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Crafting a Gameplan for the Rockies Bullpen, Pt. 1: Overview

Welcome back the “Crafting a Gameplan” series, a in-depth and data-based look at the Colorado Rockies pitching staff. In this edition, we’ll be taking a look at the Rockies bullpen.

Before we begin: this is Part 1 of a six-part mini-series about the Rockies bullpen integrated within the ‘Crafting a Gameplan’ series. I will discuss the Rockies bullpen as entity, and I will be covering each pitcher in the ‘pen (as of the time of writing) individually at one point or another, but will group athletes who share similarities in pieces so each one has a particular theme. I will eventually dedicate a full piece of the series to take a look at possible free agent options, and the final article will be a recap. The intended structure of this mini-series is as follows:

  • Part 1: Overview & Quick Fixes (Bard, Lamet, Kinley)
  • Part 2: The Righties (Lawrence, Bird)
  • Part 3: The Righties (Hollowell, Smith)
  • Part 4: The Lefties (Gilbreath, Suter)
  • Part 5: Free Agent & Trade Targets
  • Part 6: Recap

Each new entry will feature links to the previous parts, displayed up above. You can find the previous entries of the ‘Crafting a Gameplan’ series here:

Thank you very much for reading. Let’s begin!

The bullpen is a crucial part of a modern baseball team’s success. As baseball has become more specialized and player development has drifted towards maximizing an individual’s strengths, MLB bullpens have become filled with hard-throwing hurlers with optimized arsenals. Long gone are the days of teams having just one ace, multi-inning reliever who pitched in every high-leverage situation complemented by a few innings-eaters for low-leverage spots; some current middle relievers boast stuff that would’ve landed them in closer roles 10-15 years ago. We’ve seen many teams over the past few years ride excellent bullpens to great success in the postseason (Cleveland in 2016 and Atlanta’s 2021 ‘Night Shift’ come to mind). It seems unlikely that we’ll ever go back in time to the days when starters tossed seven innings per outing. Therefore, bullpen quality and bullpen depth are of the utmost importance in today’s game.

The 2022 Rockies ‘Pen

After featuring two good bullpens in their back-to-back postseason trips in 2017-18 (ranking well above average in most categories during that span despite some well-known struggles in early 2018), the Rockies have struggled to match that performance from 2019 onwards. They ranked in the bottom five in terms of Wins Above Replacement (WAR), as well as strikeout rate, walk rate and general run prevention. The 2022 edition, boosted by Daniel Bard’s exceptional season, was a bit better than it had been in years past, but it still wasn’t great as a unit by any stretch.

Rockies Bullpen Ranks in 2022

Stat Rank
Stat Rank
ERA- 23rd
FIP- 13th
K% 23th
BB%+ 26th
RA9-WAR 19th
Chase% 30th

The last-place ranking in chase rate is the most alarming to me, mainly because the difference between the Rockies (24.8%) and 29th-placed Oakland (26.6%) is the same as the gap between the A’s and the 21st-placed Mets (28.4%). And while it would be easy to attribute some of that to Coors Field, it was an issue on the road too — the Rockies bullpen drew a chase rate of 24.9% on the road in 2022, about the same as they did at home and again far off 29th-placed Cincinnati (26.3%). We’ll go over some of this later on, but the general idea is that while the very back-end of the ‘pen was pretty stellar, the rest was not. The Rockies need better production in many areas, and the bullpen is no exception. It’s always great to have a closer you can trust, but it’s the guys lower in the leverage order that will truly make or break a modern bullpen’s quality. If your sixth-inning arm is good, your run prevention in the late innings is in a good spot.

How the Bullpen Looks Right Now

Let’s take a look at how the bullpen looks as of the time of writing this piece. This doesn’t have to be the final 2023 ‘pen, obviously, as there’s still plenty of offseason left to add arms, but I do want to refresh memories here just a bit. I’ve added some information I thought was relevant just to give a very rough overall look at how things shape up, what the bullpen has and doesn’t have, and so on. Remember that the final bullpen will be an eight-man group, but I wanted to put all the options I had data for in here for ease of use:

Projected Rockies Bullpen

Proj. Role Player Throws Sits FB Shape Main Non-FB Release Point Extension
Proj. Role Player Throws Sits FB Shape Main Non-FB Release Point Extension
Closer Daniel Bard R 97-100 Sink Slider/Cutter Avg Low
Setup Dinelson Lamet R 94-97 Rise Gyro Slider High Low
Setup Tyler Kinley R 94-97 Rise/Cut Slider Very High Low
MIRP Jake Bird R 93-96 Sink Curveball Low Low
MIRP Justin Lawrence R 94-97 Sink Sweep. Slider Very Low Avg
Mid. Lev Gavin Hollowell R 92-95 Sink/Cut Sweep. Slider Low Elite
Mid. Lev Chad Smith R 94-97 Sink Gyro Slider Low Low
LHP Lucas Gilbreath L 92-95 Rise/Cut Slider Avg Avg
LHP Brent Suter L 85-88 Cut Changeup High Elite

As I’m sure you noticed, there’s a lot of sinkers and sliders in the Rockies bullpen, though this is hardly something only the Rox do. As you can also see, the Rockies don’t have a true rising power four-seamer in the bullpen right now, and that is definitely relatively unique to them across MLB. Lamet and Kinley are the closest thing to that, but not only are they not exceptionally hard throwers for this era, not only are they pitchers with relatively short extension (which makes their velo play down ever so slightly), but their four-seamers don’t really have outlier ‘hop’ anyway. We’ll talk about this later in the series, but I believe that this lack of bullpen diversity could potentially be a problem. Essentially, if most of your relievers have the same profile, you reduce the amount of batters you can excel against as a unit and the location/sequencing aspect can become predictable as well.

I believe there’s a ton of talent in that bullpen, however, and I’ll be covering all of them individually at one point or another in the following days. Since the point of this Gameplan series is to do extensive breakdowns of pitchers who maybe aren’t reaching their potential and this first part is meant to be a not-so-extensive overview, I’ve decided to use this section to go over the pitchers in the Rockies pen that, in my estimation, don’t really need to make significant changes, if they need to change anything at all. These are three established hurlers with good and cohesive stuff, and a good idea of how to use it already: Daniel Bard, Dinelson Lamet and Tyler Kinley.

Daniel Bard

Daniel Bard is coming off the best season of his MLB career and one of, if not the best relief season in Rockies history. Bard finished with a sterling 1.79 ERA across 57 appearances totaling 60 13 innings, saving 34 games in 37 opportunities and being borderline un-hittable most of the year. He has the best stuff on the team, throwing a sinker at 97-100 with nasty depth and tail, and the way he manipulates his slider, as I’ve written about before, effectively gives him multiple glove-side weapons to attack hitters with: a hard cutter and a slow sweeper. This makes his sinker that much better by making it much tougher for batters to identify and isolate it. His primarily horizontal profile makes him likely to not generate a ton of chases (see: Ottavino, Adam), but that doesn’t matter as much when your stuff is that good and they can’t square you up.

Bard’s pitch mix and overall approach is close to optimized already, so there really isn’t a lot for me to talk about. His four-seamer has been all but ditched (though he still got good results when using it) and his changeup is thrown only every once in a while and only to lefties. However, I wanted to sing his praises at least once in this series. The Rockies haven’t had a closer like this maybe ever, and speaking purely as a fan, it’s such a relief when your team has a guy that lowers your level of nervousness as soon as he enters the game. Bard is a ton of fun to watch, and he makes my job as an analyst here awfully simple.

Dinelson Lamet

When the Brewers DFA’d Dinelson Lamet last season, I was practically praying to a higher power for the Rockies to pick him up. Lo and behold, they did, and Lamet was quite solid as a Rockie, striking out a third of all batters faced and putting his nasty slider to good use. He did have some issues with walks, including a poor outing in LA during which he faced three batters and walked them all on 15 pitches, but was otherwise dominant, closing out his season by striking out four across two dominant scoreless frames against those same Dodgers just a few days later. Lamet was thrust into the late innings right away for the Rockies in 2022, and that tells me he’s likely to be one of Daniel Bard’s primary setup men in 2023.

The main reason I was begging the Rockies to pick him up was his incredible slider, which you can see up top. Lamet can manipulate it similarly to how Daniel Bard does, adding and subtracting velocity (as low as 82 and as high as 90 MPH) and depth based on context, and its spin profile is great for altitude. Lamet’s slider spin is heavily gyroscopic (think ‘football thrown by a QB’ type spin), which allows gravity to take control during ball flight. Gyro sliders are often extremely vertically oriented pitches, and Lamet’s is no exception. The short, sharp break is excellent for inducing swings and misses and chases out of the zone. Combining its shape, velocity, spin profile and Lamet’s feel for it, this is one of the very best pitches in the organization. So what’s the small adjustments I would suggest?

  • Throw the fastball upstairs. Lamet throws a four-seam fastball with average-ish carry and as a Rockie, Lamet’s average fastball was thrown at 2.34 feet of height, which is to say: right above the knees, prime location for it to get hit 450 feet. Unsurprisingly, Lamet’s K% on the heater immediately dropped to about half his career norm, and I suspect it wasn’t a coincidence that batters chased his stuff less than ever before. For reference, throughout his entire career, when Lamet’s thrown a four-seam fastball at 2.75 feet or higher, the pitch has a .337 wOBA against. When he’s thrown it at 2.74 feet or lower, however, he has a .459 wOBA against. That’s a massive jump that leads us to a simple conclusion: throw that four-seamer high.
  • Don’t fall victim to predictable sequencing! Lamet still throws his slider more than half the time, as he’s done in the past, but the distribution of its usage became more predictable as a Rockie. Lamet’s slider usage with two strikes jumped from 65.3% as a Padre to 77% as a Rockie while his slider usage in traditional hitter counts (2-0, 3-1) was cut in half, from 32% as a Padre to 16.7% as a Rockie. Even his slider usage on first pitches went from 46.7% as a Padre to 39.1% as a Rockie. In other words, he seemed to adhere more closely to traditional ideas about pitch usage in Colorado, rather than the “any pitch, any count” mentality that dominates modern pitching. This can’t keep happening.

They are two small adjustments that are easy to make. Lamet is hyper talented, and something tells me he’ll pitch quite well in 2023 and moving forward. His “sinker”, which I didn’t mention here, is an extremely interesting pitch, but one I feel would need more data and feedback to evaluate. (I’m putting that on my to-do list!)

Tyler Kinley

Kinley would have (or should have) been an All-Star in 2022 had he not gotten hurt. The right-hander carried a preposterous 0.75 ERA through 24 innings before tearing his flexor in mid-June, knocking him out until 2023. Long thought of as a wild reliever, Kinley walked just six of the 100 batters he faced, striking out 27 and allowing precisely zero home runs. He was utterly dominant, and the Rockies bullpen was noticeably shakier after he went down.

This is where I would’ve put a video of Kinley’s nasty slider, but since Twitter suspended @RoxGifVids, I can’t find an embed. Here is a link of his slider in action.

The answer to the question “who throws the hardest slider on the Rockies, if we count Bard’s hard sliders as cutters?” is Kinley, whose slider is more often than not parked above 90 MPH. Like Lamet, his four-seam fastball isn’t anything out of the ordinary as far as velo goes, but his slider is terrific enough to make him quite solid. I don’t have biomechanical data, obviously, but the way he cuts his four-seamer combined with his incredible slider tells me he likely heavily favors supination, which is something to keep in mind if we were to add weapons to his arsenal. Here’s to hoping Kinley is fine and back to full strength. That aside, what adjustments can he make?

  • Don’t fall victim to predictable sequencing! I could basically copy-paste the paragraph I wrote for Lamet here. They’re sort of similar relievers: over-the-top righties with a mid 90’s fastball and a terrific slider they throw more than their heater. Kinley doesn’t manipulate his slider like Lamet or Bard do, but he also throws it really hard and batters have a hard time doing anything with it... which is why it makes no sense that Kinley has thrown 82% fastballs in 2-0 and 3-1 counts as a Rockie. Once again: throw your best pitch any time, in any count.

The Rockies clearly believe in his ability and health, as they recently signed him to a three-year extension worth close to $7 million. If he’s back at full strength, he projects to be a steady reliever towards the back end of the ‘pen.

What’s Next

As I said before, Bard, Lamet and Kinley are three well-established relievers with quality stuff and a good idea of how to use it already, which is why I wanted to go over them in the opening entry of this mini-series. They’re likely to form the back end of the Rockies’ bullpen in 2023, and I’m quite happy with that. In the next two entries, we’ll start going a bit more in depth, starting with the four relatively inexperienced righties who figure to compete for a spot in the bullpen next season: Jake Bird, Justin Lawrence, Gavin Hollowell and Chad Smith. See you then!

This is a study made through my own research and conclusions. In order for it to be truly complete, it would require things such a biomechanical breakdown and some feedback from the pitcher himself, among others, which is data I don’t have access to. Please take what I present more as a suggestion than a stone-cold fact.

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