Last night, Juan Nicasio threw six innings of two run baseball. Because he lasted six innings and allowed three or fewer runs, Nicasio was credited with a "Quality Start", his second such start this year. It's not a perfect stat by any means, but generally if you get a quality start from your pitcher, you are almost always going to have a good chance of winning the game.
Unfortunately, the Rockies only have five quality starts out of their 15 games pitched this year, ranking them 27th in MLB. Even more worrisome is the appearance that the Rockies are following the same path they've followed for much of their history - leaning so heavily on the bullpen early on the season because starters were coming out of the game early, then watching the pen collapse in the dog days of summer.
Rockies starters have only pitched 80 1/3 innings thus far in 2014 over 15 games, an average of about 5 1/3 innings per start. That's just percentage points ahead of the Washington Nationals for 28th place in MLB thus far (with the cellar dwelling Diamondbacks getting just five innings per start from their starters). I'm not saying that the Rockies should be getting big length every time they go to the mound and I know that the numbers are skewed by a couple of Jorge De La Rosa blowups and the Brett Anderson injury. Still, it feels to me that the Rockies aren't optimizing their starting pitcher innings even when the starter is running well.
You might be thinking to yourself that the root problem of this lack of length is that the starters are too inefficient, leaving them with a very high pitch count that forces the team to pull them early, but so far that actually hasn't been the case. In fact, Colorado starters are 3rd in MLB in pitches per plate appearance. Don't get me wrong, they aren't great at getting through innings quickly at about 16 pitches per inning, but that pace should still get you through six innings per game in 96 pitches.
What else could it be? Well, I think that Walt Weiss (likely under orders from management) has too quick of a hook.
I thought I would look game by game and see if that were the case. Note that the below isn't perfect by any means since I don't remember exactly how each starter was pitching. The data:
|1||De La Rosa||4.1||87||No|
|6||De La Rosa||4.1||101||No|
|11||De La Rosa||4.1||81||Yes|
By my count, that's 8 out of 14 starts (excluding Anderson's injury start here) where the Rockies could have gotten more length from their starters - and correspondingly, have put less early wear and tear on their bullpen - and still not have pushed the starters past the 100 pitch mark. I'm not even counting the De La Rosa blowup on Opening Day as a quick hook, but given the pitch count you could consider it as one. Obviously ineffectiveness does play a role in the "quick hooks", but there was no such problem with Jordan Lyles two nights ago or Tyler Chatwood before that.
I get that it's a long season and the Rockies want to avoid problems down the road by their starters. Still, when you rely on the bullpen for 11 outs on average per game, there are two primary downsides. One is that they are bullpen pitchers for a reason - they weren't good enough to be starters. So first of all you're relying on inferior pitchers to get more hitters out. This is counterbalanced somewhat by the ability of these inferior pitchers to throw with maximum effort in their outings, closing the gap somewhat, but the fact remains that I'd much rather Tyler Chatwood go six innings than have him go four innings and hand the ball to Tommy Kahnle for two.
The second downside is that your best bullpen pitchers will get run-down over the course of a season and will be markedly less effective late if they're overworked early. In the first half of 2013, Colorado's bullpen was nothing short of fantastic, throwing 324 innings of 3.83 ERA baseball. In Coors Field, those are fine numbers. Unfortunately, in the second half the bullpen deteriorated quickly, throwing 231 innings of 4.79 ERA ball.
In conclusion, while I certainly understand the desire to avoid having starting pitchers face the lineup a third time through, sometimes it's in the club's better interest long term to leave them out there long enough to keep more arms fresh late in the season. The Rockies tried to combat that this off-season by signing players like LaTroy Hawkins and Boone Logan to firm up the depth of the pen, but injuries and ineffectiveness will still be an issue if the bullpen needs to get 11 outs a night.