DENVER -- The world of many relievers is inning by inning, game by game. Unless a pitcher is a labeled a specialist, setup man or closer, he is simply waiting for a phone call.Some of the Rockies' relievers in their new system, however, could call themselves pioneers. That's as good a name as any. When the Rockies decided in late June to go to a four-man rotation with starters limited to around 75 pitches -- basically to prevent them from facing the opposing lineup a third time -- they designated three pitchers who would be treated somewhat like starters. They pitch on a schedule and can throw up to 50 pitches. And even Friday's announcement that the Rockies will retain a five-man rotation in 2013 was accompanied by assistant general manager Bill Geivett explaining that the team would still use three "hybrid relievers."
What to even call the role, much less how to evaluate the performance this year and how to apply it in the future, are all fluid.The organization likes the term "hybrid" and doesn't like calling them relievers. The popular, and admittedly more colorful, term is "piggyback," since the second pitcher rides along through the game behind the starter before hopping onto the mound. The starters struggled up to June 21, when the system was announced, and immediate results of how the new management system worked were impossible to gauge because the starters didn't pitch much better for the first 59 games under the plan (13-46). But the Rockies have seen better starts and going 19-17 in the last 36 games, while the pitchers in the new role have been an important part of it. "We're doing a good job right now of being consistent and taking our work seriously between outings," said right-hander Adam Ottavino, who is 3-0 with a 1.76 ERA since Aug. 6, the beginning of the Rockies' most-sustained effort of competitive pitching this season. "Everybody seems to be focusing in on really hitting their fastball and making sure they keep all their strengths intact. Everybody's been pitching for a couple months in a row so everybody's been feeling good with touch and feel." Since Aug. 6, piggyback (a hard word not to write) pitchers have accounted for eight of the 17 wins. Ottavino and right-hander Carlos Torres each have three wins -- as many as the winningest starter during that period, righty Tyler Chatwood. Guillermo Moscoso, who started several games early this year but seems to be finding success in the new role, has two wins, and righty Josh Roenicke, who has been the best in the role over the course of the year but has been used in other roles lately, has won once. Even though the starters aren't winning and there is a large number of games in which the starter didn't last the requisite five innings to be eligible for the win, the games have been close when the second pitcher has entered. That wasn't the case during the early part of the season. "It's definitely different from early in the season when we were at Coors a lot and had those high-scoring games," said Roenicke, whose 83 2/3 innings pitched were most in the Majors among relievers. "When we came in from the bullpen it seemed like a lot of these hitters were locked in, they were swinging well and the game was out of hand. "When you come into a game and it's close or you've got a lead, you can keep it there and guys at the back of the bullpen can take care of it. Wins are what it comes down to." Part of the reason for the new system is the Rockies have spent 20 seasons in the Majors but rarely have had five effective starting pitchers at one time. Also, the Rockies have two decades of statistical evidence suggests that high innings totals lead to either dramatic drops in effectiveness or injuries. But the club has had greater success finding bullpen members, and it looks as if it's easier to find hybrids. They come from several backgrounds. Even with the return to the five-man rotation, the Rockies will keep starters to pitch counts in the 90 to 100 pitch level, and will be careful of starters' third time through a lineup.
Ottavino came off waivers from the Cardinals, where he couldn't push his way into the rotation. Torres was a starter in the Minors but had nothing more than spot-start opportunities with the White Sox and the Rockies. He spent last year without a role in Japan. Roenicke bounced between the Minors and Majors with the Blue Jays before last season.Moscoso, obtained from the Athletics in a winter trade, had a couple of stints with the Rockies as a starter, but inconsistent command was an issue. Now Moscoso is so happy with his role that he's formulating a plan to prepare for next season. He will pitch as a starter in Venezuela with a 75-pitch limit, mainly to continue developing a sinker that he feels will serve him at Coors Field. He intends to throw it "three or four times" to each batter this winter, and by next year hopes to add the pitch to a mix that also consists of a rising fastball that's set up by his curveball, changeup and slider. "The last couple of starts I had, I was throwing the ball well but I got to the fifth inning and couldn't get out of it," Moscoso said. "That was really frustrating for me. I almost had the job done. Now they've figured out a way that I can help the team and get some wins, as a piggyback. That's what I'm trying to get focused now as a piggyback." It's not clear if all of these pitchers can make careers in the role. Ottavino and Roenicke, have potential as late-game setup men or even closers. It's not beyond the realm of possibility that Torres and Moscoso could end up starters. The Rockies are considering breaking in young pitchers in the role, and then sliding them into the rotation. But it's probably best for the hurlers to leave the numbers crunching to the front office. "I go into next year hoping that I have a job, period," Torres said. "Whatever they choose that my job is, that's No. 2. As long as you have a job here, you should be happy. " The role could be the home for misfit pitchers, but so what? The Rockies are showing signs that they can win with such pitchers.
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Hardball in the Rockies, and follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.