Dear Colorado Rockies fans, it’s time we had a chat about the state of the Rockies bullpen. More specifically, we need to chat about how to evaluate their performance.
First off, yes, the bullpen has been historically bad, 2016 was no different. The qualm, however, lies in how fans and media (even this author) generally justify how pitchers perform. Frequently pundits and fans alike simply point to ERA, and say, “See! Look, they’re the worst in the league!” We are conceding to the fact that the Rockies weren’t top tier in 2016, but grab a seat because Rox Pile is here to tell you the bullpen situation wasn’t as dire as it appeared last season.
The 2016 Rockies led the universe in bullpen ERA. In here lies the problem. ERA is still the most cited and lazily thrown around statistic to evaluate performance. Any given statistic in isolation is painting a sliver of the picture. Yet here we are, still using ERA as the main determinant of how to evaluate pitching.
The biggest issue with ERA is that it doesn’t account for events outside of the pitcher’s control. For example, the level of defense behind them, or pitching half your games in the most hitter-friendly environment on the planet are both factors a player can’t control. For these reasons, I am imploring you to please stop accepting ERA as the universal measurement for pitching performance.
Based on the ERA test, yes, the club had the worst bullpen in Major League Baseball in 2016. Coming in at an ERA of 5.13, well, it’s cringe-worthy. For the sake of the argument laid out below, know that Cincinnati came in with a better ERA than Colorado. For anyone paying attention around the league, yes both bullpens were bad, but the eye test suggests Cincinnati was much more atrocious.
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To prove this assertion, not walking people, missing bats, and not giving up home runs are largely within a pitcher’s control. In strikeouts per nine innings pitched, the Rockies bullpen ranked 24th in the league. Clearly, the bullpen didn’t miss a lot of bats in 2016. On a brighter note, the bullpen ranked 19th in the league in walks per nine. That’s surrendering a full walk less per nine innings than Cincinnati. Also, the pen ranked 23rd in the league in HRs per nine, surprising given the “Coors Effect.”
Now let’s turn to some more advanced stats. Throwing out factors of team defense, the FIP statistic gives a better picture of how valuable a pitcher truly is. Although they led the league in ERA, the Rockies ranked 24th in FIP. This suggests the Rockies bullpen was more skilled than ERA tells us, albeit only slightly. Now, look at fWAR (which factors in FIP, park adjustments, and other factors), we get a different picture.
The Rockies ranked 21st in fWAR in 2016. Considering such a high ERA, the slightly below average ranking is unthinkable (to understand how fWAR is computed, here is some light reading).
Cincinnati came in with an fWAR of -3.6, the only bullpen to have a negative line. The reasoning being is that their pitchers lead in the league in walks, had the lowest K%, and were near rock bottom in most other significant statistics.
All of this isn’t to bash Cincinnati’s bullpen, but rather to illustrate that just using ERA to say how good/bad a staff is performing is misleading.
In conclusion, when we disregard using ERA in isolation, we can get arrive at a more accurate evaluation of pitching performance. Firstly, we have to remove the things out of a pitcher’s control, like defense and park factors. Next, one has to look at strikeout rates and walk rates. Positive rates in either means a pitcher or staff is executing pitches.
Finally, with all of that considered we know a few things. Yes, the Rockies bullpen was bad in 2016. And no, it wasn’t the worst in the league. Based on the discussion above, Tampa Bay, the Los Angeles Angels, Philadelphia, Arizona, Pittsburgh, Texas, Minnesota, San Francisco and, of course, Cincinnati all had worse bullpens. Certainly the 28 blown saves in 2016 (4th most) made it feel a lot worse than it was.
COLORADO ROCKIES BULLPEN 2016 GRADE: D+ (fWAR 2.2)
Coming out of the bullpen as the Rockies long-man, Rusin went 2-1 with a FIP of 2.86 (2.58 ERA) in 45.1 innings pitched in relief. Rusin also spot started eight games for the club in 2016. Logan appeared in a team-high 66 games while posting a FIP of 3.23 (3.69 ERA). Both pitchers posted an fWAR of 0.8, ranking 56th and 59th among MLB relievers.