The Benefactors of the Rockies Four-Man Rotation
Coming into the 2012 season, many people picked the Rockies as a sleeper team and a possible contender for the second Wild Card in the National League. However, this year proved to be an utter disaster for Colorado, as the Rockies finished dead last in the NL West, with a record of 64-98 It seemed as if the Rockies would be in trouble when Troy Tulowitzki got hurt on May 30th, but their offense was not the problem this year. It was the starting pitching, which ranked dead last in baseball with a 5.22 ERA (4.59 FIP) that was the major issue for Colorado.
In the middle of June, the Rockies announced that they would be shifting to a four-man rotation. Starters would be limited to 75 pitches before being pulled for a reliever. Since the Rockies had several young, inexperienced pitchers in their rotation, they would often rack up a high pitch count by the fourth or fifth inning. As a result, the bullpen would have to do a lot of the heavy lifting. Two pitchers in particular, Josh Roenicke and Adam Ottavino, received the bulk of the work in the middle innings of those games that the starter had to leave early due to a high pitch count. Roenicke and Ottavino were two of the very few bright spots on the Rockies pitching staff this season.
Coming into the 2012 season, Josh Roenicke had amassed a 5.17 ERA with a high walk rate (4.9 BB/9) in 64 appearances over parts of four seasons in the big leagues. Part of the reason that Roenicke made the team this year was that he was out of options and the Rockies did not want to risk losing him on waivers. Still, it did not seem Roenicke, who was entering his age 29, would make much of an impact for Colorado this year.
Roenicke started off the season as a middle reliever, pitching in mostly low leverage situations. However, once the Rockies implemented their four-man rotation, Roenicke became former manager Jim Tracy’s go to man to soak up the middle innings if a starter had to depart early. Normally, when a reliever has to enter the game in the fifth it is because the starter struggled and the game is about to be out of reach. But since the Rockies starters would be removed from the game once they hit their pitch limit regardless of the score, Roenicke would often find himself in high-leverage situations when he took the mound.
Overall, Roenicke went 4-2 with a 3.25 ERA over 88.2 innings in 63 games. Roenicke led all of baseball in relief innings pitched. However, his peripheral stats do not portend good things for next season. Roenicke barely struck out anyone (5.48 K/9), and had a high walk rate (4.38 BB/9). He did prove to be adept at getting ground balls though (50.2 GB%), so it is possible that he could survive in Coors Field’s tough pitching environment if he can keep the ball on the ground.
On the surface, Roenicke’s emergence brings back memories of another journeyman reliever that found success while pitching multiple innings out of the Rockies bullpen. Matt Belisle did not establish himself as a productive major leaguer until 2010 at age 30, when he led the league with 92 relief innings pitched. The similarities stop here though, because Belisle had very good peripherals during his breakout campaign – 8.90 K/9, 1.57 BB/9 and .68 HR/9. Belisle has now transitioned into more of a setup role and is viewed as one of the most productive relievers in baseball.
Adam Ottavino was the first round pick of the St. Louis Cardinals in the 2006 draft. After a successful full-season debut in the Florida State league in 2007, Ottavino was ranked among the best prospects in the Cardinals system, viewed as an innings eater that could stabilize the back of a rotation. Those projections changed rather quickly though, due to Ottavino’s inability to consistently throw strikes. Things were looking up for Ottavino in 2010, but then he hurt his shoulder and missed a large portion of the season after making his MLB debut. After a lackluster 2011 campaign at AAA, the Cardinals waived Ottavino at the end of Spring Training and lost him to the Rockies.
2012 was the first year that Ottavino was used exclusively out of the bullpen and it paid off. A solid start to the season at AAA led to a brief two game stint with the team at the beginning of May. By the end of the month, Ottavino became a permanent member of the Rockies bullpen. While Ottavino appeared in mostly low-leverage situations at the beginning of the season, he eventually became entrusted with picking up the middle innings after the starter had departed. Towards the end of the season, it seemed as if Roenicke and Ottavino were interchangeable, with one pitching while the other had a day off after throwing multiple frames.
At first glance, Ottavino’s numbers don’t seem all that spectacular. He finished the season 5-1 with a 4.56 ERA (3.85 FIP) in 79 innings over 53 games. However, a couple of terrible outings at the end of the season inflated his ERA by more than a run. Coming into play on September 16, Ottavino’s era was 3.56. He then proceeded to give up 11 runs in 2.2 innings over his next three appearances, which left his ERA at 4.74. While he walked more people than you’d like (3.87 BB/9) Ottavino had a good strikeout rate (9.23 K/9), which is a good sign for next year. One area where Ottavino did have some problems was giving up home runs – his 16.1 HR/FB% tenth worst among relievers in the MLB. If Ottavino can limit the home runs all signs point to him having another productive year in 2013.
Recently, the Rockies announced that there will still be limits on how many pitches their starters throw next season, but the restrictions will not enforced as strictly as they were in 2012. This will probably help them win more games – I think the four-man rotation was an absolute disaster – but it will also create less of a need for the roles that Roenicke and Ottavino played last season. Therefore, they might shift into roles that are more indicative of late-inning relievers. If you’re going to bank on one of those guys being able to replicate their success from last year, pick Ottavino. I just didn’t see how Roenicke could continue to survive at Coors by walking all those people and not striking anyone out and apparently the Rockies didn’t either, as Roenicke was claimed off waivers by the Twins today. Regardless, it will be interesting to see what becomes of these two relievers, who were two positives on a team full of disappointment.