One of the reasons top-of-the-line starting pitchers are considered top-of-the-line, is their ability to pitch deep in games.
In 2017, Chris Sale has made 20 starts and thrown at least seven innings in 15 of them.
In 2017, Clayton Kershaw has made 21 starts and has also thrown at least seven innings in 15 of them.
Starting pitchers who go deep in games take pressure off the bullpen. Those frontline starters are rare and valuable and make a lot of money. So what do you do if you can’t afford frontline starting pitchers?
You can do what the Royals have done: build your pitching staff back-to-front.
If a team has two shutdown relievers — the set-up man and closer — and the starter can’t go seven innings, that’s a problem. Lots of games are lost in the sixth and seventh innings when a team can’t hold a lead between the time the starter leaves and the eighth-inning set-up man comes in the game.
But what if a team had three shutdown relievers?
What if they have four?
What if they have five?
A team that has a deep bullpen doesn’t need its starting pitchers to go so deep in games.
In 2015, when the Royals were ahead at the start of the fifth inning, they went 63-4. Think of that: if the opposing team was not ahead after the first four innings, their chances of winning was 6 percent.
This is why the Royals just went out and got two more relievers; the deeper the pen, the less you need from your starting rotation.
So let’s take a look at what the Royals’ newest relievers bring to the team.
Right-handed pitcher, Brandon Maurer
On Tuesday night in Detroit, Kelvin Herrera picked up his 21st save of the season. Herrera’s new teammate, Brandon Maurer, has 20. Maurer was serving as the Padres closer, so he’s familiar with that role.
His 5.72 ERA is unimpressive, but relievers can have a bad outing — or a few bad outings — blow their ERA up and, because they don’t get to pitch that many innings, spend the rest of the summer trying to bring their ERA back down.
This season Maurer has appeared in 42 games and didn’t allow an earned run in 31 of them. For comparison’s sake: Herrera has appeared in 43 games and didn’t allow an earned run in 32 of them.
Maurer also brings the heat: this season Herrera’s average fastball was 98.1 mph, Maurer’s fastball has averaged 97.2.
Maurer has been a backend of the bullpen guy, so it won’t be surprising if we see some combination of Joakim Soria, Maurer and Herrera pitching the seventh, eighth and ninth.
Over his career Maurer actually does better against left-handed hitters (they hit .246) than right-handed hitters (they hit .281), so it won’t be shocking if Ned pulls Maurer against a right-handed hitter.
Dig further into the numbers and you find Maurer is better the later he pitches; in the sixth inning batters hit .315 off him, in the seventh it’s .268, in the eighth it’s .265 and in the ninth inning it’s .212.
Some pitchers need to feel the heat to throw their best.
Left-handed pitcher, Ryan Buchter
Middle relievers are often guys who can get lefties or righties out, but not both. That means the manager has to mix-and-match his way through those middle innings.
But over his career left-handed pitcher Ryan Buchter has done well against lefties (they hit .159) and righties (they hit .184). Buchter’s fastball averages 93.3 mph.
Because his platoon splits are good, Buchter might be given an inning and allowed to face both left-handed and right-handed hitters.
If you’re looking at the above numbers and wondering why Buchter isn’t the late-inning guy, remember: there are so many numbers available it’s easy to cherry-pick the ones you like to make whatever case you want to make.
Buchter’s opponent batting average is .179 in the seventh inning, .145 in the eighth and .256 in the ninth. Most of Buchner’s innings have been pitched in the eighth, so it won’t be a shocker if he works his way to the back end of the pen.
Why the Royals wanted two more relievers
This season the Royals bullpen currently ranks fifth in the American League when measured by ERA.
In 2015, it ranked first.
In 2015, if the Royals took a lead into the fifth inning, they won 94 percent of the time. This season when they take a lead into the fifth inning, the Royals win 79 percent of the time.
That needs to change.
And the Royals are hoping the acquisition of Brandon Maurer and Ryan Buchter will help make that happen.