The Colorado Rockies are just three days into a long 162-game season. They are 1-1 in two games, with a fairly impressive performance in the opener and an extremely disappointing loss on Tuesday. It might seem early for this, but let's take a deep look how the Rockies have performed.
The offense has looked really good with 16 runs scored behind the power of seven home runs. The starting pitching has struggled to finish starts with both Jorge De La Rosa and Chad Bettis looking solid early before struggling late in their outings -- a development which isn't that rare in early season starts. The bullpen did its job the first night, shutting down a D-backs rally and closing out the game. However, Game 2 was an unmitigated disaster for the pen as Christian Bergman allowed both inherited runners to score in the sixth before combining with Jason Gurka to allow an additional six runs, putting the game out of reach for the Rockies.
As poor as those pitching performances were, there is another person who deserves some blame: the manager, Walt Weiss. Though the team is 1-1, his mismanagement of the bullpen in the first game probably played a larger role in the Rockies' loss the next night than the bullpen doing its best impression of a gas can. That's because the failures of the pen may be directly caused by Weiss's poor use of it.
Sometimes it's difficult to figure out the root cause of these situations. Is Weiss' poor management really just a result of players not executing? Or can we lay the blame for the players not executing on the manager for not putting them in the best situations to execute? This chicken-egg argument can be difficult to unravel, but let's take a shot at it looking at just the first two games of this season.
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It's the fifth inning on Opening Day, and Jorge De La Rosa unfortunately is running out of gas. With his ace over 90 pitches and struggling to get through the inning, Weiss makes a wise decision in going to the pen to extinguish the D-backs' rally and preserve the Rockies' two-run lead. Justin Miller comes in and promptly ends the frame with a strikeout. Due to a double switch, Miller is able to stay in the game and pitch the next inning, which thanks to a nice defensive play from Nolan Arenado, is navigated successfully.
Now, going into the seventh inning with only one left-handed hitter sandwiched between two right-handed hitters due up, Weiss bizarrely chooses to go with Boone Logan, a pitcher who in his Rockies career has shown that he can be dominant against left-handed hitters while also being extremely vulnerable to right-handed hitters. Thankfully, Logan beats the odds and retires all three batters.
In the eighth inning with the Rockies' lead having grown to five runs, Logan is sent back out to work the inning he probably should have been saved for, two left-handed batters and a weak right-handed batter. Logan retires both lefties easily but then Weiss seemingly remembers that Logan shouldn't face right-handed hitters and pulls him for Chad Qualls, who faces a grand total of one hitter.
In the ninth inning, with everyone now expecting Qualls to finish the game after having faced only one batter the inning before, Miguel Castro enters. Despite allowing a hit and a walk, Castro retires the Diamondbacks to wrap up a Rockies win.
Now at first glance, it seems like a success for the Rockies and their bullpen; they've managed to overcome an abbreviated start by De Las Rosa and pitch more than five innings of shutout baseball to secure the club's first win of the season. However, when one looks deeper into what happened, some serious problems arise.
There are usually three instances that will result in a reliever not being allowed to pitch in the next game:
- The reliever has pitched the two previous games;
- The reliever worked more than an inning in his previous game;
- The reliever was warmed up multiple times in a game before finally making an appearance.
Now looking back at Opening Day, you realize that while Weiss only used four men out of his bullpen, none of whom pitched the previous day due to the season just starting, he used three of them in a way that probably was going to prevent them from working Tuesday's game. Even though Miller had only thrown 17 pitches, because it was across multiple innings, once you factor in the extra warm-up pitches, he was not going to be available to be used to get the Rockies out of a similar high-leverage situation. Logan similarly was not going to be available because of his extended outing. Castro due to multiple warm-ups and a lengthy ninth inning was also probably not available for use in Tuesday's game.
Having started the season with an eight-man pen, Weiss went into Game 2 with only five of them: Bergman, Gurka. Qualls, Chris Rusin and Jake McGee. The worst thing about that is that two of those guys, Bergman and Rusin, aren't high-leverage relievers; they are in the 'pen mainly to eat innings, something Weiss had used almost all of his high-leverage guys to accomplish the night before. If Weiss on Opening Day had instead used Miller to put out the fire in the fifth and brought Bergman or Rusin in for a clean inning in the sixth after pinch-hitting for Miller, not only would DJ LeMahieu still been in the game -- and a better hitter than Cristhian Adames would have led off the top of the 6th -- but Weiss could have saved more of his high-leverage guys while eliminating only one of his long relievers from use in the next day's game.
That leads us to Tuesday, when once again the starter was struggling to finish his last inning. Instead of being able to use Miller for a very similar situation where he had proven successful the night before, Weiss had to bring in Bergman, who promptly allowed both inherited runners to score. When Bergman struggled the next inning, Weiss decided to call upon Gurka, a left-handed pitcher, to face four consecutive right-handed batters. That resulted in a 6-6 game becoming an 11-6 game before Gurka was able to retire the lone lefty he would face to end the inning.
It's easy to look at Bergman and Gurka and place the failures directly at their feet for failing to execute and get batters out. However, more responsibility should be placed on the manager for failing to utilize them in proper situations where they would have a much better chance of success. Long men like Bergman are best utilized if they can come in for a clean inning, because their makeup and goal is similar to that of a starter: try to eat as many innings as possible to save other members of the 'pen. Instead, he was called on for a high-leverage situation because all of the pitchers more suited for that role were either unavailable from being used the previous day as inning eaters or because, in the case of McGee, they were being saved for specific later innings. Then expecting a left-handed reliever like Gurka to face nothing but right-handed batters once again in a high-leverage situation is not good managing either. Why Qualls wasn't called upon in that situation is beyond comprehension.
Now, much like lineup optimization, it is probable that poor bullpen management has only a small effect over the course of the season. However, when a team is trying to back to a competitive level, any marginal gain is worth exploring and taking advantage of. The marginal gains theory has been used successfully across sports to make huge overall impacts and launch non-competitive teams into contention
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Weiss has some good qualities as a manager. He's proven to have good relationships with players and his ability to keep the Rockies competing last fall after the Tulowitzki trade has been talked about as a great accomplishment. Also, last year, Weiss made huge gains by embracing shifts and utilizing them to help the team grow, which is why I was willing to give him another season with the Rockies.
Unfortunately, he's failing to make strides in what has been by far his worst skill as a manager. With Weiss' poor use of the pen over the first two games of this season, I'm already starting to wonder if it isn't time for the Rockies to explore a new option as manager -- one whose biggest weakness isn't amplified by having to play half of his games at Coors Field.