DENVER - If you were to ask an average Major League Baseball fan who the best long-reliever in baseball is, they are likely to give you the correct first name. The best longman in the game is, in fact, named Chris, but it isn't Mr. Devenski of the Houston Astros.
Rather, the numbers suggest, the best Chris is Colorado Rockies lefty Chris Rusin who has been the most valuable multi-inning reliever in baseball. Even putting aside the qualifications, Rusin has been so good, so often for Colorado that his name belongs on the list of best relievers, in the game, regardless of role.
Over 75.1 innings pitched in 2017 (as of Wednesday,) Rusin has posted a 2.39 ERA which, when adjusted for Coors Field by ERA+ stands at 210, or roughly 110 percent better than a league average pitcher at a neutral park. That's probably at least a slight exaggeration, but no one can take away that Rusin has managed to pitch more innings than any other reliever in the National League and second most in baseball and has done so with remarkable production in one of the most difficult environments to pitch.
If every Rockies offensive accomplishment must come with a Coors Field asterisk, then Rusin's year must be understood in that same context. The funny thing is, you don't even have to adjust for his tough home park to make the case that the headline of this article suggests.
Here are the stats, both traditional and advanced, that best measure relief pitchers. WPA and RE24 are metrics that attempt to measure the idea of "clutch" and for more information on them you can check out their definitions on Fangraphs.com.
In addition to pitching so many innings, Rusin has the second best ERA (among non-closers) again just behind of Petit, and he's managed to do it with the lowest strikeout total. How? Is he just getting lucky or is there something Chris Rusin does that makes him so effective?
"He has a lot of tools to get both righties and lefties out," says catcher Jonathan Lucroy. "You can match him up and he has the ability to get both out. He has a front-door two-seemer, a back-door cutter, a great changeup, he has a quick-pitch -- all those things are weapons that a guy can use. He's been a big part of our bullpen and he's gonna be a big part of this thing going down the stretch here."
"He's a pitcher that, within his exertion level, makes pitches. He's a classic pitcher. He changes speeds, he has deception, he moves the ball around the strike zone, he can dot the fastball on both sides of the plate. He pitches. He truly pitches. The stuff has good action to it. The changeup dives away from right-handed hitters, he's got a tight little slider, so don't overlook the stuff but he's a guy that can truly handcuff both right and left-handed hitters."
Rusin himself tells BSN Denver that the key isn't one pitch, or his increasingly famous quick-pitch, but a singular focus that has put him on the right track.
"Just being more consistent each year," he says. "I've looked my past years, each year I've gotten better by being more consistent. That's what I've attributed my success to. I've been able to do that the majority of the year with maybe a few slip ups."
And, Rusin says, the work load doesn't have him feeling running down.
"I feel good," he said. "I think I feel how I'm supposed to feel right now. Nothing serious, everything's normal. I've thrown this many innings before. I think last year I threw 80-something (84.1), so it's not like it's unfamiliar with that territory. The way I've been used is different than last year but my body feels good, my arm feels good."
His longevity and conditioning, in addition of course to his excellent play on the field, have led many to wonder if Rusin might find himself back into the starting rotation. Black told us that Rusin was considered for a start on Tuesday night, but the club settled on Tyler Chatwood. With the Arizona Diamondbacks and Los Angeles Dodgers both struggling (at times) against good lefties, fans and media alike have wondered if Rusin, even this late into the year, might get a few important starts. Let's not forget that during spring training, the team made it clear that they were thinking on the lefty for the fifth rotation spot before the emergence of Antonio Senzatela coincided with a brief injury for Rusin.
We ask if he has given such a scenario any thought.
"Nah," he replied, "I just want to pitch. Wherever I fit in, that's where I'm gonna try to do my best, that's in the role I'm in right now, in the bullpen. And whether that's one inning, one hitter, multiple innings, whatever role that is, I'll do it. If they need me to start, I'll do it. I just wanna pitch and help the team."
Black, in capping his comments on Chris' contributions, also gave the best argument for keeping Rusin where he is: "He's very valuable. We used him last night to help us win, we used him tonight to help us win, we'll use him to help us win again."
It's rare in baseball that a pitcher can be a near everyday positive factor. But Chris Rusin has been one of the five most valuable members of the Rockies since the All-Star break and if they do manage to shock most of the world and end up in the 2017 postseason, the lefty who refuses to let his team down will be a major reason why.