Yes it’s just one game, but bullpen success can be fleeting

04/03/2014 9:32 AM

04/03/2014 9:32 AM

Out there, on the other side of these walls and in the bars across the street people celebrate. Many of them took the day off work to watch the beginning of another baseball season, and when their Tigers beat the Royals with a walk-off victory, the hometown fans might as well toast with another round.

In here, inside these walls of the visitors clubhouse at Comerica Park, the Royals are speaking in hushed but unapologetic tones. They lost 4-3 in the bottom of the ninth with their All-Star closer on the mound Monday afternoon, and by rule, whatever happens on Opening Day is always overemphasized.

This is game one of 162 — 0.6 percent of the season, the equivalent of about five minutes of an NFL season — so they do what we would all do in their situation. They search for the happy medium between the disappointment in this room and the joy outside, knowing that 161 more chances await.

“I’ll be ready for the next time, and so will everyone else in the bullpen,” says Greg Holland, who gave up the game-winner.

“Guys that are successful forget about any type of failure,” says Wade Davis, who put the winning run on base.

“I’ll hand the ball to those guys any day of the week,” says starter James Shields, who pitched well enough to win.

These are honest thoughts. Genuine. And because these are the Royals — the franchise that just three years ago put Bruce Chen on the mound and Kila Ka’aihue hitting fifth on opening day — we should acknowledge these thoughts are without delusion. The Royals

did have baseball’s best bullpen a year ago. They should

be confident.

But there’s another part here that’s worth addressing, especially today: bullpen success is fleeting. Good bullpens are almost always like pop songs, hot one summer, then forgotten the next. Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” was

so

2013.

The Royals still have the makings of a good bullpen. Most teams around baseball would trade their relievers for the Royals’, no questions asked. Holland may have been the best reliever in baseball last year. As a reliever, Davis has essentially turned big-league hitters into Tony Pena Jr. Kelvin Herrera, Tim Collins and Aaron Crow each average at least a strikeout per inning. The other reliever on the roster right now, Francisley Bueno, has allowed fewer than one baserunner per inning in his limited time with the Royals.

So this is a talented group, and it’s reasonable to expect the Royals to be among the American League’s better bullpens.

But, still. It’s a bullpen, which means they are a group of flawed pitchers who didn’t make it as starters. Using baserunners per inning, no team has had the best bullpen two years in row this century. The last time the Royals were in the top 10, they were 29th the next year.

Last year, the Royals beat the league averages when tied or leading after the fifth, sixth, seventh

and

eighth innings. That was a major part of winning the franchise’s most games since 1989. But a bullpen’s performance one season is, at best, a soft indicator of what it will be the next season.

Bullpens are different. The Royals played baseball’s best defense last year, and at least on paper, improved over the offseason. They’re a good bet to play the game’s best defense again this year, or at least close to it, and that’s mostly how it went in the opener.

But defense is predictable. Bullpens are, basically, the polar opposite of predictable. There is some regression to be made here. Expected, even. Luke Hochevar seemed to have turned into a dominant setup man. Without him, the Royals still have a talented group but one without as much room for error. “We can’t afford another hit,” is the way manager Ned Yost put it during spring training.

And, well, Opening Day was a hit. In the seventh, Crow allowed both of his inherited runners to score, which was a particular problem for him last year. Then after Davis got through a clean eighth, he gave up a walk and a single before Holland got behind in the count and left a pitch over the middle of the plate for the game-winner.

The nature of the relief pitching is that room for error shrinks, and mistakes amplify.

“I get paid to get people out,” Holland says. “I didn’t do it today.”

Look, perspective is worth emphasizing here. Last year, a sizeable chunk of Kansas City wanted Holland demoted after three games. The best bullpens blow leads.

And even in a vacuum, the opening day loss isn’t all on the bullpen.

The lineup only produced three runs, all in the fourth, and whiffed on plenty of opportunities for more. Sal Perez had four hits, but his teammates combined for just three. Over the last five innings, they managed just two baserunners. Maybe Yost shouldn’t have let Shields start the seventh inning. Whatever. There are a dozen ways any baseball game could turn out differently, and this one is no exception.

The break between wins and losses is a whisker, blown side to side by the winds of the day. Often, that wind comes from the bullpen. Usually, that wind blew the Royals’ way last year.

That doesn’t mean it will again.

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