The 2013 Kansas City Royals had an outstanding bullpen.
That statement is probably just as surprising to you as the sun setting in the west this evening.
All year long, we saw the dominance displayed by several Royals’ relievers, who combined to throw 461.2 innings with a 2.55 ERA and 9.57 strikeouts per 9 innings. Again, I’m not breaking any new ground here. What you may not know is how incredible that earned run average truly is. After adjusting for park factors, the Royals’ bullpen had an ERA- of 63, meaning they were 27% better than the league at preventing earned runs. Going back to 1930, no American League bullpen has had a lower ERA-.
Read that again. No American League bullpen, since 1930, has had a lower ERA- than this 2013 Royals’ bullpen.
The only team in the modern era with a lower ERA- was the 2003 Dodgers, who were 29% better than the league in that department. The 1990 Athletics and the 1981 Yankees both posted an ERA- of 63 as well, but that is as good as you will find.
Typically, when a team posts historically great numbers, especially at a position as volatile as relief pitcher, you should expect regression. I’m not saying the Royals will turn into a bullpen full of pumpkins in 2014, but I wouldn’t expect this level of overall dominance to repeat itself. That being said, there were a few relievers who underperformed in 2013 that could bounce back. Aaron Crow and Tim Collins walked more than 4 batters per 9 innings. Kelvin Herrera had a HR/FB% (18) that was closer to his age (24), than the league average (9.8 for relievers). Also, due to some bizarre roster decisions, J.C. Gutierrez pitched almost the same amount of innings as Will Smith and Louis Coleman. So while I expect Greg Holland and Luke Hochevar (if they are in Kansas City next year) to come back to the pack a bit, better contributions from other relievers may help to offset that regression, at least to some extent.
Additionally, there are more relievers within the organization who could step up if any of the big leaguers struggle in 2014. Donnie Joseph is a capable lefty who has impressed in limited time. Chris Dwyer has an excellent curveball and could be a LOOGY if he’s not in a starting rotation. Buddy Baumann is another diminutive left handed pitcher with terrific strikeout stuff (12.1 K/9 in 49 innings in Omaha). Michael Mariot struck out 9.8 batters per 9 innings in 60.2 AAA innings in 2013. The list could go on, but the point remains: Dayton Moore can build a bullpen with depth. He’s had his issues with the whole “winning games at the major league level” side of things, but his bullpens have been extremely good. Of course that’s a bit like having a car without a transmission and installing a custom sound system, but I digress.
Moore may choose to move some bullpen pieces to either improve the major league offense, or help add prospects to the system. If that happens, the openings will giver opportunities to some of the young guys who haven’t gotten any chances to prove their worth in Kansas City. Or, if Moore decides to stick with the current crop of relievers, the Royals could be set for another year with a shutdown bullpen.