The trio assembled on a set of bullpen mounds wedged between Dick Howser Field and Frank White Field one Sunday in early February. Art Stewart, the scout who joined the Royals before Howser patrolled the big-league dugout and before White manned second base, steered a golf cart into the shade. He wanted to watch Greg Holland, Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera all pitch at once.
“That was a sight to see,” Stewart remarked a day later.
It was a sight that haunted the dreams of American League hitters last season. The pitchers handled the final third of games with astounding efficacy. The Royals’ record was 72-1 when holding a lead after seven innings in the regular season and 79-1 when leading after eight. During October, the three relievers posted a 1.12 ERA.
At his home in California, pondering a comeback after three years away from the majors, former Phillies closer Ryan Madson watched these three for the first time during the World Series. The statistics stunned him.
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“Everybody had a 1.00 ERA,” he said. “Pitching for as many years as I had, I had a 1.00 for a little bit of a season, or two. But I never had a 1.00 for a whole year. Especially in the American League.”
Which leads to a critical question for the Royals’ fate in defending their American League crown. Can these men repeat this output? Can the Royals rely on relievers, the most fickle of performers, once again in 2015? How do you avoid regression?
Royals officials acknowledged the inherent instability of major-league bullpens, groups of flawed pitchers who fluctuate from season to season. During the winter, the Royals confronted this problem with money and manpower. During the season, they will trust the ability of their elite relievers, the advances of their training staff and the steady hand manager Ned Yost displayed in deploying his pitchers last season.
The organization lacked interest in trade proposals for Holland, Davis or Herrera, despite legitimate interest throughout the game and the rising salaries of each player, according to people familiar with the situation. And as the Royals gathered for 2015, a curious thought coursed through this camp. Players, coaches, executives all voiced the belief that this current version of the relief corps could outstrip the previous season’s group.
“I think our bullpen will be better,” manager Ned Yost has said more than once this spring.
“There’s more depth here now than ever since I’ve been here,” said pitching coach Dave Eiland, who joined Yost’s staff in 2012.
“I think we’re probably better,” Davis said before camp began. “If everyone stays healthy, we’ll be better.”
Despite the attention garnered by Holland, Davis and Herrera, as a group the Royals bullpen did not perform any particularly amazing feats in 2014. The unit ranked 10th in ERA (3.30), 11th in batting average against (.232), 13th in walks plus hits per inning (1.24) 14th in strikeout rate (8.65 per nine) and 15th in strikeout-to-walk ratio (2.62).
What lifted them up from the pedestrian crowd is the performance of their vaunted trio. Holland, Davis and Herrera totaled 258 strikeouts in 204 innings. Davis did not allow an extra-base hit in the first half of the season. Herrera gave up two runs in the second half. Holland reached his second consecutive All-Star Game and has established himself as the American League’s best closer.
In organizational meetings after the World Series, general manager Dayton Moore preached the importance of retaining the club’s strengths. The club could not just rely upon those three. So in November they retained Jason Frasor, who stabilized the middle of the bullpen after arriving from Texas last July. A week later, they struck a two-year agreement with Luke Hochevar, who dominated in relief in 2013 before requiring Tommy John surgery last season. He’ll open the season in the minors but could be ready by May.
The Royals did not stop there. They swapped former All-Star Aaron Crow for Marlins pitcher Brian Flynn, a 6-foot-7 southpaw who may make the opening-day roster. They took a flier on Madson, who has impressed team officials with his readiness. In February they found lefty Franklin Morales. In March they signed Chris Young, a veteran starter, and moved him into relief.
Depth is the only reliable combatant against bullpen attrition. The added arms allowed them to weather Tim Collins’ torn ulnar collateral ligament and the shaky spring of Brandon Finnegan, who was sent to the minors to work on becoming a starting pitcher. It also provides Yost with more options for days when Holland, Herrera and Davis are not available.
“Bullpens, historically, go up and down,” Moore said. “Over the course of 162 games, if you’ve got three really good guys in a bullpen, which most clubs do, they can’t use them every night. So they’re going to have to use the fourth, fifth and sixth, and maybe the seventh guy.”
The Royals spared little expense in the process: They will pay $22.35 million for Holland, Davis, Herrera, Hochevar and Frasor in 2015. Young can earn up to $6 million in incentives, though most of them relate to pitching as a starter.
The salaries occupy a significant portion of the team’s payroll, which will top $110 million for the first time in 2015. Around the league, rival executives wonder if the Royals can continue to afford such a bill. With one more year left in arbitration, Holland’s price could jump into eight figures for 2016. The team also holds an $8 million option on Davis for 2016 and a $10 million option for 2017. Herrera is under team control through 2018.
For now, though, the Royals believe they have found the solution to bullpen volatility. They say they have men capable of bucking the trend.
“Why are we so volatile?” Frasor said. “The good relievers aren’t volatile. The good relievers are fairly consistent.”
Few meet this bill better than Holland. During the past four seasons, he leads all American League relievers with nine wins above replacement. Only Atlanta closer Craig Kimbrel has been more effective.
Since his debut in 2010, Holland has experienced only one stint on the disabled list, a result of a stress fracture in his ribs in 2012. Team officials describe him as a dogged worker, a consistent presence in the club’s weight room and training room. Yet rival scouts continue to view him as an injury risk, given his size, delivery and workload in recent years.
It is worth noting that every pitcher faces injury with each offering. The act of pitching places an undue amount of stress on the arm. Stocky and 5 feet 10, Holland does not possess a classical pitcher’s build. He drifts to his left after he releases the baseball, effectively falling off the side of the mound. He missed a week in September because of tightness in his right arm.
Here in the Cactus League, his fastball has hovered around 93 mph, a few ticks below the 96-mph heater he has thrown for much of his career. Team officials insist they are not worried about his velocity. “When the bell rings, Hollie is going to be Hollie,” Eiland said.
The Royals will need that in 2015. They will also need Davis and Herrera to provide a reasonable facsimile of their ferocity from last year. The new arms can handle the rest of the load.
“If you’re going to win, your bullpen is going to get used a lot,” Moore said. “It’s just the way it is.”
Slamming the door
After a bit of a shaky start in 2010, Royals closer Greg Holland (above) has developed into one of the game’s top closers.