Judging the Royals

Royal question: Kelvin Herrera might replace Wade Davis, but who replaces Herrera?

Presumptive heir to the closer’s role for the Royals, Kelvin Herrera has shutdown stuff. But elevating him to ninth-inning guy means others must also move into key roles.
Presumptive heir to the closer’s role for the Royals, Kelvin Herrera has shutdown stuff. But elevating him to ninth-inning guy means others must also move into key roles. jsleezer@kcstar.com

More than once I’ve heard that the Royals could afford to trade closer Wade Davis because they could replace him with setup man Kelvin Herrera.

That may be true, but if Herrera becomes the closer, who becomes the eighth-inning setup man? And if you find an eighth-inning setup man, who pitches the seventh? Or the sixth?

To understand why all that matters, let’s take a look at how a lot of games or won and lost.

Middle relief

Let’s say a bullpen has seven relievers and the two best relievers are the setup guy and the closer.

If a team can hand those two guys a lead — and those guys are any good — that team has a great chance of winning. But who bridges the gap between the time the starting pitcher leaves and the eighth inning? Who gets the lead to the setup man?

If the starting pitcher does not throw seven innings, it’s the middle relievers: the guys who aren’t as good as the setup man and closer.

When Seattle Mariners bench coach Tim Bogar was with the Boston Red Sox, he said the Sox didn’t care what the score was as long as they got the opposing team’s starting pitcher out of the game after five innings. If the Boston hitters got the opposing pitcher out of the game early, they could then go to work against the other team’s middle relievers — the weaker part of the bullpen.

After that, the Sox would take their chances.

Beat up on middle relief, grab a lead before the eighth inning, and you probably won’t see the other team’s setup man and closer. And even if you do see them, you face them with a lead.

But when the Royals stocked up on shutdown relievers — when they had four or five guys with closer-type stuff — it made it hard for opposing teams to take advantage of their middle relievers; once the Royals’ starting pitcher came out of the game, a string of excellent relievers came out of the bullpen.

Getting the starter out early was no longer a bargain.

Because the Royals had so many good relievers, other teams had to take a lead in the first five or six innings; if the Kansas City bullpen was handed a lead, it wasn’t likely to give it back.

But in 2016, the Royals’ bullpen was not as dominant. It was no longer filled with shutdown relievers. Davis and Herrera were still pitching well, but the Royals were having a harder time handing them a lead.

And no matter how good your setup man and closer are, they don’t do you much good if the middle relievers can’t hold the fort.

Pay attention to the sixth and seventh

Last season, Danny Duffy averaged just over six innings per start; Ian Kennedy and Yordano Ventura averaged a bit less than six innings per start.

So if Herrera pitches the ninth next season, who takes the ball after the starters are through?

If the Royals have a lead when the starting pitcher is is done, who gets them through the sixth, seventh and eighth innings?

Herrera might replace Davis, but who replaces Herrera?

This is what the Royals must figure out this offseason and during spring training.

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