but the Mets were mathematically eliminated in March because Mets), but I digress. The short notice related to his departure meant that the Rockies had to go to “Johnny Wholestaff” to pitch through the game; this meant that Matt Belisle had to make his first start since 2008, then a member of the Reds.

Amazingly enough, the bullpen threw 9 innings and gave up only 3 runs, a relative miracle considering the struggled they have faced this year. This brought to mind an interaction I had on Twitter with Mitchel Lichtman, co-author of The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball, in which he claimed that the Rockies bullpen “wasn’t that bad”:

Not that bad? Could this be possible? We are talking about the Rockies here, who rank 29th in baseball in ERA, 30th in FIP, hits allowed, and home runs allowed. How could someone–especially someone as smart at Mitchel Lichtman, make such an audacious claim? After watching the bullpen pitch a whole game, I felt the time was ripe to investigate.

Bullpen Projections Investigation

Mitchel Lichtman is quite a well known name in sabermetric circles. Not only has he literally written The Book on sabermetrics (with co-authors Tom Tango and Andrew Dolphin), he also frequently interacts with folks on Twitter and produces a lot of great research about the game of baseball. He spent a lot of time earlier this season responding to questions about hot and cold starts by “harping” on the value of using “rest of season” (or ROS) projections to evaluate what a player will do going forward. He decided to further elaborate his point by investigating both hitters and pitchers who have over or under performed their projections at the 40% point of the season, and comparing their season-to-date statistics, their pre-season projections, and their rest of season performance.  Both those articles are well worth your time but, if your reaction to complex maths looks like this, then might I recommend to you Dave Cameron’s “executive summary” found on Fangraphs.

The basic conclusion is that, no matter how well or poorly a player has performed to date, the rest of season projection is far more reliable for predicting a pitcher’s performance. Fact of the matter is that these projection systems, cold and unfeeling monsters that they are, tend to pin down a player’s true talent level. A lot of very intelligent people have worked in incredible amounts of data to get them to where they are. And while they do occasionally miss on a breakout (Jose Bautista, who became a superstar at age 29, is the most ready example), overall they are worthy of trust.

Going back to Mitchel’s (or MGL) tweets. His general recommendation was to look at the members of the bullpen and investigate their ROS projections. Based on MGL’s findings, this should give us a reliable baseline of what to expect from the bullpen going forward.  We’ll start by looking at what the members of the bullpen have actually done.

There are 16 pitchers who have thrown at least one pitch in relief for the Rockies this year (that alone should tell you how much this team has been derailed from their original 7 and/or 8 man bullpen plan). Taking the lead from MGL, we will only consider those pitchers who have at least 50 TBF (Total Batters Faced) in relief this season; this eliminates from our consideration Brooks Brown (43), Wilton Lopez (36), Rob Scahill (29), Juan Nicasio (22), Yohan Flande (5), and Tyler Matzek (5).

This leaves us with the following pitchers, sorted by TBF, with the following stat lines (as of Saturday, August 16):

Pitcher G IP TBF ERA FIP ERA-
T Kahnle 47 63.0 255 3.71 3.97 87
A Ottavino 59 53.2 229 3.69 3.28 87
R Brothers 58 48.1 226 4.66 5.12 110
M Belisle 54 49.1 215 4.93 4.02 116
L Hawkins 42 41.0 170 2.85 3.37 67
N Masset 39 33.1 157 6.21 4.90 146
C Bettis 21 24.2 127 9.12 5.52 215
B Logan 32 24.1 108 5.55 4.90 131
F Morales 10 18.0 74 4.00 6.52 94
C Martin 16 15.2 69 6.89 3.77 162

*A reminder that we look at FIP (defined here) because it removes variables that are out of a pitcher’s control (like his defense behind him and luck), which helps us better understand how well a pitcher pitched (as opposed to “what happened,” which is what ERA tells us). We also have ERA- (defined here) up there to give us a sense of just how bad it’s been for Rockies pitchers, relative to the rest of the league where lower numbers are better.  

Let’s take note of a few things here. First, it must be stated that ERA is not a great tool for evaluating bullpens (one bad game can unjustly penalize a pitcher, and allowing inherited baserunners to score will not hurt them), but it is one of the primary tools being used to deem the Rockies bullpen as “sub-optimal.”

That is why we are also looking at FIP. FIP has some predictive value (certainly more than ERA), so we can see that some guys have pitched better than their results would lead us to believe, most notably Chris Martin, Matt Belisle, and even Adam Ottavino. Also Chad Bettis, but it’s still bad (hence the nickname “Bad Chettis”) so we’ll move on. There are also a few who have been a bit worse, but let’s not concern ourselves with that. After all, it is pretty clear that the bullpen has struggled. But we are already seeing evidence that they haven’t been as bad as we have thought.

Let’s compare these to-date FIP performances and compare them to their Rest Of Season (ROS) projections to get a better sense of what we might expect from these pitchers going forward. We’ll keep TBF and ERA, just so we remember how much and how bad, and we’ll look at the ROS FIP projections from ZiPS and Steamer, two projection systems found on Fangraphs and updated throughout the season.

Pitcher TBF ERA ROS FIP
T Kahnle 255 3.71 4.71/4.20
A Ottavino 229 3.69 3.56/3.54
R Brothers 226 4.66 3.89/3.96
M Belisle 215 4.93 3.60/3.72
L Hawkins 170 2.85 3.76/3.82
N Masset 157 6.21 4.66/4.17
C Bettis 127 9.12 4.89/3.95
B Logan 108 5.55 3.91/3.28
F Morales 74 4.00 5.34/5.02
C Martin 69 6.89 4.38/3.58

There is a lot of regression to look out for on this table, both of the good kind and the bad kind. There are a few pitchers who seem to be pitching a little better than we’d expect, including Tommy Kahnle (which is no surprise considering he was a Rule 5 pick) and Franklin Morales (yes, Frankie has pitched better than expected, but bear in mind this only considers the innings he pitched as a reliever).

Much more importantly, we can see there are several players who, according to ZiPS/Steamer, are much better than what we’ve seen out of them through 4 plus months of the season. Couple the data with our lessons learned from MGL and we see that we can reasonably expect Rex Brothers, Matt Belisle, and Boone Logan to improve (oh, and Chad Bettis but only because nobody can be that bad, right?). Furthermore, we see 5 members of this bullpen who appear to have a “true talent level” of a sub-4.00 FIP, which tells us that we have 5 pretty good bullpen arms, and at least 2 more that can be considered “interesting.”

So what have we learned, really? The main gist of MGL’s analysis can be summed up with this quote:

Even after 5 months, forget about how your favorite pitcher has been pitching, even for most of the season. The only thing that counts is his projection, which utilizes many years of performance plus a regression component, and not just 5 months worth of data. It would be a huge mistake to use those 5 month stats to predict these pitchers’ performances.

Sub out “5 months” for “4+ months” and you pretty much have what we’ve been considering. What projection systems and advanced metrics allow us to do is investigate what’s really going on in baseball; they are tools to use in our search for the truth of what’s going on between the lines. Using these tools we can glean a lot about the Rockies bullpen as it’s currently constructed. While there don’t seem to be any “world-beaters” on this staff, there are several good pitchers. And, if we are willing to trust his research, this would substantiate MGL’s claim that, from a talent perspective, the Rockies bullpen doesn’t seem to be any better or worse than average.

What does this tell us about next year? Not enough, honestly. Because of the small samples sizes inherent with bullpen performance the task of building a bullpen is one of the hardest a GM has to undertake. We can see that there are several people who deserve a bit more of a chance and will get it because of their contract status (however bad that Boone Logan contract looks, he still has talent and, therefore, great value for this team), though there are others who may have to wait a while for that chance.

To summarize, don’t expect the bullpen to stay this bad, and look for Rex Brothers, Matt Belisle, and Boone Logan specifically to improve. After all, there’s no way they or anyone else from this group (including Chad “8 shutout innings for the Sky Sox” Bettis) can stay as bad as they have been forever, right? Right?!

Game Recaps

That was a fun weekend. I think we can all forgive that water main for breaking on Saturday, since it gave us this epic day of awesome, baseball-related action. I’ll briefly address the games of the series here before diving further into Sunday’s events on a separate post.

Thursday night, which was technically before the start of Helton Weekend, was all about Jorge De La Rosa. His lone blemish was a gargantuan home run off the bat of Ryan Ludwick. Otherwise DLR pitched well, throwing 7 innings, allowing 3 runs (all earned) on 5 hits, 1 walk and 5 strikeouts. This turned out to be especially important when the Rockies had to use the entire bullpen the next night. Also, Charlie Culberson (career .220/.265/.328 hitter) did this to put the game out of reach, which is surprising:

Yeah, of course he did. Rockies went on to win 7-3.

Friday night was a bit tighter affair. We previously discussed the contributions of the pitching staff. In a cruel twist, it was a regular old bullpen let down tonight, as Adam Ottavino (ace of the bullpen) allowed the game winning run in the top of the 9th inning. This was because Johnny Cueto–otherwise known as one of the two best right-handed pitchers in the National League this season–absolutely mowed through the Rockies hitters, striking out 6 in 8 innings of dominanct work. The Rockies tied the game in the 6th inning on a Corey Dickerson double, but the team was unable to bring around any more runs and it ended up costing them. As a side note: Chapman recorded his first appearance without a strikeout in over 49 appearances. Anyway, the Rockies fell to the Reds in this game by the final score 4-3.

Saturday’s game was postponed. While there is no way the Rockies could plan on a water main break, it still does feel like quite the metaphor for the season.

If you spent all day at Coors Field on Sunday, you experienced probably one of the most memorable days of the season, if not Rockies history. The details: the Rockies did a great job honoring their franchise icon, Todd Helton, in a moving pregame ceremony before the first game of the doubleheader:

Then a Coors Field Classic erupted in the first game. The Rockies jumped out to an early lead before the Reds began piling on runs in the 4th, 5th and 6th innings. The Rockies got 2 back in the 7th but allowed 2 more in the 9th. Going into the bottom of the 9th the Rockies were down 9-5 and it looked like a real downer of game for Helton. Four walks from the indomitable Aroldis Chapman and a sac fly later the Rockies had cut it to 9-7 when Drew Stubbs did this to give the Rockies the 10-9 win.


But there was more where that came from in the night cap. Due to an extra-long first game, there wasn’t much downtime in the turnaround. In the top of the 7th, with the Reds up 4-2, Reds speedster Billy Hamilton stole second, advanced to third on the throwing error, and came around to score on a sac fly making it 5-2. This sequence seemed likely to doom the Rockies but this was a different sort of day…

The Rockies scored 3 in the bottom of the 7th to tie the game.  Two of these runs scored on what appeared to be a tailor-made double play when Reds third baseman Ramon Santiago threw away the throw to first. But that was just the start. In the 8th inning, the Rockies tacked on 5 more runs to extend their lead to–oh wait, Michael Cuddyer has a cycle all of a sudden?

That was pretty fun. We might have to examine this monumental day a little bit more in depth in the coming days. In the meantime, relish in what was most assuredly one of the best days in Rockies history as the Rockies swept the double-header with a 10-5 win in the nightcap.

Looking Ahead

Colorado Rockies Record: 49-75

Games Behind, NL West: 20  (First Place: Los Angeles Dodgers)

Games Behind, NL Wild Card: 16.5  (Leaders: St Louis Cardinals, San Francisco Giants)

Run Differential: -69

ESPN Playoff Odds: 0.1% (<— who do they think they’re kidding?)

Games Remaining: 38

Next Series: 2 games vs Kansas City Royals (68-55, First in AL Central, 1.5 games ahead Detroit Tigers)

Again, that was perhaps the most fun the Rockies have had in 3 months.

This bullpen had to work hard this weekend, so it’s a good thing the Rockies get two off-days this weekend. In between those off-days, the Royals bring a division title race to town. It was back in May when a weekend series at Cincinnati and a subsequent 2 game series in Kansas City began the death spiral that is that 2014 season. Perhaps this time around can start the opposite, all while playing spoiler to the Royals.

About Adam Peterson

Born and raised in Denver, I stopped playing baseball in high school due to a lack of what some would call “talent,” but then my passion for the game, and the Rockies, only grew. I went to the University of Colorado at Boulder to study Civil Engineering, where I picked up a minor in Applied Statistics. After college I took a job in suburban Memphis, over 1,100 miles away from Coors Field. While my Rockies-loving wife and I enjoy spending time out and about in Memphis, any free time spent not doing something baseball-related is a rare moment indeed.
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