Colorado Rockies Bullpen Has Quietly Been One of MLB’s Best

Rockies GM Bill Schmidt spent the winter acquiring relief arms, and it looks like his efforts to improve the bullpen have paid off.

DENVER, CO - MAY 2: Justin Lawrence #61 of the Colorado Rockies delivers a pitch during the eighth inning of a game against the Milwaukee Brewers at Coors Field on May 2, 2023 in Denver, Colorado.

In 2022, the Rockies’ bullpen was bad. There’s really no nice way to put it.

They had the worst ERA in baseball (4.85). They were 23rd in K/9 (8.46), 5th in BB/9 (3.90), and 30th in LOB% (65.3%). As a staff, they accumulated 4.2 fWAR (12th), but much of that was the work of Tyler Kinley and Daniel Bard. Kinley was sidelined with a flexor tendon issue that required surgery, and while Bard was good, he could not get it done by himself.

(Kinley’s performance prior to his injury should not be overlooked. In just 24 innings, he accumulated an fWAR of 0.9 and an ERA of 0.75. He was on track for an All-Star-worthy season.)

To be clear, the 2022 Rockies were not a good team, and the bullpen was not the cause of their woes (an anemic offense was), but the bullpen also was not a significant source of relief.

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In the offseason, general manager Bill Schmidt made clear that the Rockies were in the market for pitching. “We need to get pitching,” Schmidt said. “We need starting pitching, no doubt, and we need bullpen arms. We need to get them any way we can.”

So they did.

And it’s working. The Colorado Rockies’ bullpen currently is the third best — yes, you read that correctly — in baseball, worth 2.4 fWAR.

How this improvement happened is worth investigating.

Stats updated as of May 17, 2023.

Are the Veterans Having Bounce-Back Years?

Not really.

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They lost reliable lefty reliever Lucas Gilbreath to Tommy John surgery just prior to the 2023 season; Daniel Bard has been sorting through his anxiety issues and has not yet returned to the closer role; and Tyler Kinley is not expected back until late June. Carlos Estévez departed the Rockies to become the Angels’ closer, and Austin Gomber was moved back into the rotation.

By the way, Gilbreath has been their only lefty reliever for two years.

Alex Colomé, with the Rockies on a one-year deal, was excellent in the first half of the 2022 season but lost the zone in the second; Jhoulys Chacín had moments of good pitching but not enough of them; and young pitchers like Justin Lawrence, Gavin Hollowell, and Jake Bird struggled against MLB-level hitting.

In short, this was a bullpen in disarray.

What Changed for the Rockies?

In this case, Schmidt was good to his word. The Rockies DFA’d, traded, or released Colomé, Ty Blach, Austin Goudeau, Jordan Sheffield, Robert Stephenson, and Chad Smith. Estévez left in free agency.

In the meantime, Schmidt spent the offseason making waiver claims (Brent Suter — 1 year, $3 million; Nick Mears — 1 year, $720,000), conducting trades (Jeff Criswell), and signing free agents (Pierce Johnson — 1 year, $5 million; Brad Hand — 1 year, $15 million with a $7 million club option for 2024). Also, the Rockies doubled their available lefties with Suter and Hand.

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(One other thing to keep in mind: In the wake of Kyle Freeland’s success, the Rockies began looking for Colorado-raised pitchers. Gilbreath and Johnson are both Colorado natives, as is Ty Blach, who was DFA’d and then re-signed with the Isotopes.)

Meanwhile, Jake Bird and Justin Lawrence began putting things together.

All of this has led to a very good bullpen.

Okay, How Good Are They?

Let’s start with the bullpen as a unit and then consider individual performances.

Right now, based on fWAR, the Rockies have the third-best bullpen in baseball (2.4). They trail only the Rays and the Mariners.

The Rockies are ninth in K/9 (9.83) and third in HR/9 (0.69). In short, this is a much-improved bullpen — even without Bard, Kinley, and Gilbreath.

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Now to the individual pitchers who have stood out.

Currently, Brent Suter is the fifth-best reliever in baseball as measured by fWAR (0.7), with an ERA of 1.01 in 26.2 innings. Check this out:

Justin Lawrence is ranked 23rd (0.5 fWAR, 2.28 ERA in 23.2 innings). In fact, Lawrence and his sweeper have become Pitching Ninja staples.

It’s worth noting that the Rockies view Lawrence as their future closer, and with stuff like this, it’s easy to see why.

And don’t overlook Jake Bird, a pitcher few had heard of before his altercation with Bryce Harper last Sunday. Currently, Bird is the 28th-best reliever in MLB (0.5 fWAR, 3.00 ERA in 27.0 innings).

Not everything has been seamless. Pierce Johnson has, at times, been a shaky closer; the Rockies have used Brad Hand sparingly; and Dinelson Lamet struggled before being placed on the IL with an injury. But the Rockies have the bullpen no one saw coming.

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What’s Next for the Rockies’ Bullpen?

Relievers are quirky, so this could change at any time. Plus, the Coors Effect could kick in at any time.

Currently, the Rockies are winning some games (despite experiencing significant injuries in their starting rotation). If the team is not in the playoff hunt, and it seems unlikely they will be, expect them to trade some of these relievers, probably Suter, Johnson, and Hand.

In the meantime, it’s a treat for Rockies fans to avoid those white-knuckled final innings they’d grown accustomed to.