It can’t last, so savor Royals’ bullpen duo of Wade Davis and Greg Holland

06/05/2014 10:51 PM

06/06/2014 10:35 AM

You may remember the time a couple weeks ago when Dayton Moore walked away from a somewhat contentious group interview about Mike Moustakas and dropped the sarcasm he usually hides in group settings.

“Anyone want to talk about our bullpen?” the Royals general manager asked.

Well, today, with the Royals winning three of four against the Cardinals, let’s talk about that bullpen.

Specifically, Greg Holland and Wade Davis.

Even more specifically, the historic — yes, historic — pace these two are on.

The Royals’ script played out perfectly in a 3-2 win over the Cardinals on Thursday. Good starting pitching, timely hitting, a tremendous defensive play, and then Davis and Holland turned it into a seven-inning game.

“I manage the whole game around that,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “I’m trying to figure out how I can get to Wade in the eighth and Hollie in the ninth.”

Davis only needed nine pitches — six fastballs, two cutters and a curve — to get through the middle of the Cardinals’ order. It was the 12th time he’s pitched since April, and the seventh time that nobody has reached base. More times than not, three big league hitters in a row are sent back to the dugout with their heads down.

Holland took a little more work — 18 pitches — but that’s only because uber-prospect Oscar Taveras beat out an infield single and Holland struck out the side. In his last six outings, Holland has struck out 12 and allowed two baserunners. Twenty-five appearances into the season, Holland is as likely to give up a base hit as he is to strike out more than one batter.

By the memory of many baseball people, the best combination of eighth- and ninth-inning relievers in the last generation of the game may be the 1996 Yankees. This is hard to believe for people who don’t remember it, but Mariano Rivera was actually the setup guy for John Wetteland.

Ask around, and you will also hear mentions of the 2010 Rangers (Neftali Feliz and Alexi Ogando), the 2003 Dodgers (Eric Gagne’s Cy Young year with Guillermo Mota setting up) and the 2007 Red Sox (Jonathan Papelbon with Hideki Okajima setting up), among many others.

But what if you read that by at least one measure, no pair of relievers has ever done what Holland and Davis are doing?

Stretched out over a full season, Holland is tracking to strike out 100 batters over 63 innings, giving up 62 baserunners with a 1.52 ERA.

Davis’ pace is for 119 strikeouts over 74 innings, giving up 62 baserunners with a 1.32 ERA.

Together, the current pace adds up to 219 strikeouts over 137 innings with 124 baserunners allowed and a 1.47 ERA.

No two full-time relievers have ever matched that.

Even individually, only three relievers in baseball history have ever matched those paces for innings, baserunners per inning, strikeouts per inning, and weighted ERA.

Or, if you prefer your statistics more advanced, Davis and Holland are on pace for more combined Wins Above Replacement than any reasonably balanced bullpen teammates in the last 30 years, other than Rivera and Tom Gordon with the 2004 Yankees. Neither Rivera nor Gordon had the strikeout rates of Davis or Holland, and Rivera gave up more baserunners.

So, put another way: No team in baseball history has had two relief pitchers with this particular brand of domination over an entire season.

This is no accident, either. Holland and Davis each throw their fastballs more than 95 mph with fierce breaking balls and uncompromising command. Holland, especially, throws a slider and splitter that are each so good he usually only uses one. The other night, when he mowed through the middle of the Cardinals’ order to preserve a one-run win, he didn’t throw any splitters.

Right-handed hitters are four for 45 with 25 strikeouts and no extra-base hits against Davis. The league is three for 31 with 18 strikeouts against Holland when behind in the count. Together, they are striking out more than 40 percent of the batters they face. The big league average is a tick below 20 percent.

This is domination bordering on comedy.

In a season where the hitting coach and third baseman have each been demoted, only three regular hitters are performing even close to where they should, and the rotation has been beat up enough that Aaron Brooks was called upon for a truly horrendous sacrificial start, the two guys at the back of the bullpen have been as close to perfect as the game allows.

Along with Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar, and the starting pitchers, they are the primary reasons the Royals can still dream of the playoffs.

The trick — and in the last generation of Royals baseball, there’s always a trick, isn’t there? — is that this won’t last much longer.

There’s a reason you rarely see a team with two top-shelf, dominating relief pitchers. If you have two guys that good, one of them can be closing somewhere else.

And so it will likely go with Davis or Holland after this season. Davis has team options for $7 million next year, $8 million in 2016 and $10 million in 2017. Holland has two years of arbitration remaining, and will almost certainly make more than Davis in each of those seasons.

Even with the salaries of James Shields and Billy Butler almost certainly going off the books after this season, the Royals aren’t the kind of team that can spend $15 million on a pair of one-inning relief pitchers.

So one of the great combinations of setup men and closers in recent baseball history will only be a one-year show.

That doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Davis is showing himself to have the goods of reliable closer, and the Royals are showing themselves to have a hole or two they could fill by trading Holland this offseason.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365, send email to smellinger@kcstar.com or follow twitter.com/mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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