Sam Mellinger

Sam Mellinger: 2017 Royals’ first major obstacle: ‘We built that bullpen around Strahm being part of it’

Sending relief pitcher Matt Strahm, center, back to Omaha was the last thing Royals manager Ned Yost wanted to be doing this week. But the club’s margin for error is too small to be toyed with.
Sending relief pitcher Matt Strahm, center, back to Omaha was the last thing Royals manager Ned Yost wanted to be doing this week. But the club’s margin for error is too small to be toyed with. jsleezer@kcstar.com

The Royals’ second-best relief pitcher is now the Omaha Storm Chasers’ best relief pitcher, but at the moment even that might be a stretch because nobody is sure how this will go with Matt Strahm.

The Royals are making that much obvious. You can hear that as Ned Yost, the manager who will never lose confidence in a player, explains why the Royals selected righty Jakob Junis along with lefty Scott Alexander to promote.

“We needed an arm,” Yost said. “And we needed a rostered arm.”

That description fits Strahm, too, but at some point between retiring just four of the 14 batters he faced in three games, he lost all functional confidence. The big-league team’s confidence in him wasn’t far behind.

Most of the time, this wouldn’t be a huge deal. Strahm is 25 years old, a former 21st-round pick with 23  1/3 innings in the big leagues. He’s forgiven.

Kansas City Royals manager Ned Yost expects pitcher Matt Strahm to work out a few issues in Omaha before returning to Kansas City.

But this particular team was counting on this particular player enormously. His emergence last year — from a relative afterthought in spring training to a cold-blooded late-inning monster with a 1.23 ERA and more strikeouts than baserunners allowed at the end of the year — was a significant part of the calculus in trading closer Wade Davis to the Chicago Cubs for slugger Jorge Soler.

Strahm turning into a pumpkin one week into the season has many in the organization worried, at the very least faced with an uncomfortable reminder about how little margin for error is possessed by this team, and the bullpen in particular.

“We built that bullpen around Strahm being part of it,” Yost said. “Along with (Kelvin) Herrera and (Joakim) Soria. He was a big, big piece of it.”

The theories on what’s gone wrong with Strahm range from mechanical to mental, from blip to something more serious. He is throwing a slider this season. That’s new. Something he worked on in the offseason and spring training on the advice of the coaches, who wanted a hard breaking pitch to complement his fastball.

But that wasn’t causing the problems as much as his inability to throw a fastball good enough to complement any other pitch.

So he ended up throwing his fastball less, his curveball more, and it was all being hit hard or taken out of the strike zone.

A year ago, he induced swings and misses on 12.2 percent of his pitches, the same as Chris Archer, and better than stars like Justin Verlander and Chris Sale. Even in such a small sample, he showed enough to inspire belief.

Well, before his demotion, that number was at 5.2 percent — slightly below Chien-Ming Wang’s 2016 with the Royals. Wang remains unsigned this year.

The diagnosis from Royals pitching coach Dave Eiland begins with the mechanical. Strahm wasn’t commanding his fastball, a problem caused by his back foot leaving the rubber too soon, which meant he was under the ball and leaving too many pitches up. He did this some last year, too, but was much better at feeling the problem in real time and adjusting on his own.

Like so many things in sports, the physical then morphed into the mental.

“There’s a little doubt in his mind,” Eiland said. “He’s not truly convicted, 100 percent. When you’re that way, you’re going to be a little off. Timid. Like with a golfer, standing over a ball, going, ‘(Shoot), I hope I don’t shank this or hook it.’ Well, more often than not you’re going to shank it or hook it.”

Publicly, the Royals are maintaining confidence. Strahm pitched around a leadoff double for a scoreless inning in Omaha on Tuesday. Yost said he expects Strahm back in the majors soon, but that doesn’t help the Royals now.

This is a team trying to win now and build for the future. They knew the bullpen would not be as deep, or proven, as it was last season. But they made a bet that Strahm would help form a reliable bridge to Herrera.

If he can’t do that, the Royals are going to have to make up a Plan B on the fly. That begins now, and lasts as long as Strahm is in Omaha. Joakim Soria has looked ... better. Peter Moylan is an effective right-on-right specialist. Mike Minor could be useful. Travis Wood has a solid history.

At some point, Josh Staumont and Kyle Zimmer could headline the group of prospects ready to help. But even assuming Herrera maintains his high level of performance, the pieces currently in place are below-average by big-league standards.

They are, at least, one man short. The organization had planned on Strahm being that man.

A season that always needed more unexpected boosts than obstacles is beginning with a problem it was built to avoid.

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Sam Mellinger: 816-234-4365, @mellinger

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