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Royals Bullpen Blues

Kansas City’s dominant relief corps propelled the team’s recent postseason success. Now, however, that same unit looks likely to doom the Royals as their contention window closes.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Wade Davis secured his first save as a member of the Cubs on Tuesday, allowing one walk in a scoreless ninth inning to close out St. Louis. Five hours north, the Rockies’ Greg Holland did Davis one better, earning his second save of the young season with a 1–2–3 outing against the Brewers.

Davis and Holland’s former bullpen wasn’t so clean in its first game of 2017, when three Royals relievers allowed six runs in an inning — lowlighted by three bases-loaded walks — in a 7–1 loss to Minnesota on Monday afternoon. Then, two Royals repeated the feat in a 9–1 loss in the team’s second game of the season, allowing a three-run triple and a three-run homer in the same frame. It’s just two games out of 162, but for Royals fans who had grown accustomed to an invincible relieving corps, these innings must feel like the end of an era.

Before Cleveland redefined bullpen usage with Andrew Miller last season, its division rival and AL pennant predecessor perfected the traditional model. The 2014 and ’15 Royals didn’t so much use a single fireman as employ three fire-breathing dragons in the bullpen, with the HDH trio of Kelvin Herrera, Davis, and Holland roasting opposing hitters like Daenerys Targaryen’s foes. In 31 playoff games in those years, the Royals never lost a game that either they led or was tied at any point after the sixth inning.

The dominant bullpen was one of the main factors behind Kansas City’s defiance of both the projections and the team’s own dismal history. Between 2014, when Davis joined the bullpen full time, and 2016, the Royals’ bullpen had the lowest ERA in the majors (the starters ranked just 18th), the highest win probability added, and by far the fewest meltdowns, which measure how often a reliever significantly hurts his team’s chances of winning a game.

But the faces and arms behind that championship-propelling performance are largely gone. After struggling with injuries last year and with only one season remaining on his contract, Davis was traded to the Cubs in the offseason, and after missing the 2015 playoffs and all of 2016 following Tommy John surgery, Holland signed with Colorado. Overall, 13 Royals pitched in relief during the team’s two playoff runs, and only Herrera and starter-turned-longman Chris Young are still in the bullpen. (Former reliever Danny Duffy has since moved to the rotation.)

Their replacements are unproven and flammable in an entirely different way than their forebears. For context, the Royals allowed six-plus runs in an inning in the seventh or later just four times total between 2014 and 2016; they did so in their first two games this season, turning tied and close scores into unredeemable deficits. Now, Kansas City’s bullpen has to throw 30 1/3 consecutive shutout innings just to lower its 2017 ERA to match its mark from the past three years.

Before the season began, FanGraphs ranked Kansas City’s bullpen as the 28th best in baseball. Herrera is still a top reliever with a 2.30 ERA since the start of 2014, but he has shifted to the ninth inning, from where he’s unlikely to budge given manager Ned Yost’s insistence on maintaining rigid relief roles. The drop-off starts immediately after him.

Joakim Soria is still the setup man despite leading the majors in meltdowns in 2016; between his excellent 2014 campaign in Texas and Detroit and last year in Kansas City, his walk rate tripled and his home run rate increased fourfold. Matt Strahm, Monday’s losing pitcher and one of Wednesday’s victims, is a converted starter and the most talented non-Herrera member of the pen, but he has exhibited some control problems as a reliever and probably belongs in the rotation anyway. Mike Minor didn’t throw an MLB inning the last two years after tearing his labrum, Young had the worst HR/9 rate in history in 2016, and Travis Wood can pitch only to left-handed hitters — on Monday, Yost didn’t help matters by leaving his platoon-dependent pitcher in to face righty slugger Miguel Sanó, predictably creating one of the bases-loaded walks as Wood nibbled around the corners of the strike zone.

This year marks an inflection point for the franchise, as lineup stalwarts Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas, and Alcides Escobar all become free agents after the season. The team has already traded Davis and outfielder Jarrod Dyson, who were part of that class, and could be an active seller in July if its playoff hopes don’t pan out. Both FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus give the Royals only about a 6 percent chance of qualifying for the postseason, and even though the projections have misfired on Kansas City in recent years, this year’s forecast makes sense: The club no longer has a dynamic bullpen to compensate for a lackluster rotation, and its offense has managed just two runs and seven hits across two games against a Twins staff that tied for MLB’s worst ERA last year.

More broadly, this year’s Royals don’t resemble recent versions, as beyond the corroded bullpen, the lineup is no longer built on a speed-and-contact foundation. But as this group of players makes its final playoff push together, at least the lineup is mostly intact from its title-winning, All-Star–ballot-stuffing days. The reliable bullpen, though, is no more, now a disparate mass of arms that don’t throw as hard, don’t get as many outs, and don’t inspire the same level of confidence as their predecessors. Two games into the season, the Royals already miss Davis and Holland, but Toto, they’re not in Kansas City anymore.