Don't expect Rockies to go to the bullpen early
Club has rotation depth needed to replicate 2018 success
DENVER -- If baseball is headed the way of "bullpenning" and "initial out-getters," the Rockies are headed the opposite way.
Ideas such as being leery of starting pitchers being allowed to work through an order the third time have grown in recent years with the emphasis on statistical trends. But in 2018, much of MLB figured why stop there?
The Rays often successfully used closer-type Sergio Romo as a first-inning "opener" to cover for a lack of rotation depth. The Brewers won the National League Central with early calls to the bullpen all season, and did the "initial out-getter" -- a starter to face one batter -- in the regular season and postseason.
However, the Rockies led the National League with 932 starter innings pitched -- 11 1/3 innings more than the D-backs. Only the Indians and Astros, two postseason qualifiers from the American League (where the pitcher's spot in the batting order doesn't come into play except in NL parks), leaned on their starters more.
Just 13 pitchers in the Majors reached 200 innings pitched -- not long ago considered a mark every staff in the Majors expected at least one starter to reach. One was the Rockies' Kyle Freeland at 202 1/3. Behind Freeland, German Marquez threw 196 innings, ninth in the NL. Lefty Tyler Anderson finished 17th at 176 and Jon Gray, despite being sent to the Minors briefly in June and being skipped late, managed 172 1/3.
Next season, Freeland (17-7, 2.85 ERA) and Marquez (14-11, 3.77) will be third-year pitchers, and Anderson (7-9, 4.55) and Gray (12-9, 5.12) will be in their official fourth seasons.
The Rockies won't be old-school like the 1970 Orioles of Jim Palmer (305 innings pitched), Mike Cuellar (297 2/3) and Dave McNally (296). But can they turn the clock back to 2016, when the Giants had Madison Bumgarner, Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija eclipse 200 innings, and the Nationals pushed Max Scherzer and Tanner Roark over the magic figure?
Rockies general manager Jeff Bridich believes this year's pitching-strategy innovations were more by necessity than overarching statement.
"Some of that in a playoff situation is just pure, one, survival and, two, when you know it's borderline 'win or go home,' there are manager and coaching staffs that are going to make those decisions in those specific situations," Bridich said. "It's tougher to do those things over the course of 162 games and six months."
Coors Field's hitter-friendliness has vexed the Rockies since it opened in 1995. Extreme reaction occurred during part of 2012. Manager Jim Tracy executed a front-office and stats-driven format of a four-man rotation with the starter limited to 75 pitches and a scheduled "piggyback" reliever. Rather than grand strategy, it was a scheme to cover the lack of rotation depth.
Bud Black, the first former pitcher to manage the club, took over before 2017 with a young rotation. Starters logged just 887 innings. Black gave many of them breaks by having them pitch in relief for periods, or even sending them to the Minors.
But at the start of Spring Training '18, Black said he learned Coors Field required more from starters, not less.
"Let's say we come back from a seven-game road trip and we've got seven games in a row in Denver," Black said. "The first game so-and-so is pitching, we sort of need this guy to go. If we have to use five guys the first night, heads-up the next six games."
But the 2019 Rockies could still use starter-types as relievers if they have a similar situation to the Brewers, who were breaking in Brandon Woodruff and Freddy Peralta -- like the Rockies introduced their young starters in '17.
Righty Antonio Senzatela eased in as a bullpen arm before starting his final 13 outings. Righty Jeff Hoffman has been an on-and-off starter the last two seasons, and the club's No. 3 MLB Pipeline prospect Peter Lambert and No. 20 prospect Jesus Tinoco are Minor League starters who are on the big league radar and could break in as starters and relievers.
But no new-school strategy will change the Rockies' priority of protecting rotation depth.
"The strength of our rotation was a huge, important element of our team," Bridich said. "So it's not like we are willy-nilly willing to take starters and throw them into the 'pen.
"We've been very fortunate over the last couple years with health in our rotation. That doesn't mean it's going to be the same all the time moving forward, and we have to have starter depth."