Everyone is talking about the Royals’ starting pitching, and it certainly needs to be better.
This season, the Royals’ starters rank 12th in the league with an ERA of 4.96. But Royals fans should not forget the Royals’ starters ranked 12th in the league last year with an ERA of 4.34 and 2015 turned out OK.
So does that mean there’s nothing to worry about?
Nope. Go ahead and worry.
Over time, that 0.62 increase in earned runs can be significant, and while the Royals’ starting pitching is slightly worse, the Cleveland Indians’ starting pitching has been better. The Indians have gone from the fourth in the league with an ERA of 3.94 last year to first in the league with an ERA of 3.69.
And then there’s the Royals’ bullpen.
In 2015, the Royals had Wade Davis, Ryan Madson, Kelvin Herrera and Greg Holland at the back of their pen. (Jason Frasor and Brandon Finnegan also made significant contributions, but neither one was around for the whole season). Holland’s 3.83 ERA might jump out at you, but he still managed 32 saves with an elbow held together with chewing gum and rubber bands.
Last year, the Royals’ bullpen was stacked at the back end, so if the Royals grabbed a lead in the first six innings, the other team was in trouble.
In 2015, once the Royals’ pitchers got through the sixth inning, their opponents’ batting average started to drop: .252 in the sixth, .235 in the seventh, .223 in the eighth and .222 in the ninth.
But it’s not working that way in 2016.
In 2016, the bullpen isn’t as deep
In 2016, things have been more complicated. Davis has the ninth when he’s available and the Royals have a save situation. But Herrera, Joakim Soria and Luke Hochevar have been used in a variety of roles and Soria and Hochevar haven’t been as dominant as the Royals would like.
Compared with last year, the Royals have gone from three relievers with shutdown stuff (Davis, Madson and Herrera … four if you want to count Holland) to two (Davis and Herrera). And that’s showing up in the seventh inning.
In 2016 , opponents are hitting .266 in the sixth, spiking up to .275 in the seventh and then dropping off again in the eighth (.236) and ninth (.219). That batting average of .275 might not seem like much of an increase, but over a full game it would be the second-highest team batting average in the American League.
Friday night in Detroit, the Tigers came back and scored three runs in the seventh, beating the Royals 4-2.
And with their diminished bullpen, the seventh is the inning the Royals are having a hard time covering.
Set roles versus ‘mix and match’
In 2014, the Royals had H-D-H in the bullpen — Herrera-Davis-Holland — and that simplified life for everybody. If the Royals had a lead and the game was close, Kelvin Herrera had the seventh, Wade Davis had the eighth and Greg Holland had the ninth.
Having set roles in the bullpen meant everyone knew when to warm up so they never went out to the mound unprepared.
But in 2016, things have been more complicated.
When you don’t have a dominant reliever (a guy who can get just about anybody out), you have to mix and match. Look for matchups that favor your pitcher. And that means getting a reliever up soon enough so he’ll be ready when you need him, but not so soon that he might have to warm up twice.
Instead of getting ready for the eighth and having a half-inning to do it, a reliever might be told to get “hot” in a hurry and have to finish warming up once he comes into the game and gets his eight warm-up throws. It’s one of the reasons we see a reliever give up a couple hits and then be lights out. He wasn’t warmed up all the way.
Set roles also cover a manager’s backside. A reliever can’t say he didn’t have enough time to warm up and blame a poor performance on the manager.
Handling a bullpen without set roles is much more complex for everyone involved.
Relief pitchers and the ‘up/down’
Without set roles, relievers might have to endure an “up/down”: pitching, sitting down and then pitching again.
Relievers are like sprinters. They don’t pace themselves. They give it everything they’ve got for 15-20 pitches, and some of them are spent after that. So a reliever might look great getting two outs in the sixth and then get lit up half an inning later.
Friday night, Luke Hochevar replaced Ian Kennedy with one out in the sixth, preserved a 2-1 lead and then sat down to watch his teammates bat in the seventh. In the bottom half of the inning, Hochevar gave up a homer and two singles and eventually got tagged with three earned runs.
When you ask a reliever to go through an up/down, watch him carefully after he sits. Some guys can do it, and some guys can’t. Looking at his 2016 game log, it appears Hochevar has endured several up/downs without giving up runs, but it’s still a factor.
The bullpen isn’t the only issue, but it’s an issue
Write an article about the bullpen and someone is pretty sure to complain that you didn’t throw enough blame on the starting pitching or offense — and clearly the Royals need to be better in those areas.
But keep an eye on the Royals’ bullpen in the seventh inning. This corps of relievers may not be deep enough to cover the ills of an inconsistent offense and starting rotation.