The Dark Horse Dominant Bullpen

Just today we kicked off our annual Positional Power Rankings series, which means that, before too long, we’ll get a couple of posts about individual bullpens, looking at every single group. I’ll even be responsible for writing one of those posts, meaning maybe it works to our disadvantage to put this post up now, focusing on one bullpen in particular. But I’ve had a note here for a while, and I’m not one to let a topic go uncovered. The Rockies bullpen is of particular interest, especially at a time when the larger narrative around the team has responded negatively to recent news.

Let’s rewind. Yes, the last week or two have not been kind to the Rockies organization. The outlook for the season ahead has certainly gotten worse. Yet going back to last season, you know which team’s bullpen had — easily — the league’s worst WPA? That would be the Rockies, who made even the Reds feel proud of themselves. Although the Rockies finished at 75-87, their BaseRuns record was a more decent 80-82. With a stronger bullpen, last year’s Rockies would’ve been an average team. Their bullpen this year has the potential to be unusually dominant.

One thing is absolutely true: *Every* bullpen has the potential to be dominant. Every pitcher in every bullpen is talented, and any given hard-throwing reliever could be one tweak away from a breakout. Edwin Diaz just dominated after shifting to the bullpen instead of starting. Christopher Devenski just dominated after coming seemingly out of nowhere. Bullpens are weird. We all understand this, and any bullpen could go in any direction. Just takes a little good or bad luck.

So, that being said, the new thing among contenders seems to be collecting multiple high-leverage arms. Call it the Royals model if you want to. The Rockies already had Adam Ottavino. You’ve probably been underrating him. The Rockies already had Jake McGee, but his 2016 was tanked by knee discomfort. And, of course, over the offseason the Rockies added Greg Holland, whose 2016 was tanked by elbow surgery. On the one hand, all three of these pitchers have had Tommy John, and McGee has additionally had an operation on his knee. The medical histories aren’t great. The performance histories, when healthy, are great. And in a couple ways for the Rockies, this spring has been encouraging.

Let’s just start with Ottavino, who required surgery early in 2015. He threw a few innings before going under the knife, and then he returned to relieve on the regular in last year’s second half. This has nothing to do with this particular spring; I just want to show you how good Ottavino has been. Here are his percentile rankings among relievers over the last two seasons:

That’s great, right? Right. He’s been in or around the top five percent in each statistic, and there are a lot of excellent relief pitchers around. Ottavino hasn’t done much to draw attention, in part because of his injury, and in part because of his employer. But healthy Ottavino has been outstanding, even relative to other outstanding pitchers, and he seems to be at 100% for the moment.

Moving on, there’s Holland. Holland was far from the first intriguing free agent coming off surgery. Teams always bite on these guys, eventually, and sometimes they fail to deliver anything. When Holland held a workout for interested teams, he was throwing in the 80s. The Rockies took the chance that there could be more, and the velocity has continued to improve. Borrowing from Brooks Baseball, here’s Holland’s history of spring-training fastball speed, when it’s been measured:

There’s no reading from 2016, when Holland was out. There’s no reading from 2015, when Holland pitched through elbow discomfort he refused to have examined. There is information from 2014. Holland is throwing that hard again. There’s not a *direct* link between speed and performance, but, perhaps you’ve forgotten how good Holland used to be, when he was normal. Here’s the same kind of plot I did for Ottavino:

Elite. Holland was elite, clearly one of the best around. You’d never prefer a pitcher to be coming off a lost season, but by the best indicator we have of health, Holland, physically, seems great. It’s hardly a reach, then, to think he could be excellent once again.

At last, there’s McGee. When the Rockies traded for McGee in the first place, they thought they were getting a dominant lefty. But McGee had had knee surgery, and discomfort returned in 2016. A lousy performance followed, and McGee saw his fastball drop to an average of 93 miles per hour. Without the same strength in his push-off leg, McGee lost his control and his zip. Now McGee says the knee injury is the furthest thing from his mind. Words are just words; McGee has provided some actions.

He’s been a reliever in the WBC with Team USA. Here’s Jake McGee throwing 96:

Here’s McGee throwing 97:

Here’s McGee throwing 98:

McGee has always leaned heavily on his fastball, in sort of the Sean Doolittle mold, and already he’s tapped into the upper 90s. Another velocity plot from Brooks Baseball:

McGee is back to where he was in 2015, before his knee was injured. Here’s one more percentile plot, for 2015, through the date before McGee was hurt:

Not nearly as great by ERA, but ERA is the least meaningful of the numbers. McGee was great in the other categories, and of course he was also great in previous seasons. Jake McGee was an elite reliever for years. He’s older now, and there’s a new scar on his leg, but if the WBC is any indication, McGee feels physically normal again, and when that’s been the case before he’s been a strikeout machine.

To simplify: Ottavino is healthy, and his recent performance was great. It looks like Holland is healthy, and his recent healthy performance was great. It looks like McGee is healthy, and his recent healthy performance was great. Spring is the best time to be optimistic, and no one would choose to have to count on three relievers with health-related question marks, but if you think about it, health is the element we understand the least, so we’re not so great at predictions. By talent, the Rockies bullpen is in fantastic shape. They just need a stroke or two of fortune.

To say nothing of Carlos Estevez, who throws 97. To say nothing of Miguel Castro, who throws 96. Jason Motte just averaged a strikeout an inning, and Mike Dunn was signed as a free agent. Like every other bullpen, the Rockies have guys who could take a positive turn without changing very much. It’s the Ottavino/Holland/McGee triumvirate that could put this unit over the top.

I get it, I really do. The health concerns are real, and maybe the odds are that at least one of the three will get hurt again. I don’t know how to project that. Nobody does, and that’s where the upside is. Ottavino, Holland, McGee — they don’t need to learn how to dominate. They’ve already dominated, in some cases for a while. They just need to be able to pitch like they want to be able to pitch. If their bodies don’t hold them back, the Rockies could end up with one of the best bullpens in the game. And in that event, the Rockies would be no one’s preferred opponent.

We hoped you liked reading The Dark Horse Dominant Bullpen by Jeff Sullivan!

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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matt

Padres till they are all traded