If you’re a Royals fan you know all about H-D-H; Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland. Those three relievers make up the back end of the Royals bullpen and—if you’ve recently become a Royals fan—that might take some explaining.
Let’s say a team has seven relievers in their bullpen. One of them will probably be a long reliever: the guy who comes in to pitch multiple innings when the game’s a blowout. Most pens have at least one left-handed specialist: as the name would suggest he’s left-handed and comes in to face left-handed hitters in crucial situations—this guy might only see one hitter. The very best relievers constitute the backend of the pen; on many teams this means the eighth-inning set-up man and the ninth-inning closer.
And if you noticed I said that most teams have two dominant relievers at the back end of the pen and the Royals have three—ding, ding, ding—you’re starting to understand why the Royals bullpen has been so good.
If the Royals can take a lead after six innings they’re 37-2, if they lead after seven they’re 34-0 and if they lead after eight innings they’re 40-0. So the formula for winning is pretty simple: grab a lead in the first six innings and hand that lead over to Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland.
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And the formula for losing is the same.
Let the other team grab a lead and hand the ball over to the back end of their pen and the odds of winning go way down. When the Royals trail after six innings they’re 4-29, if they trail after seven they’re 3-29 and if they trail after eight innings they’re 0-29.
Pay attention to what happens when the starter leaves the game
So the key to winning is keeping the best relievers on the other team from ever leaving the bullpen. And one of the ways you do that is by making sure your team has a lead when the other team’s starter leaves the game. When the starting pitcher leaves, the manager has to make a decision; is this game winnable and should I throw my best relievers?
If his team doesn’t have a lead when the starter leaves, the manager is more likely to use someone less than his best and then hope it works out. Maybe a mediocre reliever will somehow hold the fort and the offense will grab a lead. If that happens he manager can alter course and bring in the better relievers.
Fous on the sixth and seventh innings
Go back to where we started: a team has two or three dominant relievers and the key to winning is getting the ball to them with a lead. But what if the starter doesn’t throw seven innings?
Now the manager has no choice; he has to go to the weakest part of his bullpen, the middle relievers. These are the guys the other team wants to face; this is where they can grab a lead or increase the one they have. This is why the Boston Red Sox would take pitches and try to get the starter out early—which is a pretty boring brand of baseball—but it can be very effective. Stand around watching pitches go by, get the starter out after five innings and then swing the bats against the worst pitchers on the other team’s staff.
This is what makes the sixth and seventh innings the most crucial innings in baseball: if the starter has left and you haven’t reached the backend of the pen, the manager is forced to mix-and-match. He might not have a guy who can dominate every hitter he sees, so the manager looks for favorable matchups—that’s when you’ll see three pitchers used to get three batters out.
Fans will get all excited in the ninth inning, but odds are the game’s already over; it was decided in the sixth and seventh.
If you see Twins closer Glen Perkins on the mound, you can head for the exits
I’m kidding, you should actually stick around and watch because you never know; but the Twins closer has an ERA of 1.31 and is a perfect 27-0 in save situations. If the Twins get the ball to Perkins, the Royals odds are not good. Nevertheless you can still seem some pretty interesting baseball.
If Perkins pitches the ninth, check the scoreboard. If the Royals are down by more than one run, some people think you should take a strike—no matter how far you hit the ball you still can’t tie the game. Other people think you can’t afford to take a hittable pitch; Perkins doesn’t make many mistakes and you better take advantage if you get one. So even in a loss you can learn something about the Royals mindset; do they take a strike off Perkins or do they go up hacking? (I’m going to bet on the Royals hacking.)
And if you’re a real Royals fan, you don’t want to find out; it would be much better to see what the Twins do against Greg Holland.