Ballplayers will tell you that the two hardest innings in baseball are the sixth and seventh innings, and here’s why they say that: the two best relievers in a bullpen are the eighth-inning set-up man and the ninth-inning closer. If the starting pitcher can go seven innings and hand a lead to those two relievers, his team’s chances of winning are very good.
But if your starting pitcher has a pitch limit in the vicinity of 100 and he averages 15 an inning, he’s at 75 pitches after five innings — down to his last 25 or so pitches with two innings left. And by the sixth inning the other team is probably going through the order for the third time. And by the third at-bat, opposition hitters have a very good idea of what the starter has that night.
That’s why the sixth and seventh innings are so difficult.
And if the starter can’t get through seven innings and hand a lead to the set-up man, it’s time for the manager to earn his money and mix-and-match middle relievers until he gets to the back end of his pen — and that’s what the other team wants. That’s why you see some teams take so many pitches; if they can get the starter out after five innings they can then do damage against those middle relievers, grab a lead and not have to face the set-up man and closer.
That’s pretty much Baseball 101, but it helps to explain why the Royals bullpen was so good in 2014: they didn’t have two shutdown relievers, they had three — Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland.
Having a shutdown reliever — Herrera — to throw the seventh inning made the starting pitcher’s job easier; get through six innings with a lead and they could hand the ball to Herrera. And getting Luke Hochevar back can make the job even easier. Assuming Luke is anywhere near what he was in 2013 — 1.92 ERA in 70 1/3 innings — the starter just needs to give the Royals a solid five innings to get the ball to some very good relievers.
Here are the 2014 numbers for the Royals starting pitchers — the average number of innings pitched per start:
▪ Edinson Volquez: 6 1/3 innings
▪ Danny Duffy: 5 2/3 innings
▪ Yordano Ventura: 6 innings
▪ Jason Vargas: 6 1/3 innings
▪ Jeremy Guthrie: 6 1/3 innings
Assuming everyone stays healthy — a very big assumption — Hochevar helps cover that sixth inning. And if everyone doesn’t stay healthy Hochevar helps cover that as well.
According to ESPN.com, the Royals had 12 blown saves last season and only one team in the big leagues had fewer; the San Diego Padres with eight. But the Padres also had 16 fewer save opportunities. And here’s what the Royals’ divisional opponents did in 2014:
▪ Cleveland: 22 blown saves in 62 save opportunities (save percentage 64.52)
▪ Chicago: 21 blown saves in 57 save opportunities (save percentage 63.16)
▪ Minnesota: 20 blown saves in 58 opportunities (save percentage 65.52)
▪ Detroit: 16 blown saves in 57 opportunities (save percentage 71.93)
So can the Royals bullpen be even better?
If everyone stays healthy and pitches up to expectations, yes. Luke Hochevar makes the Royals bullpen even tougher because the gap between the starting pitcher and a pack of shutdown dominating relievers gets even smaller. And that means the two hardest innings in baseball get quite a bit easier.