Judging the Royals

Kelvin Herrera is no longer the Royals closer; is a closer by committee the answer?

Royals reliever Kelvin Herrera handed the ball to manager Ned Yost before exiting the mound in the eighth inning against the Twins on Friday at Kauffman Stadium.
Royals reliever Kelvin Herrera handed the ball to manager Ned Yost before exiting the mound in the eighth inning against the Twins on Friday at Kauffman Stadium. jsleezer@kcstar.com

Kelvin Herrera blew a save against the Minnesota Twins on Thursday and by Friday afternoon he was no longer the Royals closer.

Pitching roles are not set in stone, but at least for now, Herrera is out as the closer and three pitchers — Brandon Maurer, Scott Alexander and Mike Minor — will take turns filling that role.

According to Ned Yost, which pitcher gets the ninth inning will be dictated by how the Royals got there; if Ned needs any of the three pitchers before the ninth inning, he’ll use them and let one of the guys who haven’t been used close the game.

Why Herrera’s out

Kelvin Herrera’s ERA is currently 4.56; not ideal for a guy who is supposed to be the most dominant reliever on your staff. And recently, Herrera has had trouble controlling his off-speed pitches, which meant he was throwing a whole bunch of fastballs to hitters looking for one.

Ned said lack of use is part of Herrera’s problem and the numbers back that up: on one day’s rest opponents hit .152 against Herrera, on two day’s rest it’s .167, but on three day’s rest it’s .364 and on five day’s rest opponents hit .421.

Mystery solved, right?

Not really; it’s important to remember that when you look at one factor — in this case how many days rest Herrera had — you’re only looking at one factor. Day’s rest ignores everything else that matters; opponent, platoon splits or, in Herrera’s case, lack of confidence.

Ned said he thought Herrera is currently dealing with some lack of confidence, and that’s not what you want in a closer.

The closer mentality

Ask good relievers whether they need a “Black Knight mentality” and the answer will probably be yes.

Just in case you’ve never seen “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” (an omission you should rectify immediately), there’s a scene in which King Arthur fights the Black Knight and cuts off the Black Knight’s arm.

The Black Knight wants to continue fighting because: “It’s just a scratch.”

That’s the way good closers think: no matter what happened the outing before or the batter before or the pitch before, they’ve got the situation under control.

Now here’s a story that’s been told about former Royals closer Greg Holland:

When his arm was hanging by a thread — or at least an elbow ligament — Holland pitched through the pain. When Holland’s fastball velocity dipped into the high 80s and someone made a mound visit to check on him, Holland told the guy to get off the mound and let him get back to work; he had the situation under control.

Holland’s injury was “just a scratch.”

Herrera recently left two games in the middle of an at-bat because of “forearm tightness” and while that might have been the smart thing to do, it’s not the same bulldog mentality shown by a closer like Greg Holland.

On August 23, while pitching for the Rockies, Holland blew a save against the Royals; with two outs in the ninth inning, he gave up a walk-off homer to Eric Hosmer.

Afterward, Holland made no excuses and said he wasn’t getting paid to come close. The next day Holland came right back out and closed a Rockies win with a 1-2-3 ninth inning, got the save and hasn’t blown a save since.

That’s a guy with a closer mentality, and not every pitcher has it.

The closer by committee

Refusing to admit that there’s a mental aspect to everything we do — including closing games in the big leagues — is to ignore reality.

The example I’ve used before, and no doubt will again, is walking the length of a 12-inch wide plank. Lay the plank on the ground and most of us could walk its length without a problem. But if the plank were 100 feet in the air, it wouldn’t be so easy.

Same plank, same task, but the surrounding circumstances change everything.

Some pitchers can ignore the circumstances and pitch as well, or even better, than ever; some pitchers let the circumstances get into their head. With a one-run lead, the crowd on its feet and teammates counting on them, some pitchers have a problem.

Not every pitcher with great stuff has what it takes to close games; a guy can be a beast in the seventh inning and something less in the ninth.

And now the Royals are hoping three guys — Brandon Maurer, Scott Alexander and Mike Minor — have the right stuff and the Royals are going to find out while chasing a wild-card berth.

Maurer has 34 saves and 12 blown saves (about a 74 percent success rate), Scott Alexander has three saves and three blown saves (a 50 percent success rate) and Mike Minor has no saves and three blown saves (I’ve checked my calculator twice and I’m pretty sure that’s a zero percent success rate).

None of that means these guys can’t do the job, especially as they get more opportunities to figure out what works.

But with 22 games left in the season, they don’t have much time to figure things out.

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