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Have the Rockies found their stopper?

Colorado Rockies news and links for Wednesday, July 27, 2022

It’s been a difficult season for Austin Gomber. After showing lots of great flashes as a starter in 2021, he opened the season as an undisputed part of the Rockies rotation and was solid enough through eight starts even without a lot of strikeouts; his ERA sat at 4.11, his FIP matched it at 4.19 and he was making strides when it came to control. Right after May 22nd, however, it all went sideways. Gomber started getting hit hard, giving up a whopping 31 hits and 24 runs in his next 17.0 innings pitched, raising his ERA to 6.43 and prompting a move to the bullpen. After a couple of low-leverage, multi-inning outings in relief, he returned to the rotation and was okay, but the good performance of José Ureña and the return of Antonio Senzatela pushed him to the bullpen, and Gomber put up one of his best outings all year in relief of Chad Kuhl: 3.2 innings in which he allowed just a solo home run and struck out three, keeping the Rockies in a game that could’ve gotten out of hand.

Is this just an aberration? Or is this a role that Gomber could thrive in? Let’s look at the long reliever as a role within the Rockies pitching staff and see how the lefty and his arsenal fit into the puzzle.

Long Relievers are Coming Back

For the longest time in baseball history, a reliever and a long reliever were the same thing. The reliever came in after the starter could no longer go and finished the game, and this was often true even for the ace relievers of the 60’s-70’s-80’s, such as Rich Gossage, Hoyt Wilhelm, Dan Quisenberry, Rollie Fingers, Bruce Sutter, etc. As baseball became more specialized and the modern closer was born towards the late 80’s, relievers started throwing harder and for less outs per appearance, and the modern single-inning reliever was born. As the 2010s started rolling along, the pitching staff went from 11, to 12, to 13, and then to 14 pitchers, and the long reliever died out. But, as you might’ve heard, MLB has recently shrunk the size of the pitching staff from 14 to 13 hurlers, and with the endless shuffling of relievers from Triple-A to the Majors also being toned down by rule, relief pitchers who can throw multiple innings at once are going to become a need again.

And How Does This Affect the Rockies?

Remember Chris Rusin at his best? Between 2016-17, the lefty tossed 169.1 innings across 89 appearances, seven of them being spot starts, and put up a terrific 3.19 ERA. His 2017 was particularly great: 60 appearances, 85 frames of 2.65 ERA ball, and yet only two saves. Rusin worked most frequently in close games in the 7th inning or earlier, going multiple innings in 32 of his outings and tossing 25+ pitches with relative frequency. He even faced the order twice nine times, something a regular reliever wouldn’t dream of doing in 2022 MLB. Rusin was an important piece of the 2017 Rockies that got to the postseason, and the Rox haven’t had a legitimate long reliever since. I believe Austin Gomber has a shot to be just that.

The Rockies have deployed three main hurlers as multi-inning relievers this season: Jhoulys Chacín, Ashton Goudeau and Ty Blach. And their combined numbers... well...

Col ‘22 MIRP (as of 7-25)

Pitcher G IP ERA FIP WHIP aLI
Pitcher G IP ERA FIP WHIP aLI
Jhoulys Chacín 32 44 7,36 4,72 1,50 0,65
Ty Blach 18 37.2 5,73 4,24 1,35 0,55
Ashton Goudeau 12 20.1 7,08 4,95 1,72 0,64

The combined ERA of this group is pushing 7, which is terrible, and as might have noticed, their average leverage index (aLI) is around .60 as a trio. For comparison, Rusin’s average 2017 leverage index was .96, considerably higher. Basically, the three pitchers the Rockies have used as long relievers this season have been A) bad, and B) as a result, entirely ignored in leverage spots. There has been no such thing as a proper stopper for the Rockies this season who can bridge the game to the back of the bullpen. Can Austin Gomber be that? Let’s take a look at his arsenal, and I’ll give you my opinion when we’re done.

The Weapons

Austin Gomber throws four different pitches: a four-seam fastball, a slider, a curveball and a changeup. Velocity isn’t his strong suit (his heater averages 91 MPH, very low for 2022 standards), but he throws from a different, over-the-top arm slot and has a great curveball, as well as a solid slider and changeup.

Baseball Savant

As you might expect, his fastball is the pitch that gets hit the hardest. The expected wOBA against it is routinely around .400. 15 of the 35 homers and 51 of the 81 extra-base hits Gomber has allowed as a Rockie have come on the heater. His secondaries have generated swings and misses around 30% of the time; his fastball has done so about 13% of the time. Oh, and his secondaries have been better at getting groundballs too, so there isn’t a batted ball disadvantage. At risk of being overly simplistic, I think the picture is relatively clear: there is a version of Austin Gomber that pitches in relief, sits 92-93 instead of 90-91, and throws like 30% fastballs at most. That version of the left-hander could pitch multiple innings when needed, bridge the gap to the back of the bullpen and act as a stabilizer for the entire unit.

That idea might not be too far fetched, either. The Rockies have a few starting pitchers who are either at the Triple-A level and about to be ready (Karl Kauffmann) or hurt but ready when recovered (Ryan Rolison, Ryan Feltner, Peter Lambert), and since Colorado doesn’t make a lot of trades, it’s fair to assume that there won’t be enough spots in the rotation for all of them, so they might just end up in the bullpen in one way or another. Germán Márquez, Kyle Freeland and Antonio Senzatela are locks for rotation spots moving forward, and depending on what the Rockies do with Chad Kuhl and José Ureña, the last two spots could be occupied too. We’ll see, but Gomber transitioning to the bullpen could make sense moving forward.

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Well, that’s not good.

On The Farm

Triple-A: Las Vegas Aviators 7, Albuquerque Isotopes 15

Karl Kauffmann had a lot of traffic and made a pair of fielding errors in his third start in Triple-A (5.0 IP, 5 H, 3 R, 5 BB, 1 K, 1 HR), but he mostly kept the ball on the ground and danced his way through five frames for his second win as an Isotope. Albuquerque (44-50) took the first game of the series against Las Vegas on the back of a seven-run fifth inning. The first seven batters reached, Coco Montes hit a grand slam, and a ballgame that was 4-3 was 10-3 after that. The Isotopes had 15 hits and 10 walks, striking out just three (!) times. They had as many home runs as strikeouts, with Sean Bouchard (3-for-4 with a homer, a double and a walk) and Coco Montes (2-for-5 with a homer and six RBI) led the charge. Riley Smith (3-3, 7.01 ERA) will take the ball today for the second game of the series, trying to make it three wins in a row.

Double-A: Portland Sea Dogs 1, Hartford Yard Goats 6

Hartford keeps rolling, improving to 57-33 with their eighth straight win after a dominant pitching performance. Starter Nick Bush was solid into the 5th inning (4.2, 4 H, 1 R, 1 BB, 5 K, 0 HR), and the bullpen didn’t allow an extra run after getting out of the jam. Noah Gotsis pitched two scoreless and Riley Pint dominated in his lone inning of work, striking out two and getting five called strikes + swinging strikes in 13 pitches. Hunter Stovall paced the offense with a pair of solo homers, and Willie MacIver added a two-run shot of his own. The Yard Goats are 14-7 in the second half so far, leading the Eastern League by 0.5 games with one of the three best run differentials (+34) in all of Double-A. Their starter for today’s ballgame is TBD at the time of writing this piece.

High-A: Spokane Indians 9, Tri-City Dust Devils 3

Will Ethridge was dominant against Tri-City (6.0 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 5 K), pushing Spokane to a 45-43 record for the season. They recorded a whopping 16 hits in the ballgame, with four different players (Bladimir Restituyo, Warming Bernabel, Ronaiker Palma and Nic Kent) knocking three hits, as all but two players scored at least once with the Indians going 6-for-16 with RISP. Bernabel is now hitting .381/.400/.587 through 15 games at High-A, and looks like a lock for a 40-man spot this offseason. Joe Rock (7-6, 3.54 ERA) will take the mound today. His ERA since the beginning of June is well under 3.00, as he looks to make a push for a promotion to Double-A.

Low-A: Fresno Grizzlies 6, Modesto Nuts 8

A six-run bottom of the 4th in which the first six batters reached was Fresno’s undoing in this one, with Modesto hitting Cullen Kafka hard (5.1 IP, 10 H, 7 R, 2 BB, 7 K, 0 HR). Tyler Ras got out of the 6th and struck out four overall in 1.2 scoreless frames of relief, but the damage was too much for the lineup to overcome. Adael Amador (2-for-4 with two doubles and a walk) and Zach Kokoska (3-for-3 with a homer, two doubles, two RBI and a walk) were the best Grizzlies at the plate, with the rest going 4-for-29, not enough when you need to score almost double digits to get a W. The three-game winning streak was snapped, and Fresno (55-36) will look to kick off a new one with Brayan Castillo (1-4, 6.06 ERA) on the hill, the righty needing a better outing after giving up 12 runs combined in his last two starts.

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