Early bullpen woes are sabotaging the Rockies

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

It's early. It's early. It's early early early early. Sample sizes are far too small to make any performance judgments yet. There's 157 of these dang things left to play.

But the recently completed four game set in Miami raised a number of red flags, and the bullpen's poor performance was the red-flaggiest. In 12 1/3 innings the 'pen allowed 11 earned runs to a Marlins offense that only has one good hitter (and no, I don't consider Casey McGehee a good hitter). While the group as a whole was lackluster, it was the usual suspects in Matt Belisle and Wilton Lopez that continue to disappoint.

2013 was a frustrating year for Belisle. His ERA spiked half a run (for the third straight year) to an unwieldy 4.32. It was weird, because his strikeout and walk rates remained basically identical to his effective years. His batting average on balls in play was in line with career norms. The problem didn't show up in the spreadsheets: he was just getting hit harder.

Belisle has been living with a reduced fastball for a couple years now. From 2009 to 2011 it sat at 92 MPH on average. Now it scrapes by at 90, a below average number for a reliever. When hitters don't have to gear up for a muscular fastball, they can better defend against breaking pitches.

Belisle has been worked like a rented mule the past four years, eclipsing 73 innings each season. It's possible such an intense workload has degraded his stuff. He can certainly still be useful, but it seems like a mistake to continue giving him high leverage innings.

Lopez is in basically the same spot. Last year was his first full season with an ERA over three. In fact, it eclipsed four, at 4.06. He also saw a reduction in his strikeout rate (7.33 to 5.73) and ground ball rate, his major calling card (55% to 49.6%).

Walt Weiss was not afraid to call on Lopez in the season opener, bringing him in with the bases juiced and Giancarlo Stanton at the plate. He lost Stanton to bad luck--a squibber that resulted in an infield hit--but allowed a roped, bases clearing line drive a batter later. Furthermore, he couldn't prevent runs and base runners in his subsequent innings of work either.

Both Lopez and Belisle have a longer history of strong performance than weak performance; it's just that the weak performances are fresher in the minds of Rockies fans. So how much patience do both players warrant? Relievers are famously volatile; yesterday's world-beaters can become today's journeymen frighteningly fast. Both men are aging into their early to mid 30's. Were their poor 2013s (and starts to 2014) flukes? Will their performances straighten out?

One thing is for sure: with the Rockies' fluid starting rotation, they really can't afford to blow leads in the later innings. The return of Boone Logan should help. An increased role for Chad Bettis might be key. Tommy Kahnle, the rule 5 pickup, looked very solid yesterday. So hopefully the Miami series was a fluke; a Rockies team with a weak bullpen is a Rockies team that won't win a whole lot of games.

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