There were plenty of questions leading up to the start of the Royals 2013 season. Would Jeff Francoeur be productive enough to at least hold the critics at bay, especially after the loss of Wil Myers? Would Ervin Santana look like his 2011 or 2012 self? Would Jeremy Guthrie turn into a pumpkin? And how would James Shields work out in an entirely new situation?
One question that didn’t seem to be on anybody’s mind was “how will the bullpen do?”
It was assumed that the bullpen would keep rolling along. With big arms in Greg Holland, Kelvin Herrera, Aaron Crow and Tim Collins as the primary options, it seemed like they’d continue their successes. Crow and Collins have both been solid in the early going, but Holland blew his second save chance of the year, then gave up a run on the next night and was pulled for Herrera. Even his next appearance required a Joe Mauer strikeout in the rain to strand three runners (that he’d put on) and preserve a lead.
Panic. Uproar. Hand-wringing.
Then, Herrera entered Tuesday night’s game in Atlanta as the owner of a sparkling 11-to-1 K/BB ratio in 5.1 scoreless innings.
On April 21, 2012, Herrera gave up a homer to the first batter he faced, Edwin Encarnacion. After a ground out, he gave up a homer to Colby Rasmus. Then he gave up zero homers in May. And in June. And July. August. September. He went nearly a full year between giving up homers, then gave up three in four batters against the Braves.
The Royals and Herrera thought he was tipping his pitches, and perhaps he was. But, as Craig Brown pointed out, tipping or not, he was laying in some fat pitches to some good hitters. Jason Heyward, Justin Upton and Dan Uggla combined to hit 63 homers last season with Upton and Uggla in down years. In 2011, the trio combined for 81. If you put a fastball down the middle to these guys, they’ll hit it out.
And that’s what happened to Herrera.
So on Wednesday, Ned Yost had to protect a one run lead after a fantastic Wade Davis start in Atlanta. And while many were worrying about the bullpen, Yost instead went right back to Herrera, who rewarded his faith by striking out Andrelton Simmons to start the eighth inning, then induced a pop up from B.J. Upton after a Ramiro Pena pinch hit single. Heyward grounded into a force out.
Then, Holland came in to close the game out. A combination of off days and no save situations (or, after a complete game from Shields and eight innings from Santana, no innings really) meant that Holland hadn’t pitched since the rainy game against the Twins. In many situations, a reliever can be shaky after a long layoff, and Holland had went a week without getting into a game. After his previous struggles, there was enough reason to remain concerned. Facing Upton, Evan Gattis and Uggla didn’t make it any more comforting.
So of course Holland steps up and strikes out the side on 14 pitches. He threw nine strikes, five of which were on whiffs. None of the three Braves hitters made contact.
It makes you wonder what anyone was worried about in the first place.
They say that a relief pitcher has to have a short memory. Less than 24 hours after giving up three bombs, Herrera cruised through an inning to hold a one-run lead. Holland, after struggling for most of his 2013, came in and looked dominant.
Now maybe Holland and Herrera go back out tomorrow and get shelled again. Maybe they go through the rest of the year struggling and Wednesday is just a nice reminder of how easy it is to close out the last two innings. Herrera’s 2013 won’t be defined by one night in Atlanta. Holland’s 2012 saw him finish with a 2.96 ERA (and 2.29 FIP) despite an April where he gave up eight runs in 6.1 innings (but only 14 from May until the end).
Holland’s control issues early can’t be ignored, but he also can’t be condemned by four appearances. Likewise, one bad night for Herrera is probably an anomaly considering his solid 2012 and dominant start to 2013. If there’s a pitch-tipping issue, address it, monitor it over the course of the year, and catch it before it’s another issue. Wednesday’s games should do a lot to ease concerns about the back-end of the Royals bullpen. They won’t be perfect the rest of the way. Nobody can be. But there’s going to be more good than bad.
Exhale. Deep breaths.