The Bullpen: The Great Equalizer?

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The Colorado Rockies may be closer to competing than we think and it may come down to something they haven’t explicitly addressed in the short weeks of the early off-season.

It may be the bullpen.

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Relievers are generally a finicky position; pitchers can rise to elite reliever status and fall to DFA’d forgotten men within a matter of months or even weeks. But, there’s something to be said in having a good bullpen that you can count on nearly every time you throw them out there. Consider with me a franchise that has had two very different seasons the past two years: the Seattle Mariners.

The Mariners were one of the AL’s biggest surprises this season, making a run at the playoffs that lasted until the final day, but what was different? Their offense didn’t suddenly start scoring more runs; they only scored 10 more runs than the previous season (a 71-91 effort). Their rotation improved but not at an elite level, but their bullpen showed a complete 180 degree turn.

From a 2013 that saw the Mariners relievers post a 4.58 ERA (good for 29th in the league), the Mariners shaved two full points off their bullpen ERA to a 2.59 clip, which led the league. To put that beyond an average, Seattle’s bullpen pitched essentially the exact same amount of innings between the two years (505 to 500) but allowed over 100 fewer earned runs (257 to 144).

They also cut down their BAA (batting average against) from .253 to .219 and their WHIP from 1.53 to 1.19. All told, a massive improvement across the board from the Mariners led to a more efficient, more elite pen that nearly took them to the playoffs. Furthermore, the overhaul of that pen wasn’t an impossible task that only certain teams with certain resources could accomplish.

So, what’s the point?

It’s that the Rockies are closer than everyone thinks. Certainly, injuries could derail the roster much like they did the last two seasons and the rotation could always be bad enough that the bullpen doesn’t matter.

But, the 2007 Rockies lacked a strong rotation too. They finished 17th in the major leagues that season with a 4.58 ERA and a .274 BAA, but the difference? The bullpen was good, very good in fact, finishing tenth in baseball with Brian Fuentes and Manny Corpas having two of their best career seasons.

In the playoffs, relief pitching found another level, hitting 2014 Royals level statistics. The pen had a very good 73.2% left on base percentage and allowed less than one home run per nine innings (0.82 HR/9), carrying an otherwise lackluster rotation throughout the entire season.

The Rockies will always have bad pitching days, their ballpark all but demands it, but a bullpen’s value cannot be understated. 2014’s abysmal effort may have played a larger role in the team’s fall from grace than many think. The bullpen put up only 1.5 fWAR, allowed a significantly higher amount of home runs than bullpens of previous seasons, and had a higher ERA than any Rockies bullpen since 2006 at 4.79.

But bullpens can be adapted and changed faster than a rotation. They can be improved at ridiculously fast rates. The 2006 Rockies’ bullpen posted only a 2.9 fWAR, two points lower than 2007, was nearly a full point higher in ERA, and allowed more home runs in fewer innings pitched.

So, much like Seattle’s rapid rise, is it ridiculous to believe a bullpen overhaul could give the 2015 Rockies a legitimate chance at a run as it did in 2007?

Eventual injuries to superstars aside, a rotation that can pitch at least at a league average rate combined with a bullpen that finishes in the top third of the league could put this team into a playoff conversation.

It’s easier to fix a bullpen than a rotation in the short-term, so why not make it the main priority over signing a Justin Masterson or trading for rotation pitchers? It could be the difference between rebuilding and competing in 2015.

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