The tale of the Rockies’ 2021 bullpen has been one of trial and error. Emphasis on error.
Their relievers’ 5.08 ERA is the fourth-highest in the majors. Their 1.45 WHIP is also the fourth-highest, and so is their 34.5 percent hard-hit rate, according to FanGraphs.
But things are slowly starting to turn around.
“Bullpen performance in this day and age is critical to team success,” manager Bud Black said Wednesday night after his relievers pitched four scoreless innings a 3-2, 10-inning win at Atlanta. “Our guys, in the second half of the season, have been a little bit more consistent overall, as a group.
“You have seen their ERAs come down, almost to a man, because we had some unsightly ERAs early in the season.”
Over the past six weeks, as right-hander Carlos Estevez took over the closer’s role from the struggling Daniel Bard, right-hander Tyler Kinley started pounding the strike zone and rookie lefty Lucas Gilbreath began figuring things out, the bullpen’s numbers have gradually improved.
In August, the bullpen’s 4.11 ERA ranked 19th for the month, a vast improvement over the 5.82 ERA it posted in May. Over the past 30 days, the bullpen has posted a 4.29 ERA. That ranks as just the 21st-best in the majors, but by Rockies’ standards, it’s solid. For comparison’s sake, in 2018, when the Rockies came one victory away from winning their first National League West, the relievers’ ERA was 4.62.
“The tough part of the first half was that we were not throwing the ball well, at the same time,” said Kinley, who leads the team with 62 2/3 innings and has held opponents scoreless in 14 of his last 16 appearances while posting a 1.53 ERA. “The problem was, we had some guys clicking, but there were also some guys struggling. We just weren’t able to piece it together.
“Our more recent run is based on a relentless attitude and a relentless mindset that we have to go out every night and do the job. We have simplified our game plans and we’re trusting our stuff.”
The recent improvement by some Colorado relievers might provide building blocks for the 2022 season. Emphasis on might. Because from season to season, relievers can be notoriously mercurial.
Right-hander Yency Almonte, for example, pitched 27 2/3 innings during the truncated 2020 season, tied for fourth-most in the National League. His 2.93 ERA was the best among Colorado relievers. This season, however, Almonte’s command has deserted him to the tune of an 8.37 ERA that is the highest among all big-league relievers (minimum 40 innings pitched).
For Colorado to have a chance to be a winning team next season, and possibly a playoff contender, the bullpen makeover will have to continue.
The first question, of course, is who will be the closer?
Right now, the job belongs to Estevez. The hard-throwing right-hander, who’s begun to effectively mix his slider and changeup with his 96-99 mph fastball, has flashed a lot of promise. In 25 games from July 6-Sept. 3, he posted a 1.96 ERA, with 25 strikeouts vs. just seven walks. Still, Estevez has been inconsistent and walks too many (3.27 per nine innings).
The Rockies will certainly explore the trade and free-agent markets for relief pitching during the offseason, but it remains to be seen if they will spend for an experienced closer or a set-up man.
Colorado also needs a consistent lefty in the bullpen. Gilbreath, the rookie out of Legacy High School and the University of Minnesota, is flashing promise. His 3.86 ERA and 1.314 WHIP continue to fall. Since Aug. 8, he’s pitched 14 consecutive scoreless outings, tied for the fifth-longest active streak in the majors. Since his recall from Triple-A Albuquerque on June 5, he’s pitched to a 2.36 ERA, with 27 strikeouts and 16 walks while limiting opponents to a .161 average.
“He’s been a huge weapon from the left side and that’s something that we needed this year,” Kinley said. “I think the best thing about ‘Gilly’ is that he’s been willing to learn and willing to try things that maybe he was not as comfortable with, prior.
“At the major league level, there is not much room for error, so the fact that he’s been willing to listen and ask questions and pick up things quickly has been huge for him.”
Rockies RHP German Marquez (12-10, 3.93 ERA) at Nationals RHP Josiah Gray (0-2, 4.22)
5:05 p.m. Friday, Nationals Park
Radio: 850 AM/94.1 FM
Marquez is coming off a strong start that got him back on the right track. He blanked the Phillies for six innings at Philadelphia, and although his fastball command was not great, his slider and curve were excellent. Over his last six starts, Marquez has a 6.23 ERA with eight home runs given up. In nine starts prior, the right-hander compiled a 1.94 ERA with just five homers allowed. Gray, 23, is coming off a difficult start at Pittsburgh. He gave up five runs on three hits (two homers) and six walks over five innings. He struck out four. Gray pitched well in his first five starts with the Nationals, posting a 2.89 ERA and 1.11 WHIP. Over his last three starts, he’s been tagged with a 12.75 ERA and 2.25 WHIP.
Trending: In 37 road games since July 1, the Rockies are averaging 4.2 runs per game and have hit 47 home runs. In their first 37 road games, they averaged 2.6 runs per game and hit 22 homers.
At issue: Right fielder Charlie Blackmon is having a rough road trip thus far, hitting 3-for-20 with nine strikeouts.
Saturday: Rockies LHP Kyle Freeland (5-8, 4.76) at Nationals LHP Patrick Corbin (8-14, 5.98), 2:05 p.m., ATTRM
Sunday: Rockies RHP Ryan Feltner (0-1, 11.37) at Nationals RHP Paolo Espino (4-5, 4.18), 11:05 a.m., ATTRM