Thursday night at Kauffman Stadium, Kelvin Herrera gave up four runs in the ninth inning in a 6-1 loss to the Houston Astros. His ERA spiked to 5.55, its highest point since April 13. He allowed his seventh homer in 24 1/3 innings.
For context: From 2014 to 2016, Herrera never surrendered more than six homers in a season. In 2013, he gave up nine, the most of his career. This year, his first as the Royals’ full-time closer, he has developed a long ball problem. He’s allowing 2.59 homers per nine innings, more than triple his career rate.
Here, it would be easy to connect the two, to assume that Herrera has pitched poorly as a result of his new role, to suggest that he is a talented setup man exposed as a closer. And yet, the numbers don’t necessarily support the argument.
Let’s start here: In his career, Herrera has had a 2.44 ERA in save situations and a 3.04 ERA in non-save situations. Before Thursday night, he had logged a 3.00 ERA in save situations this season and a 9.64 in non-save outings.
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Alas, those numbers are sort of limited. On Thursday, of course, Herrera came into a tie game in the ninth inning at home, the usual assignment for a closer. It was not a save situation. It was a crucial moment. So what about high-leverage situations:
For his career, Herrera has limited opponents to a .221/.281/.320 slash line in high-leverage situations. This year, the numbers were .159/.213/.409. He had given up six runs, the result of three of his seven homers.
In low-leverage situations, meanwhile, opponents have hit .222/.284/.351. This year, they are batting .438/.441/.688.
In “late and close” situations (defined by Baseball Reference as as plate appearances in the seventh inning or later with the batting team tied, ahead by one, or the tying run at least on deck) Herrera has limited opponents to .250/.289/.569 and six homers in 76 plate appearances.
The point, perhaps, is somewhat clear: Herrera hasn’t been his best self in 2017. He’s been repeatedly beaten on off-speed pitches — though at least on Thursday, Jose Altuve took a fastball deep. His ERA has suffered. The rash of homers allowed appear to be the issue. He hasn’t resembled the dominating form of Greg Holland or Wade Davis or even Kelvin Herrera. But that point seems to be unconnected to his role.
Has the schedule and irregular workload of a closer thrown him off a tick? Perhaps. Has he struggled under the weight of trying to replace Davis as the bullpen’s alpha member? It’s possible,too, perhaps.
But for years, Herrera has been at his best in the most high-pressured moments. In 28 2/3 innings across two postseasons, he posted a 1.26 ERA with 38 strikeouts, 10 walks and zero homers allowed.
And, of course, there was last August, when Wade Davis was on the disabled list. As the Royals surged back into the playoff conversation, Herrera posted a 2.35 ERA in 15 1/3 innings and was 10 for 10 on save opportunities — though he did take the loss after allowing three runs in the ninth to the White Sox on Aug. 9.
There is something wrong with Herrera right now. His command has been a tick off. He’s left some off-speed pitches in bad locations. His fastball velocity (97.4) is down a tick from his peak but actually harder than last season (97.1). He is however, throwing fewer fastballs than he ever has — 58.7 percent of the time, compared with 60.2 percent last year and 74.5 percent in 2014 and 76.3 percent last year.
Herrera added a slider to his arsenal last year. He’s throwing it 18.5 percent of the time. His change up usage (22.8 percent) is up a tick from last year, too. On the whole, his peripheral numbers have been good (27 strikeouts, five walks). But none of his pitches have been exceptional this year, according to pitch value totals at FanGraphs.
As the Royals open a three-game series against the San Diego Padres on Friday night, I plan to ask pitching coach Dave Eiland about Herrera’s current form. But is Herrera struggling because he’s “not a closer”?
This seems unlikely. There are great relievers with exceptional stuff who generally excel in high-leverage situations and rack up strikeouts — and usually those pitchers find themselves sorted into the closer role. There are also less-good relievers, those that usually end up in middle relief or on the edges of a roster. For the last three seasons, Herrera has been one of the best relievers in baseball. Right now, he’s giving up too many homers.
Let’s get to the mailbag questions.
The Royals (26-33) will open a nine-game road trip in San Diego on Friday night, a West Coast jaunt that features matchups with three teams that began the day a combined 29 games under .500.
They will face the rebuilding Padres for three, the declining Giants for two and the middling Los Angeles for four. As they flew to San Diego on Thursday night, they were seven games under .500 but just 5 1/2 games out of first. If they wish to make a move, they would be wise to take advantage of the West Coast swing.
The music recommendation is old friend Kevin Morby, the former Kansas City resident and Royals fan who is back with a new album and a Ramones tribute.
To the questions:
Here are three reasons, in no particular order, and some are connected:
1. The Royals traded a trove of top prospects for Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist in 2015. In one week, they parted ways with pitchers Sean Manaea, Cody Reed and Brandon Finnegan. At the moment Manaea, who was sent to Oakland for Zobrist, has a 3.84 ERA in 35 career appearances, including 34 starts. He would likely be slotted in the middle of the Royals’ rotation. That means somebody like Eric Skoglund would still be in the minors. Cody Reed might still be in the minors, too.
2. The Royals started winning — and they started picking later. This is somewhat obvious, of course, and it’s not as important as the next one.
3. From 2010 to 2013, the Royals picked the following players with their top pick: Christian Colon, Bubba Starling, Kyle Zimmer and Hunter Dozier. Colon’s postseason heroics aside, the Royals have gotten little from that stretch of first-round picks and the ripple effects can be seen at the big-league level and at the upper levels of the minor leagues. If the Royals’ system lacks something glaring, it is top talent, the kind you find in the top 50 or 100 prospects lists. This happens, in part, because you miss on first-round picks and you don’t pick as high in the draft.
4. The rules on draft spending changed, robbing the Royals of one of their greatest tactics: Signing players for over-slot money in the later rounds. Members of the Royals’ front office will never make excuses, but they exploited the system beautifully in the early years of the Dayton Moore regime. In recent years, the rules have changed. And it’s made hitting on your top picks all the more important.
In the words of Dr. Leo Marvin, baby steps, guys. As their record plummeted in April and they remained under .500 for all of May, many Royals admitted to looking at the standings as a way to remain optimistic. They played terribly, they said. They were still on the cusp of contention.
But Royals manager Ned Yost offered a helpful reminder on Thursday. You’re not really in contention until you are at least back to .500.
“We gotta get back to .500,” he said. “I’m competing with the wins and losses.”
The Royals entered Friday seven games under .500. Danny Duffy and Nathan Karns are on the disabled list. To be in position to buy, if we are going to entertain that idea, they are going to have to play around 15 games over .500 over their next 40 games — and they will have to do that with two rookies in their rotation.
Ned Yost has been pretty consistent that he does not plan to reduce the playing time of Alex Gordon or Alcides Escobar. Could Gordon sit against lefties occasionally? Maybe. But the setup will not look close to a platoon.
The jacket has been on hiatus — it’s tough to don denim in June in Kansas City. But good news: it’s making the trip out West. The coldest winter I ever spent was summer in San Francisco.