A few days ago, Mark Kiszla and Nick Groke had a little banter about which player has been “most responsible” for the franchise record 33-21 start at the 1/3 point of the season. Groke makes a modest case for outfielder Charlie Blackmon, who has been nothing short of incredible for the start of the season. Kiszla, rightly, looks at the success of the pitching staff, and especially the bullpen, and wants to give that credit to a particular player, namely Greg Holland. According to Kiz, “his shut-down ninth innings have give the Rockies their swagger.”
While I certainly think that Greg Holland has been the best free agent signing of the offseason (looking at you, Ian Desmond) and certainly deserves Comeback Player of the Year honors, team MVP might be a bridge too far. Were the crux of his argument something along the lines of honoring a single person as an avatar for the whole bullpen, I would grant that honor to manager Bud Black.
In Purple Row’s offseason analysis, we were careful to articulate just how bad the Rockies bullpen was last year and how that portended good things for 2017, but even then it was difficult to imagine a relief corps that would boast six (!) arms with an ERA+ of 110 or better. As predicted, a lot of that is due to positive regression in clutch. But even that can be attributed to usage patterns. And that’s where Black comes in.
Leverage Index (LI) is a measure of how critical a particular game situation is, where 1.0 is about average. By extension, game leverage index (or gmLI) is the LI when a player enters a game. If a player’s gmLI is greater than 1.0, he is entering the game in critical situations; if it is below 1.0, the result of the game isn’t really in doubt. This is a math-y way of describing something that we’re familiar with: some situations are more important than others. Good bullpen management dictates that managers use their good relievers in high leverage situations. How does Bud Black do in this regard?
2017 Rockies Bullpen
As stated before, Holland has been excellent in the closer role. But Black has also had several other good relievers, which means he hasn’t been forced to bring Holland in to plug the dam in other situations (competing theories of optimal bullpen usage aside). Instead he’s been free to use Jake McGee (289 ERA+) and Adam Ottavino (196 ERA+) in the situations where they’re most needed while saving lesser options like Scott Oberg (99 ERA+) and Jordan Lyles (103 ERA+) when the stakes are lower. This type of usage has even given Chad Qualls (110 ERA+!) a place where he can thrive. This is the key to good bullpen management: using the right guys at the right times to give them the best chance to succeed.
But good bullpen management goes beyond that as well. Rockies starters have thrown 3091⁄3 innings through 54 games (5.72 innings per start), the fifth most innings of any rotation in baseball. From 2012-2015, Rockies starters threw either the fewest or second fewest innings, including a measly 765 in 2012 (4.72 IP/start). Black’s insistence on having his starters finish innings whenever possible—even if, like on Tuesday, it means a pitcher wearing a bad outing a little bit—means he’s able to save his bullpen arms for later in the game.
This ability to manage the pitching staff has ramifications for the rest of the season. Right now every Rockies starter (save for the injured Jon Gray) is averaging nearly six innings per start. If the rotation can maintain that level of production, Black will be able to save the team’s best bullpen arms for the spots they’re truly needed, especially as the playoff chase continues.
So with all due respect to Holland and his phenomenal performance thus far, he’s mostly been the beneficiary of Black’s bullpen management. Having better pitchers helps, but Black is proving himself particularly adept at putting pitchers in the right situations at the right time. And for that he deserves even more credit than he’s already getting.