The Rockies’ bullpen: Things are bad, but not as bad as you might think

DENVER — Wade Davis doesn’t like to think about baseball when he wakes up in the morning. He said as much after closing out the Rockies’ 10-8 victory over the Mets on Wednesday.

“You’ve just gotta free your mind,” said Colorado’s closer.

“You’ve gotta have your outs.”

By “outs,” the 32-year-old right-hander probably meant something like “escapes” from the otherwise all-consuming occupation that is “Major League Baseball Player.” But he and the rest of Colorado’s bullpen have had a hard time getting those other kind of outs lately.

In June, a relief corps into which the Rockies invested $106 million this offseason has posted an MLB-worst 8.77 ERA. And that figure is an MLB-worst by nearly three runs — second on the list is Kansas City, at 6.02. Nearly one out of every two runners (47.9 percent) Colorado relievers have inherited this month have crossed the plate. And what was deemed to be a “super” bullpen at the season’s outset has issued 43 walks in 64 2/3 innings in that span.

While control, in particular, has led to a horrendous month for Rockies relievers, there are some metrics that show that while things have been bad, they may not be as bad as we think:

The Rockies’ bullpen has been by far the worst in baseball in several categories in June, but its FIP of 5.31 is nearly four runs lower than its ERA. And while opponents’ weighted on-base average against Colorado’s relievers this month is an MLB-worst .416, the expected weighted on-base average per Statcast (based on launch angle and exit velocity of batted balls, while factoring in real-world strikeouts and walks) is .377. And that’s not simply a Coors Field issue, mind you: the difference between actual wOBA and xwOBA against the Rockies bullpen on the road this month is 41 points (.394-.353), the most in baseball. The 39-point gap overall is the second-largest in baseball, even though the .377 xwOBA is still an MLB-high over that period. In any case, luck has played a significant role.

And while the quality of contact against Rockies relievers has been good, it hasn’t made Colorado’s bullpen the worst in baseball in that department for the month of June. The Rockies have the sixth-highest hard-hit rate (percentage of batted balls with an exit velocity of 95 mph or greater) against the bullpen, at 14.9%. And they’re tied for 10th-highest barrel rate (percentage of batted balls that were barreled) according to Statcast (2.7%).

The bullpens that have fared worse in hard-hit rate this month belong to the Rays (17.8%), Dodgers — yes those Dodgers who have gone 13-5 this month (17.4%), Reds (15.4%), Orioles (15.2%) and D-backs (15.0%). In terms of barrels, the Angels (3.9%), the (14-6) D-backs (3.6%), Nationals (3.6%), Pirates (3.3%), Phillies (3.3%), Mariners (3.2%), Orioles (3.1%), Padres (3.1%) and Rays (3.0%) ‘pens have higher rates than the Rockies’ group.

Nothing to be proud of, to be sure. But nevertheless, not the poorest bullpen performance this month in quality-of-contact terms.

“Nobody’s gonna point to luck,” Davis said while thinking back a few years in his own career. “But back in 2014 (71 appearances for the Royals, 1.00 ERA, 39 percent strikeout rate), I had some bases-loaded jams that I shouldn’t have gotten out of; got a line drive double play or something and I had a lot of good fortune and ended up having a really good year. Sometimes you don’t have that good fortune. It doesn’t seem like we’ve been getting ripped out there. Obviously the walks aren’t good. Combine those with hits, and that hurts.”

Location has been a major problem, perhaps the major problem for the Rockies bullpen of late. And no one has had more of an issue with command than Bryan Shaw, whom the Rockies signed to a three-year, $27 million contract last offseason after he proved to be one of the most reliable and effective relievers in the game over the previous several seasons with the Indians.

The hard-hit rate against Shaw has jumped dramatically, from 28.7 percent in 2017, to 38.6 percent so far this season. Of the 44 balls hit with an exit velocity 95 mph or greater against the right-hander this year, 21 (47.7 percent) have come when he’s fallen behind in the count against a hitter. Last season, that figure was 37.1 percent.

The thing is, Shaw’s velocity (94.2 mph) and spin rate (2,429 RPM) on his primary pitch — the cutter — remain virtually identical to last season. Location has burned him, leading to hitter’s counts, leading to more hard contact when Shaw has to come in to a hitter.

“Location is so important, even if you have the stuff Bryan has,” manager Bud Black said. “As a relief pitcher, especially, you can’t afford to get behind in the count consistently. Bryan’s track record tells us that he’s been in close games his entire career. That’s where he’s thrived, in pitching in those types of situations (including the World Series while with Cleveland). I think he’s got to get back to basic pitching principles — strike one, and when you get ahead, put ’em away.”

Exit velocity of batted balls against Bryan Shaw when behind in the count, 2017.
Exit velocity of batted balls against Bryan Shaw when behind in the count, 2018.

“I think I’m trying to give some of these guys a little too much credit, if that makes sense, instead of going out there and pitching my game,” Shaw said at the end of May. “Trying to make the perfect pitch to this guy or do that to that guy instead of just attacking and putting them away. Coming to a new league and seeing new hitters, so I just need to execute my pitches regardless of the batter. Generally over the past few years, it didn’t matter whether it was a lefty or righty, I attacked the hitters the same way.”

It’s not Coors, in Shaw’s opinion.

“The balls move the same here,” he said. “The homers I’ve given up, those are homers anywhere. The hits are hits at any of these places. I pitched here a few times [before signing here] and had some success, so it’s more about getting out of my own way. I’ve said by the end of the season, 70 appearances and a 3.17 ERA, career numbers are career numbers for a reason.”

Now three weeks on from that statement, things have only gotten worse for Shaw, whose ERA continued to rise from 5.93 to 7.20 from that day. Nevertheless, after pitching 1/3 of an inning and escaping an inherited jam with a ground ball on Wednesday night at Coors Field, he reiterated what he said earlier. Though he did admit he feels like tearing his hair out sometimes.

“There’s definitely been those times,” Shaw said. “Sometimes you make the right pitches, you do the right things, and the ball just squibs somewhere. Or sometimes you make the bad pitch and that’s the one you get the out on.”

Could it be that all of those appearances with the Indians — Shaw was the most-used reliever in the American League in each of the previous four years — are catching up with him?

“My arm feels good, body feels good,” Shaw said. “I mean, you mentioned Statcast, those numbers (velocity and spin rate) are almost identical from every other year. Just some location stuff and some bad luck here and there. Hopefully today was the turning point for me, and for the bullpen as a whole.”

One reliever in the Rockies’ bullpen who is, ironically, in a position to provide some wisdom on how to overcome struggles as he continues to be one of the most dominant relievers in the game this season, is Adam Ottavino. From 2013-16, the right-hander posted a 2.84 ERA in 170 appearances. Then came 2017, when his ERA ballooned to 5.06.

So far this season, Ottavino’s ERA is 0.83 over 32 2/3 innings, with a 45 percent strikeout rate.

“I just try to tell [fellow relievers] that I didn’t handle it well,” Ottavino said of his struggles in 2017. “There’s so much more season left. … It’s not like they don’t know if they’re going to get outs again, I just think it’s uncharted territory for a lot of guys, and it’s just kind of scary to go through it. It’s never as bad as it seems.”

For Davis, it may appear based on his elite status the past few years that the waters these last few weeks have been uncharted. But he knows better. He remembers 2013.

“For me, personally, it’s been command. In 2013, I was an absolute mess and I got sent down to A-ball, and it’s almost identical what I’m going through right now,” Davis said. “So I have something to point back to [even though] it’s been a while.”

While command eludes Davis, Shaw and others in Colorado’s bullpen, one sign of hope is the fact that the quality of contact against them — though strong — isn’t the worst in baseball even though other numbers are.

“I mean, I feel like with some of our guys, if hitters are making contact it’s finding a hole, a lot,” Ottavino said. “Or fly balls going right in the gap. … Sometimes you’ve got to be strong enough to look beyond your results and say, ‘Yeah I got lousy results but my process was still good. Or if it’s not, make changes. Like with the Statcast stuff, for me, it helps me, because I can see like, ‘OK, they’re not hitting me very hard, and that gives me another reason to believe in myself. I don’t know if our guys are doing that, but that’s certainly a good thing to have.”

The Rockies’ run differential, primarily a result of the bullpen’s June swoon, is -40. Run differential is strongly correlated to future performance of a club, and it’s extremely rare to see a club with a negative run differential reach the postseason. That doesn’t bode well for Colorado, particularly in a very competitive National League West in which the Dodgers and D-backs have recovered from early problems and the Giants are getting healthier.

Still, a bullpen that includes relievers with the track record of Davis, Shaw, and Jake McGee would prove more than a disappointment if it didn’t turn things around to some degree — it would be a downright shock.

The sabermetric-minded Ottavino had this perspective:

“Even in the beginning of the year when we were winning games, we had a negative run differential. Sometimes we’d lose by a lot — it’s just the way it is with Coors Field. But the idea is to hold onto leads when you have them and get those wins. Run differential is an indicator for sure. But wins and losses are what count in the standings.”

Wins and losses are what count in the standings. At 38-38, the Rockies remain in the thick of a wide-open NL West. But if the super bullpen experiment fails in Denver, that window could close very quickly.

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