Judging the Royals

Why a loss by a reliever is worse than a loss by a starter

Kansas City Royals relief pitcher Joakim Soria walked back to the mound as Detroit’s Justin Upton rounded the bases after hitting a two-run home run in the eighth inning of Sunday’s game.
Kansas City Royals relief pitcher Joakim Soria walked back to the mound as Detroit’s Justin Upton rounded the bases after hitting a two-run home run in the eighth inning of Sunday’s game. jsleezer@kcstar.com

Pretty simple really: if your starting pitcher gets lit up right away, that stinks, but at least you didn’t get your hopes up. At least the manager didn’t waste quality innings from his better relievers.

But when a reliever takes a loss, the team came close but couldn’t hang on for the win. Bullpen losses are worse because you thought you were going to win, but didn’t.

And Sunday afternoon, going into the eighth inning, approximately 34,000 people thought the Royals were going to win.

Matt Strahm and Wade Davis weren’t available

The Royals made a comeback in the bottom of the seventh and took a 5-4 lead; they needed six outs for a win.

Right now the three best relievers the Royals have are Wade Davis, Matt Strahm and Kelvin Herrera, but on Sunday, two of those three weren’t available.

On Saturday, Strahm got hot three times and when a pitcher throws, then sits, then throws again, he experiences more soreness the next day — even if he only throws in the bullpen. Davis had thrown two games in a row and needed a day off.

If you want to blame somebody, blame the pitchers that didn’t throw well enough on Saturday to allow Strahm and Davis a night off.

Why Soria in the eighth?

In the top of the eighth, the Tigers were sending two righties and one switch hitter to the plate and presumably that eliminated lefty relievers Brian Flynn and Scott Alexander from consideration.

That left manager Ned Yost with four available relievers: Brooks Pounders, Chris Young, Joakim Soria and Kelvin Herrera. Ned wanted Herrera to close, so that left three eighth-inning candidates and he chose Soria.

But why not flip Herrera and Soria; have Herrera face the heart of the order in the eighth and give Soria the ninth?

At least three reasons come to mind:

Matchup numbers can be based on incredibly small sample sizes when it comes to relievers, but if you went solely by the numbers available, Soria actually had better matchup numbers with the guys he would face in the eighth inning than the guys he would probably face in the ninth. And you certainly wouldn’t mind him pitching to Justin Upton; Soria had faced Upton three times and punched him out on all three occasions.

Second, Soria had faced Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez and J.D. Martinez on Saturday, walked Cabrera, but got Victor and J.D. out. He’d already shown he could do it.

Third, if Soria was going to have a meltdown, you wanted him to have it before Herrera pitched. Let’s say Herrera pitched the eighth and got through it 1-2-3 and then Soria gave up that Justin Upton home run in the ninth.

If the Royals went on to lose, Ned would have burned Herrera in a game they didn’t win and because he pitched on Saturday and Sunday, Herrera wouldn’t be available on Monday.

Was it a good pitch?

As you probably already know, in the top of the eighth inning Miguel Cabrera singled and the two Martinezs made outs in the air. (I don’t know what the plural of “Martinez” is, but I’m almost positive it isn’t what I’ve used … bear with me; it’s a holiday.) That’s when Upton hit his two-run home run that wound up winning the game. The pitch was a 1-0 94 mph fastball down-and-in, just below the knees.

Down-and-in is not a zone Upton has hit well in 2016 and it’s a location hard to hit to the opposite field, but that’s just what Upton did; the ball went over the wall in right center.

So is Soria justified in calling it a good pitch?

If Upton had pulled that pitch for a homer fans might ask why Upton was given anything to turn on late in a game, but that’s not what happened. What Upton did with the pitch was unlikely, given the pitch’s location.

But when a guy hits a home run it sounds bad to say it was a good pitch and it sounds worse if you say it whenever you give up a game-losing long ball.

It might have been a good pitch, but it clearly wasn’t good enough.

The Royals play the Twins at 1 p.m. Monday; check in Tuesday and I’m sure I’ll have something to say about it.