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Before this year, the Colorado Rockies weren’t supposed to be a good baseball team. They had too many holes, mostly on the pitching side. More than anything, this was a team that had a suspect-at-best bullpen. The thinking was that behind Rex Brothers, this team didn’t have much depth in the bullpen. Well, after more than a month of the 2014 season, it looks as if we were all wrong. The bullpen has still been prone to blow-ups, but they have been fewer and farther between, especially since the demotions of Wilton Lopez and Chad Bettis. Importantly, three guys in particular have stood out. Two of them are new to the team, and one looks leaps and bounds better than he was this year, but these three guys are the core reason that the bullpen has been better than expected.
Ironically, Brothers has not been the catalyst for this improved bullpen. In fact, it’s fair to say that Brothers has been less than his best self this year. The strikeout rate, elite last season and throughout his career, is down below a strikeout per inning. Meanwhile, the walk rate, always a bit of a concern for Brothers, has ballooned to a career high six walks per nine innings (10 walks in 15 innings). As a result, Brothers has been allowing a lot more base runners, even as his BABIP has gone down. But luckily for Brothers, other guys in the bullpen have picked up the slack.
Adam Ottavino and his nasty slider have taken a huge step up this year, to the point that the 28 year old has all of a sudden become the best pitcher in the bullpen. I think some people forget how good this guy was last year, and how easy it was to see the breakout coming this year. In the last two years and a month for the Rockies, few relievers in baseball have been more consistent in terms of innings pitched and as reliable as has Ottavino, with the exception of some rocky times in 2012. This year, he’s just taken a huge step forward, at least in the first 14.2 innings of the season. I doubt that the walk rate stays this low (1.23 per nine) and the strikeout rate stays this high (10.43 per nine), so some regression is probably coming, but Ottavino has the stuff and has shown vast improvement with his command. I think he’ll be a consistent performer in the bullpen all year, giving the depth that the Rockies need.
And then there are the newcomers. I’m speaking in particular about rule five pickup Tommy Kahnle and expensive free agent pickup Boone Logan. I’ve been a huge fan of Kahnle ever since he was picked up in the rule five, but even I have been surprised about how well he is pitching. In his first year above AA, Kahnle has pitched well, to the tune of a 2.12 ERA, and it’s not a fluke.
He throws it really fast (average fastball is 94 miles per hour), and also has a good slider, although not at Ottavino level. Throw in an above average changeup, and you have a good relief pitcher. As long as Kahnle can keep his walk rate below around 4.5 per nine innings (it’s at 3.71 right now), I see him keeping his job all year and entering next season as a Colorado Rockie. With all that being said, it’s still a good idea to stay cautious when it comes to projecting Kahnle’s future, because he still hasn’t shown that he can maintain good control over the course of a season. Even if he regresses, though, Kahnle has already returned the Rockies’ investment in him, and is just another depth piece in a suddenly deep bullpen.
I was skeptical when the Rockies signed Boone Logan, a 29 year old relief pitcher, to a three year deal. In general, it’s not a good idea to give relievers long term deals. I don’t like the value, but it’s hard to deny that, so far, Logan has been a key piece of the bullpen since coming off the DL. He is unique in his success against left handers, and while his struggles against righties limit his upside, Logan is the type of pitcher who the Rockies have lacked and who makes the bullpen that much stronger. I still don’t like the value, but Logan looks like he’ll be able to maintain a sub-three ERA with a high strikeout rate and a dominance against lefties. That’s a good thing to have in the bullpen.
Right now, it’s not hard to see that this bullpen could become an asset, rather than the liability they were projected to be before the season. Brothers should get better, adding another asset in the bullpen to veteran LaTroy Hawkins, Logan, Kahnle, and Ottavino. The latest move has been the call-up of another offseason acquisition, Nick Masset. I wrote about Masset before the season, saying that the investment in him was worthwhile. Masset’s a guy who had a couple of great year with the Reds and is still just 31 years old, so it’s not hard to see him becoming another key part of the bullpen, especially after he baffled AAA hitters to the tune of 7.2 scoreless innings with two base runners allowed and nine strikeouts.
When discussing the Rockies’ surprisingly good 21-14 start, plenty of things come to mind. Troy Tulowitzki‘s amazing start. Charlie Blackmon‘s breakout. Nolan Arenado‘s 26 (and counting) game hitting streak. The total domination of the offense. Jordan Lyles‘s surprisingly good pitching. Those are all reasons that the Rockies have surprised, but don’t overlook the bullpen, whose vast improvements and increased depth (no more Lopez or Bettis, at least for now) have led to more enjoyable viewing in the later innings of games. Let’s hope Ottavino, Kahnle and the crew can keep it up.