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Lucas Gilbreath came out of nowhere and turned heads in 2021

The rookie Colorado Native worked hard to become a bullpen staple during a year of transition.

Welcome to the 2021 edition of Ranking the Rockies, where we take a look back at every player to log playing time for the Rockies in 2021. The purpose of this list is to provide a snapshot of the player in context. The “Ranking” is an organizing principle that’s drawn from Baseball Reference’s WAR (rWAR). It’s not something the staff debated. We’ll begin with the player with the lowest rWAR and end up with the player with the highest.

★ ★ ★

No. 14, Lucas Gilbreath: 0.9 rWAR

It’s no secret that we here at Purple Row are incredibly high on left-handed Colorado native Lucas Gilbreath, and it’s not without merit. The southpaw earned all the praise he’s been given during a breakout 2021 campaign.

Prior to 2021, Gilbreath had never pitched above High-A, and hadn’t pitched in-game since the 2019 minor league season. He spent the cancelled 2020 season working with Colorado Rockies pitching instructors to improve, which paid off to great dividends. He earned a spring training invite in 2021, and made his major league debut on May 1st.

Gilbreath’s May was tough. He gave up a home run on his very first major league pitch and got bullied in 8 13 innings that month before being optioned. However, when he returned to the Rockies roster in early June he was a reliever reborn.

Lucas Gilbreath - 2021 Time Frame Comparison

May 2021 9 8.1 8.64 .314 .375 .657 3 4 8
From June 8th 38 34.1 2.10 .177 .290 .234 2 19 36
Season 47 42.2 3.38 .208 .308 .327 5 23 44

From June onward, Lucas Gilbreath became one of the Rockies’ most reliable pieces out of the bullpen. From August 8th to September 22nd, Gilbreath strung together 17 straight appearances and 16 innings without allowing a run. During that time, opponents slashed just .130/.230/.148 against him. He gave up two runs (one earned) on September 23rd before finishing the season with another five straight scoreless outings.

He ended the season with the sixth most appearances (47) and the seventh most total innings (42 23 ) of all relievers. He also finished the season as one of just three regular relievers with an ERA under 4.00, and his 142 ERA+ is tied for second best in the bullpen behind Robert Stephenson’s 153.

Gilbreath excelled in multiple areas as a reliever. When opposing batters put the ball in play, he kept the ball on the ground with a 45.3% ground ball rate and and just five home runs given up. He also struck out batters at a steady clip, notching 44 total strikeouts for a strong SO/9 of 9.3. He does have some room for improvement though. Gilbreath had baserunners more often than he needed to with an H/9 of 7.0 and a BB/9 of a whopping 4.9. If he can cut down on allowing traffic, Gilbreath will be putting much less pressure on himself and be set up for even further success.

Gilbreath’s ascension from High-A pitcher to reliable major league reliever was sudden, unexpected, and immensely exciting. Combine that with the fact he is one of the Rockies’ few left-handed pitchers out of the bullpen and you can see that the Legacy High School product has a bright future ahead of him. Going into the 2022 season, a spot on the opening day 26-man roster is his to lose.