The 2017 National League Wild Card game was played on a Wednesday evening in early October, with the Colorado Rockies facing a Zack Greinke-led Arizona Diamondbacks squad in Phoenix, Arizona. The Chase Field pitching mound saw 14 different arms that night. Starting pitchers Greinke and Jon Gray combined for five innings of work. 19 runs were scored. 30 hits were recorded. The Rockies never led in that contest.
Arizona won 11-8; in Colorado’s final two innings in the field, they allowed five runs.
Relief pitching is being used in record-setting amounts, and Major League Baseball has ushered in the era of the bullpen-dominated postseason. The New York Yankees designed their staff for it in 2019, a bullpen earning such titles as “super,” “battle-tested” and “high-stakes”. The 2015 Kansas City Royals won it all with a 2.51 bullpen ERA, using their relievers more than anyone else that October. The Indians won the pennant in 2016 with Andrew Miller playing fireman. The 2017 Dodgers used Brandon Morrow in all seven World Series games.
Playoff success suddenly meant quality relievers—and lots of them.
Fresh on the heels of their first postseason appearance in eight years, the Rockies were left to formulate a plan to overcome their struggles on that Wednesday night against the Diamondbacks. Colorado’s endeavor faced issues unlike any other team: how to lure premier relievers into the hitters’ paradise of Coors Field.
A $106 Million Investment
- December 12, 2017: Bryan Shaw signs three-year, $27 million deal with the Rockies
- December 13, 2017: Colorado extends Jake McGee for three years, $27 million
- December 29, 2017: Wade Davis signs three-year, $52 million deal with Colorado
In 2017, McGee posted a 3.61 ERA over 57 1⁄3 innings with the Rockies. Bryan Shaw’s 79 appearances in Cleveland led all of baseball, earning a 3.52 ERA over 76 2⁄3 innings. Wade Davis had been an all-star in three consecutive seasons, threw the final pitch of the 2015 season en route to a World Series ring, and was coming off four consecutive seasons with an ERA at or below 2.30.
Hindsight aside—general manager Jeff Bridich may have well looked like Santa Claus in 2017.
2018: Year One of the Super Bullpen
Davis’ ERA jumped to 4.13 in 2018, but he did lead the National League in saves. He collected 43 of them in 65 1⁄3 innings.
Shaw held a 5.93 ERA in 54 2⁄3 innings; McGee a 6.49 in 51 1⁄3.
Colorado was able to pull off consecutive postseason appearances for the first time ever—but it was instead Adam Ottavino (2.43 ERA, 77 2⁄3 IP) and Scott Oberg (2.45 ERA, 58 2⁄3 IP) that propelled the bullpen. Ottavino made a little less than McGee that year; Oberg made a tick above league minimum.
The Rockies found themselves in the exact position they were in one year prior; the visiting team in the sudden death wild card. Kyle Freeland preserved the bullpen and shut out the Cubs into the seventh inning. Six total pitchers held Chicago to six hits over 13 innings. One run was allowed—and Colorado’s pitching came out on top.
Davis shut the door for the final 1 1⁄3 innings. McGee wasn’t used—and Shaw didn’t make the Wild Card roster.
2019: Year Two of the Super Bullpen
Davis set a career high in ERA: 8.65 over 42 2⁄3 innings. The trio of Davis, McGee and Shaw combined for an ERA of 6.00, receiving nearly a quarter of the team payroll. Colorado’s team ERA (5.56) finished 29th of 30, and the 71-win Rockies were left watching old friend Adam Ottavino pitch for the Yankees last October.
Before we analyze, we must recognize: it isn’t so simple, and the Rockies weren’t cold or timid.
Nolan Arenado has made it clear he wants to win. Colorado’s financial commitment to the bullpen limits the ability for Jeff Bridich to make roster moves, and the 71-win Rockies of last year put the Colorado future of Arenado in jeopardy.
But before it’s evaluated, don’t be so quick to put the blame on Bridich. He knew, as did basically every MLB team, that bullpen pieces are more essential now than ever before. There is a reason Aroldis Chapman has bounced from the Yankees, to the Cubs, and back to the Yankees in championship runs—and lest we forget the aforementioned success of the 2015 Royals (Wade Davis), 2016 Indians (Bryan Shaw) and 2017 Rockies (Jake McGee—along with his gold medal in the World Baseball Classic that year).
The Washington Nationals bullpen was the exception last year (5.68 ERA), and they have made offseason moves because of it. 2019 may have also been the final chapter in a starter-dominated World Series, as Gerrit Cole, Max Scherzer, Zack Greinke, Justin Verlander and Stephen Strasburg were sent to the mound. The Yankees later shelled out $324 million for Cole over nine years (more per year than Davis/McGee/Shaw combined), and the Yankees super-bullpen remains specially curated for the postseason.
Arenado wants to compete for championships—but championships are now earned in a bullpen-dominated game. Jeff Bridich was appropriately following suit.
Rewind to 2017: What if Colorado’s super-bullpen never happened?
The following features outcomes that ‘could’ have happened if the Rockies didn’t commit $106 million for Davis, McGee and Shaw. Be advised, and recognize that hindsight is always 20/20.
Retaining a lost bullpen piece:
Adam Ottavino missed the Rockies’ postseason roster in 2017, before Colorado unloaded cash for the bullpen. New faces Davis and Shaw could have easily taken over a big chunk of Ottavino’s innings—in his contract year.
He then went on a quest to rebuild himself in a storefront-turned-pitching lab in New York City. Ottavino returned to Denver and stole the bullpen spotlight.
One thing is for certain: if Colorado doesn’t ink the contracts from the year before, there is more money to keep Ottavino around. He is now part of the Yankees super-bullpen; three years, $27 million.
Retaining a lost infielder:
One could argue that without Colorado’s $106 million bullpen commitment, the Rockies could have held onto Ottavino’s Yankee teammate. DJ LeMahieu signed in the Bronx for $24 million over two years.
LeMahieu signed the exact same contract in New York that Daniel Murphy did in Colorado.
Acquiring a catcher:
Colorado ‘expressed’ offseason interest this past winter in acquiring a catcher, specifically a right-handed hitter to pair with Tony Wolters. They acquired Drew Butera and Elias Díaz, and they were non-roster invitees in spring training.
A marquee free agent fit the bill: Yasmani Grandal. He agreed to a deal with the Chicago White Sox this offseason for four years and $73 million, putting him in the general cost-per-year of Wade Davis. Perhaps hitter-friendly Coors Field would be incentive enough to lure him in.
An abundance of firepower had already been assembled in the Rockies lineup, however. The acquisition of Grandal would have taken money away from bullpen needs that were labeled essential.
Acquiring relief pitching:
What we knew at the end of 2017: closer Greg Holland led the league in saves and was leaving. Ottavino’s season ERA was in the fives. Colorado was willing to spend $106 million in reliever deals, and bullpen depth was expensively prioritized.
Waiting a year for 2018-19 free agent relievers to come to Colorado wouldn’t address a need ruled immediate—but those arms still may have been available at some point that year. Guys like Andrew Miller, Zack Britton, David Robertson and Daniel Hudson were entering contract years in 2018, just as Ottavino was.
Fast-forward to 2019: baseball fans saw the many ways a postseason contender can assemble a bullpen.
The Atlanta Braves did it at the trade deadline—they acquired two players with closer experience. Atlanta led the NL East by 6.5 games on July 31. They brought in San Francisco’s Mark Melancon and Detroit’s Shane Greene.
Colorado acquired sidearmer Pat Neshek at the 2017 trade deadline; his 2.45 ERA in 22 innings got the job done. Fast-forward a year: the 2018 Dodgers and financially-restricted Rockies were tied for the second wild card spot, trailing the division-leading Diamondbacks by 0.5 games.
If $106 million wasn’t spent in the offseason prior, perhaps an Atlanta-esque approach could have been exercised in Denver.
Several soon-to-be-free-agent relievers were busy on postseason runs of their own, however—and those teams needed a postseason bullpen too. Andrew Miller’s Indians led the AL Central by nine games. Zack Britton and David Robertson’s Yankees had the second best record in the AL. Daniel Hudson and Joe Kelly’s Dodgers wouldn’t be keen on lending a reliever to a contending division rival. If the Rockies held off and decided to unload at the trade deadline, the pool of available relievers could have been limited.
But even if Colorado didn't make a trade deadline deal, there would end up being available money to re-sign Ottavino who shined that year. Free-agent relievers would become available in the 2018-19 offseason—and Colorado’s ledger would have remained wide open for roster moves.
The 2020 reality:
“It is not the critic who counts. . . the credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena. . . who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” -Theodore Roosevelt
The decision to bring in Davis, McGee and Shaw was the opposite of timid. Credit lies in a brave and daring premise that Colorado was actually able to lure premier 2017 arms.
It could have worked out differently—it always can—but when October action in 2017 ended about as quick as it began, a daring mission to avenge the 11 allowed wild card runs was born. These signings acted as a grand attempt to assemble a contender.
The team dared—and the soul of the Rockies was not cold and timid.