Mandatory Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports
The back of the Royals bullpen had a historic season in 2014. No trio of relievers had thrown that many innings (204.1), with all three pitchers posting an ERA below 1.50. Greg Holland, Wade Davis, and Kelvin Herrera formed a combination that was unlike anything the game had ever seen.
And Davis thinks the bullpen will be better in 2015. You might think he’s crazy, but you shouldn’t.
Notice that Davis says “the bullpen” and not just the three-headed beast waiting for the seventh inning. The Royals’ dirty little secret last year was that their bullpen, as a whole, wasn’t anything special.
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Their middle relievers didn’t really hold up their end of the bargain, as overall they were 6th in the league according to ERA-, and 6th according to xFIP-. The group did lead the league in FIP-, driven by an AL-best HR/9 rate of 0.62. Still, they were extremely top-heavy.
While HDH combined to put up a 1.28 ERA, the rest of the Royals’ relief corps were much less effective. The next five highest innings totals in the pen after the big three belonged to Aaron Crow (59), Louis Coleman (34), Francisley Bueno (32.1), Michael Mariot (25), and Tim Collins (21).
That’s 171.1 total innings. In those innings, 90 earned runs scored, which comes out to a 4.73 ERA. If you add in the 9 unearned runs they allowed, that quintet surrendered 5.20 runs per 9 innings. The Rangers’ Colby Lewis threw 170.1 innings with a 5.18 ERA, which was the second-worst average in baseball. In other words, those five Royals pitchers combined to form one of the worst starting pitchers in the game last year. That’s not terribly helpful.
It’s actually pretty impressive the team was able to carry around those performances and still have a solid bullpen. That’s how good Holland, Davis, and Herrera were.
The problem, of course, is that it’s going to be tough for HDH to be that good again. They’re all great relievers, but again, their 2014 was historically good. If being historically good was easy, we wouldn’t need the word “historically.” Those three guys are likely going to see some form of regression this season. It may be a short drop from where they were last year, but they probably will see a few more struggles.
Are we sure Davis isn’t crazy when he says they’ll improve? Yes. Besides, are you going to tell a guy with a 98 MPH fastball and 94 MPH cutter that he’s cuckoo?
The reason it’s not unreasonable is that the group of relievers likely to pitch before the seventh inning are unlikely to be as bad as they were last year. Crow is in Miami. Bueno is in Chicago. Mariot is in the minors for now, and if he’s needed, it won’t be for as many innings. Coleman and Collins will be back with the Royals, but I doubt they pitch as poorly next season. Even if they do, the team has some other guys who can take their innings.
Jason Frasor will be in Kansas City for a full season. Luke Hochevar will be able to pitch most of the season. Kris Medlen could provide some depth when he returns around June. Jandel Gustave might be around for mop-up duty. Brandon Finnegan will likely start the year in the minors, but he might be available out of the pen later on. The point is, Ned Yost will have better options this year.
So we could see some regression from the Cerberus, while simultaneously seeing improvement overall. Plus, if the innings are spread more evenly to other relievers, there should be less of a risk of overworking the back-end of the group. It will be important for the second tier of relievers to be better, because there will probably be more innings to go around, with the departure of James Shields from the rotation.
On its surface, saying the Royals’ bullpen will be better in 2015 sounds absurd, considering the accolades showered upon that group in 2014. But once you break it down, Davis’ comments sound perfectly reasonable. There are some guys who might take small steps backward – Davis included – but a bullpen is more than three pitchers, and any regression from the back should be more than offset by improvement from the middle.