Let’s turn back the clock to Aug. 11. The Colorado Rockies could’ve been 5-2 over the previous week’s worth of games. That would have been a great development considering such a result would’ve left the club 59-55 and RIGHT FREAKING THERE in the National League Wild Card standings entering play on that day.
Unfortunately, the Rockies had the Rockies’ bullpen — not the relief corps of the Washington Nationals, Los Angeles Dodgers or New York Mets — leading to a 1-6 week that essentially knocked the purple pinstripers out of contention. Colorado relievers allowed the opposing team — in one case, the Miami Marlins and in the other three, the Texas Rangers — to come from behind and take the lead in their final at-bat in four different games during that stretch. In short, it was an abysmal week.
Though the offense was inconsistent (scoring three or fewer runs in half of those losses and needing late rallies themselves to stay alive in a couple of the contests) and the starting pitching took a step back during the skid, it would be hard for anyone who watched the games to not to place the majority of the blame on the bullpen. That reaction is warranted; the Rockies’ pen during that awful run fell to 13th in the NL in ERA and 13th in WHIP. Too much traffic was on the base paths, and too much of it crossed the plate.
A month later, not much has changed. Since the Rockies’ downward spiral out of playoff contention, the bullpen has continued to put up poor results; over the last 30 days, the unit has posted a combined 6.42 ERA in 89 2⁄3 innings. The sheer amount of runs allowed by the group has been a constant all year and obviously correlates to a poor win-loss record. But most other numbers have been inconsistent and head-scratching.
For instance, Rockies relievers have struck out almost a batter per inning this month, but the unit has issued almost four walks per nine. But for the season, the unit has one of the lowest strikeout rates — and one of the lowest walk rates -- among the 15 National League bullpens. Some bad luck has been involved judging by the group’s middle-of-the-road xFIP and high BABIP. All of that is confusing and doesn’t correlate all that much anyway.
But what does correlate — this year, at least — with wins and losses and does make sense as an answer to the question of why the Rockies’ bullpen seems like one of the worst we’ve ever seen is Win Probability Added.
Per Fangraphs, in 2016 the WPA for the Rockies’ bullpen is an astonishing -6.14, or more than six wins below average, dead last in the NL. That’s important because, aside from the Milwaukee Brewers, every team in the top five has a winning record and three — the Los Angeles Dodgers, Chicago Cubs and Washington Nationals — are sure bets to reach the postseason. On the flip side, the bottom five includes only one team with a winning record (the Miami Marlins) and features the woeful Atlanta Braves, Arizona Diamondbacks and Cincinnati Reds.
For reference, the only relief unit in the last five years to finish with a worse WPA than Colorado’s current relief corps was the 2014 Rockies, who gave more than 150 innings to awful versions of Nick Masset, Rex Brothers, Chad Bettis and Boone Logan.
The talent in this year’s unit seems to be better, but the results aren’t showing it. That’s because the 2016 bullpen has been terrible in just about every "clutch" measurement. Only three pitchers on the 40-man roster — Logan, Chris Rusin and Chad Qualls — with significant relief innings this season own a positive WPA, and Qualls’ is 0.01. Everyone else — including Jake McGee, Christian Bergman and Carlos Estevez, each of whom have cost the Rockies at least a full win — is in the negative.
This makes it pretty easy to assume that if the Rockies’ bullpen had a neutral WPA and everything else stays the same, we’d be looking at a 75-72 team right now. If that were the case, Colorado would be just 21⁄2 games out of the second NL Wild Card spot. And, to take it one step further, if Rockies relievers were able to produce a WPA figure comparable to that of the Brewers’ 3.89, the team could be sitting at 79-67 and leading the Wild Card standings.
That’s a tough pill to swallow. The good news, though, is that WPA isn’t a predictive stat; according to Fangraphs, these numbers have a tendency to fluctuate from season to season. The bad news? The Rockies haven’t received a positive WPA from their bullpen since 2013 — and they haven’t ranked in the upper half of the NL since 2011, which was about the tail end of the team’s long stretch of having its bullpen be an actual strength.
Since WPA isn’t generally used for player analysis, it’s hard to say that because the Rockies’ bullpen has a league-worst number in that area, the whole unit is bad or consists of mostly subpar pitchers. But what it does say — especially when comparing the WPA totals for the offense (4.35, fifth in the NL) and starting rotation (-2.21, seventh) — is that the bullpen has played by far the largest part in the team’s failures in high-leverage situations, and that said failure has led to more losses than we should have seen to this point in the season.