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Colorado Rockies bullpen set to improve in the clutch

The Rockies’ bullpen was one of the worst ever in clutch situations in 2016, and they will almost certainly improve in 2017.

The struggles of the Colorado Rockiesbullpen in 2016 have been well documented. They blew 28 saves, more than all but the San Francisco Giants (30) and Miami Marlins (29), and had a league-worst 5.13 ERA. That’s pretty bad; however, things look better on second glance than the first if we look at ERA predictors like FIP, xFIP, and SIERA. According to those stats, the Rockies’ 2016 bullpen ranked 24th, 23rd, and 22nd in baseball, respectively. ERA predictors don’t turn a bad bullpen good, but those numbers aren’t those of a catastrophic worst bullpen in the league.

But the thing about ERA and ERA predictors is that they’re context neutral. The role of a reliever and a bullpen, however, is context dependent, so we need contextual numbers. Win Probability Added (WPA) and Clutch scores can give us that. And they’re damning—at least for the 2016 team.

The Rockies 2016 bullpen posted a WPA of -7.40, which was far and away the worst in the league. A WPA of 0 would mean the bullpen didn’t make the team any more likely to win, but weren’t a detriment either. The -7.40 from the Rockies’ bullpen essentially means they cost the team 7.4 wins. A neutral bullpen (in theory) takes the 2016 Rockies from 75-87 to 82-80.

Additionally, a closer look at FanGraphs’ Clutch metric reveals that the bullpen was, in fact, the worst “clutch” bullpen in baseball in 2016 by a large margin. FanGraphs defines Clutch as “…how much better or worse a player does in high leverage situations than he would have done in a context neutral environment.” From that, we can gather that a team with a poor clutch rating will have a worse WPA than expected and, in turn, lose more games than expected.

It’s necessary to note that Clutch is measured against that specific team’s average, so good and bad bullpens will not necessarily have a good and bad clutch ratings. The Los Angeles Dodgers finished first in bullpen ERA in 2016, but 26th in Clutch, while the Philadelphia Phillies finished 28th in bullpen ERA, but second in Clutch. Each squad creates its own baseline.

So how did the Rockies do with this stat? The Rockies’ clutch rating of -7.79 was the worst in baseball. It was worse than the 28th and 29th ranked bullpens combined. And, in fact, it was the worst clutch performance from a bullpen since 1974, which is as far back as FanGraphs tracks the Clutch stat.

However, there’s a caveat that Rockies fans should pay attention to. While great at illustrating what already happened, Clutch has little to no predictive value. The most unclutch bullpen in 2015 was the Atlanta Braves, and in the following season they posted a positive Clutch score and moved all the way up to 14th. To further illustrate this, let’s take a look at the 10 least clutch bullpens since 1974, along with how those bullpens fared in the following season:

What we see here are significant, across-the-board improvements from every team. Some remained in the negative the following year while some moved into the positive, but every team improved by a minimum of 3.05, and they ultimately averaged out to a Clutch score of slightly above 0 the next year. This is what you’d expect from the bullpen where a team can use its best pitchers in more important situations. There’s no reason we shouldn’t expect the same from the Rockies in 2017.

Back in September, Eric Garcia McKinley looked at the worst bullpens since 2002 by raw WPA and how they fared the following year. At the time of the article, the 2016 Rockies were 13th worst. By the end of the season, they had moved up to seventh. Just as we’re seeing in Clutch scores, the worst bullpens by WPA were better without exception in the next season.

In that article, Eric also looked at the team with the most dramatic bullpen turnaround from one season to the next—the 2007 Tampa Bay Devil Rays to the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays. In 2007, they posted the league’s worst bullpen WPA at -8.61, but in 2008, they posted the league’s best bullpen WPA at +9.26. The biggest takeaway was that, while the additions of Trever Miller, Chad Bradford, and Troy Percival certainly helped, the team’s top four relievers in WPA—J.P. Howell, Grant Balfour, Dan Wheeler, and Jason Hammel—were pitchers who were already on the team the previous year.

None of this is to say the Rockies shouldn’t continue their pursuit of relievers Greg Holland and Joe Blanton. Both are quality pitchers with track records of success who would likely improve the bullpen. What it does say, however, is that the primary source of improvement from the bullpen in 2017 is likely to come from those already on the roster like Miguel Castro, Carlos Estevez, Jordan Lyles, Jake McGee, and Scott Oberg, all of whom posted negative Clutch scores in 2016. Healthy seasons from Adam Ottavino (another pitcher with a poor Clutch score in 2016) and Jairo Diaz should also help.

The Rockies’ bullpen was bad in 2016. In the context of Clutch, it was historically bad. For the team to have legitimate playoff aspirations in 2017, it’s a must that next year’s version be better. The most obvious step here is, of course, getting better pitchers. However, a return to more normal performance in the Clutch with the same group and a mediocre pitcher like Mike Dunn added to the mix—even if it doesn’t come with an improvement in overall performance—could prove to be just as significant of a step toward improvement.