KC Royals: Bullpen Win Over Pirate Ace Signals New Pitching Model

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The KC Royals bullpen out-dueled Pittsburgh Pirate ace Gerritt Cole Tuesday night in a win that might signal a transition in baseball pitching strategy. The Kansas City Royals sent a parade of  six pitchers to the mound, none of whom labored more than 3.2 innings, to defeat Pittsburgh 3-1.

It’s one thing to beat an ace like Cole with spare parts when he’s having a bad day. On Tuesday, Cole was dominant. And the KC Royals still won.

Now, Kansas City Royals manager Ned Yost didn’t choose this “pitching model” on purpose. Newly-recalled Jason Vargas is headed straight back to the disabled list after suffering an elbow injury in the second inning of Tuesday’s KC Royals game. Vargas tore his ulnar collateral ligament, ending his season.

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Even so, it’s significant that Jason Vargas and Joe Blanton, two mediocre starters pitching in tandem, allowed the KC Royals to beat Gerritt Cole on a night in which he threw seven shutout innings. Tuesday’s game showed that a pair of average starters, who are not asked to go through a lineup more than twice, can defeat an ace at the top of his game with support from an outstanding bullpen.

[Note: Blanton DID face ONE hitter three times, but I think you get the point]

Notice, also, that the Kansas City Royals Royals starter Yordano  Ventura did not last past the fourth inning on Monday either. Kris Medlen picked him up to by pitching 3.1 innings of relief.

So now we come to the ten million dollar question: might a pair of long relievers, each pitching no more than three innings, give a team a better chance to win than most fourth or fifth starters?

The “third time through the order penalty” was well-discussed by pundits last October, but I’ll lay it out here again. Major league hitters adjust to pitchers the more times they see them on a particular day, and their success zooms the third time they hit against a pitcher. This phenomenon is clear from Baseball Prospectus’ study in 2013:

[table id=24 /]

 [Note: Table Includes OPS data from my KC Kingdom article from October 25, 2014]

Many analysts have suggested that these facts should lead teams to replace mediocre starters with tandem long relievers for the bottom slots of the rotation. I wrote about this back when I had my own blog in 2012, and the Colorado Rockies actually tried it in 2012 (without much success).

While the Rockies experiment failed, Colorado GM Dan O’Dowd didn’t enjoy organizational support for the idea AND the Rockies just didn’t have the horses in the pen. Conversely, the KC Royals are the perfect team to make such an idea work. They have a mediocre rotation, an outstanding bullpen, and depth that extends to minor-leaguers with major-league success such as Louis Coleman and Yohan Pino.  

The Kansas City Royals have a lot of pitchers like Brandon Finnegan, Kris Medlen, and Luke Hochevar who are dominant over a few innings, but don’t seem quite up to a full-blown starter role for various reasons.

In fact, they’re already pretty close to the idea anyway. KC Royals starters have pitched the second fewest innings in baseball, which is a rather unusual fact for a team with the best record the American League (and second in MLB).  The Kansas City Royals and the Houston Astros are leading a trend in major-league baseball: winning built on a killer bullpen.

Why shouldn’t the KC Royals go whole hog and throw out the “starting pitcher” model, rather than start average to below-average guys?

Aside from the on-field benefits, planning on using two pitchers for those back end starts should help a small market team stretch their payroll dollars. The market rate for long relievers is significantly less than for even a back-end starter.

We know it won’t happen anytime soon. Kansas City Royals general manager Dayton Moore recalled Yordano Ventura the day after optioning him to AAA Omaha due to Jason Vargas’ injury. Yet, if Ventura and Jeremy Guthrie continue to struggle (and the Royals can’t land Johnny Cueto or David Price in a deadline deal), we might see the next step in the evolution of how teams use their pitchers right here in Kansas City.

Next: Royals Option Yordano Ventura to Omaha

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