To their credit, they answered the call. In 2011, Royals relievers threw 508.1 innings and accumulated 3.1 fWAR. In 2012, they threw 561.1 innings but built up 7.3 fWAR (nearly catching the starters’ 7.7 fWAR despite seeing 328.2 fewer innings).
Of course, whenever you talk about bullpens, you start talking about bullpen roles, and last year was a transitional year in that regard. Joakim Soria was lost in spring training and lottery ticket Jonathan Broxton became the closer. After his trade to Cincinnati, Greg Holland stepped up to become closer. Kelvin Herrera became a strong setup option.
So the back end of the bullpen is solid. Now, what about some of the other roles? I’m specifically thinking of the left-handed relievers.
I try not to be a slave to platoon splits, but when implemented properly, they maximize the odds of winning a matchup, and over time those add up. Managers like to have a left-handed pitching specialist for tough left-handed batters. In the AL Central, this pitcher would be facing Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Prince Fielder, Adam Dunn, Jason Kipnis and Alex Avila. Maybe they face just the lefty, maybe they can be effective versus right-handers. In 2011, the Royals basically only used Tim Collins as their left-handed relief specialist. Everett Teaford also made 23 appearances out of the bullpen.
Collins was slightly better against right-handed batters as the primary lefty out of the bullpen that year (.675 OPS by RHB vs. .683 OPS by LHB). Teaford was significantly better with the platoon advantage in 2011. In 2012, lefties hit both better than they had in 2011, though, so it’s a good thing that the Royals brought in Jose Mijares to be another lefty out of the ‘pen (and he showed a .586 to .789 OPS advantage against lefties last year). Francisley Bueno and Tommy Hottovy were both effective against lefties last year, though in smaller samples (and Bueno was better against righties in his limited innings). Since 2011, those are the only lefties to pitch in relief.
Now, Collins will return, Teaford might make the roster and the Royals seem to like Bueno, but I don’t think any of them are set up to be a lefty specialist. Teaford fits more as a long reliever and I just don’t trust Bueno. Hottovy and Mijares are gone. Will Smith will probably be in the minors unless he’s called up to fill a rotation spot and Bruce Chen will be a long reliever or back-end starter. With all of that in mind, here are other options to be the primary reliever to face left-handed batters in 2013:
Already on the 40 man roster
Donnie Joseph – Joseph came over in the Broxton trade after pitching well in Triple A in the Reds organization. He’s always struck out a lot of batters (29% in 2012 between Double A and Triple A) but he’s shown an advantage against left-handed hitters. Minor League Central’s data* gives him a 2.37 FIP against left-handed batters and a 3.66 FIP against righties. He could have been ready for a September callup last year but wasn’t added to the 40 man roster until last November. He’s got a good shot at being up after spring training next year or somewhere in April or May if not right out of camp. He’s the favorite and he can be effective against right-handed batters too, so he doesn’t have to be just a LOOGY.
*only updated through 2010 – minor league splits seem to be elusive for me but most pitchers close to the big leagues have enough data to give me an idea of a pronounced split
Justin Marks – We’ve talked about how well Marks has done this offseason and he’s almost becoming an unofficial mascot around here. In the Arizona Fall League, he held left-handed batters to a .160 batting average and only walked one LHB (though the sample size isn’t great and his ERA was less than ideal at 5.14 in seven total innings against lefties). His splits don’t show a significant strength against lefties, though. He is better, but not by a wide margin (through 2011 his FIP in the minors was 3.34 against lefties and 3.88 against righties). His ground ball rates and strikeout rates aren’t very different either. He’s on the 40 man roster so he could get a look in such a specialized role, but he’s primarily viewed as a starter so the Royals will likely let him fail in that role before they try him in the bullpen. He’s also only thrown 1.2 innings in Triple A, so he’s got some work to do to get to the big leagues.
John Lamb and Chris Dwyer – I’m combining the two because both may be close to the big leagues, but not necessarily close enough to be big impact arms. Dwyer has to figure out whatever he has to do to stay in the rotation in Triple A. He hasn’t shown a platoon advantage in the minors so if he’s in the bullpen, it’ll be in a similar role to what Teaford has done – bring him in to soak up innings and to face all sorts of batters.
Lamb’s trials are different as he’s returning from injury. He should get to Triple A this year, but his best spot is the starting rotation when he makes it up. The Royals won’t rush him unless they’re overwhelmed by his performance so if he’s looking good, he may be up in September and sure, at that point, they may only use him against lefties. Like Dwyer, he doesn’t show a platoon advantage in his history.
Noel Arguelles – Since signing with the Royals, Arguelles has struggled. Let’s just say he has a lot more to worry about than a platoon advantage at the big league level…
Minor league options
Jon Keck – Many expected Keck to be selected in the Rule 5 draft during the Winter Meetings but he slipped through. He’d have to be added to the 40 man roster before he could be the lefty specialist, but he throws hard and had a good 2012. A strong start to 2013 and some injuries could put him on the radar, though, again, he doesn’t have a big advantage in a specialist role.
Blaine Hardy – About two and a half years ago, it almost looked like Hardy might get a look at the big league level and he’s been adequate in the upper levels of the minors. He’s hittable though, and his splits according to MLC have him giving up more line drives against lefties than righties. Line drives are more likely to turn into hits, so perhaps he’s not a great option if he does manage to make it to the show.
Ryan Verdugo – Verdugo was dropped from the 40 man roster but ended up back in Omaha this winter. In the minors, he’s shown a slight advantage against lefties. He could be useful in this role if pressed into action, though he’s primarily been a starter the last two seasons. He’s had good strikeout numbers, but has walked a lot as well in the minors and most scouts don’t see him as a surefire big leaguer, but if he was asked to face lefties, he could do the job. He would, of course, have to be re-added to the 40 man roster before that would happen.
George Sherrill – Now we’re talking. Sherrill has held left-handed batters to a .531 OPS through his career in the big leagues. Righties since his 2004 debut have a .798 OPS against him. That makes him an obvious candidate for the specialist role. The one hitch is this tiny detail – he had Tommy John surgery on May 4 of last year. By the time he’s able to make rehab relief appearances in the minors he’ll have turned 36 years old. It’s not impossible for him to make a full return, but it’s not going to be until June at the earliest. Beyond that point, though, if he has shown the ability to get batters out, he’s the lefty specialist to have.
Lining up a specialist isn’t necessary, but it can eke out an advantage in key spots. If the Royals are fighting for a playoff spot and they need one out with Prince Fielder at the plate, that becomes a very significant out. At that point, it would feel a lot better to see a fully rehabbed and effective Sherrill coming out of the pen to do what he does best rather than to toss Collins out there. While Collins improved significantly last season, he’s still not a key guy to get a lefty out. He can do it, but it’s not his expertise.
My money’s on Donnie Joseph if the Royals choose to fill the role.