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Here’s where Alex Colomé can fit as the new closer

Colorado Rockies news and links for Tuesday, March 15, 2022

The Rockies inked a one-year contract for right-hander Alex Colomé this weekend.

FanGraphs wasted no time placing him as the closer in 2022.

Colorado’s ninth-inning guy to start 2021 was Daniel Bard, the reigning NL Comeback Player of the Year. He was dropped from the closer role in late August, giving way to five-year veteran Carlos Estévez. Both posses a fastball/changeup/slider mix (with a sinker for Bard) and both can run in triple-digits, but neither one of them have the body of work that Colomé does — nor do they have his simplified pitch selection.

This suggests we should familiarize ourselves with Alex Colomé, and figure out just how he compares to the other two late-inning options we already know.

Let’s Talk Money

Bard will make his way back to Denver this year on a one-year, $4.4 million deal. Along with Estévez’s $2.9 million, the Rockies will pay Colomé an amount that will likely be around Bard’s total. If Colomé truly is the new closer like FanGraphs shows, it’s questionable to imagine how Bard, with a 2021 ERA in the fives, would make more money after an extension this winter.

The combined total for Colomé, Estévez and Bard is far from the $35 million per year the Rockies paid for Wade Davis, Jake McGee and Bryan Shaw, but an eight-figure statement still shows an expectation.

It also shows the Rockies front office has serious belief in these arms — and is willing to believe more than the arguable market price.

San Francisco’s Jake McGee, the former Rockies reliever, had 50% more saves than Bard in 2021. McGee’s ERA last year was 2.72; Bard’s was 5.21. McGee will be making $1.9 million less than Bard this year while he looks to push the Giants toward consecutive division titles. (The Giants landed McGee on a two-year deal last year, so his market value could have easily been higher if he were a free agent this winter.)

If we default paychecks for positions, the highest-paid reliever can be justified as the ninth-inning guy, at least to start a season, and assuming the club just signed said reliever.

Raw Figures: ERA, FIP and xFIP

FIP and xFIP are regarded as more predictive stats than ERA. When tendering new contracts, these numbers can often reveal a more ‘true’ value projection — but it sometimes doesn’t paint the full picture.

Colomé’s ERA has been steadily lower than his FIP and xFIP for the past five years. There is a chance that luck could contribute to this, but the way he pitches can inflate FIP in a misleading way. The equation for FIP, for all you super-statheads, is this:

(13*HR + 3*BB - 2*K) / IP + ERA constant

Simply put, it shows that only home runs, walks, strikeouts, innings pitched, and a fancy measuring stick for ERA are tossed into that thing.

This equation, throwing out all balls in play, is a predictor for what currently dominates the modern game. The ‘three true outcomes’, as they are called — walks, strikeouts and home runs — are irrespective of the fielders in play. By throwing everything out except those three true outcomes, we get a simplified measure that accounts for only the hitter and pitcher.

FIP has a weakness when accounting for arms that can truly induce specialized weak contact. Mariano Rivera was one of them. He went to work with a cutter that shredded bats into rocking chairs, and his career FIP (2.76) is quite higher than his career ERA (2.11). He dominated way too much in the postseason to simply be tabbed ‘lucky’, which might be the tab for other arms with a better ERA than FIP. His cutter was way too efficient to just throw out the broken-bat putouts he caused, too.

Maybe you see where we’re going with this:

Pitch Mix

This is not saying Colomé is the next Mariano Rivera — the Rockies probably wouldn’t have landed him if he was — but his pitch mix is unlike the recent history of Rockies closers. The most prosperous career in closer history was made possible by a cutter, and the Rockies have a chance to find value with a similar pitch in a similar position.

Ground Ball Rate (GB%)

The league-average GB% is around 43%. In a place like Colorado, altitude will not be an issue on balls that touch the infield grass. This can make GB% even more important for Rockies closers; you can only do so much damage with contact on the ground.

In 2020, the league couldn’t really figure out Daniel Bard as teams tried to assemble a scouting report. Bard hadn’t pitched in the big leagues for seven years. The 2020 season was only 60 games long, and nobody really had a chance to see him tired. It wasn’t until the latter end of 2021 that his performance pushed him out of the closer slot.

Bard’s closer duties were handed to Estévez at that point, an arm with a slightly more favorable GB% but still around the league average.

If there is one arm in baseball that can benefit from a GB% that isn’t league average, it could very well be the Rockies closer.

GB% does not show the dominance that strikeout percentage does. Bard and Estévez paint a new picture with the K’s, but this is where Colomé has a different, and perhaps unusual, advantage:

Strikeout Percentage (K%)

Strikeouts are the epitome of pitcher dominance — most of the time.

For Bard or Estévez to have a higher K% than Colomé, it suggests they have to throw more pitches. The old adage that ‘strikeouts are a waste of pitches’ is where Colomé can make less mistakes; if Bard throws a lot of sliders in an inning, he could be more likely to hang one and see it land over the fence.

If Colomé truly is a wizard at inducing ground-ball contact, he won’t have to work as deep in counts and he’ll be able to reap the benefits of simple pitches. It’s easier to hand-craft two pitches than it is four, and while Bard is busy shaping four total pitches, Colomé can polish up two.

This could possibly yield fewer hanging breakers, weaker contact, earlier contact, and hopefully lower blood pressure in the ninth.

The Current Decision: What can we learn in spring training?

Save situations are virtually negligent in March in terms of standard regular-season adrenaline. In the Cactus League, we won’t see the crunch-time action that closers live for. We might have to put the microscopes away until April because of it.

We’ll at least see the closer candidates make a few statements, and look to see if some short-term, multi-million-dollar deals will deliver late-inning peace. Pay close attention to Colomé’s cutter; the warm, dry and relatively-elevated Arizona will serve as a good primer for impending Colorado altitude.

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