A significant weapon the Royals have at their disposal this year is their bullpen. Stocked with live, young arms, they have four players who could (ideally or not) close regularly in the big leagues.
That allows the Royals to feel comfortable if they can get a lead in the first six innings. The recipe is two parts strong starts (or six innings) and one part lockdown bullpen (three innings). The Royals have starters now who can get deeper into games and limit the other team’s offense. That gives the offense a chance to come back if they need to or it gives the bullpen a chance to shorten the game and hold a lead late.
The revamped rotation has worked as planned so far, which maximizes the bullpen’s abilities. There’s the shortened game for one, but also a more judicious use of the bullpen. Compared to last year at this point (through 17 games) the Royals have used the relievers they want to in situations that work best for them and not out of necessity to get a new arm in.
|Through Game 17||2012 Games||IP||Through Game 17||2013 Games||IP|
|Aaron Crow||9||9||Kelvin Herrera||10||9.1|
|Jose Mijares||9||8||Greg Holland||7||6|
|Kelvin Herrera||8||9.1||Aaron Crow||7||5|
|Tim Collins||8||10||Tim Collins||4||6.2|
|Greg Holland||7||6.1||Luke Hochevar||4||5.1|
|Jonathan Broxton||6||5.2||J.C. Gutierrez||4||3.1|
|Louis Coleman||4||6.1||Bruce Chen||3||4.2|
As you can see, the Royals had to go to the bullpen frequently, and they had to call in reserves to do it. On April 15, to get another arm in, the Royals optioned Jarrod Dyson to Omaha and called up Louis Coleman. Greg Holland went on the disabled list on April 21 and that brought Jeremy Jeffress to the big league club. Four days later, after two appearances, the Royals brought up Tommy Hottovy. It was a merry-go-round that just kept spinning all year as the team had to keep new arms fresh, sending pitchers up and down I-29 to Omaha with regularity.
This year, however, they’re able to hide a pitcher like J.C. Gutierrez in favor of other pitchers. Gutierrez has finished off a 5-2 loss to the White Sox, then got work in the Royals 13-4 blowout in Philadelphia. Two days later, he came in to finish off a 9-4 game but gave up three runs before giving way to Greg Holland. His last appearance came in the last inning in the sloppy 8-4 loss to the Blue Jays (11 days ago). The Royals are better off using him in a role like that, and he hasn’t had to pitch in a situation where the game was on the line (until he put the game in that position). The more the Royals can limit his appearances, the better they are.*
*This brings up the obvious question about why to have a pitcher on the team who needs such treatment. That’s a whole other discussion.
Luke Hochevar can also be employed in more strategic ways. Rather than having no choice to use him due to other arms being unavailable, they’ve used Hochevar in similar situations as Gutierrez. In fact, Hochevar preceded Gutierrez in two appearances and followed him in a third. His fourth appearance came in Boston on Sunday in the second game of a double header. While they keep him in the bullpen and see how he does, they’re also going to use him in spots where he can be most successful.
Conversely, that allows the Royals to use a rested bullpen to use the best pitchers when they most want to use them. It’s not a coincidence that Kelvin Herrera has made the most appearances.
Last year, through 17 games, Royals starters threw 88 innings, giving up 47 earned runs (4.80 ERA). Relievers threw 64 innings and gave up 31 earned runs (4.36 ERA). This year? Starters have 109.1 innings pitched, giving up 40 earned runs (3.29) which has allowed the bullpen to carry a 3.34 ERA in 40.1 innings pitched. Better starters allow for the right relievers to get into the game when they’re needed for a specific purpose and not just to soak up innings.
No, the bullpen hasn’t been perfect. Kelvin Herrera and Greg Holland have had notable late-inning problems, but they seem to have gotten themselves back in gear. As long as the starters stay strong, the bullpen will stay stable. There shouldn’t be a need for an eight man bullpen or quick switches with Omaha. They can set up roles, get the right pitchers in the right situations, and try to turn nine inning games into six or seven inning games.