Here’s a statement that will surprise no one. The Royals bullpen has pitched more innings than any other bullpen in baseball, and it’s not really even close. After Tuesday, the Royals bullpen has thrown 186 innings. That’s just over 15 innings more than the next closest team—Baltimore. The high number of innings make the 3.25 ERA—11th in MLB—more impressive than it seems.
Does it matter that the Royals are burning through bullpen innings like Chipotle burns through colons? Most would say yes. I’m going to say … kind of. Ideally, the Royals wouldn’t use their bullpen so much, but it’s not the end of the world.
I think it’s a safe assumption that this bullpen will burnout before the season is over. I would be fairly surprised if guys like Tim Collins, Aaron Crow, and Kelvin Herrera are still pitching effectively in September, if they’re pitching at all. They’re young and get used a lot. Collins is on pace for roughly 85 IP; Herrera is on pace for roughly 92 IP. That’s a lot of innings for a reliever.
But I don’t think this matters too much. Bullpen burnout is really only an issue if a team is going to compete. The Royals will almost certainly not be in the playoff hunt this year. No one expects that. I’m not saying it can’t happen; I’m just saying it won’t. So, bullpen effectiveness down the stretch isn’t as much of an issue.
The only real downside to pitching them so much early is the potential for injury. We know Herrera has a history of arm troubles, and with that incredible heater, it’s not tough to see them creeping up again. It will be interesting to see if the Royals choose to shut a reliever down early if he hits a certain number of innings. Herrera’s never thrown more than 70 innings in a season, and that was in 2011. Before last season he was plagued by injury. One thing the team can’t afford to do is get this excellent bullpen hurt so they might take precaution against that later in the season.
What’s particularly intriguing is the unorthodox way Ned Yost has chosen to employ the boys in the pen. Most bloggers, analysts, and fans probably saw it coming, but it’s still wild to see him utilizing the bullpen the way he has—essentially using the Omaha bullpen as an extended version of the Kansas City bullpen and carrying what are essentially “backup” starters.
Maybe more so than at any other point in the last 10 years, this team subverts traditional starter/reliever roles, often bringing in long-men early in games who serve as second starters. The motives behind these moves are simple—their starters suck—but simply looking at the unorthodox pattern that Yost has gotten into is fascinating. At one point, this team carried three swing-men—three guys who were essentially extra starters—in the bullpen. The idea behind this was simple. Yost knew that his starters were going to have short outings. So, he decided to have backup starters ready to go. At any given point, the Royals have three non-starter starters (Nate Adcock, Luis Mendoza, and Everett Teaford) in play.
Due to injuries, these guys aren’t all playing right now, but Yost is, inadvertently I think, experimenting with a different approach to pitching. Has it ever been done before? I have no idea. I’m not a baseball historian. But I know it’s not done often. There’s a saying that innovation is bred by necessity. That’s what this approach to pitching is—necessary. It’s necessary because this starting rotation is atrocious.
Do I recommend this system? No. But can anyone honestly say it’s not the best for what they’ve got roster wise? When healthy, they have 8-9 average to bad starters at best. Why not keep it fluid? Let them shoulder the burden as a group, by keeping a long-reliever ready in the pen at a moment’s notice. When one guy isn’t working, pull him quickly and let the other guy go to work.
Yes, the bullpen will probably burnout. But that won’t matter this year. What will matter is inspiring hope by winning a little. And using the bullpen early and often gives them that chance.