Once a verifiable flaw, the Royals’ bullpen has transformed into a strength thanks to a 38-year-old Australian who specializes in espresso, a former starter who missed two full seasons after shoulder surgery, and a 27-year-old sinkerballer who began the season at Class AAA Omaha.
The formula for success is not quite HDH — the destructive force of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland, which devastated opponents in the 2014 playoffs. Yet the emergence of Peter Moylan, the side-arming right-handed specialist and coffee master; Mike Minor, the converted starter; and Scott Alexander, the overlooked lefty, has helped solidify a relief corps that has turned dominant in the month of July.
And now, Royals manager Ned Yost suddenly has two more pieces at his disposal. On Monday, the club acquired three pitchers from the San Diego, landing starter Trevor Cahill and relievers Brandon Maurer and Ryan Buchter in a six-player deal designed to strengthen the pitching staff for the stretch run. On Tuesday night, Maurer and Buchter arrived, strolling into the visitors dugout at Comerica Park in the second inning.
As the afternoon began, Yost remained noncommittal on how he would deploy Maurer and Buchter in relief. But a basic template emerged. Maurer operated as the full-time closer in San Diego, while Buchter mostly pitched in the seventh and eighth innings. As they integrate into the bullpen here, they will likely mix in with Moylan, Alexander and Minor, creating a deeper bridge to Joakim Soria and Kelvin Herrera.
“They’ll fit in with that group,” Yost said, “and we’ll mix and match.”
In time, it’s possible that roles could evolve. Soria has offered a solid bounce-back performance in 2017, posting a 3.21 ERA. Yet he does not possess the dominant arsenal of an eighth-inning setup man. Herrera has recorded 20 saves in 23 chances but also has been stung by a rash of homers while adjusting to the closer role. For now, Herrera appears entrenched at closer, while the seventh and eighth innings could be more fluid. But first, Yost would like to let Maurer and Buchter acclimate to their surroundings.
“They’re going to be guys that take pressure off the present pen that we have,” Yost said. “Because of their effectiveness and their quality of pitches.”
For now, the present pen has settled into a spectacular groove. After posting a 5.67 ERA in April, the Royals relief corps has shaved the number down to 3.83 entering Tuesday, ranking fifth in the American League. In the month of July, the unit has lowered the ERA to 2.00, the best mark in baseball.
The bullpen must still improve to approach the numbers posted in 2014 and 2015. But the group is closing in, trending in the right direction. In 2014, the Royals’ bullpen ranked fifth in the American League with a 3.30 ERA. In 2015, they were first, posting a 2.72 mark.
“That’s beautiful to see,” Herrera said. “We just have a bullpen that reminds me a lot of the bullpen we had in 2014. We’re finishing games in the fifth inning or sixth inning.”
In some ways, the most valuable pieces were under the radar when the season began. Moylan, who spent time with the Royals last season before beginning spring training unemployed, has posted a 0.87 ERA since May 24, dominating right-handed hitters. Alexander has turned into a reliable option in the sixth and seventh innings, logging a 2.08 ERA in 39 innings. And Minor has resurrected his career as a left-handed reliever, recording a 2.23 ERA and 52 strikeouts in 48 1/3 innings just two years after a torn labrum in his pitching shoulder threatened his career a starter in Atlanta.
“When we started this year, you look at it, and you’re pretty confident in Kelvin, you’re pretty confident in Soria, and it’s like: ‘OK, the rest of the roles have to be defined,’ ” Yost said.
“What we found is that Scott has been absolutely fantastic, and Moylan, what a sign … We signed him in the middle of spring training as just an afterthought. He’s been a huge, huge part of our success in the bullpen.”