One week into the 2017 season, the Royals spent Tuesday looking for ways to upgrade a struggling bullpen. Relief could arrive Wednesday in the form of an eight-man unit.
The club will likely add two relief arms to the bullpen as it resumes a three-game series against the Oakland A’s at 7:15 Wednesday night. The team created one roster spot by optioning outfielder Terrance Gore to Class AA Northwest Arkansas on Monday. It created another Tuesday by sending left-hander Matt Strahm back to Class AAA, where he will work on his command issues in a less-pressurized environment.
The club will likely wait until Wednesday to announce the corresponding roster additions. The moves will come on the heels a 2-5 start and a week of bullpen collapses.
At the heart of the relief struggles was Strahm, the talented left-hander who crafted a sensational debut in 2016. In his first 1 1/3 innings this season, Strahm issued six walks, including two intentional bases on balls. On Monday morning, in the hours before the home opener at Kauffman Stadium, Strahm joined pitching coach Dave Eiland for a video session in a room adjacent to the clubhouse.
The session was a fact-finding mission. In three appearances, Strahm had allowed seven earned runs, fighting both his command and his confidence. Eiland, the club’s sixth-year pitching coach and mechanics whisperer, believed he had diagnosed the issue. Strahm was leaving the rubber too quickly, he said, causing his front side to fly open and his left arm to drag. The result was a fastball that would not stay down. The consequence was a young pitcher experiencing his first lesson in failure. By Tuesday, the club had elected to let Strahm sort through the problems at Omaha.
“He’s not far off,” Eiland said. “He’s just got to get back to the mind-set of trusting his stuff, believing in it and just stay back over the rubber a little bit longer. That’s an easy correction.”
The mechanical issue, magnified by the timing of this young season, rendered Strahm ineffective during the season’s opening week. The struggles underscored a larger concern about the Royals’ bullpen. In the offseason, the club traded closer Wade Davis, a free agent to be, for outfielder Jorge Soler and sought to rebuild the back end of the bullpen around Kelvin Herrera, Joakim Soria, Strahm and left-hander Mike Minor. In a small sample, the early returns have yet to inspire much confidence.
The Royals’ bullpen entered a day off on Tuesday with a 7.77 ERA (19 earned runs in 22 innings). The relief unit is worst in the American League in WHIP (1.77) and walk rate (18.6 percent) and is second to last in left-on-base percentage (57.5)
The main culprits have been Strahm (seven runs), left-hander Travis Wood (four runs) and starter Nathan Karns, who allowed four runs in a relief appearance during the opening series in Minnesota.
The Royals remain confident in Wood, who posted a 2.95 ERA in 61 innings in 2016 while pitching in relief for the Chicago Cubs. They have also been encouraged by the performances of Peter Moylan, Chris Young and Soria. Yet the long-term prospects of the bullpen could hinge, in part, on the progress of Strahm and the organization’s other young relievers.
Strahm posted a 1.23 ERA and recorded 30 strikeouts in 22 innings last season. After the early stumbles, Yost described Strahm’s confidence level and psyche as “OK.”
“He didn’t have to endure any of this last year,” Yost said. “So it’s a bunch to process and try to figure it out. But a lot of it’s mechanical.”
The Royals will likely pick from their 40-man roster to reinforce the bullpen. Left-hander Scott Alexander is positioned for a callup after a strong spring. Right-handed options on the 40-man roster include Kevin McCarthy, Jake Junis and Kyle Zimmer, who was promoted from Class AA Northwest Arkansas to Class AAA Omaha on Tuesday afternoon.
McCarthy, who made his major-league debut last season, has logged one scoreless appearance for Omaha. Junis surrendered two runs in 6 1/3 innings in his first start for Omaha, while Zimmer, a former first-round pick, allowed one run and struck out six in four innings in one start at Northwest Arkansas. Right-hander Andrew Edwards, another member of the 40-man roster, was placed on the disabled list on Tuesday.
Back in Kansas City, the bullpen sample size is still small, for both Strahm and the bullpen as a whole. Yet a competent relief corps could be critical if the Royals wish to return to the playoffs for a third time in four seasons. From 2014 to 2016, the Kansas City bullpen led baseball with a 3.15 ERA, the unit a cornerstone of the franchise’s championship formula.
The bullpen took a step back last season, recording 19 blown saves. It still posted a 3.45 ERA, third in the American League behind Baltimore and Cleveland.
In seven games this season, the group has been handcuffed by command issues and some questionable pitch selection — see the slider Herrera threw to Houston’s Jake Marisnick, resulting in a game-tying, ninth-inning homer on Sunday. But the trend lines have pointed down in another area as well. The Royals, for now, lack the pure power they unleashed on opposing teams when Davis, Herrera and Greg Holland were handling the late innings.
From 2014 to 2016, Royals relievers had an average fastball velocity of 94.2 mph, 93.9 mph and 93.5 mph, respectively, each ranking in the top 15 in baseball. This season, the unit’s average fastball velocity has been 92.6, which ranks 22nd.
The number could creep higher as Herrera takes on more innings. It could also illustrate the need for Strahm — or someone else — to offer more power and command at the back end of the pen.
“I just need to get the ball down,” Strahm said on Sunday. “I need to figure it out and get it down.”
Strahm will now attempt to figure out the issue at Omaha. A former 21st-round pick in 2012, he spent most of the 2016 season at Class AA Northwest Arkansas, posting a 3.43 ERA in 102 1/3 innings, including 18 starts. He made his major-league debut on July 31 and emerged as a weapon in relief. After a setback with the Royals, he will now try to regain that form.
“He’s got to believe in himself and trust his stuff,” Eiland said. “He’s not far off.”