The Pen is Mightier…Than Last Year’s Pen
by Jim Silva
Some nails, a fresh coat of paint, et viola – the Rockies have a new and improved bullpen. The new “secret” in baseball that everyone knows, appears to be that you can win by putting together a strong bullpen. The Royals did it, or so it seemed. So this off-season the Rockies stayed out of the starting pitcher free agent market and instead acquired some low cost, old guys who are former closers, then traded a starting left-fielder, Corey Dickerson, for a bona-fide, hard-throwing, young beast-man closer in Jake McGee. Did they do enough, and will it matter? What rebuilding team spends assets on a premier closer? News flash – the Rockies don’t want to be seen as a rebuilding team. Their actions show that they believe they are at the end of a rebuild and ready to start playing with the big boys, hence the trade for a closer.
Jake McGee is a big lefty who tosses projectiles with celerity – the 95 to 98 mile an hour kind of celerity that scares the crap out of hitters – he nailed Chase Headley in the chin last season – an experience that would have caused most mortals not named Chase Headley to take an online accounting course, and retire from baseball. In spite of that slip, McGee has excellent control walking 2.0 and 1.9 hitters per nine innings in each of the last two seasons. Last season was a struggle for McGee from a health standpoint. He started late after recovering from having his elbow scoped, then missed time at the end of the year with a torn meniscus in his knee. He has already had Tommy John surgery (2008) and returned from that throwing hard. He mowed down 11.4 and 11.6 batters per nine innings in each of the last two seasons. McGee instantly becomes the closer for Colorado taking over from John Axford, who is now in the A’s pen. McGee was more commonly used as a setup guy and co-closer with the Rays, but unless he has a chance encounter with Bigfoot or is implanted with alien technology, he won’t suddenly fall apart with the new designation.
McGee isn’t the only pitcher sporting a flame-thrower in the Rockies’ pen next season. Jairo Diaz can touch 100 with his fastball – and talk about scary – for most of his career he hasn’t been certain of the pitch’s destination once it left his hand. Finally, for a 21 game stretch at the end of last season, something worked. Whatever tweaks the Rockies, and pitching coach Steve Foster talked Diaz into trying, worked and Diaz kept his walks per nine innings to 2.8 while maintaining a strikeout rate of 8.5 per nine innings. It is reasonable to believe that Diaz would have been tried at closer had the Rockies not acquired McGee. How they use him now will be dictated by his control and manager Walt Weiss’ trust in the rest of Diaz’ pen-pals.
Adam Ottavino was killing it in April of last season. In 10 appearances (10.33 innings) the tall righty stuck out 11.3 batters per nine innings while only walking 1.7. Both numbers were trending in the right direction for each of the last three seasons. Ottavino was looking like he might steal the closer’s job until his elbow went boom, and he got to experience Tommy John surgery. It is unclear how soon he will return – likely at some point in the first half of 2016 – and how good he will be when he returns. If he comes back close to where he was when he left, then the Rockies have three tough, hard-throwers to finish games. Part of the reason the Rockies had the worst bullpen in all of baseball (and football – you know – if they had bullpens too), was the loss of Ottavino. Getting him back, and adding McGee and a full season of Diaz will change the Rockies fortunes when they have a lead going into the 7th.
The Rockies started their off-season with two signings that left some in the baseball world scratching their heads. For $3 million, the Rockies got 37 year old Chad Qualls, and for another $4.5 million, they picked up 33 year old Jason Motte. Qualls is as consistent as a reliever gets. He gets about 60% of the batters he faces to beat the ball into the ground then run cussing toward first base. He strikes out somewhere between 7.5 and 8.5 batters per nine innings and walks about 2.3 per nine innings, although the last two seasons have seen his walk rate drop below two. It is a common refrain that pitchers who induce a lot of ground balls have the most success in Colorado. Qualls gives the Rockies bullpen depth, a groundball machine, and less meaningfully – a guy who used to be a closer back in 2011. Even though Qualls is 37, he remains consistent and should be able to handle the challenge of Coors Field. If he can’t, at least he was relatively inexpensive and might be a piece they can flip for a middling prospect at the trade deadline.
Jason Motte was also a closer once, and has a formidable, dark beard that makes him look like the dwarf, Gimli. I’m not sure if Motte is a skilled miner or can wield a battle axe, but as a relief pitcher he was fearsome, shooting flames with his speed ball of doom and slider of Nimgar. Sadly, our hero was felled by Lord Thomas of John, and he hasn’t been the same since. Not all pitchers bounce back from Tommy John surgery in a year, but last season ended early for Motte with shoulder pain so it wouldn’t be wise to count on him for any heroics. That said, if he comes back to a touch more than where he was before he was shut down last season, he will give the Rockies a serviceable bullpen arm, and shorten the game for the starting pitchers. In the meantime, it is reasonable to expect the 3 to 1 strikeout to walk rate that he put up last season in Wrigley. His 3.61 FIP (ERA independent of fielding), and his league average park-adjusted ERA from last season would have been quite useful for the Rockies last year. If that’s all they get, then they should be content. It’s not like they are paying him to be the one ring to rule them all.
At the time the Rockies signed Boone Logan, he was just coming off two seasons with the Yankees where he was a monster, striking out more than 11 batters per nine innings with FIPs in the threes and hits per nine in the sevens. He also did two things that should have given the Rockies the jibblies at his signing. He walked a bunch of guys, 3.67 and 3.82 per nine innings in 2012 and 2013 respectively, and let batters launch the ball toward space at a high rate to become a souvenir on the other side of the fence – 1.0 and 1.6 home runs per nine in the same time span. So when Logan came to Colorado for his first Coors Field experience and compiled a 6.84 ERA, gave up 2.2 home runs per nine innings, and walked 4.0 men per nine innings of work, the Blake Street faithful shouldn’t have been too surprised. Ugly numbers – but he also struck out 11.5 hitters per nine innings, so it looked like the beast was in there, but confused. Last year, the world went back to spinning closer to its normal direction for Boone. Still pumping a mid-90’s fastball, he again struck out more than 11 batters per nine innings but managed to keep the ball in the park, allowing only 0.9 long balls per nine innings. The walks continued to plague him as he allowed 4.3 men to amble to first base unperturbed. Logan looked a lot like the guy the Rockies thought they’d signed, as his FIP plummeted from 5.13 to 3.62, matching his FIPs from his days in the Bronx – 3.67 in 2012 and 3.82 in 2013. So if that’s what the Rockies wanted, then that is exactly what they got. His hits allowed per nine innings were up from his New York days, but that is to be expected in Coors Field. Logan faced almost exactly the same number of righties as he did lefties even though lefties put up an OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) of .602, while righties waxed him at a rate of .909. With the improved bullpen depth, Walt Weiss might consider using Logan as a lefty specialist to maximize his value.
25 year old Scott Oberg had pitched a total of 107.67 innings professionally coming into 2015. In all of those innings pitching in short relief, he had allowed a total of seven home runs. Last season, pitching at AAA and in the majors, Oberg gave up 10 home runs in 66.33 innings. Until last season he had never allowed more than 7.2 hits per nine innings – last season he allowed 15.8 in a short stay in AAA and 8.9 in the majors. The righty has posted ever-shifting peripherals with a strikeout to walk rate at all of his stops in the following order: 4.83, 2.26, 3.50, 5.50, and in his major league audition that lasted 58.33 innings his rate was 1.42. For many young pitchers there is an extended break-in period as they get used to how their pitches work at altitude and what adjustments they have to make to succeed in Denver. Looking at Oberg’s season by month, his home run rate dropped off in the last two months and his other stats improved as well. He gave up only two home runs to the last 120 batters he faced – none to the last 50. If the decreased home run rate holds then maybe Oberg will turn into a useful piece in a veteran bullpen. If not, he will get a chance to make himself useful while toiling for the Isotopes of Albuquerque.
Another arm that the Rockies will likely put to use in their pen is Justin Miller. Last season, he was one of the more useful arms to pitch in relief. Like almost everyone in the Rockies pen, Miller throws hard – up to the mid-90’s. Not a ground ball pitcher, Miller still kept the ball in the park allowing only two home runs in 33.3 innings pitched. He put up a spectacular strikeout rate, fanning 10.3 batters per nine innings. His control was solid and he just didn’t allow batters to get hits, with a walk rate of 3.0 per nine innings, and a hits per nine innings mark of 5.7. His FIP was a spectacular 2.65, but the question is can he repeat his 2015 numbers or even come close? Interestingly his numbers look remarkably similar to his 2014 minor league numbers so perhaps this is a sign of things to come. Miller has never started a professional game so the Rockies are unlikely to be able to stretch him out, but in short stints he can contribute to the new, deep Rockies pen.
There are a lot of ifs for the 2016 season, but the pen will undoubtedly be better. With the improved starting pitching and the improved pen, the Rockies won’t suffer death by horrible pitching again this season.