Previous Sessions in the WAR Lords Series:
For the next step in my ongoing quest to quantify the greatest Rockies ever by position, I'm revealing the best performers at relief pitcher.
Obviously this is not a comprehensive list of all relief pitchers, but all the pitchers who have made a large contribution to the Rockies as relievers were weighed, measured, and (often) found wanting.
Once again, I'm using Sean Smith's historical WAR database (not Fangraphs) to compile these numbers (with a big assist to the fabulous Baseball Reference; here is the glossary of the terms Smith uses and an explanation of how pitching WAR is calculated.
As I explained in the pitching WAR article (please reference it for more detail on this point), relievers are by and large shortchanged by WAR (which is a counting, not a rate stat). This is because WAR ignores the game's situation and context--a strikeout when the bases are empty in a blowout is counted the same as a ninth-inning strikeout with the bases loaded in a one-run game.
As a result, relievers, whose primary value comes from delivering in high leverage situations, have their contributions diminished by WAR. There are stats out there that measure this well (like Leverage Index and Win Probability Added), but to measure relievers by those stats is both inconsistent with the rest of this series and impossible (the stats don't go back to 1993). In any case, Smith's WAR database remains an excellent way to quantify pitching value, starter or reliever.
Relief pitchers have consistently gained influence in baseball since the 1960s, evolving from the realm of broken down failed starters into a highly specialized field. As Dave Cameron said though:
Relievers are, in general, failed starting pitchers who are given an easier task that their skillset will allow them to handle. They are selectively managed to face hitters whom they have the best chance of getting out, and they get to throw at maximum effort on nearly every pitch, giving them greater velocity over their shorter appearances.
Nearly every starting pitcher in baseball could be a useful relief pitcher. Very few relief pitchers could be useful starting pitchers.
This doesn't necessarily hold true for the rare dominant closer, but by and large this is a good explanation of what a relief pitcher is. Many teams have chosen to bring their stud starting pitching prospects up in the bullpen to get them used to the majors and because it is relatively much easier than starting. Generally back-end relievers have one or two plus pitches that they can throw at maximum effort, often generating excellent results--but they would fail under the rigors of handling a lineup two or three times in a row.
The bullpen is by nature the most fungible piece the team, generating high turnover due to the incredible variability of relief pitching performance. After all, the Rockies only have Huston Street this year that has stayed in the bullpen all year long. While this is a little extreme, the Rockies have had quite a few relievers in their short history.
In order to qualify for consideration for this list the pitchers had to be one of the top five relievers in innings pitched in a given year or throw over 50 innings for the team in a mostly relief role. It's a relatively deep group, with 18 relievers delivering at least 1 WAR for the Rockies.
Note: some of these pitchers were both starters and relievers for the Rockies. I have placed these players in this category subjectively on the basis of where I believe they provided the greatest impact to the Rockies. In case of an average rank tie, career WAR is the tiebreaker. I'm ranking seven players to reflect the fact that the modern bullpen generally uses seven pitchers.
1. Steve Reed
Career WAR: 9.2 (1st)
Top Three Seasons: 5.6, 1995-1997 (1st)
Top Season: 3.1, 1997 (T-2nd)
Average Rank: 1.33
Steve Reed is one of my favorite all-time Rockies. Though he never really closed for the team (15 saves over 7 years with the Rockies), I usually felt pretty secure about a lead that he protected. Reed is a great story, having signed with the Giants as an undrafted 23 year old college free agent, somehow making it to the majors at 27, and carving out a 13 year career out of it.
The Rockies acquired the right-hander with the 60th pick of the expansion draft and he paid immediate dividends for them, taking the ball 64 times in 1993 and solidifying the back end of the Colorado bullpen for five years. His best year was the magical 1995 Wild Card run (one of several excellent bullpen performances that year), in which he was 5-2 with a 2.14 ERA over 84 IP. His K/9 was 8.46 (3.76 K/BB) with a FIP of 3.25 and an incredible ERA+ of 252! All in all it was worth 3.1 WAR--a fantastic reliever season. Street this year has been worth only 1.5 WAR.
Reed left after the 1997 season for free agency, but returned as a 38 year old for the 2003 and 2004 Rockies, where he posted two 1.2 WAR seasons (great for a reliever). Indeed, Reed never posted a negative WAR for the Rockies, a stunning model of consistency in a variable profession. This consistent excellence is what made him the greatest Rockies reliever ever.
Career WAR: 8.8 (2nd)
Top Three Seasons: 5.2, 2005-2007 (2nd)
Top Season: 2.7, 2005 (4th)
Average Rank: 2.67
The Rockies' all-time saves leader with 115, Brian Fuentes was acquired in the Jeff Cirillo trade from Seattle after the 2001 season. The former 25th round draft pick uses a deceptive left-handed delivery and plus stuff to baffle hitters from both sides of the plate, but as many Rockies fans will tell you, it was always an adventure with Fuentes.
Fuentes has had two seasons over 2 WAR of his seven with Colorado, the first of which occurring in 2005, when he posted a 2.91 ERA and a 3.40 FIP over 74.1 IP with a K/9 of 11.02 (K/BB of 2.68) and an ERA+ of 164 on the way to 2.7 WAR. Last year Fuentes had similar success (2 WAR) with a 2.73 ERA (2.24 FIP), 11.78 K/9 (3.73 K/BB), and 168 ERA+ over 62.2 IP.
As all things must, the Fuentes era came to a close (get it?) as he moved out of the Rockies' price range with his fine performance and as a Type A free agent garnered the Rockies what turned out to be Tim Wheeler and Rex Brothers. I think that Rockies fans are happy with the guy we got to replace him, though we certainly thank Brian for his seven years of service.
Career WAR: 5.2 (4th)
Top Three Seasons: 3.2, 1993-1995 (9th)
Top Season: 3.1, 1995 (T-2nd)
Average Rank: 5
Contrary to Steve Reed, I had an irrational hatred of Curtis Leskanic as a young fan, predicting doom and gloom every time that he took the mound. Colorado acquired Leskanic (originally a 1989 8th round pick of the Indians) with the 66th pick in the expansion draft and plugged him right into the bullpen. The right-handed Leskanic generally handled setup duties and generally terrified me when he did so. I was even more mortified when he handled the closer position (20 saves as a Rockie).
The numbers by and large back me up on my fears, though Leskanic's saving grace on this list is his phenomenal 1995 (similar to Reed), in which he also delivered 3.1 WAR. Leskanic had a 6-3 record with 3.40 ERA (2.86 FIP) over 98 IP, 9.83 K/9 (3.24 K/BB), 10 saves, and a 159 ERA+. Most of Leskanic's Colorado years were very average besides his career year in 1995, as he was hampered by his high walk rate and poor FIP.
In any case, my personal torturer was traded by the Rockies after the 1999 season to the Brewers for another reliever, lefty specialist Mike Myers.
4. Bruce Ruffin
Career WAR: 5.7 (3rd)
Top Three Seasons: 4.6, 1993-1995 (3rd)
Top Season: 1.9, 1993 (10th)
Average Rank: 5.33
Bruce Ruffin is yet another original Rockie near the top of this list. The 1985 2nd round draft pick of the Phillies signed with Colorado as a free agent before 1993 and he finished out his career with the Rockies, through 1997. Though he'd primarily been a starter before coming to the Rockies, Ruffin was primarily a bullpen guy for Colorado. He served as Colorado's closer in 1994 and 1996, posting solid seasons both years. In all he finished with 60 saves as a Rockie.
Like Reed and Leskanic, Ruffin was excellent in 1995 as a full-time reliever (1.7 WAR) but his best overall season was 1993 (1.9 WAR), in which he started 12 games (remember, starters are more valuable than relievers!). All in all, Ruffin was very solid for the Rockies over his tenure with the team.
5a. Jerry Dipoto
Career WAR: 4.7 (5th)
Top Three Seasons: 4.4, 1997-1999 (4th)
Top Season: 2.1, 1999 (8th)
Average Rank: 5.67
Jerry Dipoto, now an executive in the Diamondbacks system, pitched for Colorado from 1997-2000. The 1989 3rd round pick of the Indians was traded to Colorado in exchange for Armando Reynoso after the 1996 season. The right-handed Dipoto served as the Rockies' closer in 1997 and 1998, racking up 36 saves as a Rockie.
Dipoto was at his best, though, as a setup man in 1999 (2.1 WAR). Unfortunately, Dipoto's career was derailed by a neck injury before the 2000 season as he competed for the closer's job again, cutting short a promising career.
5b. Jose Jimenez
Career WAR: 4.2 (6th)
Top Three Seasons: 4.2, 2000-2002 (5th)
Top Season: 2.3, 2000 (6th)
Average Rank: 5.67
Jose Jimenez, number two on the Rockies' all-time saves list with 102, was acquired by Colorado after the 1999 season as part of the trade that sent Dave Veres and the late Darryl Kile to St. Louis. Colorado converted the 26 year-old hard-throwing righty from a starter into a reliever. Jimenez made an immediate impact with the Rockies in his new role, saving 24 games with a 3.18 ERA (3.94 FIP) over 70.2 IP with a 182 ERA+ despite only a 5.60 K/9 ratio (suggesting a fluke), earning a WAR of 2.3.
Unsurprisingly, Jimenez never was that dominant again, though he did have two more useful seasons (including 41 saves in 2002) as the Rockies' closer, plus a fourth one that was poor and led to the Shawn Chacon experiment. The Rockies let Jimenez leave after 2003 and within a year he was out of baseball.
Career WAR: 3.8 (7th)
Top Three Seasons: 3.6, 1995-1997 (6th)
Top Season: 2.3, 1995 (6th)
Average Rank: 6.33
Filling out my imaginary bullpen is the Rockies' first closer, Darren Holmes (he did the honors in 1993 and 1995). The 16th round pick of the Dodgers in 1984, Holmes was selected by the Rockies with the fifth pick of the expansion draft and inserted right into the closer's role (he saved 46 games as a Rockie).
Further showing just how special the 1995 bullpen was, Holmes had his career year then (2.3 WAR), going 6-1 and saving 14 games with a 167 ERA+. Once again, the Rockies in 1995 had Reed (3.1 WAR), Leskanic (3.1), Holmes (2.3), and Ruffin (1.7). That's quite a back end right there.
Holmes stayed with the Rockies through 1997, after which he kicked around the league for six more years, never again attaining the same success he enjoyed in Colorado.
Others of note: Mike Munoz, despite having pitched six years for the Rockies, ended up with a net -0.4 WAR (32nd overall) and an injured Roger Bailey on his conscience.
Gabe White owns the best single WAR reliever season (seriously) with his 3.3 WAR 2000. White in 83 IP was 11-2 with a 2.17 ERA (2.71 FIP), 9.00 K/9 (5.60 K/BB), and an ERA+ of 267! He never replicated that success again.
Manny Corpas finished tied with White for eighth with 3.4 WAR, while Taylor Buchholz (2.1) was 14th and Jason Grilli (1.1) was 16th.
Next week I'll tackle starting pitching, and then it will be time to assemble the greatest Rockies team ever.