The reluctant revolution will be these Royals lasting legacy. Our own miniature Moneyball situation is playing out almost every day this summer now, the Royals trying to get outs in a way no team in baseball history has ever dared.
By SAM MELLINGER
The Kansas City Star
They planned most of this, an interchangeable group of relievers capable of throwing 95-mph fastballs for any matchup against any team on any day, but already the teams vision of building baseballs most effective bullpen is being stretched beyond any precedent in the sports long history by a starting rotation that right now is just Bruce Chen and a whole lot of live batting practice.
This isnt what general manager Dayton Moore wants for his team, of course. Moore grew up in baseball watching Greg Maddux, John Smoltz and Tom Glavine build Hall of Fame careers in Atlanta. Moore always judges teams based largely on their rotations.
He gave Gil Meche the largest free-agent contract in Royals history. He likes to draft pitchers first, pitchers second, and once thats all taken care of he likes to draft a few more pitchers. The fruits of that philosophy are being at least delayed by an outbreak of Tommy John surgeries to the teams top pitching prospects.
But you cant argue with economics. So once the Royals looked at what they could realistically afford, Moore did something entirely out of character and shifted his focus away from starters and toward the bullpen.
The result is the Royals are using their bullpen more than any other team in baseball history.
Again, not all of this is by design. The starters have been mostly awful. But as it turns out, to whatever extent the Royals are shifting their focus and resources to the bullpen, they may be pioneers of baseballs next frontier.
So far, 14 men have made 190 relief appearances for the Royals. They are rookies and veterans, skinny and fat, first-round draft picks and unsigned free agents, from as close as Parkville and as far away as Venezuela. One of them made the All-Star team last year. One of them is a backup outfielder.
Two of them fit into a pair of another ones enormous pants.
These men have thrown 222 innings of relief, by far the most in baseball and on pace for nearly 30 more innings than the previous record, set by the 2003 Rangers.
And while most of the rest of the team has underachieved, the bullpen is the biggest reason the Royals have played above .500 the last six weeks.
Now, one more time so theres no excuses or misunderstandings: The Royals would prefer not to break the Rangers record.
No matter what else, having your relievers throw so many innings is a clear indication that somethings wrong, like a football team whose cornerbacks have the most tackles. The Royals sometimes carry two long relievers, and theyre wearing out I-29 sending tired arms to Omaha in exchange for fresh ones.
But the Royals plan on asking more of their bullpen in an ideal world, with competent starters, theyd have around 35 fewer relief innings and rank around third or fourth in the AL is an inspired move.
This all comes down to money, as most things do. Relief pitchers are cheaper than starters, more plentiful than starters and more replaceable than starters. Just think what the Royals bullpen would be with a healthy Joakim Soria, for instance.
The Royals wont be able to afford Cole Hamels this winter. Theyll only be contenders for Zack Greinke if they can use familiarity and comfort to their advantage.
But they can afford a top-level bullpen, and in a baseball world where salaries for starters are rising along with the overall usage of relievers, this is not only smart but absolutely necessary for the Royals to compete going forward.
CC Sabathia is baseballs highest-paid starting pitcher with a contract that averages $24.4 million per year. Mariano Rivera is the highest-paid reliever at $15 million.
Advanced metrics indicate the Red Sox had the ALs best bullpen last year, and their top eight relievers made just under $24 million (most of it by Jonathan Papelbon and Bobby Jenks).
The same advanced metrics indicate the White Sox had the best rotation, and their top five starters made $34.3 million (that doesnt include $16 million to Jake Peavy, who made 18 starts).
Thats indicative of the baseball climate. Starting pitchers made an average of $4.9 million last year, compared with $1.9 million for relievers. Accounting for a roster of five starters and eight relievers, thats vaguely in line with how many outs each group gets.
But the Royals place in baseball means theyre in an especially good position to take advantage of a market inefficiency, partly because the relievers pay scale is much more top-heavy than starters. That means young and resilient bullpen arms are available at basement rates.
For instance, Greg Holland, Tim Collins, Kelvin Herrera and Louis Coleman are each making less than $500,000. Jonathan Sánchez and Luke Hochevar are making a combined $8.7 million.
This is the Royals loophole. Even on their record-setting pace of reliever usage, the Royals are paying more for each inning from the bullpen than they are the rotation. But the Royals spending level is much more likely to buy good relievers: witness a 5.08 ERA from the rotation through Friday and 2.99 from the bullpen.
As the Royals wait and hope for prospects like Jake Odorizzi and Mike Montgomery to make an impact in the rotation, they have a steady stack of effective relievers already getting outs. Thats generally how it will go, because relief pitchers are usually better early in their careers compared with starters, and injuries are easier to compensate for.
One of the unmistakable trends in baseball over the years is heavier use of bullpens. And even if the Royals got to this extreme place by accident, its a place they need to stay.
This is one place theyre ahead of the trend.
To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365, send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or follow twitter.com/mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com