Sam Mellinger

Richard Lovelady, a broken Royals bullpen and the matter of hope for a slipping season

The moment of the amazingly named Richard Lovelady’s life happened near a baggage claim at Chicago’s Midway Airport. Lovelady had been called there by Brian Poldberg, the manager of the Royals’ top minor-league affiliate.

“Hey buddy, it’s time,” Poldberg said in Lovelady’s retelling.

What do you mean it’s time?

“They need you,” Poldberg said.

What are you talking about?

“Buddy, they need you up there,” Poldberg said.

Poldberg was talking about the Royals’ bullpen and, buddy, Lovelady has no idea. His big-league debut came in the eighth inning of a predictable 6-3 loss to the Seattle Mariners on Tuesday. This season is going so poorly that before taking questions after the game, Whit Merrifield asked fans to stick with the team. If there’s a players-only meeting, you’ll really know they’re in trouble.

The newest reason the Royals can provide for patience or hope is Lovelady, who struck out the first two batters he faced, pitching just the second perfect relief inning with multiple strikeouts by a Royals employee all season (shoutout Brad Boxberger).

It is not enough to say the Royals’ bullpen has been bad. It’s probably not enough to say the Royals’ bullpen has been jaw droppingly, hold-your-nose, close-your-eyes, hide-your-kids atrocious.

“We’ve been struggling, it’s no secret,” Royals manager Ned Yost said, and, well, that’s definitely not enough.

The Royals always expected to promote Lovelady. When club officials discussed various scenarios before the season, Lovelady’s name always came up. Brady Singer, last year’s first-round draft pick, is the team’s top pitching prospect. But Lovelady has been the best prospect closest to the majors.

But even if Lovelady does not arrive in panic, he is joining chaos.

The Royals began with hope that 2019 would be to this rebuild what 2011 or 2012 was to the previous rebuild. This is when the next pieces were supposed to land. Adalberto Mondesi’s first opening day start at shortstop. Brad Keller’s first full season as a starter. Ryan O’Hearn. Jorge Soler. Jakob Junis. Hey, crazier things have happened.

Ten games is not enough to make a forever judgment on anything in baseball, but the returns there have been ... passable? Soler is struggling, Hunter Dozier is struggling worse, and O’Hearn’s home run pace has slowed. But Alex Gordon is so far rising to the challenge of hitting third, Merrifield is hitting .349 and Mondesi looks like a star. With even a mediocre bullpen, the conversation would be more interesting.

But that group has been so inept and lost that none of it matters. A team that otherwise might — maybe — have enough to dream is instead pacing to be out of contention by Easter.

The numbers are astounding: an 8.07 ERA and a .432 opponents on-base percentage.

Entering Tuesday, Royals relievers had a higher walk rate than anyone in the league, had the worst ERA, and gave up the most line drives. No bullpen in the American League had given up more contact, or missed fewer bats.

A Royals reliever has entered the game 39 times, and just 17 of those have resulted in no runs and no inherited runners scoring. But even that might be misleading because six of those clean outings lasted just one or two outs.

Either way, this season, when a Royals reliever comes in there is a 56% chance that runs will immediately follow. You might want to sit down for this — that’s almost exactly the Chiefs defense’s success rate on third down last year.

But you did not come here to find out whether the bullpen stinks. You knew that answer already. The question is how long it’ll be this bad, and how far toward the cliff it will push the 2019 season.

The challenge is substantial. This is not 2014, when Yost simply needed to accept that the sixth inning was not required to be Aaron Crow’s. This is not a few struggling relievers getting in the way of three lockdown options in the back end of the bullpen.

This is everybody. Of the eight relievers to pitch more than one inning for the Royals this season, only Ian Kennedy has an ERA under 6.00 — and he’s blown one of two save opportunities.

Creating matchup advantages in the bullpen has never been among Yost’s strengths, but at the moment he’s playing poker and trying to figure out how to make his 7-high beat the other guy’s flush.

He has always believed in and been at his best when members of the bullpen have specifically defined roles, but what happens when nobody’s good enough for a role?

“I want to have roles as soon as I can get roles,” Yost said. “I don’t have a date on it. It’s as simple as this. I give you an opportunity to pitch the ninth inning. It feels like to me your stuff is good enough to warrant that opportunity, right? I give you that opportunity and you go out and boom-boom-boom get us through the ninth inning. Guess what?

“You’re going to get a shot again tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day, until either you fail a couple times or you handle it and run with it. That’s the way it works.”

Fair enough, and in other words: please, someone, perform.

Yost is an optimist, so he’ll look past Boxberger’s 8.31 ERA and reference his last two outings — five strikeouts, one walk, no hits over two innings. Jake Diekmann is getting better, Yost says. Kennedy will be “fine” as a reliever.

Wily Peralta is what Yost calls “a top step guy,” which means his outings include enough drama that the coaches are on the top step of the dugout trying to pull him through.

“He’s always been that guy,” Yost said. “Always been that guy who gets it done.”

Well, about that. Peralta has a 6.56 ERA and 59 walks in 94 2/3 innings since 2017, so he hasn’t always been the guy who gets it done, but these are the things said by a manager who has no other choice.

The fixes must come internally. That’s the uncomfortable truth here. The Royals aren’t going to trade for help (that would be silly considering what they’d need to give up).

They’re not going to sign Craig Kimbrel (even though that would not be silly considering what they’d have and could trade).

They need to find only three reliable relievers. Maybe four. A manager can work with that. The rest can be filled in on the fly.

But at the moment that feels like being given pieces for a Pinewood Derby car and being told to make lasagna. Kyle Zimmer might have the best pure stuff, but he walked all three batters he faced in his last big-league outing and is now in Omaha.

Glenn Sparkman has an interesting four-pitch repertoire — there are some who think he could be a good closer someday — but he’s yet to consistently get big-leaguers out. Tim Hill is funky and theoretically tough on lefties but isn’t throwing strikes. Kevin McCarthy has promise but was a gas can and blowtorch before being demoted this week.

Michael Ynoa was one of baseball’s top pitching prospects and is again showing promise but would need to be added to the 40-man roster. Josh Staumont will follow Lovelady to Kansas City soon, and possesses perhaps the organization’s best fastball.

Danny Duffy could join the bullpen when he’s off the injured list, and of everything we’ve mentioned here so far, that’s probably the most direct, efficient and likely way to improve the team’s greatest weakness.

But for now, Lovelady represents some fresh hope. His delivery tends to jump at hitters, and he has a history of missing bats. It’s not a lot to go on, but it’s something. It’s more than the Royals had the day before.

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Sam Mellinger is a sports columnist for the Kansas City Star, where he’s worked since 2000. He has won numerous national and regional awards for coverage of the Chiefs, Royals, colleges, and other sports both national and local.
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