It was not long ago that the Royals had the best bullpen in baseball, spearheaded by their backend, which was historic, in fact – the B-BOAT.
Fast forward three seasons to this one, and the Royals, just three seasons removed from a World Series and one from the End of an Era, are 4-14. The bullpen is the worst in baseball…AND ITS NOT CLOSE. What a long fall it’s been.
The bullpen results are not surprising when you see who the dudes are in the pen. But, the construction of the pen is a bit of a surprise when you consider what GM Dayton Moore has been able to do with the bullpen in his tenure. He demonstrated in his early years in Kansas City that he was able to build a bullpen – even on the bad teams. And, he was able to do it finding cheap guys off the scrapheap.
The Royals revolutionizing how bullpens were built and used is well known. The league is now mimicking (or trying to) what the Royals did during their Golden Age. The build up started way back in 2012, when they posted the fourth best bullpen ERA (3.17) in the AL (3.17), despite a 72-90 record, but were still in the bottom half of the league on WHIP (3.14) behind Jonathan Broxton (2.27 ERA, 1.451 WHIP and 23/27 saves before a trade deadline deal), who was a fan vote candidate for the All-Star Game, Greg Holland (7-4, 2.96 ERA, 1.373 WHIP, 16 saves, 9 holds, 12.2 K/9), Aaron Crow (3-1, 3.48 ERA, 1.175 WHIP, 2 saves, 19 holds), Kelvin Herrera (2.35 ERA, 1.186 WHIP, 3 saves, 19 holds) and Tim Collins (5-4, 3.36 ERA, 1.278 WHIP, 11 holds). Holland, who took over as closer after the Broxton trade, combined for 39 saves with Broxton as the team racked up 44.
In 2013, many of the same faces remained. Plus, enter failed starter Luke Hochevar, who all of a sudden had a power arsenal that played in the pen. As an entire staff, they led all of baseball with a 3.45 ERA, thanks to James Shields and Ervin Santana anchoring the rotation. But, in the pen, they posted the best ERA (2.56), WHIP (2.56), and batting average against (.217) in the American League, and 52 saves, second in MLB (Baltimore, 57). Ned hadn’t morphed into the defined bullpen role guy, yet, as the set-up duties were a combined effort and fluid situation all year – sort of a set-up by committee. Holland closed all year and was great (1.21 ERA, 0.866 WHIP, 13.8 K/9 with a franchise-record 47 saves), and teamed with Herrera (5-7, 3.86 ERA, 1.183 WHIP, 2 saves, 20 holds) and Papa Hoch (5-2, 1.92 ERA, 0.825 WHIP, 10.5 K/9), HHH was actually better this year (2.25 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, 11.91 K/9) than HDH (Herrera-Davis-Holland) were in 2015 (2.33 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 9.5 K/9). Crow, the 2011 All-Star, started the year as the dude getting the ball in the eighth inning, with Herrera pitching the seventh. But, Hochevar worked his way into a high-leverage role, and had passed Crow in the pecking order by mid-summer. Crow still had a solid year (7-5, 3.38 ERA with 20 holds), but his WHIP (1.479) was a sign of things to come for him. Additionally, Wade Davis, another failed starter, moved to the bullpen for the last month of the season and teased dominance (2-1, 0.90 ERA, 0.70 WHIP, .094 average against) in 7 appearances. Will Smith, who came over in the Alberto Collaspo deal (Angels) was also good (3.24 ERA, 0.930 WHIP, 11.6 K/9) in 19 appearances, and Harold Louis Coleman (3-0, 0.61 ERA, 0.843 WHIP) in limited duty (29.2 IP)
Then came 2014, when HDH produced the greatest trio of all-time: 1.28 ERA (!!!), 0.97 WHIP and 11.4 K/9 in 204.1 IP. As a whole group, there were four other teams in the AL with a better ERA than the Royals (3.30) and they ranked eighth in WHIP (1.24), but when the Royals had a lead through six innings, the game was OVER. Thanks to the Law Firm of Herrera, Davis and Holland, the Royals tied for the MLB-lead in saves (53) and featured the best save rate (81.54%) in baseball. Aaron Crow started the year in the sixth inning, but fell out of favor due to his horrendous inherited runner scoring rate (36%). Despite his 6-1 record, he posted a 4.12 ERA and brutal 5.2 K/9. Jason Frasor (1.53 ERA in 17 innings), who came over from the Rangers via trade and Brandon Finnegan (1.29 ERA, 1.000 WHIP, 12.9 K/9 in September) – the first round pick from that year’s draft, added reinforcements and helped fill that Crow void. Finnegan, who became the first pitcher in MLB history to pitch in the College World Series and World Series in the SAME season. The 2015 version of HDH regressed a bit (2.33 ERA, 1.05 WHIP with a drop in strikeouts to 8.65 per 9 in 181.2 IP), thanks mostly to Holland’s “struggles” as he battled injuries (but was still better than many closers in baseball, powering through the injury – despite posting a 6.00 ERA after the All-Star break, an uncharacteristic 3.83 ERA, 5.2 BB/9 compared to career 3.5 and), saving 35 in 39 chances. As an entire unit, the ’15 pen was WAY better than its 2014 counterpart, despite HDH’s dominance in 2014 compared to 2015, ranking second in WHIP (1.13), first – and it was not close – in ERA (2.76) and batting average against (.214). Wade Davis had his best year (8-1, 0.94 ERA, 0.787 WHIP, 17 saves, 19 holds and 10.4 K/9), and Herrera was an All-Star, but added to the group was reclamation project Ryan Madson (2.13 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, 20 holds), who fell in line in the pecking order behind HDH, stepping into one of their roles, including closer (3 saves), when one of them was unavailable. The four of them together produced a 2.28 ERA, 1.05 WHIP. Hochevar returned after his missing all of 2014 (Tommy John) and was OK (3.73 ERA, 1.283 WHIP), but was good in his role as fireman with runners on, and tossed 10.2 scoreless innings in the postseason, including two wins in the World Series, passing Madson. Even the “other guys” were good in 2015. Franklin Morales posted a 3.18 ERA, 1.155 WHIP, Frasor a 1.54 ERA (but 1.671 WHIP) in 23 innings, and Finnegan a 2.96 ERA, 1.192 WHIP in 14 outings before earning his World Series ring by going to Cincinnati in the Johnny Cueto trade.
In 2016, Madson (free agency) and Holland (Tommy John surgery) were gone and Hochevar (3.86 ERA, 1.071 WHIP, 14 holds) went down with injury midway through the season, missing the rest of the season – an injury he has yet to recover from, leaving the Royals with Davis as the closer and Herrera and old friend Joakim Soria in the backend. It was an up and down year for Soria (5-8, 4.05 ERA, 1.455 WHIP + 20 holds) and Davis slid into the closers role, but was on the DL twice. Herrera was also on the DL once, and at one point Soria was the last man standings. Matt Strahm was called up and offered some help in July (1.23 ERA, 1.091 WHIP, 12.3 K/9 in 21 games). Despite all of that, the Royals pen was still solid – just not as good as the previous three years. They finished third in ERA (3.45) in the AL.
In the two-year reign of HDH, they produced a 1.77 ERA, 1.01 WHIP and a 10.5 K/9. But, it wasn’t just them. From 2013-2015 the Royals bullpen’s had a 2.85 ERA and 1.167 WHIP – best over that span. If you expand it to 2012-2016, they also ranked first in ERA (3.05) and fourth in WHIP (1.228).
Last season, Herrera assumed the closer role and Soria was the main set-up man, as WADE walked out of our lives forever – traded to the Cubs for Jorge Soler. Holland returned from injury, but he went to the Rockies, where he won NL Comeback Player of the Year. Enter Mike Minor. The results were not as good as the previous five seasons, as Herrera struggled in the closers role (26/31 saves; 4.25 ERA, 1.348 WHIP, career-low 8.5 K/9). Minor was a surprise (6-6, 2.55 ERA, 1.017 WHIP, 10.2 K/9), as was Scott Alexander (5-4, 2.48 ERA, 1.304 WHIP, 4 saves, 9 holds). Both guys – plus Soria, who had a better second year (4-3, 3.70 ERA, 1.232 WHIP and a career-best 10.9 K/9) than his first year in his second tenure in KC – are gone, now. Left standing is Herrera, the only leftover from the BBOAT.
The bullpen was an unknown coming into the season, as the replacements were a bunch of JAG, no names and a couple Rule 5 guys. The results? Even worse than expected. Entering Friday’s double header, the bullpen ERA stood at 7.94 – a full two runs WORSE than the next worst, Nationals (5.82). They’d allowed 45 earned runs in 16 games. If you take away the three shutouts – that’s 45 runs in 13 games (the number stands at 52 in 19 games, now)! In Game 1, Jason Hammel pitched 9 innings for the first time in six years. But, it wasn’t enough, as the Royals offense produced two runs (although they did overcome a 2-0 deficit). Enter Brad Keller, and Jacoby Jones sent the FIRST pitch of the 10th inning over the wall. In Game 2, the Royals got another great starting effort, this one from Jakob Junis, who went 8 strong, allowing 2 runs on 4 hits while striking out 4. But, like Hammel before him, it wasn’t enough. Until the ninth, when the Royals scored two runs and ended up winning 3-2 – their first win of the season when the opponent scored, ending a 9-game losing streak. After the combined 17 innings from Hammel and Junis, the rotation ranks 5th in the AL in ERA (3.41) and second in innings (105.2). This magnifies the Royals bullpen issues even more, as the starting pitching, outside of Eric Skoglund, has been great. The offense has had its own issues – ranking 14th in hitting (.241), 23rd in OBP (.305), 28th in SLUG (.352), 27th in HR (13), hitting .193 with RISP (27th) and .219 with men on (25th) and 28th in scoring (3.15 runs per game) – and certainly shares some of the blame for the Royals sputtering start, but the bullpen, who has blown four potential wins and is credited with six losses already, has been worse (0-6, 3 saves, 7 holds, 8.41 ERA and 1.96 WHIP, 11 HR allowed, 44 K, 36 BB) – the ERA and WHIP are by far the worst in MLB.
On paper, the bullpen is God awful. But, beneath the surface, the bullpen is actually not as bad as it seems, as now-in-the-minors Brandon Maurer and Justin Grimm + Blaine Boyer have allowed 38 earned runs on 43 hits, (9 HR) + 21 BB (only 11 strikeouts), in 17.1 IP – good for an unbelievably WOEFUL 20.60 ERA, 3.69 WHIP and 0-4 record (they do have four of the team’s 7 holds). The rest of the bullpen? 0-2 with 3 saves and 3 holds, 14 ER, 30 H (2 HR), 15 walks and 33 strikeouts in 38.1 IP – good for a 3.29 ERA, 1.174 WHIP. In other words, the Maurer-Boyer-Grimm trio is responsible for 73.1% of the bullpen’s earned runs, two-thirds of the losses, 59% of the hits, 82% of the HR and 58% of the walks.
Let’s take a closer look.
- Kelvin Herrera (0-0, 0.00 ERA, 0.529 WHIP, 3 saves, 12.9 K/9): After the setback year last year, El Toro looks like his old self again. He’s allowed just three base runners in 5.2 IP with a strong 8:0 K:BB rate.
The could be good:
- Tim Hill (0-0, 1.35 ERA, 0.600 WHIP, 2 holds): The submarine-style soft-throwing lefty allowed his first hit this season in 6.2 innings spanning seven appearances on Saturday, where he faced three batters and did not get any of them out, including consecutive bases-loaded walks, bringing in two inherited runners. However, his unique style could give him a chance to an effective situational lefty.
- Burch Smith (0-0, 3.52 ER, 1.435 WHIP, 10.6 K/9): Smith allowed a run on Opening Day without recording an out, then went nearly two weeks before pitching again. Until Saturday, where he allowed 2 ER in 1.2 IP, he had tossed four straight scoreless outings. He has a power arm that could make him an effective late-inning guy. He’s 28 and hasn’t pitched in the bigs since 2013 (1-3, 6.44 ERA, 1.651 WHIP in 10 games for Padres). But, prior to 2018, he hadn’t pitched in nearly three years after missing all of 2015 and 2016 before making a comeback in 2017, climbing through the minors, peaking at AAA, where he logged a 1.65 ERA, 0.80 WHIP and 19 strikeouts in 16.1 innings. He also has plus-plus hair. Intangibles!
- Brad Keller (0-1, 3.86 ERA, 1.57 WHIP, 1 holds): Like Smith, he is Rule 5 and has to spend the entire season on the roster, or be risk being returned to Arizona. A starter in the minors, Keller had not pitched above AA before this season. His minor league numbers do not jump out at you (40-32, 3.77 ERA, 1.358 WHIP, 7.3 K/9, in 106 games – all but 6 as starts) and the 22-year old had the worst year of his career last year (5.03 ERA, 1.523 WHIP) in 26 games. But, he has been OK so far this year. His WHIP is not great, and he’s only striking out 2 batters per walk. Still an unknown
They are what we thought they were (JAG):
- Brian Flynn (0-1, 4.50 ERA, 1.38 WHIP): Four of his six appearances scoreless so far. JAG ALERT.
- Kevin McCarthy (0-0, 8.10 ERA, 1.800 WHIP): He did have a solid 2017 (1-0, 3.20 ERA, 1.400 WHIP, 5.4 K/9) and has allowed a run in one of his four appearances this year since his recall, but has JAG written all over him.
The (REALLY) bad
- Grimm (0-2, 21.86 ERA, 3.000 WHIP, 3 holds, 11.6 BB/9): Less than two weeks ago, Grimm had 3 holds (rest of the team has 4), with a 2.70 ERA through four appearances and the eighth inning appeared to be his. In his next appearance, he blew a lead without being charged a run, lowering his ERA to 2.08. In his five appearances since, he’s allowed 16 ER in 2.2 IP – a 54.00 ERA. After allowing three runs while getting just one out on Saturday, Grimm has now retired just TWO of the last 15 hitters faced, including SEVEN walks. That’s just two outs recorded in three outings, allowing 12 ER – a 162.00 ERA. He’s walked more batter (9) than he’s struck out (6).
- Boyer (0-0, 22.50 ERA, 3.500 WHIP, 1 hold): It can’t get worse than Justin Grimm. Boyer’s like, “Hold my beer.” Pitching for the first time since allowing 6 runs (2 earned) in his last appearance (Toronto), he allowed a HR to Jacoby Jones Saturday, marking the sixth time in eight appearances that he’s allowed a run this season, including four straight. He’s allowed 15 ER in his last four appearances (3 IP). Saturday’s outing lowered his ERA to 22.50 and brought down his average against to under .500. He has allowed 4 HR and walked six batters while striking out just two.
- Maurer (0-2, 12.46 ERA, 2.538 WHIP, 6.2 HR/9, 6.2 BB/9, 6.2 K/9): Maurer came over to KC from San Diego at the trade deadline last season and it hasn’t been anything less than a disaster so far (2-4, 2 saves 8.88 ERA, 2.301 WHIP, 5.9 BB/9, career-best 8.9 K/9). With an option left, he was optioned to Omaha on April 13, after a brutal start to 2018, allowing 3 HR in five appearances.
In short, as the Royals built their bullpen, they had some homegrown dudes turn into studs and had some luck along the way with failed starters (Davis and Hochevar), converted starters (Aaron Crow) and reclamation projects (Madson). After their peak, they replaced departing guys with lesser guys – still good, but not as good, but were still a good unit compared to the rest of the league. Now, outside of the known commodity (Herrera), they’re nothing other than a few unknowns – like Rule 5’s Smith and Keller and the rookie Hill, who, like Keller, had not pitched above AA before this season. And, there’s not a lot down on the farm to offer immediate help. Do not expect the bullpen to be anything better than last year’s bullpen – at its best, but don’t expect it to be this bad, either. If you remove the the terrible trio, then it could MAYBE be a serviceable bullpen.
Or, you MAYBE it’s their way to secretly tank.
WIN. GAMES. Or LOSE. GAMES. Whatever.
Follow Brian on Twitter: @BrianGraham624
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